Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Red Lake (3)

There is, of course, another story to Red Lake, Minnesota, and the reservation of Ashinabe Ojibwe people who live there, where the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict served for 121 years. there is a story of clashes of cultures, the white missionaries and the native peoples. There is the story of how hard the Sisters worked to provide stability and spiritual direction, as well as education, food and basic help to the children and families of the area at their mission boarding school, parish, thrift store and through various outreach efforts.

There is the story of the utter bleakness of reservation life. One of the Sisters, who came into our office Monday after the celebration on Sunday to share with us her photos, was full of stories, as she often is. She spent five years teaching in St. Mary's School right after she professed her final vows, from age 25 to 30, in the 1970s. She pointed out women she'd taught as children. "That one taught me how to shoplift when she was in second grade. She said, 'It's easy, Sister, you just wear a big coat and walk like this, putting things inside it." "But is it right to do that? To take things?" the Sister asked the young girl. "Sure, it's ok, if you get by," was the reply. "That was what they said a lot, 'it's ok if you get by.'" And interesting choice of words-- not get away with it but get by. It went with the poverty of the area. Then there was the time one of the older Sisters confiscated a "balloon" from a first grader and took it to the priest. It was not a balloon but a condom.

And then there were the fires. "Don't leave your car if it breaks down on the reservation," this Sister said. "Within a half hour it will be set on fire-- boy, the people love setting fires." Is it racism? I think it's her experience. She remembered coming home at White Earth reservation and all the brush around the convent was on fire. She called her neighbor, a native man, first. "Leonard, did you set this fire?!" "No, Sister, it wasn't me." "OK, I'd better call the fire department, then." The fire department wanted to know, "How close is the fire to the convent?" "TOO CLOSE!" she said, and they came out.

A few years ago a teenager shot his grandfather before going to the Red Lake high school, wounding five and killing seven classmates, one teacher, a security guard and himself. It is extreme violence, but in a long line of violent incidents on the reservation. This Sister pointed to women in photos: "Her son was shot. Her son was actually decapitated and his body found days later." In an old photo in an art book of an older woman bathing a gleeful infant, she says, "This boy grew up and killed her, his grandmother, who raised him."

At times, the Sister said, she wondered what difference they were making. The older Sisters told her they made a huge difference in individual lives, and couldn't focus on the larger problems, so many of which were caused by poverty and oppression. What was hardest for her was the corruption in the tribal leadership, which exploded in the late 1970s.

When she asked one of the women who was her grade school student what she remembered most, the girl said, "the food!" It was cooked by the Sisters and lots of it came from the Sisters' large garden. "One day we canned 500 lbs of corn-- cooking it, cutting it off the cobs, canning it," she said. As a teacher, she was also the custodian for a three-story building, and helped in the garden. And this was the 1970s, not pioneer days! "The graduate said no matter how cold it was she looked forward to walking the distance from the convent to the dining hall, and when they walked in, there was the scent of homebaked bread." She paused, then said, "Can you imagine? The Sister baking bread every day and the good food we made there. Now it's just bulk food from government programs."

To provide good food to hungry children. To teach them to read and do math and introduce them to ideas. To learn the ways of others, and the lessons of love to be gained in living with another culture, and living with the poor. What better work is there than that?

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