What's a Writer to Do?

Monday, April 11, 2016

I thought I had completed my research on Creating Esther, my middle grade historical novel about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school at the end of the 19th Century. Then a Native American woman from church suggested I read Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by Brenda J. Child, who is a respected Ojibwe researcher and academic.

Now I’m all confused.

My confusion isn’t a criticism of Child’s book. It’s more a comment on how customs vary from time and place and the challenges these differences present for researchers and writers.

When researching Creating Esther, I purchased over forty books, which are sitting on my bookshelves for easy reference. This includes eight middle grade fiction books, eight memoirs (five by Native Americans), two Ojibwe dictionaries, and a wide variety of other non-fiction. I also read a few additional books from the library. Then Roland and I took a research trip through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, stopping at several Ojibwe reservations and museums.

These various sources contained some apparent inconsistencies, but I eventually concluded that many of the differences were regional. You can read about that in my February 23, 2015 and June 15, 2015 posts.*

Child’s book resolved one question but raised some others. For example, she says the Ojibwe originally shared land with and fought the Dakota, while Edmund Jefferson Danziger, Jr. states in The Chippewas of Lake Superior that the Ojibwe’s enemy was the Santee Sioux. As I understand it, the Dakota Sioux and the Santee Sioux are separate tribes. Could this be a regional difference, with the Ojibwe fighting the Santee Sioux in the eastern part of the region and the Dakota Sioux in the western part? I don’t know.

Still, the identity of the enemy tribe gets only a passing reference in Creating Esther. The biggest problem came when I read Child’s comment that men did not normally participate in the wild rice harvest until sometime around the 1930s, long after my story takes place. I had based the ricing practices in Creating Esther on passages such as this one from page 13 of The Chippewas of Lake Superior: “While men poled canoes through the beds, women . . . bent the kernels over the canoe and knocked them off with a stick.” (The chapter refers to traditional culture, not 20th Century practices.) The Ojibwe museums I visited also seemed to indicate that men participated in those earlier days. For example, the picture at the head of this post—which I took at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia, Minnesota—shows a man “jigging” the rice (dancing on it to loosen the hulls). A museum placard describes the scene as follows:

The harvest lasted almost a month, with different tasks assigned to men, women, and children. Both men and women knocked rice, although it is said that a long time ago knocking was women’s work. Jigging requires stamina and a light step, and was most often done by boys and young men. Winnowing was typically the job of skilled older women.

I ended up compromising, with my protagonist’s grandfather poling a canoe and her older brother jigging the rice while her father and uncle go hunting. Will somebody fault me for that? Maybe.

But what’s a writer to do?


* As an update, I have since concluded that even the name varies with the region, with “Chippewa” more commonly used in Michigan, “Ojibwe” in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and “Ojibway” in Ontario, Canada. Since I placed my reservation in Wisconsin, I refer to my characters as Ojibwe.

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