Thursday, July 15, 2010

With A Little Help From My Kin

In the spring of 2001—about half a year after I began my research—my mother and I learned of an upcoming powwow sponsored by the Bois Forte Band (where we are enrolled) and the Grand Portage Band, both of Minnesota, and by the Lac La Croix First Nation in Canada. Now, powwows occur several times a year on most reservations, but since we now lived in California, it had never occurred to us to try to attend one in Minnesota. But the minute I read about it, the thought popped into my head that Mom and I should attend and also visit the graves of her mother and grandmother. (Mom had been to the funerals but not to the interments and knew that the graves were not in one of the “official” cemeteries.)

In fact, I felt very strongly that this announcement was an invitation aimed personally at my mother and me. I felt an urgent need for both of us to make this trip, and when I brought it up, my wonderful husband agreed instantly to pay for it. I didn’t know exactly why we were going, but I rather thought I’d find out eventually.

What I didn’t expect was that we would make personal contact with ancestors who had long since walked on.

I know this sounds weird, but bear with me and judge for yourself.

The opening day of the powwow found a lot of people huddling together in the chairs encircling the drum canopy and dance area, waiting for the opening ceremony and wishing they had brought winter coats and umbrellas. The sky was dark gray and threatening to unload a real gullywasher on us, and there was a ferocious icy wind blowing off the lake. The folks in charge were looking extremely anxious: theoretically they could move the powwow indoors into the Day Care Center, but there wouldn’t be room indoors for everyone. In fact, everyone looked nervous if not downright gloomy.

Oddly, (and it seemed odd to me at the time), I wasn’t worried at all. I told the others, “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right. We weren’t told to come here all the way from California just to get pneumonia. We could have gotten it there quite nicely.” I felt very, very confident of what I said. Everyone else appeared to think I was a lunatic.

Finally, just as the drummers were settling into place and the dancers were lining up for the opening ceremony, the clouds dispersed, the sun came out, and the icy wind turned into a gentle breeze, just right to keep everyone from getting too hot during what was very suddenly a beautiful warm June day.

This happened in about two minutes, tops. Normally, as I’m sure you know, it usually takes a lot longer to turn foul weather into perfect weather.

And then, just as the drums were about to begin, an eagle appeared in the sky, circling above the hill on the other side of the road from the powwow grounds. Everybody gasped and smiled: for Anishinaabe, an eagle is a messenger from the spirit world, and the sighting of an eagle is always considered to be a blessing, an omen of hope.

And I had the sudden, strong feeling that the eagle was my great-grandmother, Saag-i-ji-way-ga-bo-wiik, who was (I knew) a full-blood Anishinaabe from Lac La Croix famous for her great spiritual powers, and I knew, absolutely knew that she was the one who had summoned us here.

It was a very strange and wonderful weekend. Cousins we hadn’t seen in many years showed up at the powwow, including several who decided to attend only at the very last minute. One of those was my mother’s double cousin, then living in a nursing home and suffering from Alzheimer’s. But she insisted, over strenuous objections from her caregivers, on coming to the powwow. She had no trouble recognizing my mother or anyone else in the extended family, and had perfectly reasonable conversations with everyone. (She died on September 17 of that year, and we couldn’t attend the funeral because the airlines were still grounded after the September 11 attacks. But we will always cherish that one good day we had with her.)

On the last day of the powwow, one of my cousins remembered the exact place where my grandmother Clara and great-grandmother Saag-i-ji-way-ga-bo-wiik were buried and took us there.

The place was the hilltop overlooking the powwow grounds; the eagle had circled directly over this very spot.

I had planned to tell these women (who had walked on long before I was born) that I was researching our ancestry; I found I didn’t have to. They already knew. They were there, invisible to the eye but overwhelming to the mind and heart. I have never in my life felt so filled with a palpable sense of being loved. My mother felt the same thing. Until that moment, she had never been able to talk about her mother without crying; this was the day the crying ended. She has been at peace about it ever since.

Imagination? I don’t think so. I felt their presence, and so did my mother and the others who were there. You can believe what you wish.

The next day, we faced another rainy morning. Our plan to meet with the historian for the Bois Forte Band that day fell through (although we re-scheduled and met with her the following day). This left us with no concrete plans for this day, and we were just beginning to discuss options when I heard a voice in my head saying, as clearly as if the person was standing next to me, “Come to La Pointe”. Not “go”, mind you, but “come”.

I didn’t think that it was feasible, but that voice was very insistent, so we dug out the maps and found that Bayfield (which runs daily ferries to and from Madeline Island, where La Pointe is located) was actually a little less than 200 miles, perhaps 4 hours each way. We could get there, visit the island for a few hours, and still get back to our hotel in Ely that night, and so we set out. It was cloudy, wet and a bit windy almost the entire way, and we could see heavy rainfall off to the sides, ahead of us, and behind us, but we didn’t drive through any of it; the heavy rain ahead always turned to drizzle wherever we happened to be driving. (We later learned that a tornado had touched down not far off our route.)

When we began the final downhill approach to Bayfield, quite suddenly the drizzle stopped, the sky cleared, the blustery wind turned to a gentle breeze, and we had yet another miraculously warm and beautiful day.

We boarded the ferry and visited the island’s museum. The staff (who were of course familiar with the history of the area) were excited to have visitors who were descendants not only of Michel Cadotte and Equaysayway, but also of Joseph Dufault and Julie Cadotte. Most of the rooms in the museum had originally been separate buildings—and we were told that Joseph Dufault had built one of them. It was a remarkable feeling to walk in rooms that had been walked by our direct ancestors nearly two centuries ago.

We felt as if we had come home—and in a very real sense, we had.

After leaving the museum, we visited the old mission cemetery where Michel Cadotte was buried and paid our respects to him, and then we caught the last ferry off the island. As soon as we were back on the highway, it began to rain again, but lightly, and we had no trouble on the road. Once we were back in Ely (around 10 p.m.) and after I had gotten my mother safely inside the hotel and dashed across the street to get some sandwiches for our dinner, then and only then did the really heavy rain hit where we actually were.

Just coincidence that the rain held off just when we needed it to do so? I don’t think so. Personally, I believe we were summoned to La Pointe by old Michel Cadotte so that he could get a look at his descendants, and Big Mike not only made sure the weather was good during our visit but looked out for our safety on the road both ways, until we got back to our hotel.

Before we returned to California, I managed to spend a few hours at the Minnesota Historical Society Library in St. Paul. Here I found, among other treasures, the obituary for Great-Grandfather Vincent’s father Michel Dufault, son of master carpenter Joseph Dufault and Julie Cadotte, who had died “age 90” on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota in 1916. I also found mentions of at least 3 Louis Dufauts/Dufaults in the fur trade, and—the real pearl in the oyster—a photocopy of the photostat of the original baptism register for the La Pointe Mission from its beginning in 1835 up to early 1854.

That register contain not only considerable documentation on the Dufauts, Cadottes, and Roys but also (to my considerable surprise) the 1839 baptism of Simon Forcier and the 1841 baptism of his sister: my great-grandmother Henriette Forcier (wife of Joseph Chosa). Not only that, but their mother, Marguerite “Rémont” was also in the baptism register (age 15) in January 1836 (five months after the mission opened), along with her half-brother Antoine (age 11). Marguerite was stated to have been born at La Pointe, the daughter of an Anishinaabe woman, Julie Ikwesenchich, and of someone—surely a voyageur or fur trader—recorded by Father Baraga as”NN: Rémont” (most likely Raimond, a fairly common surname among voyageurs, with “NN” standing for “Nomen” i.e. “personal name unknown”).

By 1841, when Henriette was born, the fur trade was collapsing due to changes in fashion in Europe, and the American Fur Company had branched out into a profitable commercial fishing operation centered at Madeline Island. The fish (usually whitefish) would be cleaned, salted down, packed in barrels, and shipped east. Henriette’s father Pierre Forcier was, according to the censuses, a cooper (barrel-maker) by trade. That's how he wound up at La Pointe where his first two children were baptized.

Madeline Island is not a large island. Unquestionably, Joseph Dufault and his son Michel—both carpenters and longtime residents of the island—knew both of Henriette’s parents.

Henriette’s family eventually relocated to Michigan’s Keweenaw Bay area, where Father Baraga had established another mission at Assinins. Baraga later presided at her marriage to Great-Grandfather Joseph Chosa at Assinins. And two of her sons eventually wound up in Minnesota, where they married daughters of Great-Grandfather Vincent Dufauld.

In my search for Mom’s maternal grandfather Vincent Dufauld and his ancestry, I had unexpectedly found her paternal grandmother Henriette and her parents as well. Or rather, I had been led to them.

1 comment:

  1. I love the lessons here: Listen to intution; be open to opportunity; and be willing to explore.
    I found your blog through my interest in tracking my French Canadian roots which includes Gabriel Berard dit Lepine - a voyaguer. Thank you for posting your story and findings.