Thomas Wazhashk was true to his name. Wazhashk means muskrat in Chippewa: hard-working, humble, ethical and in tune with the spirits of his clan. In 1953, a bill in the House of Representatives, authored by a Mormon, Arthur V. Watkins, threatened to take yet more of Chippewa land under the guise of “liberation.” Thomas was a farmer on a patch of what little arable land was left to the tribe, but he also worked as a night watchman in the jewel-bearing plant near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. When Thomas heard rumors about the bill, he located a copy and called for a meeting of the Tribal Council to try and parse meaning from its formal, stilted language, and to understand the implications for the tribe if it should be passed into law. One of the council members suggested getting the whole tribe to sign a petition opposing the bill, and volunteered to canvas the reservation seeking signatures. Thomas agreed to write letters to local politicians asking if they were prepared to provide financial support the tribe if the billed passed. As a council member who was fluent in writing in English, Thomas felt the burden of preparing the Chippewa case against the bill, and it took its toll upon him bothphysically and emotionally.
Other members of the tribe were introduced in interesting subplots that helped the reader understand the Chippewa culture and belief system. Patrice (Pixie) Paranteau was a 19 year old former Homecoming Queen who set off on her first trip to the city when her sister, Vera, went missing in Minneapolis. Pixie’s mother, Zhaanat, was taught from early childhood, the ceremonies and teaching stories of the tribe, as well as the pharmacology of plants that had medicinal value. A traditional, old-time Indian, Zhaanat spoke only Chippewa. Wood Mountain was an imposing young boxer, in training with the reservation math teacher as his boxing coach, Lloyd Barnes. Barnes found himself hopelessly in love with one of the tribal women, only to learn that he could never be an Indian in the tribe’s eyes, but they might like him well enough.
The book ambles slowly throught the daily routines of these colorful characters, while shining a light on a perspective that is rare, if not totally absent in American literature- a view of America through Native American eyes. I loved the quiet dignity of these people as they went into battle, sorely ill-equipped, against the ruthless, morally bereft machine that was the American Federal government.
One night at work, Thomas heard an owl, outside the factory and went out to investigate. Owls had always been a good omen for him, so he was not disturbed by its presence, like his buddy, Louis Pipestone, who believed that owls were a harbinger of death, and went to great lengths to avoid them. On this night, Thomas saw his ancestors chanting and dancing in the night sky.
“Oh, it was good. Filled your belly. Made you smile. Cured your hangover. Kept you moving in the cold.” -Zhaanat
The soup was called boulettes (meatballs in French) or “bullet soup.” Zhaanat served it on New Year’s day with bread called bannock.
½ lb. ground beef
2 T grated onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
¼ tsp dried rosemary
¼ tsp dried parsley
1 diced onion
2 C diced potatoes
1 C chopped carrot
1 C diced turnip
4 C water
1 tsp herbed salt (Herbamare)
2T powdered chicken bouillon
Mix ground beef, grated onion, garlic, salt and pepper, rosemary and parsley. Form mixture into balls about the size of a jawbreaker. Dredge meatballs in flour, place in a saucepan, cover with water, and boil until cooked.
Add to saucepan onion, potatoes, carrot, and turnip. Pour in 4 cups of water, more if needed to cover the vegetables. Stir in herbed salt and chicken bouillon. Bring to a boil, then simmer until vegeatables are tender.
Season to taste with Herbamare and serve with bannock.
3 C flour
2 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
¼ C sugar
½ C shortening or margarine
1 C plus 2 T water
Cut cold shortening into pieces in a bowl. Work the flour with a pastry blender until it resembles coarse sand. Make a well in the center. Add 1 cup of water and stir together until the flour is incorporated. Add 1-2 teaspoons of water if needed.
Work dough into ball and knead a few times. Press dough into a greased 10 inch cast iron frying pan. Bake at 400º for 30-35 minutes.