You're darned right it was cold. It was 22 degrees below zero that morning of March 3, 2003, when I left Fortune Bay resort and casino at Lake Vermilion for 9 o'clock Sunday Mass in the nearby town of Tower. The crunching, squeaking sound my boots made breaking through the crust of the super-frozen snow as I walked from my car to the church struck me as one I hadn't heard for a long time. You don't hear that sound unless the temperature is below zero, way below zero. You never hear it where I live now in San José, California.
It warmed up a bit later though, so that by the time my son and I left the resort for the Duluth airport around noon, it was "only" 17 degrees below.
At around five p.m. California time, we arrived back at San Jose terminal C. Terminal C was the old fashioned one (modernized since then) where you still had to walk down a set of stairs to get off the plane. A woman on the stairs below us complained about the 55 degrees above zero cold, and we were conspiratorily amused.
There's a bit of nobbery in those of us who have learned to tolerate extreme weather. My former husband and I once bought a button that read "40 below keeps out the riff raff," when we lived near Fargo, North Dakota. We joked with our friends that it was ironic. 40 below hadn't kept us out . . ..
It had been great being back in Minnesota. Most people were very friendly. I never saw Theresa, the bride, look so radiant and happy. She and Shane, the man she married, looked to be very much in love. Theresa was 32 or so, close to the age of my son, Liberty. Liberty and I had met Theresa while we all were entertainers in the late 80s at the Minnesota Renaissance festival.
I grew to especially like Theresa out of all the high schoolers who were the Renfest's street performers, because of her sweet friendliness and because she went on to earn an art degree too, like me. I saw a little of myself in her creativity in other ways too. We sew, we paint, we both go down strange creative side alleys. When I saw her beading moccasins, I thought of my own interest in Native American culture in the 60s, and the beaded necklaces I'd made.
And I loved her for her hospitality. We had visited her a few times when she lived in North Hollywood for a few years after she graduated from Reed College in Oregon. She had also stayed with us a few times when we lived in Milpitas, CA, and I had stayed with her once in an apartment she was renting in the Grand Avenue area of St. Paul.
Theresa is of Italian-Swedish and other European ancestry. The man she married, Shane, who was 26 at the time, is an Ojibwe Native American. The tribe is also called the Chippewas; those who speak the native tongue call themselves Anishinaabeg, "original people."
The couple met at a pow-wow. I was surprised to find out that when Theresa moved back to Minnesota that she became one of many non-Native Americans who regularly participate in pow-wows. I also found out later that non-native enthusiasts who like to attend public powwows and who are enthusiastic about Native American religion and culture are called "hobbyists" or "Indianthusiasts." They introduced me to three wedding guests that Theresa had met through Native American enthusiast chat rooms, and who had never met Theresa and Shane in person before..
One woman, Mia, flew there all the way to attend the wedding from Sweden. Another hobbyist named Lynn drove up from Missouri with her husband.
Theresa's parents were delighted with Shane because they were praying that Theresa would meet a good man. He and I didn't hit it off, but everyone in the family was unanimous in proclaiming Shane to be the nicest man they had ever met.
In that part of the north country, the resident population seems to be pretty evenly mixed between dark-haired Native Americans and blonde Scandinavians, predominantly Finnish, and you also find a sprinkling of middle class city people of a slightly wider range of ethnic backgrounds who have vacation or retirement homes up there. Theresa's family fits in the latter category.
The couple planned to have two weddings, an Ojibwe wedding and a Lutheran one.
On Saturday, with five hours free before the Lutheran church wedding, I drove up to Ely to look around. I had lunch there in a cafe. Ely is at the end of the road at the north end of the United States, on the edge of a huge network of lakes that is called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and is shared with Canada.
The decor and offerings in the cafe in Ely wouldn’t be out of place in Palo Alto. The people, though, that’s another story. The queue at the cafe's counter was made up of a group of middle-aged couples with teen-aged kids, all with high red color in their cheeks from the wind chill and all wearing snowmobile suits reeking of snowmobile fuel. Some of the grown-ups were reeking of another kind of alcohol fuel.
I asked the blonde young female counter clerk who waited on me, "Is this a hangout for snowmobilers?" "It is, now," she dead-panned. I quipped, "I saw all the snowmobiles in the alley. I feel weird because I drove here in a car." She blurted out, "I feel weird selling them beer." When those words first came out of her mouth, she looked a little surprised at herself for speaking so frankly, then seemed relieved when I laughed.
The spectre of news stories of accidents caused by alcohol-impaired snowmobilers hung unspoken between us for a moment.
Snowmobilers on frozen Lake Vermilion
A group of 40ish, trim, nice-looking, mostly blond women (non-snowmobilers by the looks of them) in the booth behind me talked of many things. It came up that a friend of one of the women, named Arla, recently had a baby that was 10 lbs. 11 oz. The speaker said that her own daughter didn't realize how lucky she was that granddaughter Frankie was only 6 lbs. 8 oz. There was a thoughtful pause.
Talk moved to one woman's bout with breast cancer. "I am doing fine," she told them. "Did you keep them?" another woman asked. "Oh no, I don't have anything to do with that sort of thing." Another chimed in, "Some women have ceremonies. They bury them." "Oh, not me," the survivor said again. The drawn-out Minne-soh-ta pronunciation of the "O" sound was particularly strong this time when she spoke. "I don't hold with that sort of thing." "Me neither," agreed another.
Many think the way that many Minnesotans typically pronounce a stressed drawn-out "O" is an influence from the Swedish language that was spoken by the immigrant forebears of many of the local white residents. At a talk by an Ojibwe artist at the Minneapolis Art Institute one time I heard the artist claim that the elongated "O" in the Minnesota accent is actually borrowed from the Ojibwe language.
Talk in the booth behind me moved to plans for the women to brunch together again with their husbands along the next morning. "Are you going to church?" someone said. Nobody said anything in reply. The silence was a little uncomfortable. Finally someone volunteered a chipper: "I can pray at home." There was a little titter. To ride on the success of that remark, "If you go, say one for me," added another woman.
Typically, the talk was full of quips, but since dry humor is favored in Minnesota over any other sort, their mutual appreciation did not include anything so overt as a laugh.
As for me, I had already checked the Mass times for the next day at the nearest Catholic church.
I must have taken the wrong road out of Ely on the way back because I got lost in blowing snow on two-lane roads lined with pines and birches, for over an hour. When I got to a tee in the road and saw signs pointing left to Babbitt and right to Embarrass, I waved down two men in a pickup truck. They told me that I needed to go right and drive to a crossroads with a flashing light--to catch a road that would take me back to where I was staying. They drove off towards Babbitt, and I drove off towards Embarrass.
I started wondering how long it would be before the crossroads. The men hadn't given me a clue. Minnesotans' minimalism in directions-giving is a big contrast with the detailed California approach. When someone gave me directions in California before the era of map applications on smart phones, I'd start writing on a slip of paper and always run out of room.
"You'll pass a Bank of America. Then there'll be a Baker's Square on your left." "Should I turn?" "No, no, keep going. A few streets down you'll see a Bed, Bath, and Beyond on your right. That will be Santa Clara Street." "Should I turn there?" "No. Keep going until you see a Hollywood Video, make a U-turn at the next light, turn into the second turn off behind the Marie Callender's. . .."
I always wanted to say, "Cut to the chase. What's the street address of the place where I'm supposed to meet you? What are the names of the streets where I'm supposed to turn? And which way, right or left. Spare me the landmarks, puleeze."
But Saturday I would have appreciated a landmark or two. Not that there were any that a city dweller like me would recognize. How would I know when I had gone too far? After driving another 20 minutes, not seeing another soul or a town, I started doubting. Maybe they had been putting me on? I tried to call my son to tell him to catch a ride to the wedding with someone else, but there was no cell phone service out there.
I didn't realize exactly how slippery it was until I braked when I spotted a small store on the side of the road and spun completely around. When I got control of the car again, I parked and walked through the snow to where a 50ish blonde man was standing in the doorway of the store looking out. I opened the storm door and asked directions again through the inside door. The man tersely told me the same thing the other men had told me, that at the crossroads up the road, now only a few miles away, I should make a right.
After a pause, he asked significantly: "Did you just make that big circle out there?" He gestured towards my tire tracks in the snow, and looked into my face to gauge my reaction. I looked where he pointed, and I blithely said, "Yah! I've lost my knack of driving on ice after 13 years in California." As I looked at him while I talked, I could see that my nonchalant reaction was not what he wanted. I continued anyway, "Thank God there wasn't anyone else on the road." He turned away from my attempt at an ingratiating smile, and dismissed me with a motion of his hand, lifting it up to his shoulder and then flinging the palm down towards the ground.
Back in the car I finally started to feel how shook up I was. At the same time I began to realize the man had waved me away because I hadn't been properly chagrined by his remark.
As my face got red, I thought that driving through woods in a snowy afternoon wasn't turning out to be as much fun as it had seemed at first.
I recalled then that the expectation among Minnesota mens seems to be that women should be exceedingly apologetic about things--even when they haven't done anything that could be construed as being stupid. A skit by Minnesota humorist Garrison Keillor came to mind that included a woman serving a superb meal and apologizing for how bad it was. My conclusion was that I just hadn't been apologetic enough for that surly storekeeper.
As I neared the flashing light for my turn off, I realized that I had forgotten to ask to use the store's phone to call my son. Finally I saw some signs for the resort. Just a mile from the resort, even though I was driving even more cautiously by then, I ended up gliding down an ice-glazed hill while I braked to no effect.
When I'd left Minnesota 14 years earlier after living there for 19 years, I had been an expert ice driver. I've often bragged about how I'd barrel along highway I 94 in icy conditions at almost the posted speed limit while semi trucks were going off the road to the right and the left of me. But that was when almost all cars had rear wheel drive and brakes that you pump. Because I was driving a rental, I just didn’t know what kind of brakes I had. "Do I have anti-lock brakes? Should I be slamming the brakes or pumping them?"
Because of my few seconds of hesitation, I was lost. I tried steering into the direction the car was sliding, but that didn't change anything. The road curved to my right, and the car's continued unstoppable glide towards the left edge of the road was so gentle I hoped that the curb would stop it. But the momentum was just enough to carry the car up and hang it up on that curb. I couldn't rock the car out of the snow (another winter driving technique I had once gotten to be really good at) because the tires couldn't get traction.
I waited a little while and when nobody drove by, I got out and hiked the remaining half mile to the resort. The real cold snap hadn't hit yet, so it was only about 25 degrees above zero. Not too bad.
And so it came about that I missed the Lutheran wedding while the Fortune Bay maintenance staff was pulling my car off the curb.
Fortunately, my son had caught a ride with the groom's cousin and her husband, who had arrived late from the Twin Cities and had rushed up to their room to change. When Liberty had asked the desk clerk what to do, she called the couple in their room, and they agreed to take Liberty with them when they went to the wedding.
Incidentally, I also found it interesting that most of the employees at the Indian-owned casino resort are white, including the Finnish man who cleaned our room.
At the church wedding and the reception, as I learned later, Theresa wore a traditional European-style long white dress. She also wore her own hand-beaded moccasins underneath, mostly, she said, because she would tower over her groom if she wore heels.
Both myself and my son had already attended a Ojibwe ceremony for the couple the day before. It had been held at the new Nett Lake Reservation community center that had been built with profits from the casino. Theresa had worn a homemade sleeveless, burgundy velvet dress trimmed with hammered brass circles, along with the same moccasins. Shane had worn a burgundy velvet vest, also sewn and beaded by Theresa. The groom had also worn a backwards sports cap with a Nike swoosh and Nike athletic shoes.
The ceremony had featured an Eagle feather held by an elder almost the whole time and a drum, which the elders asked us not to photograph. One of the two elders who officiated said that the drum had its own spirit.
Serendipitously enough, the New Yorker I had bought at the San Jose airport to read on my flight there, had featured a short story by Minnesota writer Louise Erdrich, who writes fiction about the Ojibwe people. The story was about an antiques dealer who steals an Ojibwe drum that resonates inexplicably without being struck. Images of drums with strong powers still lingered with me.
The drum at the ceremony was about two feet across, the sides painted with colored circles within circles. At the center of each circle was a painted stylized arrow, pointing up, looking somewhat like an arrow you would see on a box to indicate "this side up."
Both elders mentioned that the groom handed tobacco to the elder when he had asked the elder to lead the ceremony. The elder who started the ceremony told us that he once had a question about why tobacco was used. "We get our questions answered by dreams or visions," he continued. In a dream he had learned that when Manitou, their name for the Creator, had created man, tobacco was already growing for man to use in communication with Him.
The other elder said that tobacco is like picking up the phone and getting connected to the Creator, without having to dial a bunch of numbers. The first elder lit a pipe full of tobacco and prayed and pointed the smoking pipe to the spirits of the North, South, East, and West, and to the Earth and the Sky. At that, he pointed the pipe up to the vaulted ceiling of the room.
At first, I thought, well that's a bit silly. We pray to God, and God talks to us without using tobacco. But then, I thought, the Catholic use of incense is a little bit along the same line, isn't it? I looked up incense in the book of Revelation when I got home.
And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel." [Revelation 8:3,4].
Incense for Catholics is a symbol of the prayers of the saints before God. Our prayers rise like incense to heaven where the angels offer the smoke of the prayers or the saints upon the golden altar before the throne of God.
As I pondered the points of harmony and dissonance, I idly watched the clouds of tobacco smoke rise in the warm, room air. That's when I noticed a partly deflated balloon from a previous event was caught in one the four large dream catchers with spray painted feathers that were hanging from the peak of the ceiling.
I remembered that when I stayed with Theresa the last time in St. Paul, on my way out to Mass in the mornings, I noticed that her morning prayers involved tobacco and some sort of feathers.
Later, I told my son, tongue in cheek, that the pack of cigarettes he smokes every day must be getting him in touch with the Creator twenty times a day. He didn't seem convinced. Taking my tongue out of my cheek, I sometimes mull about a pet theory--that addiction to tobacco and its health consequences could be seen as a subtle revenge that Indians have had on the white man.
The way I understood what the elders were saying, the couple had originally requested an Ojibwe wedding ceremony. Both elders talked about how that before Christianity marriages weren't formally contracted. The Ojibwe word for living together means married. One of the elders told a story about how his own mother had once used the word about their own relationship to annoy him.
One of the bride's cousin told me after the ceremony that the original elder who had been asked to perform an Ojibwe wedding ritual had dropped out when he discovered that the couple was going to have a Lutheran wedding the next day. The two elders who had officiated at the ceremony that day were called in as last-minute replacements. One of them spoke about how he had driven overnight down from a reservation in Canada.
Together they decided to hold a "recognition" ceremony instead. Theresa's cousin was relieved, she told me the next day, because she is a Christian and she believed that the way it turned out meant that God had prevented their marriage from starting with a pagan wedding ceremony. Good point, I thought to myself. That was probably a very good thing.
At the end of the elder's talk, before a buffet that included several kinds of wild rice and venison dishes and a cake dyed bright blue and decorated with bright yellow frosting, the bride and groom held a giveaway. At first there was a little confusion, because the elder thought that the goods for the giveaway were going to be bundled up and sent to another village far away, as is usually done. After the couple's intention was made clear, the bride and groom distributed their gifts around the room.
Theresa handed me a set of yellow towels. We were all invited to dance, and so I danced around in a circle with the others who were willing to join, holding up my yellow towels in one hand, while the elders drummed in the middle and chanted.
My son and I both agreed that giving gifts to others in honor of one's happiness at such a milestone in one's life is a very nice thing to do.
Nia from Sweden, Theresa, and Shane, outside of the Nett Lake Reservation Community Center after the recognition ceremony
The next day, at the wedding reception back at the casino/resort, two blond bar hostesses told me that they had taken the short way to work by driving from a town on the other side of Lake Vermilion across the 2 ft. thick lake ice. A road is kept plowed across the lake all winter.
As people chatted after dinner, some of the guests at my table told me it had been a mild winter, and the ice hadn't been as thick as usual. They also told me that because of the thinner-than-usual ice, a young couple had recently died in Lake Minnetonka (250 miles further south near the Twin Cities). After the couple drove onto the lake to "go parking," their car went through the ice. To make matters worse was what the divers discovered when they were pulling up that couple's car. At the bottom of the cold, cold, lake, they found another car containing two drowned teenage boys from a similar accident a few days earlier. Nobody had reported them missing or had realized what had happened to them until then.
Back at my home in San José, crocuses and roses were blooming in the front yard. In this part of the country, people who were seeking to find their identity outside of their own culture were more likely to be attending a Grateful Dead concert than a pow-wow, more likely to die of a home invasion robbery than by having their car break through ice and sink to the murky bottom of a lake. If they were smoking anything in search of a way to reach a spiritual state, it probably was marijuana.
It sure was, I thought rather obviously, a different world out there.
Theresa sent me this photo the next Spring of Jessieanne, their first child, at her first powwow, in a dress and moccasins sewn and beaded by her mother.