Friday, June 21, 2002
American Indian family in Carlisle heads West
The history of the building once known as the Spaulding Tavern, sited at 476 East Street and now owned by Jim and Wendy Davis, just became more interesting. The structure, built in 1754, had a barroom set aside to serve travelers. Now the house may also claim to have housed a former American Indian princess.
At the beginning of this month, the St. Germaine family packed up their belongings and headed home to the American Indian reservation of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in northern Wisconsin. There are almost 400 reservations in the United States today. While each is a little different from the others, common characteristics include that they are geographically isolated and on land that no one else wanted. Every summer, pulled by a homing instinct, American Indians head to their reservations. There are about 5,500 members of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, and in the summer almost 4,000 go to the reservation. The St. Germaine family will be among them.
Back on the reservation
Both Rick and Becky spent a lot of time growing up at the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation where their respective maternal grandparents lived. Both consider themselves American Indian with about 5/8 ancestry. Rick's last name and 3/8 of his blood is French; Becky traces her remaining 3/8 to Swiss, Swedish, and French ancesters. Despite their link to the Lac Courte Oreille tribe, the two lived separate and different lives, primarily due to their age difference of thirteen years and their gender.
"I've always been close to her older brothers, and didn't pay much attention to Becky," says Rick. "Her brother Phil was a real close friend of mine. We did a lot of knocking around together and traveling. Becky was always in school."
Rick's father, a semi-professional baseball player, was away most of the time. Rick states abruptly, "I didn't have a father." His mother was often ill, and he spent his early years with her and her parents on the reservation, about 12 square miles in size. At that time, the reservation did not have electricity.
"Life was immensely different before electricity," says Rick. "The culture was relatively intact, and people entertained themselves differently. We had our focus on our relationships with each other, and on our family. I learned a lot from my grandparents."
Electricity came to the reservation when the boy was 13. "After that came television," he recalls, "and after that the reservation changed so much. We had electric lights, running water, and indoor plumbing the whole works."
During the school year, Rick boarded at a mission school in North Dakota staffed by Catholic nuns. He met children from other tribes there, including Sioux and Chippewa. He made it through kindergarten fine, but in first grade a particularly vicious nun introduced him to routine beatings.
"One time she whipped me so bad, she had to take me down to sick bay," he remembers. It was early in the morning, and he just slept on a cot. When the nun came for him at lunch, he still couldn't speak. She had to leave him there until the end of the day.
"When I was young, I really hated Catholics," he admits. "It's taken me a long time to get over that because I was really mistreated. American Indians have gone through a lot of that mistreatment."
Meanwhile, Rick's father remarried. Rick has 14 brothers and sisters, most of them half-brothers and half-sisters. He sees many of them at the reservation in the summer.
Knowledge broadens the world
Despite his early unpleasant experiences in school, education made the difference for Rick. "I was all set to go to a dental technician school," he says about his plans after graduating from high school. A basketball coach from Wisconsin State University in Eau Claire convinced him to try out for the team. He made it.
"I wasn't very good," he adds. "I was real good for a small school up in the Northern hinterlands. I did find out I could make it in the classroom. That was a real revelation for me."
Rick earned a B.A. in secondary education (1969), there, and went on to receive a master's (1972) and then a Ph.D. (1972) in educational administration from Arizona State University. He acted as an administrator for American Indian schools and lectured in Native American Studies at the University of California in Berkeley. He returned to his alma mater in Eau Claire and taught as a professor in the history department from 1989 through 1997. He also serves as a school reform consultant to over 50 American Indian schools nationwide, focusing on a project to educate principals. Rick, a member of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, is a published author, and once edited a tribal newspaper using his spiritual name, Migisi (Bald Eagle) as a byline.
With the fellowship at Harvard at an end, Rick plans to resume teaching at Eau Claire while continuing to pursue his work as a national tribal leader.
Growing up away from home
Becky Anderson had a very different experience growing up in Chicago. Her father was a rare full-blood American Indian, from the Oklahoma Choctaw tribe. He trained as an electrician, and his employers mistakenly thought him of Italian origin so he was able to get a good job. At that time, the powerful Chicago union restricted the lucrative electrician jobs to Italian Catholics.
"We knew we were American Indian, and we knew this was not our home where we were living," says Becky. She recalls the dinner where her parents would talk with her two older brothers. They would reminisce about their lives growing up in their respective tribes, her mother's in Wisconsin and her father's in Oklahoma.
"Girls were taught to sit and listen and basically imitate whatever their mothers did cooking and cleaning," recalled Becky. She learned to sew when she was six. Every summer she would visit her maternal grandparents at the reservation. Her mother's family included the tribe's spiritual chiefs, and was powerful and wealthy, by American Indian standards. Her grandmother had married a lumber baron. The family had extensive lands, nice clothes, and traveled.
Life on the reservation was much more restrictive than in Chicago, however. Men and women in the tribe were segregated, to the point of sleeping in different quarters. "If a man were to walk in the room, all the women would leave and go into another area," recalls Becky.
Education was very important to Becky's parents. She says her father claimed mission school "saved him" as he wouldn't have learned to speak English without it. Becky and her brothers attended private schools. The boys went on to Harvard University.
Several scholarships, including one for track, facilitated her attending the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. Always enterprising, Becky financed the rest by putting her sewing skills to work fashioning moccasins for private clients and her looks to winning pageants and doing commercial work.
After earning her undergraduate degree with majors in secondary education and in biology, she went on to obtain a master's degree in public health administration at University of Wisconsin in Eau-Claire. She toyed with the idea of medical school. On the reservation, however, the relatives were murmuring. Back there, Becky had another credit to her name: First Princess of Lac Courte Oreilles.
A princess comes of age
Although Becky was interested in neither marriage nor children, the tribe felt differently. "In our culture, for a woman to be of that age and to have some capabilities, but not to be married, there had to be something organically wrong with her," says Becky. "I should have been married. Girls [on the reservation] start having kids when they are 13 or 14 years old."
With Becky's background and education, few men could hope to approach her. According to tribal custom, she had to marry someone outside her clan but within her tribe. To complicate matters and ensure the ancestral line, her maternal relatives insisted on someone "proven" who had fathered children. Respected women from a neighboring tribe, the Winnebago, even offered to host a feast where Becky would be given away in marriage. Another time at a tribal society meeting, plans had been made to marry her to a young chief after the gathering.
At a pow-wow in 1991, Becky sat next to her brother. He set up an empty chair next to him, and said that he planned to bring potential suitors to her. "Rick St. Germaine pops in and sits down," she recalls. "I told him that he was sitting in a chair set up for my next husband." He asked Becky out on the spot. Becky knew he was already married, and although the tribe permits a man to have multiple wives, she refused, as she didn't want a married man. Rick persisted, as he was into the process of separating from his first wife (outside the tribe), with whom he has a son and a daughter. Rick and Becky went out, and two days later he proposed.
"We got married a month later," she says. "It was almost like a business contract." Becky had been applying for graduate school in chemistry, and had already landed a job with a $63,000 salary. She put all that aside, married, and within a year was pregnant. She mentioned going on for a doctorate, but Rick reminded her that she had made the choice to get married and have children. Despite the matriarchal role in raising children, family governance and nomenclature is through the father.
"Basically, my life was over," she said. "I struggled with that for many years." She did some part-time work in schools and hospitals, and gave cultural demonstrations. From her Carlisle experiences, however, she now believes that someday she might be able to attain her dream of a further education and a career.
"Coming out here was a mixed blessing," said Becky. "Rick saw women who do succeed and yet have intact families. His fear was that if I went out to work and did get a higher degree, that would break up the family." First, however, Becky hopes she may give birth to a daughter. Otherwise, she can teach tribal skills and techniques to her sons and their wives, but her title will be lost.
Reaching out to spirits
The Lac Courte Oreilles tribe has two religions: one is an ancient religion, and the second a revivalist version dating back 130 years. They believe everything has a spirit: people, animals, plants, and even things. The St. Germaines practice the revivalist version, and Becky often uses spiritual names to address the boys.
After moving to the old Spaulding Tavern in Carlisle, somebody told Rick that there were ghosts there. He recalls having responded: "There are ghosts in every house!" He proceeded to summon the spirits in the house numerous times. "It's like a presence, a feeling, and you communicate with them," he says. "You talk to them. You usually know [a response] within a couple hours. Sometimes it takes longer. I've learned everything in my life from them. You summon the departed, close friends, relatives, grandparents."
In recent years Rick dates it "after electricity" the tribe has become less concerned with spiritual matters. Only about one-fourth practices religion. Worse yet, a casino opened up 12 years ago to benefit the tribe. Nonetheless, the poverty level of the reservation has remained the same, primarily due to the poor location and number of competing casinos much closer to Minneapolis.
"I am so opposed to gambling," says Rick. "It's been the ruin of our tribe. It's changing our culture for one thing. It's a focus of stress in the tribal politics. It's creating unrest. Nobody trusts anyone anymore."
Nonetheless, the St. Germaine family has gone home to the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation. The lives of the family members may take many different paths and many journeys in future years, but this reservation will always be their true home.
Translating the St. Germaine family's spiritual names:
Rick Migisi Bald Eagle
Becky Sicsagay-kwe First rays of the rising sun
Ricky Amik Beaver
Marky Wabinunganagwesig Man from the eastern star
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito