The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe honors Evelyn Isham

Story & photo by Thelma Nayquonabe
Reserve, Wisconsin (NFIC) 7-08
"Ojibwe Woman of the Year"

The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Tribe hosted the 35th Annual Honor the Earth Powwow and Homecoming Celebration, July 17-20, 2008. The Powwow Committee honored Ms. Evelyn Isham as the Indian Woman of the Year, Anishinaabekwe 2008, at a special honoring celebration on Saturday, July 19, 2008. Evelyn received gifts from the powwow committee, including a beautiful Pendleton blanket, a framed powwow poster, and a monetary honorarium, along with presentations from family and friends.

This ceremony is held each year to honor women who have contributed to the Lac Courte Oreilles community by practicing the Ojibwe customs of language and tradition. Evelyn had been selected as this year’s Woman of the Year,

I visited Evelyn Isham at her home on the shore of Round Lake on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. We sat at her kitchen table overlooking the lake. A tiny hummingbird appeared at the window and hovered over a container of sweet liquid. Evelyn exclaimed, “Look! I filled the container with water sweetened with maple syrup, and the bird is drinking it!” The lake shore scene below was tranquil as warm evening sunshine washed the shoreline in hues of amber. Evelyn’s kitchen table was covered with colorful fabrics and a sewing machine, and she displayed a jingle dress that she just started to fashion.

I listened intently, and quietly wrote notes as Evelyn reminisced about her life: “I was born March 16, 1921, in the village of Reserve, Wisconsin. I was delivered at home by a midwife. My Ojibwe name is Gaanimanj, and I am from the eagle (Migizi) clan. I am proud that my Ojibwe name is printed on a chair that I received as a gift.” Evelyn completed the eighth grade at St. Francis School. Many young people from this era went as far as eighth grade, and then worked to help their families. “I am sorry that I did not complete my education any further. I want kids to realize how important it is to finish school,” Evelyn stated.

Evelyn recalled, “My dad Willis Isham went to the boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, along with the famous athlete Jim Thorpe.” During the 1930s, many young Indian people were expected to attend Indian boarding schools. The federal government had many such projects in place that were intended to teach Indian people to become “American.” “My dad worked as a police officer for Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe in the logging days. His duties often meant that he had to take on dangerous assignments. I remember that once he had to take a man to jail, and his only transportation was a horse and buggy,” Evelyn continued. Evelyn’s father never had to use the “billy club”’ that he carried. Willis Isham was well respected, small but strong and his law enforcement duties included taking care of the community hall. Willis served twenty years as a deputy, but he did not retire with full benefits, Evelyn stated. “I guess in those days it didn’t seem important to keep track of those things.” Willis was also in the logging business and learned to “steer” the logs that were transported by water. A mishap once caused a broken leg, resulting in a stay at a hospital. Evelyn stated: “I have a photo of my dad standing on top of a pile of logs. His Ojibwe name was Gegweji.”

Willis was referred to as “Musky” Willis due to his talent as a fisherman; a special gift that he possessed was his ability to locate “muskies,” the sporting fish of the northern lakes. Evelyn recalled that her father was once given an automobile as a gift for providing an excellent guiding service. Willis and Edgar Isham often went fishing (fire hunting) in the spring and would return home with large tubs of fish. The fish were then traded for vegetables. Evelyn’s parents tanned deer hides, a difficult and painstaking process involving many hours of work. Evelyn’s mother, Julia utilized the soft buckskin to make jackets. “My mother made a fringed buckskin jacket for my dad. A visitor admired it and my father promptly gave it to the man as a gift. I’m not sure what my mother thought of that,” Evelyn stated. “Mother and dad taught me many things. I don’t know what kind of person I would be now if it weren’t for the way I was brought up. I got switch lickings if I didn’t mind them,” Evelyn recalled pensively. Evelyn’s parents spoke Ojibwe and her father Willis was often asked to translate at meetings, both in Ojibwe and English. Willis was invited to travel to Washington, D.C., to translate at meetings there. Willis also had a hearing problem, but on one occasion the family discovered that his hearing was more accurate than they were aware of. Evelyn recalled, “My mother knew how to sing Indian hymns, and was often requested to perform the hymns at wakes. One evening I practiced singing the hymns with her, never thinking that my dad could hear. My dad soon walked in the door, asking if someone had died.”

Evelyn’s mother, Julia’s Ojibwe name was Dotoobindeb. Julia fashioned beautiful garments for her family, using an old time sewing machine that was operated with a foot pedal. Many types of fabrics were used to create clothing, including deerskin. Evelyn continued: “I learned a lot about sewing from my mother. She even made rag rugs from old material.” Evelyn’s mother Julia was asked to make a rug for a woman who admired her handiwork, and the woman brought beautiful colored fabric for Julia to use. “I also learned a lot about cooking from my mother. She canned all types of vegetables and fruits. We often had two hundred to three hundred quarts of canned food. We never went hungry.” Evelyn stated, “My mother also cared for the deceased, I recall her telling that she washed bodies in preparation for burial. When I moved away from home, my mother and I wrote letters to each other in Ojibwe.” There were seven children in the family: Jim, Agnes, Edward, Mary, Sophie, Evelyn, and Veronica.

“My brother was born early and was very small. My mother fed him with an eyedropper and wrapped him in cotton. He was kept near the wood stove in a shoe box. My mother told that he was the same size as a table knife,” Evelyn recalled fondly. This tiny baby grew up to be Edward (Scoop) Martin, a gifted newsman and local writer. Edward graduated from Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he worked in a print shop as a writer. Edward used his experience later when he wrote news articles for the local paper. “Edward did not feel it was necessary to repeat gossip, and would only say kind things about others,” Evelyn recalled, “My sister Mary was a registered nurse, and she sent money to mother, along with clothes and dishes. My mother raised Mary’s son Eddie as her own. Eddie was like a brother to me and was a self-taught mechanic. I, and many other people, often went to him with car problems. He fixed many cars and many times would not take money for his work.”

Evelyn continued: “My folks were strict, especially my dad. Drinking and smoking was not allowed. Even though my dad did not allow me to drink alcohol, I learned a harsh lesson about how alcohol can hurt you. When I was a young girl, my parents were often hosts to hunting groups. One time a group of men were sitting at our kitchen table, sharing a bottle of brandy. They said the brandy was going to warm them up following a long day in the cold air. I had a cold at the time, so my aunt said I should have a “hot sling” which was intended to help my sore throat. A hot sling is made from a spice, ginger I believe, water, and brandy. I drank the first one. Then my aunt said another drink would be good. I had another. As the hunters were chatting, no one noticed as I took more small swallows of the liquid. When it was time to go to bed, the room was spinning. I was frightened and asked my sister to stop the room from spinning. The next day my cold was cured, but I never drank alcohol again.” Evelyn and her friend Doris Gouge smoked cigarettes made from the bag of Stud tobacco that Doris kept hidden. The two young girls enjoyed their cigarettes in the outhouse where no one could discover them. They smoked the cigarettes and began tearing pages from a mail order catalog. The next morning, there was a pile of ashes where the outhouse once stood. The ashes from the cigarettes ignited the pile of magazine pages, starting a fire that destroyed the toilet. “My dad was very angry about losing $11.00 worth of building materials for the outhouse!”

“When I finally left home at age eighteen, I lived with my sister Sophie in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. From Lacrosse, I moved to Rockford, Illinois, as a part of the relocation program,” Evelyn stated. The federal program known as “relocation” was intended to provide jobs and money to relocate Indians from the reservations into urban areas, and to provide the Indians the opportunity to learn a trade. In Rockford, there was an opportunity for Evelyn and several other young Indian women to learn to operate power sewing machines. This was an exciting experience for the young woman as the massive machines sewed rapidly and were challenging to operate. Evelyn and her friends were given a week to learn to operate the machines, which they did. The young ladies also had the opportunity to work as Nurse Aids at a hospital in Rockford. A woman whom Evelyn cared for in the hospital invited her to work as a live-in nurse aid, which Evelyn accepted. After working as a private home health nurse aid for a few months, Evelyn returned to Northern Wisconsin by train. Somehow, Evelyn missed her stop after riding the train northward, and ended up in Superior, Wisconsin. Eventually, she was able to get home to Lac Courte Oreilles.

“My first husband was Don Taylor, from Minnesota. Don was a fluent speaker of Ojibwe. When we visited his home in Minnesota, his family apparently did not know I could speak the language. They were talking about me in the Ojibwe language,” Evelyn smiled as she recalled the incident. The Taylor family lived in the urban areas of Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first child, born when Evelyn was thirty years of age, was named Victoria. The infant suffered and died from pneumonia, and was laid to rest in Michigan. “I was severely ill during this time, and was in a hospital for several months,” Evelyn recalled. Three more children were born: Gary, Michael, and Muriel. Evelyn recalled, “Michael was born in Milwaukee during Independence Day, July 4th... My husband Don was a very nice man and good to the children, although he suffered from alcoholism. Once we attended an opening baseball game in Detroit, Michigan. People there were eating a strange food; all I can recall is that people were eating this unusual food with their hands. It was my first introduction to pizza.”

Evelyn’s second husband Pete Ford was a truck driver, and three children were born from this marriage. Larry, Becky, and Sirella. Evelyn remembers her pregnancy with all the children, “The babies were all nine pounds and over, except my youngest child, Sirella.” Becky recalled that her father Pete was a hard worker; he worked for twenty-nine years as a driver for a moving company on Chicago, Illinois. Pete was also in the Air Corp during the Korean conflict. When the family returned home to Lac Courte Oreilles in the summers, Pete always made sure that the family was well provided for, with food, money, and transportation.

“I often took my children to Indian powwows when we lived in Chicago. My daughter Becky started dancing then; she was about three years old at the time. I sewed a black velvet dress for her with silver cones on the skirt and on the cape. We lost her during a powwow and it was a very frightening experience. I looked everywhere and I finally found her when the shiny cones of her dress caught my attention. We found Becky way up in the bleachers.” Evelyn stated.

Becky related, “When we moved from the Chicago area to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, we lived in a home on Jonans Point Road, near a lake called Little Lac Courte Oreilles. There was no running water and no electricity. My mother would fill her car with laundry and she would travel to the nearby town of Couderay to do her washing in the laundromat there. However, we always hung the laundry to dry on the clothesline at home.” In the 1970s, the tribe offered HUD (housing and urban development) homes to families, and Evelyn’s family moved into a home in the Round Lake Community.

Becky remembered how exciting it was to have modern conveniences again, running water and electricity. Becky still lives in this home. Evelyn eventually settled into a mobile home on the shore of Round Lake, where she resides today.

Evelyn is proud of the fact that all three of her sons served the United States in military service. Gary is a disabled Navy veteran, Michael served in the army, and Larry is a Marine Corp veteran. There are 16 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren in Evelyn’s family. “My mother Evelyn was the force behind me in everything that I have accomplished,” Becky stated. “She always advised us to always be the best that we can be.” Evelyn is well known for her cooking skills, and has helped many young dancers create their dance regalia. “My mom has helped me coordinate the Honor the Earth Pageant for the past twenty seven years. On her 75th birthday, my sister Muriel coordinated a great birthday celebration for mom. Muriel was determined to put all 75 candles on the cake.” Larry related the following incident from his childhood: “My mother once told us that we were going to go sliding on the hill by the lake. I did not understand how we could see to slide down the hill in the dark and this frightened me. My mother lit fire to several old tires and the entire lake was illuminated! When she started down the hill, she lost her balance and fell. The children scrambled to help her up, and Evelyn angrily stated: “Don’t ever grow old!” At the time she was 50 years old. Evelyn Isham recently celebrated her 87th birthday.

This beautiful woman has served her community and her family for many years. It is now time for her to receive gifts and good words for all that she has accomplished. The 35th Annual Honor the Earth Powwow Committee is proud and honored to recognize Ms. Evelyn Isham as the 2008 Anishinaabekwe, Indian Woman of the Year.