Mark Aquash: The vision of his aunt Annie Mae and education

by Chris Graef
News From Indian Country
Mark Aquash, Ojibwe and Potawatomi, and member of the Thunder Clan, is currently completing his dissertation entitled Decolonization and First Nations Control of Education for the Doctorate of Education degree in Education Administration at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) and is currently teaching at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

Aquash, a graduate of the Red School House in Minneapolis, Minn., was a young adolescent when his Aunt and Uncle Annie Mae Pictou-Aquash and Nogeeshik Aquash visited him on Walpole Island First Nation where he was living with his grandmother in 1974.

“They asked me why I wasn’t in school, and asked me if I wanted to travel with them to Minnesota,” he said. “I went with them and visited a school there and I enrolled at the Red School House. It was great, the best.” Mark lived with teachers in different locations in St. Paul and Minneapolis and took the hour-long bus ride to the school in St. Paul each weekday morning.

Nogeeshik and Annie Mae had idea for school
“Nogeeshik and Annie Mae had the original ideas for the school,” he said. “The first proposal for the Red School House went through the Boston Indian Center in 1969. Back then, many people understood the need for a culturally-based school. Nogeeshik and Annie Mae helped organize, write and submit proposals to make it happen.”

Mark was voted onto the student council for two of the three years he attended the Red School House. As student representative, he attended AIM meetings in the St. Paul chapter, was a student worker at the National office and represented the Red School House at many speaking engagements at organizations and Universities.

“The 1970s was a long time ago, it was a different time,” he said. “Much of what was tolerated back then is not tolerated today. There were drugs and alcohol use, all that was going on back then. This added to why there was such paranoia. There was no emphasis on sobriety then. The ones who were straight were isolated. That really changed toward the 80s and 90s, when people finally realized, hey this isn’t good for you.”

It was at the Red School House that the direction of his life was most affected to continue in the effort of education.

Trudell made impression
“There were a lot of profound things that I heard,” he said. “John Trudell made a real impression on me, just listening to him speak. He talked about reconstructing our communities through education in ways I’d never heard it said before. In the early days of the Red School House, we had people coming from all over the world just to see us, the students. I had the opportunity to meet lots of musicians, movie stars, and got front row seats at benefit concerts. I was a representative of the student council and got to speak at Universities.”

Students of the Red School House studied Tecumseh, Black Elk, Lame Deer and Vine DeLoria, working in small groups. Older students read to the younger students. Some of the younger students were introduced to University level vocabulary at times.

“Seven generations back, those are our leaders,” said Aquash. “Back in the early 70s at the Red School House, we had Ojibwe language classes. I remember that the elders didn’t want the language recorded or written down. I believe the Red School House was the first to have Ojibwe language manuals. Today, language materials are copyrighted, and written down. There is a new focus on fluency and teaching to re-establish the language.

“Annie Mae was a great advocate for our tribal language in schools. Back in the early 70s, that was one of the things that she was fighting for, language and culture in schools. When people take language classes in school today, they can remember that Annie Mae was one of those pebbles in the pond – one of the many women that pushed for these things that we have today. We have to understand that the women have always been our strength. They have also been the brain power. She was the brain power in the movement. There were a group of women back then and to this day that still write funding.”

The Red School House eventually closed under the weight of politics and stolen moneys.

“I believe that accreditation and greed was the downfall of the Red School House,” said Mark. “The survival school system had always advocated children as our future leaders. I believe that there are many of the students from the Red School House that went on to do good things. I attended before accreditation, the entire school changed after that. There is a difference between the students that went to school when I went there and those that went to school there after accreditation. I don’t think it was a bad thing, just a different system.”

First in family to receive University degree
Mark was the first in his family to receive a degree from a University. His undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota in 1990 included K-12 teacher licensure and he moved on to graduate school and then received a Master of Education degree the following year.

In 1991, as the principal of the Red School House, he made efforts to save the organization by contacting former alumni, reorganizing and seeking a new location for the school. “They needed a new building because rats were coming into the daycare center through cracks in the foundation.”

He later became principal of the high school at Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis.

“The problems in education in the 70s are still the problems we have today, it is a vicious cycle,” he said.

“It is a cycle of colonization, we have become our own colonizers. Everyone seems to be afraid of doing anything to end this cycle. There are those that focus on negative events in history. We have to recognize that focusing on these negative events without providing an avenue for our people to grieve and have closure is also a process of colonization. No one has been providing that closure for our people, especially our youth. There’s so much grief, there’s no healing taking place.”

“Annie Mae understood and talked about sovereignty,” Aquash said. “She talked about Indian land and the definition of Indian land. A lot of those things like sovereignty and inherent rights were laid out for all of us to learn at the Red School House. Some didn’t want to learn. Others rejected it. One of the fondest memories I have of my Aunt is that she taught me how to pray as an Anishinaabe.”

“When I first came to Minnesota, I saw the Pipe used in prayer, it was like a flash of a memory, like déjà vu, something that had been experienced before,” he said.

That understanding of prayer helped Aquash through many tragic losses in his life, including the death of his uncle, Nogeeshik, that occurred in a house fire on Walpole Island.

Nogeeshik had been sent to a residential school as a child and grew up to be an a successful artist who had studied with many artists including famous American artist, Andrew Wyeth.

Nogeeshik had many successful ventures including a non-profit food cooperative called Native Way Incorporated. He was almost successful in the mid-70s with the idea of opening a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis serving American Indian Cuisine until the owner of the building that was to be leased pulled out at the last minute.

Annie Mae and Nogeeshik had first met each other in Boston in the 1960s. The couple had begun building a house on Walpole Island.

“I remember a lot of good times with them,” said Aquash. “Their entire relationship was not all about abuse as it has been portrayed. Much of the fighting and arguing was a result of drinking. Nogeeshik had quit drinking for a number of years, but there were many other strains on their relationship.”

Farmington AIM convention
In 1975, there was an American Indian Movement convention in Farmington, New Mexico.

Mark remembers, “There were posters that advertised that there would be many issues addressed and that there would be powwows and ceremonies. Much of these activities did not happen, we pretty much camped out on a Mesa for a few days, everyone in the camp got really hot one day, so we went swimming in a lake and on the way back from the lake we had a very large caravan of cars through the town of Farmington. Farmington was very racist at the time, that was why there was the need for all of the cars to stay together. I remember that one car was pulled over and the entire caravan stopped. The police then provided an escort back to the Mesa. I remember that I rode horses there and met some Navajo kids. I went to a sweat lodge that was run by the spiritual leader, Phillip Deer. It was an awesome sweat.”

The last time Mark saw Annie Mae was at the Red School House after the Farmington convention.

“There is the worldview of some people that we had to rebuild our communities from scratch, because they’d been so colonized,” he said. “The many Indigenous people around the world have started looking at the process of de-colonization. Nogeeshik and Annie Mae were way ahead of their time with their understanding of the philosophy of de-colonization.”

Mark Aquash, a father and grandfather, was a singer with the Three Fires drum, which was led by Edward Benton Banai, Director of the Red School House when he attended school there. Mark has created and founded a high school and training institute on Walpole Island. He has created the organizational structure in a manner that helps prevent politics from interfering with the education of students. He’d like to see more schools created that focuses on education and the elimination of these politics.

“They say there’s a red road,” said Aquash. “I believe that each individual is responsible for making part of that road on their own. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s road, but other people can help by their positive influence and assistance. There’s no one who had the same experience as I did. But I believe I can be there to help other people when I am needed.”