Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
March 25, 2000 - Issue 06

Two Stories From Lac Courte Oreilles
Our thanks to: Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The Lac Courte Oreilles Frog
Source: Wisconsin Folklore - James P. Leary (ISBN 0-299-16034-3)

Down at Couderay [Lac Courte Oreilles] they have a story called the Lac Courte Oreilles Frog. And they said this man's family was starving and he had gone hunting day after day. Came home and didn't bring any food. And he was getting very despondent. And he was walking. As he was down by the stream he happened to look across it. And there was a big frog sitting there, a giant frog.

So he took out his arrow and he aimed. He was just about to shoot the frog, and the frog said, "Wait, wait. Bekaa, Bekaa in Indian we say. "Don't shoot me," the frog said. "If you spare my life I will see, I will reward you that you will have plenty to eat."

Well the man didn't know what to think about it. He said [to himself] that frog will make a fine meal for my family. He said [to himself], well how will he reward me? So he was pretty compassionate. He said, "All right then."

Then the frog said, "You listen, you will hear my signal. You will hear the frogs. They will let you know that the food is wherever you want to use it, wherever you take it."

Anyway the man went to bed that night. And towards morning, doggone, he heard the frogs, big bullfrogs were croaking and little frogs were chirping. He said, "My goodness, I wonder if that's the signal so soon?"

So he went down to the stream where he saw that [frog] and sure enough there the walleye were spawning. He had plenty of fish, he had plenty of food. And they say to this day when you here the frogs chirping in spring, you will know the walleye are spawning.

And it's true, that is true.

[This story likely involves the encounter with the larger-than-normal "chief" or leader of the frog people; a figure who takes pity on the starving hunter and assists him with food. The traditional association of two generally simultaneously occurring natural phenomena -- the frog's first chirping and the walleye's spawning -- is a mnemonic technique found in many cultures.]

Wenabozho's Beaver Dam

Wherever Indian people live there's always stories pertaining to the area. In this part of the country we have the story that's told about the Apostle Islands. They say that when Wenabozho was living in this part of the country then there were no islands in Lake Superior.

One day he saw a big beaver swimming around in the bay -- he was over towards Bayfield. Oh, he was really impressed, it was the biggest beaver he had ever seen. He built a dam across the bay to trap that beaver in there. He had his dam built and the beaver was trapped in there, and he was really excited. But lo and behold that beaver broke through and swam into the lake. Now Wenabozho was so angry that he took what he's used to build the dam -- sticks, rocks, and what ever -- and he threw it as the beaver the beaver swam away.

And they say that with each handful he created an island. And that's how the Apostle Islands were created. Now in our language -- they say what's left of the dam that is still visible, that's Long Island - in our language, we say jagawaamikoong: that means soft beaver dam.

That's the story that pertains to this area.

[This etiological or origin legend regarding the formation of Chequamegon Bay also concerns the Ojibwe cultural hero and trickster, Wenabozho (a.k.a. Winabijou, Manabozho, Manabus, and Nanabush), who wanders the world having many adventures. The soft dam is constructed of mud in William W. Warren's History of the Ojibway People (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1984; reprinted from the original 1885 edition), 102. A more expanded version appears, with reference to Warren, in Guy M. Burnham, The Lake Superior Country in History and Story (Ashland, Wisc.: Browzer Books, 1975; reprinted from the original 1929 edition), 46-47]

Commentary, Transcriptions and Annotations by James P. Leary
Source: Wisconsin Folklore - James P. Leary (ISBN 0-299-16034-3)

Delores "Dee" Bainbridge was born in 1931 on the Red Cliff Reservation north of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Her mother died when she was four and she was brought up by her grandparents, John and Ida Mary. John DePerry was the son of a "half-breed" French Ojibwe fur trader, Michel DePerry (a.k.a. DuPrez), and an Ojibwe mother. John DePerry was trilingual in English, French and Ojibwe. He had worked in the woods as a lumber camp teamster in his younger days. Ida Mary DePerry (ca. 1885-1972) was an Ojibwe from the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation area and the daughter of George Neviaush. As Dee recalled, her grandmother grew up living a traditional life: "If suckers were spawning they would go to that place and harvest. Then for wild rice they'd go to another place and harvest. Then when the berries were ripe they would go to the berry field. They were pretty nomadic in her earlier years." Arbitrarily named Ida George by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with her father's "English" first name serving as her surname, she was known as Johnnyqwe when she first settled among the Red Cliff Ojibwe (i.e. "Johnny's woman" from the English name and the Ojibwe suffix qwe, indicating a woman's name). At the time, shortly after 1900, she understood very little English, although she came to speak the language gradually.

Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Dee became fluent in both Ojibwe and English, while hearing a smattering of French. The family lived three miles from the village of Bayfield and eked out a subsistence existence with "no modern conveniences." They gardened, gathered berries, picked herring from the gill nets of commercial fishers, cut firewood, ran trap lines, set rabbit snares, "bobbed" for whitefish through the ice, caught speckled trout in the streams and sold home brew. The DePerry place was also one of the gathering places for house parties with square and step dancing to fiddle, accordion, and pump organ:

All the people from around Red Cliff. They'd have it at my grandma's house one night. Then maybe in a month at somebody else's house. Different houses. That's's how they entertained themselves. Pretty much Indian people from the reservation…. And they would bring something, like a can of milk or a cake. And that was the prizes they played for. It was kind different… A man by the name Babineau, he was a good jigger. And Joe Wabidosh, he was a good jigger. And even some of the ladies were pretty good. A lady by the name of LaMoureaux, she was a very good jigger.

Dee's grandfather and her Uncle Mike generally played the fiddle at these gatherings. The DePerry home was likewise a site for storytelling by Dee's uncles Mike DePerry, Fred DePerry, and John Soulier, by a comical fellow known as "Big Louis," and especially by Ida Mary DePerry. Dee's grandmother would seldom tell stories during the day, but in the evenings.

She would burn tobacco. We had on old iron stove, kitchen stove. This was an offering to the spirits so she wouldn't offend anybody. Then she would burn cedar, which is supposed to take away all the evil spirits. The whole house would be like incense. She did that pretty regularly. They tell us now that we shouldn't talk about Wenabozho unless there is snow on the ground. Otherwise a big frog would jump on your bed and leave welts on your body. Well I said I've violated that, but if a frog jumps in my bed I might kiss him and see if he turns into a prince. But I don't remember that she ever said it was taboo. But I've read that several time since that you shouldn't tell stories in the summer. But some stories that don't pertain to Wenabozho I guess are okay.

While some of the stories swirling around the DePerry home were in English, Dee's grandmother told hers in Ojibwe. Dee absorbed some stories by simply listening, but other were acquired more formally. She recalled that her grandmother "would tell me a story, then ask me to repeat it. That's how I got started."

Dee went through eight grades at the Catholic Mission School at Red Cliff, then attended Bayfield High School. She worked at various jobs, married, raised six children, and provided a home for her grandmother. In the Bainbridge home, Dee and Ida Mary DePerry relied on Ojibwe as a "secret language" when they did not want the children to understand. Likewise Dee continued to enjoy talking and joking with elders in Ojibwe. In early 1973 she began a twenty-two-year career teaching the Ojibwe language, Indian history, and storytelling at Bayfield High School, where roughly 70% of the student body is Ojibwe. About the same time she began teaching Ojibwe at Ashland's Northland College. Beyond telling stories amidst other Ojibwes and within the context of her classes, Dee Bainbridge has performed for various community groups and organizations.

She is equally comfortable telling stories in Ojibwe and in English. He delivery is stately and sure, accompanied by occasional mimetic gestures, and reliant on subtle vocal shifts that convey character and mood. In the 1990s Dee Bainbridge has been recognized by local Ojibwe, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts for her storytelling.

I first learned of Dee Bainbridge in the early 1980s when I was working on a National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) traditional music project at Northland College where she was teaching Ojibwe. Subsequently I heard of her storytelling from folklorist Richar March of the Wisconsin Art Board, from Smithsonian Institution ethnomusicologist and seasonal Madeline Island resident Tom Vennum, and from Walt Bressette, a Red Cliff Ojibwe, Bayfield businessman, and political activist. In December 1992, while doing a grand review for the NEA Folk Arts Program, I was able to hear Bainbridge perform, along with Ojibwe storytellers Billy Blackwell from Grand Traverse, Minnesota, and Joe Migwanabe, originally from Manitoulin Island, Ontario. But then residing on the Hannahville Potawatomi Reservation near Escanaba, Michigan. The setting was an evening gathering of mostly Ojibwe high school students n a large wigwam adjacent to Marvin and Diane De Foe's Bayfield home.

Impressed by Dee Bainbridge's repertoire, traditional performance style, reserved yet friendly personality, and considerable experience as a teacher, I wanted in particular to record her stories in connection with field research undertaken in July 1996 in preparation for Wisconsin's 1998 sesquicentennial celebration. She was very gracious in consenting. The 1996 session took place in the afternoon in the Bainbridge living room where, seated in a comfortable armchair with a boom microphone angled above her, Dee performed her stories and told of her life.


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