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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 21, 2004 - Issue 107


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Ojibwe tale is 2004 book selection
'Night Flying Woman' is the program's first selection written by a Minnesotan.

by Mary Ann Grossmann - (St. Paul, MN) Pioneer Press

With dramatic flair that made the long fringes on his leather jacket dance, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly unveiled this year's St. Paul Reads One Book selection.

It's "Night Flying Woman,'' an Ojibwe family narrative by the late Ignatia Broker, published in 1983 by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

St. Paul schools superintendent Patricia Harvey, who shared Monday's press conference with Kelly, pointed out that this is the first book in the three-year-old St. Paul Reads program that was written by a Minnesotan, the first by a woman and the first published by a local press.

St. Paul Reads is a partnership between the city and the school system. Its goal is to encourage high school students and adults to read a "common book" they can discuss together. Previous selections were John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir "Profiles in Courage'' and Christopher Paul Curtis' "The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963.''

"Our administration is a great believer in education as a foundation for success, and strong reading skills are part of that foundation,'' Kelly said. "Reading one book is a unifying experience for our diverse community.''

Kelly and Harvey pointed out that "Night Flying Woman'' (which costs $12.95) perfectly fit the criteria for St. Paul Reads: It is well-written, appeals to young adults and adults, offers positive themes and encourages people to grow. The book also ties in with this summer's 150th Grand Excursion celebration, because the story's narrator lived during those times of huge and often painful changes in the lives of Minnesota Indians.

Broker, who was born on the White Earth Reservation, said she wrote the book for "young Ojibwe who could hum the songs from the radio but did not know the songs of the drum.''

"You can read all kinds of scholarly, dry things written in big words about Indian people,'' Broker told the Pioneer Press when the book came out. "But kids aren't interested in that. I wanted a character kids can relate to.''

Using a fictional narrative born out of the Indian oral tradition, Broker tells the life story of her great-great-grandmother, who was named Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe — Night Flying Woman — because she was born during a solar eclipse in 1860. Her family called her Oona.

Oona's family lived peacefully in the woods during her childhood. But they had to move deeper into the trees when lumber companies began clear-cutting the great pines.

When Indians were forced onto reservations, Oona realized her family would have to change some things, such as moving to a house in the village and sending the children to school. But she struggled to keep traditional Indian values, such as sharing with others and respect for old people, the land and the "animal brothers.''

"Reading this book expands our concept of history beyond the viewpoint of white people and reflects on the experiences of change that people of many cultures have to confront,'' Harvey said.

"It's an opportunity for us to learn a little about Indian culture. And it's a story of hope and inspiration.''

Harvey expects the storytelling traditions in "Night Flying Woman'' will be familiar to the 800 Indian students in St. Paul public schools. Native Americans make up 1.2 percent of the 43,000 students in the city's public schools.

Broker overcame a lot to write a book that was widely praised by book critics and teachers and is still taught in high schools and colleges. She received national attention in 1984, when she was among 14 women over age 40 honored by the Wonder Woman Foundation for "achievements based on principles and humanitarian ideals.''

When Broker was only five years old, she was taken from her family at White Earth and sent to the Wahpeton Indian School in North Dakota. After graduating from West High School in Minneapolis, she attended North Star College in Warren, Minn.

The prologue to "Night Flying Woman'' tells of Broker's life in Minneapolis and on the old West Side Flats near Lilydale. That's where she lived while completing a course at the Minnesota School of Business in 1953, earning a living by doing housework. She also raised two nieces and a nephew.

During the 1960s, Broker worked with American Indians Inc., Service to American Indian Resident Students, Indian Upward Bound, halfway houses and the minority task force of the Minneapolis public schools, for which she wrote educational materials.

Broker was one of the earliest staff members of the Upper Midwest American Indian Center, where she headed a research staff that collected data on the handling of welfare cases, mobility patterns of Indian families and their needs in housing, employment, youth training and community development.

Much of that research was used to better conditions for urban Indians.

All this time, Broker kept journals and files in preparation for writing a book. She used the typewriter at the American Indian Center to finish "Night Flying Woman.''

"Ignatia Broker came to the Minnesota Historical Society Press with a sheaf of dog-eared onionskin and carbon-copy pages, individual stories she'd been trying to sell to women's magazines,'' recalled Patrick McCormack, Minnesota Historical Society's head of program. "The staff recognized immediately that Ignatia was a gifted storyteller.''

Broker moved to Bemidji when she retired in 1981. She was 68 when she died of lung cancer in 1987.

Thanks to St. Paul Reads One Book, a new generation is going to read her great-great-grandmother's story.

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