Mary Annette Pember
“If we wanted money we’d live somewhere else.”

Winning Hearts and Minds, Ojibwe Style, and the Power of Visiting

Mary Annette Pember
August 02, 2013


Long before advocates addressing social and environmental injustices began using phrases like “building community” and “changing the narrative” to describe creating change and awareness among people, Ojibwe simply “visited” with their neighbors. Ojibwe have a long history of visiting. Seemingly innocuous and with little direction, the act of visiting with people from diverse racial and social backgrounds has a power that Ojibwe have always known.

I once read about an Indian agent during the 19th century lamenting that the reason he had so much trouble getting Ojibwe to embrace Western ways of living and working was that they spent too much time visiting, or as he put it “sitting around talking.” Those Ojibwe were getting important work done – the agent just couldn’t see it, or didn’t value it. They were reaffirming their connections to each other and their neighbors as human beings.

The work at the Penokee Harvest Camp is an excellent example of the power of visiting and its ability to win the hearts and minds of even the most contradictory groups of people.

Many folks living in the Penokees, for instance, are not accustomed to strangers setting up education camps in their forest.

The Penokees is home to bear hunting men, stubbornly proud of their hunting prowess. Laconic, rugged individualists, they have little patience for outsiders and make it clear that they will defend their homes from any threats, real or imagined.

When Mel Gaspar and Felina LaPoint, both from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation began setting up camp here in the Penokees, they received a visit from a bear hunter, a non-Native neighbor Russell Buccanero.

“I want to show you Indians where my land is so you can stay off it,” he huffed, according to Gaspar.

Gaspar and fellow campers quietly agreed and invited Buccanero over for dinner. He came back often, enjoying the campers company, the buffalo burgers and fry bread and the talk of simple pleasures offered by the land, the hunting, camping, sitting around the fire and visiting.

Soon he offered campers the trees from a corner of his property to use as fuel in their fires, according to Gaspar. Not long afterwards, campers invited Buccanero to a ceremony. He was clearly touched, Gaspar noted. Not long afterwards, Buccanero offered the use of his sauna to his new neighbors.

Initially ambivalent about the mine, Buccanero recently opined that maybe the mine wasn’t such a good idea, it might not be so good for bear hunting and would disturb the quiet of his nightly sauna.

“I’m at ground zero of this mining thing here. GTAC is trying to run me out of my camp, my sanctuary,” he said.

Buccanero’s great grandmother was born in 1900 on the land that he describes as his pride and joy. It is located immediately adjacent to the Harvest Camp and the proposed GTAC mine. People in the area live there because they love the pristine nature of the region according to Buccanero. “If we wanted money we’d live somewhere else,” he said.

“Although folks are poor in the area, they stay and muck out a living and enjoy what we have here,” he noted.

But the promise of big jobs and money has made people forget the beauty of the land according to Buccanero.

“This mining thing has divided friends and family. I have good friends who are giving me the cold shoulder because I won’t support the mine,” he said.

“I can’t believe anybody really wants a Walmart here. With money, comes trouble so they need to be careful of what they wish for,” he observed.

“I sure have met some good people from that Camp and from the Ojibwe tribe,” he said.

“I see now that GTAC is trying to push us off our land the same way they are trying to push the Indians,” he concluded.

The Penokee Education Camp, Ojibwe visiting is proving to be an effective organizing tool, a sort of stealth awareness training that tells the real story of the impact of an open pit iron ore mine on the water, the quality of life and the land.

Jeremy Rifkin, a well-known author and instructor at the Wharton School’s Executive Program at the University of Pennsylvania routinely speaks of the power of visiting during his presentations. Although he describes the simple act in far more complex terms, he is clearly describing what Ojibwe have always known about their fellow humans. During a presentation at the National Museum of the American Indian he said, “Human beings are ‘hard-wired’ for empathy and community, yet we have become estranged from the rhythms of Earth, losing compassion not only for each other but also for the planet.”

We have become, according to Rifkin, “monsters devouring the earth.”

“Empathy is our social glue, our transcendent value,” he said. And this empathy must extend not only to others of the human race but to the entire biosphere and all its creatures. “In order to continue our survival as a species, we must reintegrate ourselves into family.”

And so this humble gathering of people here in the Penokees is a powerful force. The camp has become a go-to place not only for famously outspoken activists, musicians and politicians but for neighbors and for those who come for reasons they can’t seem to name. They just know that they need to come here, to visit, to feel what is happening here.

Fern Kanitz, a psychotherapist from Madison showed up in camp over the weekend. She expressed irritation with the lack of information in the mainstream media about the proposed mine and the work of the camp. After hearing that the camp was open to visits from the public, she made the five hour drive in order to “be on the land,” in her words. During that cold and rainy weekend, she labored in the camp kitchen, cutting up vegetables, making coffee. She sat by the fire and visited.

Later she joined Rae Nevels from the Bad River Reservation who led a group of women in prayer by the Tyler Forks River. Nevel explained that Ojibwe believe that women are the ones who care for the water. She also spoke of the healing power of rushing water as she lay down on the banks of the river. Although Kanitz had never visited a Native community and knew little of Ojibwe culture, she stayed on and prayed for a long time near the river.

The power of visiting had clearly done its job.

RELATED: Wisconsin Mining War