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Women's Fiction at its best.
The Education of Ruby Loonfoot is not only about one American Indian woman’s struggle with her past, but with the inter-generational conflicts foisted upon Indian families by Anglo culture.
In 1998, at age fifty-four, Ruby pens a memoir about her final year of boarding school, her family, her tribe.
In the fall of 1957 she was at a crossroads. Despite daily proselytizing, the continual debasement of her race and culture, and unutterable acts of molestation and physical abuse, Ruby struggles to retain her Indian identity. “The Church is God in Indian country,” an elder once told her, and now she’s living it first hand.
Sharing her story are the two central women in her life: her mother Theresa, an ardent Catholic, who is determined to shed everything Indian from her life and escape the reservation, and Ruby’s grandmother and spiritual rock, Ceceila Pitwoniquot, a traditionalist and respected elder.
Over the summer, the schism between these two generations widens when, despite Theresa’s strong feelings against it, Cecilia plans Ruby’s Ojibwe coming-of-age ceremony, hoping to solidify her Indian identity, to inoculate her against “the robes”.
When Ruby returns to St. Nicholas, she is the first to experience “the chair”, the school’s latest technological punishment.
If the madness at St. Nics is to be stopped, it will be up to her.
Using her right hand Theresa fished a cigarette from her purse, stuck it between her lips and pressed the dash lighter. Her mother, Cecelia, regarded her a moment. “You know, Marvin and I talked to Luther about us building our own school on the reservation.”
Theresa made a wry smile. “Sure. And the money will fall from heaven.”
“Maybe,” Cecelia said, squinting through the bug-splattered windshield at the sky. “But just in case, we got some ideas of our own.”
Theresa replied, “Even if the government let us build a school how we gonna get good teachers, Mom? Advertise? I can see it now: ‘Come to beautiful Loon Lake Indian Reservation and teach in our new, modern school. No running water, no housing, bring your own books, wages paid in fish and firewood.’”
Cecelia slowly shook her head. “Is there no more Indian left in you, Daughter?”
“Look, Mom. Ruby is getting the best education an Indian kid can get these days. And it’s free.”
Cecelia scoffed. “It is free because those nuns want to wash the Indian out of her.”
Cecelia watched her daughter’s jaw tense, her knuckles whiten as she gripped the steering wheel. She didn’t want to anger her, but the conversation needed to run its course. “Remember back in the old days, what that old chief said to that Indian agent after all the Indian boys came back to the rez useless from them white schools? Why not send us some of your boys,” he said, “and we will make men of them.” Cecelia stifled a chuckle. She loved that quote.
Theresa rolled her eyes. “Mom, I don’t want to go through this again. What kind of life would Ruby have if she didn’t get an education? I’ll tell you what she’d have — nothing. She’d be another dumb Indian girl hanging around the rez on relief. She’d be married and have a kid by the time she was sixteen.”
Cecelia looked at Theresa and sadly shook her head. “You have so little faith in your daughter?” She looked thoughtful a moment, then, “Eya, Ruby should go to school. It is the way of the world today.” Frustration crept into her voice. “You know why I do not like our children going to the robe schools, where they teach them that our ways of worship, our ceremonies, our stories, are bad — to a place where they hit them.” Or worse, she thought. “We do not tell their children that their churches are bad, that they should believe only in the Indian way, eya?” She threw up an exasperated hand. “Each to his own. That’s the way Gitche Manitou wants it.”
“Mom, will you stop with the Gitche Manitou? White people run the world today, and if Ruby and Sue are going to make it they’re gonna have to fit in, they’re gonna have to get an education, get off the rez and get a good job.”
Cecelia gave her daughter a hard look. “Leave their home? Leave the graves of their grandfathers? You’re saying you want them to stop being Indian, to be white people.”
Theresa jammed out her cigarette in the ashtray. “That’s what it boils down to, Mom. Nobody knows anything about Indians. They never see us unless they’re driving through on vacation and wanna buy a pair of moccasins or a rubber tomahawk for the kids. Look at old Joe Wolf, dressing up in buckskins and that big war bonnet, standing by the road, taking money from tourists. ‘How,’ they say when they talk to him. ‘Look at the Indian, Johnny,’ they say. ‘Shake hands with the big chief, Mary.’ Jesus, Mom. Nobody gives a damn. Nobody gives a damn if we sit out our lives on the rez until we fade away. Well, my girls ain’t gonna fade away. They’re gonna get something out of life besides heartbreak, powdered eggs and babies.”
Cecelia’s eyes narrowed. “And be good Catholics, eya?”
Theresa stiffened and cocked her head with belligerent pride. “The least I can do is save their souls.”
Old memories gushed into Cecelia and she tensed with anger. “Do not ever forget, Daughter, they came and stole you away from us.” Her voice shook with bitter emotion. “They came with their robes, your soul-savers, and with that agent, and they pulled you from my arms, and they took you away!”
Theresa held up a trembling hand, then in a sharp downward movement, chopped off the discussion like a sharp ax.
Cecelia watched the dotted lines in the center of the road disappear under the front bumper as she caught her breath. It had been a long time since she had been this angry, especially with her own child. She wasn’t against the new ways as much as she was for the old. Of course times had changed. People had to make a living and support their families. And, yes, they lived in a white world, but that didn’t mean one stopped honoring the old ways. If anyone was expert at adapting — at surviving — it was Indians. What scared Cecelia most was the thought of people leaving the reservation. If everyone abandoned the rez, she knew, the Ojibwes would cease to exist. The language, the elders, the stories, the dances, the songs — all would be lost. The Ojibwe prophets warned of such catastrophes.
Her thoughts swung back to Theresa. She thought of the happy days before the robe school, when she and Theresa were as one, when they used to laugh together and talk Ojibwe, when Theresa helped her make manomen, gather berries, and went ice fishing with her father.
When Theresa was Ojibwe.