Way back when my hair was long with crooked braids and missing front teeth, I remember Granny. She was the most famous Indian woman I knew. At that time fame was not like images set on magazine covers or in big bulky boxes, it was based on how many people crowded a small kitchen to hear someone talk. And Granny was so famous people travelled from both directions on highway 17, bringing gifts, and all their cousins, even the ones they didn’t really like. These people were my relatives who I never met before but I was young so was clueless and had lots to learn.
Granny’s door was always open, tea was always hot, soup in big pots simmered on the stovetop, and the people gathered to listen to stories of who they were and where they came from. She was the original ancestry.ca. She lived long enough in Mississauga First Nation to know all the family ties even the ones forgotten or held in secret. Back in those days people knew how to keep secrets because there were many to hold close and keep in a safe place. One of the best ways to keep secrets is to speak in code and this code was to talk in Indian. When Granny started speaking in Odawa with guests my little ears would perk up twitching like a rabbit. Listening so hard my heart would beat in my ears. I’d ask, what you talking about? All I’d get was a little basket and told to go pick berries. Mmmm… berries!
I was fascinated with my Granny Ella Boyer-ba (nee Niiganigijig). She was born at the turn of the twentieth century in 1900 and the oldest woman I knew. I’d sit and watch her with such intent she’d ask if there was something was wrong with my eyes. Truth was I just loved her skin, light eyes, and her grey and white hair. We didn’t live on the reserve but we spent many nights camping out in her little house. I felt lucky to sleep with her in her lumpy bed. I felt safe wedged between her and the wall. And it turned out that I wasn’t the only one who was a fan.
Like I said, relatives traveled from afar to hear their family history and ties to all the communities along the north shore. She was the original Wikipedia. And someone always brought fish. Fish for her to clean and she wasn’t shy to let everyone watch her clean. She wielded a knife like no ones business. All the while dishing out some of her favourite fish stories. I remember her strong hands and how the fish scales glittered in the curls of her hair. She was a keeper of stories and people came to tell her more to take care of.
When night came the guitars and the fiddle were pulled out and Granny had her harmonica ready to fly. The Odawa and Ojibwe relatives stomped and step-danced in the little kitchen. It was a miracle! Granny step-dancing and playing the harmonica. Everyone clapping and cheering for Granny. We were alive with the music she played. And the laughter! There’s nothing more special than being in a room with all your relatives laughing.
One summer day I was at my Grandma Grace’s place down on colonization road, Granny pulled up in a taxi. I was alone while everyone was out shopping. I must have been eight or nine. I remembered that I had to offer her something to drink and eat so did my best. Here I was all alone with this amazing woman and I felt shy but so proud that I came from her. She told me stories of how she happened to be an Odawa woman living in an Ojibwe community. She had an arranged traditional marriage when she was 17 and the people weren’t very kind to her when she arrived from Wikwemikong. She missed her home, her family, and her life on Manitoulin Island. She adapted though and survived to tell me her story that I carry. Sometimes I try to remember all the details but all I remember is the dark blue jacket she wore and she just got her hair done so she looked good. She had a tan heavy purse that she put on the table in front of her and folded her hands on top. Her hands had bulging veins and were bony and wrinkled. I always touched her veins and she’d let me.
It’s the beginning of national aboriginal history month and I celebrate my history of being Anishnaabe and where I first learned who I was from listening to my Granny. It was all about stories, family history, community connections, food sovereignty, laughter, language, and celebration. And, we’re still here to keep those stories alive.