Snake Running Loose
The first time I visited Irene Mack Pyawasit, a Menominee Native Woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was in the early evening of one of the first days of spring in 1979. I drove into the alley of the old, crowded, inner-city neighborhood where she lived. The alley was filled with black and brown children playing ball. Irene’s gray shingled cottage stood behind an battered two-story house from whose open windows came the shouts of children.
I parked the car and walked to Irene’s cottage door. Early stalks of tulips and crocuses lined the walk, and soft pussy willows bloomed across from the door. I knocked on the door, heard the bark of several dogs, and was greeted by the sign:
Open the door with ease,
I’ve let the snake run loose.
Shrewd Sense of Humor
Irene was a Menominee woman in her late sixties who interviewed me three times before she agreed to let me interview her. She had light brown skin, a wide strong-chinned face, and gray and white hair pulled back in a bun and decorated with stick jewelry. Her face was intelligent and alert, and she had a mischievous smile and a deep, firm voice. Her total presence was of competency, strength, keen awareness, and a shrewd sense of humor.
Irene’s understanding of history and tradition was deeply rooted in the Menominee reservation of her childhood. The reservation, located in Northern Wisconsin, is a watery labyrinth of lakes and forests where the loon calls, bears still roam, and there is an abundance of deer. Ferns grow tall and thick in the deep woods, and the earth is soft with pine needles and leaves.
It is from these forests that the Menominee have derived their livelihood, but the people are poor. In Menominee County, 35.8% of the population live below the poverty level, while the national average is 13.1%.
At the time I interviewed Irene, a number of the Menominee remained on the reservation, living intimately with the land they so deeply loved. Many others moved from the reservation to Milwaukee and other urban centers in an attempt to improve their conditions.
Even there their hard lives continued. In order to change these hardships, Irene encouraged education in a variety of ways. Irene and her husband taught informally, and she worked at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, recruiting Native students.
Tough Little Old Woman
Schooling had been forced on Irene when she was a child by requiring her to attend notoriously bad and cruel government and mission boarding schools. But before that, she was raised by her beloved grandmother. Irene told me, “My grandmother was a tough, little old woman, but a good one.
God Gave You a Big Mouth
She taught me a lot of things, and the first thing she taught me was not to be afraid of the white man. She said, ‘God gave you big mouth, and I’m going to teach you how to use it.’” Nevertheless, Irene was swept away from her grandmother and shipped far away to schools whose main purpose was to break the Indianness from the children, “To kill the Indian and save the man.”
Keep Religion in her Heart
Irene’s grandmother taught Irene that the schools would try to destroy her, but they would not succeed. Irene was strong, her grandmother told her, and she would keep her religion in her heart.
Still, staff in the schools used violence; deprivation of food; cold; sexual assault; separation from families; and forced assimilation of dress, behavior, language, hair styles; and religious practices to try to break native children. The government designed institutions to kill the culture, destroy the spirit, and break the resilience in the child.
Some Did Not Survive
Some children did not survive the treatment. According to the Meriam Report [a 1928 government investigation ] “. . . Indian children were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools than the rest of the children in America.”
Little children were made to follow strict regimes and stripped of signs of the indigenous identity. Young women were trained to do low paid labor, especially as poor servants in white homes, and/or to raise their own children to be diligent laborers in the working class. Likewise, young men were trained to be subservient and non-resisting workers in farms, factories, the military, or other industrial jobs.
Bitterness in her Voice
Irene spoke, the bitterness still in her voice, “After our classes were over in the morning, we had to go to our various duties. Some of us worked in the field picking grapes, sugar beets; some of us were assigned to the dairy barns; some of us were assigned to the homes of the government employees.
“And that’s where they thought they were going to have a lot of fun with us because we were a bunch of dumb Indians girls. I was twelve but I taught one of the men a lesson that I’m sure if he’s still alive, he’s never forgotten. His wife wasn’t in the house at the time, and he came in from the dairy barn and thought he was going to have some fun with me.
“He tried to push me into a corner between the door and the refrigerator, but I gave him a good example of what a knee was built for. I had him walking like a camel.
“They took his word against mine and figured I was disobedient and unruly. Of course, I was punished, but I never went back to that house to do any more work.
“For punishment, I had scrubbing duty on my hands and knees, and I had what seemed like miles to do. I had stairways, hallways, and dormitory floors. I had no privileges to go downtown, no recreation privileges at any time. I had to scrub and scrub and clean and clean and clean and clean. I had about three or four months of just scrubbing duty to do, but still I got him away from me.”
Irene resisted throughout her life. She worked for a circus throughout the depression, teaching children and adults between shows. She became involved in tribal politics and was the first woman in her tribe to ever represent it in Washington as an official delegate. She was a registered lobbyist for the federal House and the Senate.
She and her present husband traveled, giving religious leadership in the Big Drum. She has taught her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their religious beliefs. She wrote and made recordings of stories and legends, preserving them for upcoming generations and served as a mentor to young political leaders. Her future hopes included teaching Native history.
I lost contact with Irene before she died, but I continued to study Indian resistance, which has developed and continued in a multitude of ways.
Adults and children resisted the boarding schools throughout their years of existence from the late 19th century through the 1970s. Parents camped outside of the schools so they could see their children; children ran away. Eventually, children from the schools got to know each other outside of tribal identification and formed the Pan Indian Movement of the past decades. These students took a largely negative experience and turned it into a cultural and political crusade that has done much to increase the life prospects of indigenous people today.
House Made of Dawn
Speaking of resistance such as the lifetime of struggle described by Irene Mack Pyawasit, N. Scott Momaday, writing in House Made of Dawn, stated, “They have assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but have held on to their own, secret souls, and in this there is resistance and an overcoming, a long outwaiting.”