Reviewed by Jennifer Hughes
Gichigami Hearts: Stories and Histories from Misaabekong brings readers through the history of author Linda LeGarde Grover’s Ojibwe/Anishinaabe ancestors as they navigate colonization, displacement, mandated boarding schools, and the changing cultural landscape throughout the upper Midwest. The book is centered mainly in Duluth, Minnesota, with exquisite descriptions of the variety of neighborhoods that both clash and come together to make up its eclectic community.
Throughout the book Grover tells the reader a series of stories: some about her family, like the account of her grandfather, Elias, who she remembers as a man that wandered from the Union Gospel Mission to the Bethel mission, both on First Street, in order to hear a sermon in exchange for food and shelter, and some stories about underwater spirits and the ancient heroic figure, Nanaboozhoo. When the stories burst with personal reflection, they are often followed by a black and white family photo, or a poem that sings with reverence and heart. No matter the story, Grover makes one thing abundantly clear: “the stories and what is real are larger, stronger, and more permanent than our frail chain of human existence.” Stories that have been passed down as legend and mythology are “debwe, this is the truth.” Of the other stories that are about her family and their experiences, well, “gaye debwe; this is the truth also.”
Within these intermingling truths Grover explores ideas of culture and identity. Her complicated heritage of Ojibwe, Norwegian, and Polish, along with her uncle’s marriage into Duluth’s “Little Italy” near the Point of Rocks, gives the author a unique perspective. She often returns to the admirable tenacity and survival of the Ojibwe, whether it be by living secluded on a Lake Superior island or selling handcrafted tomahawk’s at a roadside stand. To choose just one identity is impossible – nearly every person or place in this book has at least two or three names depending on who you ask – but that’s what makes Grover’s journey a uniquely American experience.
Grover does an excellent job of illustrating what her forebearers lost, and what they discovered, as they were moved to reservations, sent to boarding schools, and clashed against a culture that sought to “solve” their own way of life. There is no anger or malice in the way she tells these truths. They simply are what they are. She takes her role as storyteller seriously and keeps a consistent a tone of reverence for the history she is imparting. She also makes a point to reveal how this history has affected her present situation as a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.
As a former high school teacher, I wish that I would have had the opportunity to share this book with my students. Gichigami Hearts brings local history, some of it sadly underrepresented, into
the forefront in the form of small vignettes that are easy to digest. To Linda LeGarde Grover, I say miigwech, thank you.