15 miles north of Bayfield lie red cliffs overlooking Lake Superior, or the Gichigami (“Great Water” in Ojibwe). It is here on the shores of Lake Superior that the Red Cliff Band call home. Among the birch bark trees and lupine, some of the most beautiful people live in one of the most beautiful places in Wisconsin. Four of us spent seven days living and learning with the Anishinaabe (also called Ojibwe or Chippewa) people. As a Team Leader-in-Training with Xperitas, I had a binder full of logistics and site information and a Team Leader, named Kate, with years of experience for a partner. It was a week I was prepared for, or so I thought.
I was prepared to be cold. Even in Wisconsin in June, I knew it could be chilly, but I was not prepared for the frigid temperature of the lake! We had scheduled to meet Marvin, an elder and tribal historic preservationist, for a hike along the lakeshore. It was a beautiful walk to a historic site in Frog Bay Tribal National Park, but with all the spring rain, Superior had covered up much of the shoreline. I wore pants and a sweater, but they were no match for the wind blowing in off the lake, which is an icy 45 degrees year-round. Marvin had worn the appropriate attire—a winter coat and waterproof waders. Most of our group was in tennis shoes, so he suggested we go barefoot or risk having cold, wet socks the rest of the day. We must have looked crazy to be wading in that freezing water! The trek was well worth it, though, because Marvin shared stories of their Anishinaabe ancestors building homes and carving arrowheads. He truly brought history to life. Despite our numb fingers and toes, our small group was in high spirits the entire afternoon.
I was prepared to hustle at Wolf Camp. I’ve volunteered at my share of summer camps, but none compare to our time at Wolf Camp! We set up tents, helped cook and clean, took multiple canoe rides with the kids, and roasted marshmallows. I arrived ready to roll up my sleeves and put in some serious elbow grease. But, by the end of the week, assigned groups and schedules morphed and dissolved, until all children were at the whim of their hearts’ desires. All the kids were finding things that sparked their imagination. All were happy. There was the same thrill of summer camp I’m accustomed to, but without all the hustle and bustle. The adults were happy to have us make dreamcatchers with the children or sit telling stories. I was not prepared for how simply being present could mean so much more than being useful.
I paddled three excitable elementary schoolers in a tippy canoe. Luckily, no one flipped over or fell out (remember that 45-degree water temp?). We witnessed the beauty of Lake Superior while some elders set nets to catch fish. I watched the most free-form game of lacrosse I’d ever seen. In the end, everyone won. I chatted leisurely with the cooks over hot fry bread and cedar tea on the open flame. There’s something about fresh air and a campfire that gets people talking. Time slows down and allows space for telling stories. Stories from elders about fighting for treaty rights, the first time girls were included in Wolf Camp, and the good old days. It’s in these stories that the heart of the culture lies. Elders pass the rich history down to the young generations so that they are not quick to forget their heritage. I won’t be quick to forget these stories or new friends, either.
I was prepared to learn, but I did not anticipate that learning to be present and genuine would be the greatest takeaway from the week. I learned so much about using what the Earth gives us to make tools, jewelry, or music. I learned that this area of the country, and specifically Lake Superior, is intricately woven with the fabric of the Ojibwe people’s lives. Tobacco is sacred to the Ojibwe, and I was very nervous that by gifting tobacco or taking part in a “smudging” (ceremonial cleansing) I might be seen as disrespectful. What I learned, however, was that having good intentions and being vulnerable was important. We were invited to participate in multiple smudgings and offered guidance on appropriate levels of interaction for the group. I believe that people want to share their lives and cultures with others, and when we offer our hearts sincerely and seek to build understanding, the response is a hand extended in friendship.
While it’s nice when things work out the way you expect them to, I was reminded by Kate that it doesn’t always work that way. Instead of striving to be useful, often our greatest accomplishment is sitting and being with people. I could not have anticipated how quickly and warmly we were welcomed into the community. I know now that being present and open is more important than being busy. I began to push aside my expectations so that I could fully engage with the people and the culture. I became flexible and vulnerable in order to serve our Xperitas participants and the members of the Red Cliff tribe. So, next time I take a trip, I will always remember how to truly be prepared. All one really needs is an open mind, a genuine heart, and maybe a pair of waterproof boots!