The Story of My Grandmother: How We Reconnected Her to Her Ojibwe Roots

Courtesy Hannah Schmidt / The Loonsfoot family with Patricia Giese (married name)—Hannah’s grandmother—seated in the middle. Patricia was reunited with her family before she walked on.

The sun set below the tree canopy.

I sat tracing lines in the dirt with my fingers while a sacred fire burned beside me. A smell of sage perfumed the air and drums beat loudly while dancers in regalia circled. My elders speak Ojibwee, tell stories, and teach traditions I traveled to Keweenaw Bay to learn, and discover purpose in teaching our culture to the generations to follow. I listen, quietly. Intimacies shared among the fire to build strength. Many tears have been shed over 100 years, time has been ironically kind and cruel.

I wanted to share this story to honor my grandmother and her journey. To continue to raise awareness and change the forward thinking of people to exercise freedoms to think and talk, remembering the time in history when individuals were not able to do so. To honor the people who came before us, and remember the times of their struggle when these freedoms were taken.

In 1936, my grandmother was born to an immigrant woman settled here from Germany and a Native American man. Politics swayed my great grandfather to join the military while my great grandmother was swept off to a boarding school to birth my grandmother. The era of the Great Depression caused despair for many people sick and out of work.

Many moons passed complicating the hearts of my family as we accepted we were all products of history. Looking to the stars for answers, I grew up with curiosity. Periodically talking with my grandmother, I learned her deeply rooted hope that she would one day reunite with her biological father and meet her family. I began searching in 2003 with the help of the Menominee elders. She asked me not to tell anyone that we were looking, worried the search wouldn’t produce answers.

During the search, I learned my grandmother never knew her biological father as a result of her mother’s parents disapproving of his Native American culture. They rejected the daughter and sent her away to have my grandmother in secret. While I searched for the other half of my grandma’s family, I began learning about the genocide of our people, forced removal, and assimilation. I became angry by a truth I never knew. My understanding began to shape as I learned the events of my family history. I filtered my grandmother from the emotional turmoil each time I came up empty. She would often ask if I made progress and if I was still looking. I assured her each time, explaining how difficult it was. Records were not kept, names changed, people moved, and though I didn’t want her to give up hope I could see it fading in her eyes as she gazed out the window.

She certainly lived her share of pain, but strived to provide a happy, loving home abundant with laughter. She was content with her husband, raising seven children on love, hard work, and healthy meals. Grandma would sometimes tell me that it was ok if I stopped looking, that maybe it didn’t matter. She would tell me she had everything she needed now and things happened the way they did for a reason. She told me that I didn’t need to understand life to be happy, and was humble. I think her attempt to settle my curiosity was simply because she was tired of living with her own. I continued to search.

In 2010, there was a pause in my search when I learned I was pregnant. Soon after I stopped looking, I received a call from my aunt. She explained having reoccurring dreams that compelled her to search for my grandmother’s biological father and wanted to know where I left off. After talking for a while, we felt we were being called to the search, so she began looking again. Three more years would pass, for us to learn that my grandmother had cancer. Her days now numbered, we became desperate to prolong her life with treatment.

Courtesy Hannah Schmidt / Patricia Giese married name)—Hannah’s grandmother—is seen here with some of her family who she reunited with before she walked on. Pictured are Debbie Dollar Loonsfoot and Gina Magee.

I watched my grandmother become skinny and frail, but still happily smiled despite her illness. We all found a sense of peace knowing we would soon say our goodbyes. Description defies these moments we shared with her… unique and unlike the others before we knew she was terminally ill. This experience changed my thinking toward life, and I was not prepared for the ways things would change. I wondered if I was in such denial that I couldn’t see what was inevitable. Everything seemed impossible with limited time. My aunt made one last attempt writing a letter to an address she found searching public records. A little more than a week passed and a woman who received the letter called. She was living with her sister and explained that sadly the father had died a while ago, as did a brother. It was determined by DNA testing that the woman was a 99 percent match—my grandmother found her sisters and they traveled to her immediately.

In part this was the missing fragment of my grandmother’s life, answers she always wanted for herself, and complicated more with the reality made it so emotional. When we began the search, it was intended for my grandmother to experience the joys and happiness of meeting her family. We were able to take her to Keweenaw Bay where she met her family and visited the shores of Lake Superior, where her father once fished. She received her Ojibwee name; Wabanung translated: Morning Star. The ceremony told the story in such a way I couldn’t capture in short. I remember sitting across the fire from my grandmother, each of us alone with our thoughts holding a cup of coffee. This was only a turning point where I could not be selfish with love for her. She walked on only a few days after returning home from her visit to Keweenaw Bay.

This last July I returned with my family to Keweenaw Bay for the powwow. With a heavy heart and a mind mixed up with emotions, my entire sense of balance seems thrown by this life experience. Looking out over the waters that never left us, looking up to the stars that never left us, I return now thinking of my ancestors and their hardships. Each day I take every opportunity to teach my child the importance of our Ojibwe culture. He will grow up knowing how struggle and hardship shaped us today, and he will always remember the love of his great grandmother.