Friday, June 22, 2012

Indian Cemetery

One community I work in on occasion is way up in the "North Woods".  Recently, while looking at a map for something else, I noticed that there was an entry for "Indian Cemetery" in an out of the way corner of the city.  I suppose I should not have been surprised, the area historically has had and continues to have a strong Ojibwa community.  I had just never heard any mention of the cemetery, nor seen any signs for it.

It was not easy to find.  Even with GoogleEarth I missed it on my first attempt.  Finally I spotted what amounts to an unmarked dirt driveway running back behind a vacant business:
It somehow did not seem like the kind of place you should just go driving around in, so I parked my car and walked back there in brilliant morning sunlight.  As the clearing opens up you see this:

I got an instant sensation of, well, "alieness" for lack of a better word.  We are accustomed to seeing a cemetery where the dead are marked out in regimented rows, presumably buried six feet down and with the weight of some serious headstones physically and metaphysically anchoring them in place.  But here we get this:

It seems as if the usual rules, or more accurately our perceived rules, have been suspended.  No time resisting granite, we get moss encrusted wooden shingles.  It somehow lacks the sense of permanent memories that characterize most cemeteries.
I am pretty sure that the deceased are actually buried to regulation depth, but seeing their grave markers visibly crumbling and seemingly being pulled down into the earth is disquieting.  I guess it might fit in well with Native American thoughts about being an integral part of nature, and it certainly reflects biological reality.

Keep looking and you start to see small details.
Many of the graves are either unmarked or have small plaques that you have to hunt for.  So I can't say for sure how old some of the earlier burials might be.  I am guessing early 1970s, corresponding to a time when there was a revival of interest in Native culture.  As to the newest uses, the above picture shows new, rough unpainted wood, freshly turned earth and flowers wilted but still holding together.

This is very sad.  The smaller graves denote infant burials.  This one has such a home made look to it.  It poignantly reminds me of bird houses I made with my sons when they were little.  There are too many of these, as the Native community has infant mortality rates some 20% higher than national averages, and SIDS rates twice as high.

Here and there you see things that remind you that the Native Americans have a foot in each culture:
A traditional grave.  An interesting bit of mosaic artwork.  And an American flag denoting military service.  A rather high proportion of Natives do serve in the armed forces, and are very highly thought of there.
I should not make assumptions, but I have heard of little bowls like this being used for small offerings.  Tobacco and so forth.  In my professional work I have to really discourage tobacco use.  Native Americans live on average 7 years less than whites, with diabetes, heart disease and substance abuse being major contributors.  Smoking causes much suffering, yet tobacco is a legitimate part of their culture.
A single feather lying in the grass.  Just random or was it part of a memorial?

I don't know what to make of this last photo.  The graves had the usual assortment of flowers and flags, with the newer ones seemingly better remembered than the old.  Off to one side I saw this:
A rather large collection of grave decorations unceremoniously tossed into the underbrush. They seem similar to decorations left standing.  This was not long after Memorial Day, but does not seem to have the patriotic look of military decorations.  Was there some other holiday, unknown to me, that had all the graves decked out recently?  So many mysteries, and not a living soul about to ask.

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