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A cousin gets in touch with a cousin

Indian boarding school. (Photo: YouTube)

At our house the internet arrived sometime during the mid-1990s and it was quite a wonder. I remember getting on to the World Wide Web to access some information for a class paper I was writing. How amazing it was to be getting homework research done while sitting at home drinking cocoa!

I called my dad, who enjoyed marveling at new inventions and ways of doing things, to share the experience. Remembering the technological gadgets in the Dick Tracy cartoon strip, we joked, what would they think of next? Two-way wrist radios? A space coupe?

Now, of course, even small children use the internet with ease, but I still marvel over the ways in which technologies can bring so much of the world to the screen in front of us. I usually think of this as a massive amount of ever-expanding information that seems to distance us the more we learn.

However, once in awhile the internet has made possible a return to something much closer to home: the revealing of connections between relatives who, over the years and through family historical experiences and events, have lost touch.

Last week I opened my email to a question from a woman who lives out of state, a long way from Onigamiising. She had read my books, wondered about my maiden name, LeGarde, and did a little more internet research. It looked as though our families might have intersected a few generations ago. Could we be related?

We are, and we are cousins. Outside of Indian country the term "removed" is used to identify specific degrees of cousinhood. But the way this works among Ojibwe is that we are simply cousins. We are, of course, very interested in the complexities of who is related to whom and how. This ongoing discussion takes place at every powwow, ceremony and social gathering. We address blood relatives of our peer generations and sometimes beloved people who aren't technically blood-related, as "cousin." It is a term of recognition and acknowledgement that is also a term of endearment.

People have lost touch with their families through diverse circumstances. As we see in television advertisements for genealogical resources, people find and rediscover relatives every day. For American Indians there are particular historical factors that have complicated the search for one's relatives. One is the Indian boarding school system, which separated my cousin's family and mine long ago and now, decades later, reconnects us within the circle of cousins.

The boarding school system, designed to obliterate Native language, religious beliefs and way of life, did quite a destructive job on many families. Indian boarding school was the point at which the link that held her family and mine together became stressed beyond its ability to hold, and broke. We are thankful for those who didn't break and carried and cared for much (but not all) of that tribal knowledge. We mourn and honor the memories of those who didn't make it. And we wonder, too, about the effects of historical trauma that are now recognized as intergenerational trauma, and how we might ever come to terms with it.

My oshkii-cousin touched on some of these things in our brief exchange of emails. She hopes that she might learn more and gain some understanding. I feel the same way. This would not have happened if the internet, in its neverending crisscrossing of information, had not interwoven the searching and wondering of two boarding school descendants, lost and now newly found cousins.

She plans to travel up this way. I really hope that we can meet and spend some time together. There is a great deal that we will never know, and will always wonder about, all our lives, yet I know that our bond of history and blood strengthens us. We are Anishinaabe-ikwewag, after all, descendants of people whose lives, difficult though they were in so many ways, were also beautiful, and graced and blessed the earth.