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Sisters living on the Mille Lacs Reservation share their traditions for the holiday

Sisters Letitia Mitchell (left), Alicia Skinaway and Natalie Weyaus laughed toge1 / 3
Letitia Mitchell’s home, decorated for the holidays, is located in Vineland, abo2 / 3
Wild rice is one of the trimmings Letitia Mitchell and her family have eaten on 3 / 3

VINELAND — Thanksgiving Day is a day to give thanks for all we have. But the holiday may be hard to accept for some cultures.

Letitia Mitchell, 72, who has lived on the Mille Lacs Reservation most of her life, said,” I know a lot of Anishinaabeg (an Ojibwe/Chippewa word meaning ‘The People’) find this time of year, Thanksgiving, hard to accept as a holiday to the fact of what happened to our people, the Anishinaabe, years ago. Whatever you may choose is your choice. Mine will be to help who I can to make it a good day of sharing.”

Mitchell, whose Ojibwe name is Gi shi aa na qua do kwe, along with her two sisters, Alicia Skinaway, 67, and Natalie Weyaus, 64, are a third generation family on the reservation. Their parents, Nancy (Benjamin) and John Garbow, have passed on, but they’ve left memories and holiday traditions with the sisters that they’ll always remember.

“Thanksgiving is a day to remind us all to be thankful,” said Mitchell.

Skinaway and Weyaus said the holiday is another day to remind their children and all children on the reservation to be thankful for what they have.

“It’s important for the children to be thankful for what they have,” said Skinaway. “It’s important in our culture that the children respect everything they have as we’re not the only ones here on Earth. Whenever they take from the land, they need to give tobacco out.”

Offering tobacco in the Ojibwe culture is called asemaa to Gichi manidoo. Mitchell said the tobacco offering is the most important thing in their culture as it allows them to thank the Gichi manidoo, the great spirit, for all the good things in their life and to help them lead better lives for one another.

Mitchell said an asemaa offering is done on Thanksgiving before the meal, and as the family says a prayer in Ojibwe, thanking the creator for everything they have. Mitchell said the prayer is said by an older, elderly man, such as her grandfather and father who have said the prayer in the past. She said her brother has said the Ojibwe prayer, but he has since died.

The sisters had two brothers, but both have died, with one just passing away in August. Skinaway said at this time they’re not sure who’ll do the prayer this year on Thanksgiving Day, but said her grandson is learning it so he can follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. Two of the sisters’ husbands have died and Skinaway said she’s separated from her husband, but he may do the prayer for the family.

“The children are learning the Ojibwe language and culture and will do the ceremonies and traditions,” Skinaway said of the K-12 Nay Ah Shing Schools that are operated by the Mille Lacs Band.

The three sisters have learned to survive on the reservation growing up. Mitchell said there was no employment of any kind for their people and only few were able to find work at surrounding resorts. Their father was lucky and worked as a launch pilot for a few resorts to help provide for his family.

“Our father was a good hunter and fisherman,” said Mitchell. “This is how he made a living and he always had food on the table. He provided for our family as well as others. Our traditional teachings have always been to share.”

Mitchell said her father would always go deer hunting a couple of days before Thanksgiving Day. Mitchell said she doesn’t know how he did it, but her father would go hunting and carry the deer back home with it on his back and drop it on the floor of their home. He’d then clean it and distribute the meat to the family and others in the community, especially the elderly.

Weyaus said when their brothers were older they began to hunt and would also share the meat. Mitchell said she started fishing age 15 and she quit when she was in her 50s. She said she’d also share the food, like her father.

The sisters said for as long as they can remember, families on the reservation have lived off wild game, wild rice, ducks and turkey. And this would be their meal on Thanksgiving Day.

“Our mother would try to feed us dried cranberries, but none of us would eat them,” Mitchell said with a smile. “We also have Indian fried bread.”

“And mashed potatoes,” said Skinaway.

On Thanksgiving Day, the family tradition was for the family to get together for a meal and to give thanks to the great spirit on what they had. A prayer is said in Ojibwe, followed by the asemaa to Gichi manidoo.

Weyaus said when their parents were alive they’d all get together and bring something to share for the meal. Weyaus said many times she’d bring the salads, until “the others caught on and said I had to bring more,” she said with a laugh.

The sisters now get together with their own families on Thanksgiving, but at the end of the day, all the families unite, have a potluck and play games, do karaoke with the grandchildren and eat some more. Today they eat the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings for their meal, but also will eat wild game, fish and wild rice.

The sisters said growing up turkeys were hard to come by, as they were scare on the reservation.

“I can remember my grandma Coobay and my aunts cooking turkey in a big kettle outside over an open fire,” said Mitchell. “I was 5 or 6 at the time and it looked like a big turkey.”

All three sisters belong to the Ceremonial Drum Society on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. They said the drumming ceremonies are another way to teach their children about respecting nature and being good stewards of the land.

Mitchell has worked at Nay Ah Shing School since it opened in 1975. She said she was the Ojibwe language teacher and now she works in the school’s library. She also was a cook for the Head Start program.

Weyaus has worked as a tribal historic preservation officer for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe DNR since 2000. Skinaway is retired, but has worked in teaching and in politics. She served as a representative for District 1 of the Mille Lacs Band for four years before she retired because of medical conditions.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at or 855-5851.