All through my 30s onward, I’ve walked woods from the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains, along with the mountains, hills and valleys of Michigan - with a treasured hardwood walking stick I had discovered as it leaned against a tree. Its grasp was a perfect fit for my hands, the wood smooth and free of bark. What a find?
When resting, my stick leaned easily against a tree - my water bottle hung safely from a little nub near the top. I would lay out a special wool blanket - which was gifted to me from a priest-friend in the early 1980s. He was a peace-activist and purchased the blanket from a market crafter in Guatemala during one of his excursions. I loved that blanket - it traveled everywhere with me along with the walking stick.
The stick came into my hands when I found it leaning against a tree in an "Indian Cemetery" in a small town along Lake Superior's shores. What brought me to that place was what kept my Upper Peninsula grandmother and I close. We shared a nonfiction book, Lady Unafraid, passing it back and forth, reading it over and over. Upon her death, the book was given to me. The author wrote about this area from the 1800s during a time that Bishop "Father" Baraga* was traveling the region, visiting this Indian village on his route. She wrote about being a teacher to the Indian children , her experiences, concerns, travails, the beautiful views of valleys, the bay -- grandma and I adored the story. One year, mom and I visited this town and stopped at the cemetery to breathe in the essence of the entire area - to see what the author saw.
We slowly walked through the cemetery observing the care taken for the deceased with relics of their lives carefully laid around the burial plots: stones, pictures, work utensils. I was awed by the hush as we respectfully acknowledged each of the deceased.
Large trees lined the perimeter but leaning against a hardwood tree within the grounds -- was the walking stick of my dreams. I had no clue the significance of this stick, only that the feel was so soft and sturdy, and it seemed to a random stick.
As I held the stick, a snake slithered from below one of the funeral huts making my mother scream and run from the area. I should have listened to her scream.
On the 10-hour drive home, I was sick for the entire trip.
Over the years, I matured and developed an understanding of Native Americans and their practices of honoring their dead.
I felt the pull of my walking stick wanting to be returned to its home but kept forgetting to bring the stick with me to the UP - but do acknowledge that the connection between the stick and me had grown strong as my memories of adventures were entwined with it.
Our family visited the cemetery years later … the tribal chief followed us down the dirt road to outside the entrance gate where he stood, patiently, watching us as we quietly walked around and even allowed for pictures. Asking some locals about his presence I was informed that the cemetery was being ransacked and tributes to family were being knocked down. The chief was protecting his people.
My heart ached with shame and guilt as I realized that I was ONE of those people who participated in this activity, too.
Finally, and with the firm intention to return the hardwood walking stick "home" — our family, including cousins and an uncle, took the long trip along Lake Superior to the Indian Cemetery to humbly and with tears in my eyes, return it to the tree.
Uncharacteristically, the chief did not follow us on this visit. I wandered around the grounds searching in my memory for the hut of the snake and large hardwood tree from where I took the stick. Change was evident in the cemetery - disarray, stones leading to the burial places were missing -- my heart broken, I found the tree where I took the stick in the early 1980s and, saying a silent prayer with an honest apology for my actions, and asked to be forgiven. I thanked the walking stick and spirits for letting me use it on my adventures and believe it carried these memories within its wood.
I placed this beautiful hardwood walking stick against the tree, where it seemed to stand tall and proud - it was home again.(Please forgive my writing “Indian Cemetery” rather than Native American or Indigenous People Cemetery. I wanted to give the proper name, at times, but the cemetery was the “Indian Cemetery”.)
*Father Baraga (1797 to 1868) was consecrated to bishop in 1853 and was the first bishop in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. He was a missionary with the Catholic Church in northern Michigan along the shores of Lake Superior working with Ojibwe natives. Baraga was also known as the “Snowshoe Priest”.