“They’re slow learners, ‘nem whitefolks,” she says, that old lady. She’s as comfortable with herself as she is with the old, newly-upholstered wooden chair that she hugs close to the door of the woodstove, scooting it back and forth as she needs, to add a log or just to open the door, because the direct heat feels good on her knees and comforts her soul.

When I’d arrived with the sack of groceries, gleaned from a housecleaning job for an elderly summer resident on her way to winter in Indiana this year, the old lady had been listening to a monotonous drone on the television. It was a university channel of some sort. She listened to them all, and she sat and argued over her shoulder with the various distinguished professors who threw out learning curves and statistics about people of color living below the poverty line. She did this while she snipped away at long, curled sheets of thick birch tree bark, dividing her time between survival art, survival heat in the form of dry log transfer, and sipping away at weak, hot tea. Sometimes it was bagoosan, waapoos wawaskwanen, or a medicine root she’d traded for some miraculous piece of beauty she’d wrestled and wooed from tree bark.

She once showed me an image of a caribou she’d scraped into the orange inner bark of a thick rectangle of birch bark. Her scrapings always ended up in museums, she said, because not many people made them any more. Tourists bought them, then eventually donated them to institutons, garnering tax breaks greater than the sums they’d paid for their tourist treasures. She said people have told her they’ve seen her baskets in the Smithsonian Institution. She’d never been there, and she never tried to imagine what it was like. She assumed that the institution itself was more valuable than her work, and she kept producing her designs for less than minimum wage, just to make gas money, by entertaining strangers with her dexterity.

Scraping designs into the bark had been the way people decorated cradle boards in the old days, she said, because it provided nothing for a small child to accidentally ingest or get caught in an airway. She said you had to do it while the bark was fresh. Otherwise the striations in the inner cambium bark would run like an old nylon stocking, if one didn’t cut in deeply and precisely enough…and she fingered her old pocket knife when she said that. It was small, and it fit snugly in her small hands and small pockets. I never saw her make the scrapings again. She said it was too hard to get good bark any more, and that people didn’t want to pay for the labor of trying to find good bark. She found the best bark up near her mother’s old house, north of the Sault in Ontario; and sometimes young border guards confiscated her bark when she tried to bring it across the border into Michigan. It didn’t have anything to do with the legality of transporting the bark as much as it had to do with what kind of mood they were in, or if they needed somebody they knew they could get away with dumping on, she said.

One time she started telling me stories about how Native women on the Great Lakes were taken captive, even hundreds of years ago, before drug abuse and shame could be used to drag them away from their families into the cities. She said they were taken onto “party boats” for prostitution purposes, where they were taken down the St. Lawrence Seaway, and that Aniishinaabe blood was now scattered all over the world. She said it with pride, as though she felt the rest of the world was lucky to share in the bloodline, anonymous or not. She said that we are so beautiful that even the wind wants to make love with us. She said that her mother and grandmothers spoke of the waterborne prostitution only in whispers. That bit of history was tucked away like shame, living in the oral memorabilia of Indians, but never acknowledged in the official state history of the fur trade and shipping on the Great Lakes.

“You know, you go to those summertime powwows,” she would say, “the kind where people sell stuff, sitting hot in the sun, gotta act all grateful to them tourists, buy somethin’ from yuh, don’t make no minimum wage off of it.” She doesn’t like those powwows. She remembers when dancing was spontaneous and celebrated life.

“Don’t go to them no more. Used to go to ‘em,” she says, “jus’ to find folks I hadn’t seen in a while. Sometimes you could go half a lifetime without seeing somebody, find them lonesome at a powwow.” I knew that. I found my old childhood friend, Raphie, that way, lonesome for Indian company, lonesome to not feel other in a big world full of others, lonesome to feel like our Indian childhoods were valid. We mail each other Christmas cards, and we talk on the phone every couple of years, to exchange stories about our families and to tell Indian jokes that nobody else understands.

“You know how that MC, he says at that powwow, ‘Nish’naabe wimen, dey’re da most beautiful wimen in na world!’ You know how they say that?” And I do know. It makes me feel pretty every time I think about that, about our beauty. It makes me forget that I’m an outsider when I leave that reservation, that powwow, that community.

“Well they don’t say it ‘cause dere wives will be mad at ‘em if they don’t. They say it ‘cause dey believe it. From our ancestors’ mouths to their ears.” And she nods her head and rearranges herself in that chair, feeling beautiful.

I would no more expect her to hear arguments to the contrary than I would expect the droning professors on the television to acknowledge and respond to her. I giggle softly, and I repeat, “From our ancestors’ mouths to their ears.”