Meet Miskobineshii: Part Two

Tuberculosis, travels, and tribal sovereignty.




7 minute read

Miskobineshii and a powwow dancer in recent years. (Courtesy Cindy Fowler)

After a traditional childhood and several years of schooling in the Cumberland area, Miskobineshii was forced to leave her home, school, and family by a dreaded disease.

During sixth grade, Miskobineshii and her older sister Margaret both fell ill with tuberculosis and spent several months in the Indian Hospital in Hayward. She had already been hospitalized with the disease for a shorter time when she was four years old. The deadly and persistent infection would define much of her teenage years and young adulthood.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection spread through the air. It can live unnoticed in people for a long time, but when an infection is active, it wreaks havoc on the victim’s lungs. It is highly contagious, though it only seriously sickens a small segment of people who are infected.

In the hospital, Miskobineshii was first put in isolation for a month, to prevent infecting anyone else. The doctor told her later he had a death certificate for her filled-out and waiting on his desk for the first four days she was there.

Pureair Sanitorium, Bayfield, Wis. (Courtesy Bayfield Heritage Association)

Indigenous people were hit hard by tuberculosis. For a long time, white doctors and scientists incorrectly attributed it to some sort of racial inferiority. It was only around when Miskobineshii was suffering from the disease that doctors began to realize the real world didn’t support their assumptions, and figured out that the disease’s root cause was poverty.

Despite her health problems, the curious young woman used her time hospitalized to keep learning and exploring the world through books and magazines.

“During those years of my confinement, I read everything I could get my hands on — from Popular Mechanics to the Bible, which I read three times from start to finish,” she wrote. She even considered converting to Catholicism, finding it familiar to her own spiritual beliefs with its regalia and ceremonies.

After her long stay at the Hayward hospital, Miskobineshii was too old for Camp Dixon School, and the secondary school at Cumberland was too far to walk everyday. Her school days were done. But, she could borrow books at the library and bring them home, and she did, continuing her education on her own, and with her grandmother.

Between the ages of about 18 and 22, Miskobineshii was again in an out of hospitals and sanitariums, first near Superior and then in Bayfield. She spent one fifteen month stretch flat on her back in bed. She was rejected for surgery in Madison because her lungs were so far gone.

Finally, in 1952, the first antibiotic to treat tuberculosis was created. After Miskobineshii’s lungs had nearly been destroyed the disease, within three months of taking Isoniazid, or INH, she was back in good health. Tuberculosis would continue to cause problems for her, but she would never be confined for so long to a sanatorium.

As a young woman able to breathe again, Miskobineshii left Sand Lake on a journey of years that took her all over the United States. She briefly studied to be an auto mechanic at the technical school in Rhinelander, but struggled as the only woman in a class full of young men.

In September 1954, Miskobineshii went to Chicago, where she soon met her husband, Glen Fowler. Two years later, they had their first child, Susan. Over the next fifteen years, Miskobineshii gave birth to five more children. Two years after Susan was born, along came Steven. The public health nurse had insisted Miskobineshii come to a sanitarium for two weeks to be tested if she was contagious with tuberculosis. Steven was born in the sanitarium and immediately taken away, separated from his mother for two weeks. Later she lost her infant son Michael when he was two months old, after her concerns about his health were ignored by a white doctor.

After living in northwest Wisconsin again from about 1958 to 1963, Miskobineshii and her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where Glen’s family was from, and spent the next three years there. She became pregnant again, and doctors told her she should abort the fetus for her health. Instead, she went back to the house, packed her family up, and left town. They made a brief stop in northern Wisconsin before moving to Minnesota.

“I dropped the kids at my sister’s and found an apartment in Minneapolis,” Miskobineshii says.

In Minneapolis, among a large population of Native people, including many friends and relatives, Miskobineshii worked almost nonstop to support her children. Her husband had started abusing alcohol and she was largely on her own. She did housecleaning during the day, worked in a factory at night, and took care of her children in between.

It was 1966, and she eventually found a job working for the public schools as a resource officer. Then, she got involved with a group of Native women who wanted to open a craft co-operative business, which led her to once again travel the United States.

Thanks to support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 1969, Miskobineshii enrolled in a program to learn about the co-op business. First she attended a year of classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for a short time even flying back and forth on Mondays and Fridays. Then she visited the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia, and Kentucky, learning about marketing, merchandising, bookkeeping, and more in firsthand observation of existing co-ops.

Full of new knowledge, she returned to Minneapolis — only to find the other women had closed the business and the co-op idea was done.

Miskobineshii went home.

Miskobineshii’s homeland is the section of northwest Wisconsin pressed against the St. Croix River. It’s where the Mun-o-min-ik-a-sheenhug have lived for generations. The numerous lakes and slow-moving rivers of this region are rich with wild rice — manoomin in the Ojibwe language — and it’s an essential part of the Ojibwe culture and diet.

“Rice is sugar free and gluten free,” Miskobineshii says, grinning at the idea of her traditional diet being today’s trends in healthy eating. It’s full of protein and nutrients and can be stored for long periods of time. “That’s what kept us going for many years. It’s like gold.”

The Ojibwe migrated from the eastern seaboard several centuries ago, following a prophecy through the Great Lakes to find the place where food grows on water — manoomin. They found a lot of it in the headwaters of the St. Croix, and have lived here even since.

As a teenager during late summer, Miskobineshii and her cousins would sometimes wait for the adult wild rice harvesters to come in for the day, bringing their canoes full of the grain. Then the girls would take a boat and head out themselves, to harvest what they could. They’d sell the rice for gas money, and drive to nearby towns to go to the movies.

The Ojibwe’s intimate connection between the people and the land has been repeatedly threatened by the state and federal government. Even after the treaties in which the Ojibwe signed away rights to cut timber and extract minerals, they retained the perpetual right to hunt, fish, and gather on the lands. Those rights have often been challenged or simply ignored.

Two of Miskobineshii’s uncles lived nearby when she was young and provided food as often as they could. The brothers trapped a lot of muskrats, and could sell the hides for two dollars each. They would bring the meat for the family.

“I ate a lot of muskrat, like others eat chicken,” she says. “A muskrat lives in water and eats roots, chickens eat anything.”

Then, one day, the sheriff showed up and took Charlie to jail for trapping out of season.

The treaties said nothing about any government regulation of Native hunting, fishing, trapping, or gathering. The Ojibwe never ceded their rights to the land. Arresting Uncle Charlie was the kind of attack on Native people that compounded other troubles. He was let out of jail a couple days later, but the problems persist nearly 100 years later.

“They still don’t understand,” Miskobineshii says.

In the 1980s, she walked to the boat landing at Balsam Lake behind the drum as her people went out spearing fish on the lake at night. All around them were screaming angry people upset about the harvest. Rocks flew through the air, people held up signs saying awful things about the Ojibwe. White fishermen harassed the spearers working near shore by roaring in circles around them in boats. Miskobineshii points out that doing so in the shallow waters was certainly destroying spawning beds, and doing great harm to the future of the lake’s fish.

“They just don’t realize what they gave up,” she says.

Tribal resource management at Joel Marsh Wildlife Area near Turtle Lake, Wis. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Despite the attempts to intimidate and block their legal rights, Ojibwe never stopped living under the terms of their treaties.

Miskobineshii says that, despite all the media coverage of protests against Ojibwe fishing and other activities, the stories rarely mention everything they do to manage the lakes and their fish.

In fact, tribes stock, survey, study, regulate, restore and improve habitat in lakes and rivers. As a part of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, they invest heavily in protecting and improving their woods and waters, which are also enjoyed by many non-tribal people. They combat invasive species, set rules, and strive for the sustainability of the land that sustains them.

But it seems like some of the old resentments are rearing up again. There have been more incidents of conflict and harassment in recent years than there had been for a while, Miskobineshii’s daughter Susan says. The struggle for sovereignty continues.


9 responses to “Meet Miskobineshii: Part Two”

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Wonderful stories, thank you

  2. Mary Kristi Bauer Avatar
    Mary Kristi Bauer

    Thank you for sharing these stories. A must read for everyone

  3. Troy Howard Avatar
    Troy Howard

    I am skeptical tuberculosis is a poverty disease or that the doctors believed it was related to racial inferiority – everybody was susceptible to the disease! If anybody is interested in factual information I suggest the Mayo hospital link:

    Facts matter!

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar
      Greg Seitz

      Troy, skepticism is healthy. This paper from the Canadian Journal of Medicine explains some of how racism led white doctors and scientists to believe Native Americans were more susceptible to TB than whites. You’ll note they only figured out their error in the 1930s and 1940s, like I wrote, the same time Miskobineshii was battling the disease.

      Truth is always my highest objective and I hope my readers know I always report facts to the best of my ability, even when they are uncomfortable.

      1. Beth Avatar

        My husband’s Swedish Grandmother came down with TB and three children lost their mother when living in WA. Family came in and took care of the children. We sought out the hospital and found a cell of a building left. The hospital was located in lovely spot. TB hit anyone. My Great Grandmother’s family in TN also had TB. It killed many of them. I need to know a lot more about TB too.

  4. Laurie J Larsen Avatar
    Laurie J Larsen

    Thank you for this story, another rich account that I was not aware of.

  5. Cindy Avatar

    Thank you for this story.There are many stories that are untold.

  6. Cindy Avatar

    Thank you for this story.There are many stories that are untold.

  7. Brenda Avatar

    I loved this story! I have a lot of respect for the Native American culture, that’s so rich in wildlife and nature preservation. The white man has much to learn from them!



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Meet Miskobineshii: Part Two