Clarification, Addendum, Celebrations, Intentions


From some of the replies I’ve gotten to my last post, I realize I didn’t actually make it clear where I’m living now. I’m living in a little country house about halfway between Ashland and Washburn, Wisconsin.

Ashland has 8,000 people and a tiny college that has 600 students; it used to have a dozen or so giant docks, and was shot through with rails that were busy with ore trains coming to fill up freighters, but the iron mines sank into unprofitability decades ago, and the last oredock was finally torn down in 2012, leaving behind only a huge jetty and the now melancholy name of the high school football team, the Oredockers. Washburn, 6 miles north over the ice but 11 when you have to go around the bay, is a quarter Ashland’s size and specializes in nice places to eat, of which Ashland has a surprising paucity. Its streets are broader and its lawns more expansive, as befits a town that tourists spend time in. Although the real tourist draw is Bayfield, 12 more miles up the shore, which boasts not only the ferry terminal for the spectacularly bougie Madeline Island but also the annual Apple Festival, berry farms and vineyards all around it, and a farmers’ market all its own despite a year-round population of 530 souls.

This house is a shade under two miles from the lake, though the shore there is clogged up by dream homes and the closest beach is in Ashland. It’s surrounded by forest, and there are old apple trees and a big garden that my landlady is gamely working to recover, having recently taken the place over after more than a decade of neglect. She and her boyfriend have also just gotten chickens, and they’re still timid little peeping pullets, starting to adventure outside their fence.

So that’s where I am.


I never explained it, but the subtitle to my last post, “Niigaanii Asemaa”, is a song that’s often led in ceremonies around the Twin Cities area. It goes:

  • Niigaanii, niigaanii!
  • Niigaanii, niigaanii!
  • Niigaanii asemaa,
  • ’Semaa, niigaanii.
  • Niigaanii, ’semaa, niigaanii.
  • Midewakiing giizhibaashkaa!
  • Midegiizhigoong giizhibaashkaa!
  • Niigaanii asemaa,
  • ’Semaa, niigaanii.
  • Niigaanii, ’semaa, niigaanii.

Niigaanii asemaa translates to “Tobacco leads the way.” Midewakiing giizhibaashkaa is, more or less, “It circles all around the sacred Earth,” and Midegiizhigoong giizhibaashkaa is “It circles all around the sacred sky.”

What’s interesting is that when I went back to Minneapolis last week to watch the annual MayDay Parade and Ceremony, which I’ll tell about more in a moment, that song was sung at the beginning of the ceremony, the day after I’d used it to title a blog post. Which I take to mean that I’m on the right path somehow or other.


The MayDay Parade has been happening every year for 45 years now. In a city that has a winter as long, cold, and dark as Minneapolis, it’s important to mark when warmth and light come back. It’s a parade unlike most. For one thing, it’s all human-powered, only bicycles and walking. For another, instead of conventional floats, usually what you get is groups of fifteen-foot-tall papier-mâché puppets, surrounded by stilt-walkers and raccoon-masked kids and all sorts of other things that tell you it’s okay to go outside again, the Earth is waking up.

This was one of the best MayDays I can remember. For one thing, I got to really see the Battle Train. This is a monstrosity put together by the South Side punks, many of whom are metalworkers or bike mechanics, and pulled by a team of 50 galley slaves (volunteers) tugging on giant chains. The puppets and stilt-walkers are great, of course, but I’ve seen them in previous parades—the Battle Train I’ve only seen sitting around in the neighborhood, where different sections of it hulk ominously near punk residences. I can show you pictures (like the one above), but this time I have a video, and that’s the way to really understand.

People go crazy for MayDay. Remember, these Minnesotans have been pent up all winter with worsening cases of cabin fever, and today is the day everyone lets loose and yells it out. If the parade didn’t get us to let loose, the ceremony would give us the catharsis we need. It’s different each year, basically a puppet-and-people show that addresses some important issue of the day. But it always seems to include the classics: a crowd of people all banded together,

the welcoming of the spirit of spring,

and most importantly, the return of the sun, which comes ashore from across the lake in a flotilla of red canoes. By the time it gets to shore, everyone is shouting, “Sun! Sun! Sun!”, a drum roll is building, and tears are coming to your eyes—and finally, landfall, and everything is released and everyone goes nuts.

Happy MayDay! Like I said, it was a terrific one for me, not just because of the Battle Train but because of time I got to spend with my friends, and also a bizarre number of people I used to hang out with who showed up out of nowhere. But I can’t make a video of that. So you’re just going to have to enjoy that Mad Max metallic insanity.


I got me a banjo. I’ve been thinking about picking up an instrument for a while, and finally tracked down a guy on Craigslist in St Paul who sold me a banjo. “You look like a banjo player,” he told me, “so you’re already halfway there.” And my dad’s family is from West Virginia, so I’m even closer. All I have to do is actually learn to play it. I’ve ordered a book to teach myself from, and I know at least one person in Ashland and another in Minneapolis who can play it and maybe show me a thing or two.

On a different twanging string:

In 2017 I went on a traditional Ojibwe four-day fast. It was a powerful enough experience that I held off on writing about it until I could set aside the time to really get it right. Here I am two years later and I still haven’t, but I’m getting ready to set out on another one. The fast is held by Pebaamibines, the elder who presides over Porky’s Sugarbush with an arsenal of groaner jokes and real wisdom, on the First Nation he grew up on, on the Canadian side of Rainy Lake. For four sunrises I’ll be on an island in the lake and I won’t eat anything or drink any water but rainwater (if some falls). That’s about all I’m going to say about it for now, except that afterwards I plan to help out around camp in any capacity I can, and possibly go further north to spend time with another elder I’ve met. I don’t know exactly when I’ll be back. For someone who’s finally settled down, I’m traveling an awful lot, I know, but I think by the end of June it’ll all have calmed down.

Maybe then I can take that job at the dairy farm down the road. I was hitching back here the other day after a few days in Minneapolis, and the people who got me to Ashland told me about a dairy farm less than a mile from my house, where the guy needs help with morning and evening milkings and field chores in between. A bit of morning milking would keep me honest by getting me up before sunrise, and then I’d still have time during the rest of the day to do things like make a railbike.

A railbike? A railbike. It’s what it says on the tin: a bicycle you can ride on railroad tracks. So, basically, it was invented to transport me into my own paradise. I’ll be building the Dick Bentley model, and probably another for friends to come along. There are tracks leading south from Ashland that were just abandoned two years ago, and ten or fifteen miles down those, there’s an abandoned branch line that heads off into the Upper Peninsula and stops five miles shy of Lake Superior at the power plant in the little town of White Pine, skirting the shores of Lake Gogebic along the way. I expect to do extensive exploring.

So that’s what’s up with me.

File under: Anishinaabe, friends, music, plans · Places: Minnesota

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