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Wendy Murray Zoba

The Authority of the Song

Ojibwe singers enact hope through hymns

Late in the fall, my son and I traveled north, heading for the Leech Lake Reservation, one of seven in Minnesota belonging to the Ojibwe tribe. We were going to meet "Ojibwe singers," Native Christians who chant traditional Protestant hymns in their own language, in settings quite different from anything imagined by the 19th-century missionaries who brought the songs of worship to them.

We left St. Paul under crystal blue skies and mild temperatures, but farther north the cold began to bite. I could tell we were getting close to the reservation when we started passing through towns like Hackensack (population 285 or 245, depending on which way you were traveling), Jenkins (pop. 287), and Fort Ripley (pop. 74). We drove by stores advertising used work clothes and fender skirts. Hoss's All-American Liquors was on our left, and the Northern Lights Casino on our right—"May your cup overflow," the sign said.

In Cass Lake, the biggest town on the reservation, we checked into the Palace Hotel and Casino. The decor in the lobby was an eclectic mix of Indian kitsch, tropical themes, and gaming enticements. Teepee lampshades. Aquamarine and coral carpets. Blinking lights and ringing bells. "Rake in the Cash."

Everything smelled like smoke, with undercurrents of fumigation and upholstery cleaner. The gaming rooms were dark, illumined only by the red, white, and green blinking lights of the slots and orange neon signs flashing "bingo." Songs about pickup trucks and girls in red shoes served as background music for gray-haired ladies in polyester pant suits shuffling down the carpeted hallway connecting the hotel to the casino.

Jon and I checked in with an hour of daylight left. He said, "Do you want to take a walk in the forest with me?"

We hiked across a grassy field to the wood behind the hotel with Jon leading the way. I quickly learned forest protocol has no room for ninnies. The sun sinking to our left, a bracing wind in our faces, he beat a path through saplings, dried sticks, ...

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