A Gift for Remembering: Ojibwe storyteller Anne Dunn shares an excerpt from her new book, “Fire in the Village: New and Selected Stories.”
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JODIE TWEED
ANNE DUNN HAS ALWAYS LOVED STORIES. But then, the Anishinabeg-Ojibwe grandmother grew up surrounded by storytellers. Her parents told stories. Her grandparents and great-aunts told stories.
“They only had to say, ‘Come here, my girl. I have a story that wants to be told,’” Dunn writes in her new book, “Fire in the Village: New and Selected Stories.”
Dunn, 75, was born on the Red Lake Reservation, grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation and currently lives in Deer Lake. “Fire in the Village” is her third book, a collection of 75 stories celebrating her 75th birthday. Her book includes stories she remembers and stories she has written — all stories “sent forth as little ambassadors in search of understanding and reconciliation.”
Dunn graciously allowed us to reprint one of her stories, “The Coin.” Her book, published through Holy Cow Press, is available online and in bookstores.
It was the winter of 1945 and twelve-year-old Billy Whitefeather had been working for Mary Kingbird all week. Yesterday she promised, “When you finish the job, I’ll pay you for the work you’ve done.”
Now, Billy flogged himself with his long arms and stamped his feet as he waited for Mary to answer his knock. The December cold pressed through his worn jacket. He pulled his cap down closer around his ears. He cupped his hands over his mouth and blew some warmth into his ragged mittens. Then he folded his arms across his chest and tucked his hands into his armpits. He turned to study the neatly stacked pile of split wood near the back of the house. “It will last for several weeks,” he thought.
He remembered the sweat and toil, the heavy ax raised again and again, the long hours walking home alone in the cold darkness. He’d felt he’d been measured and proven. Then the door opened, and Billy turned to find Mary looking at him. “Are you finished?” she asked.
Billy nodded. Mary leaned out and peered toward the woodpile. She slipped her arthritic fingers painfully into a small beaded purse hanging from her belt. Then her hand emerged and pressed a coin into Billy’s mitten.
“Miigwech,” he said as he backed away from the door. He turned and quickly stepped off the sagging porch.
Billy did not look at the coin as he trudged along the trail from Mary’s tired-looking house. He held it tightly while a lump thickened in his aching throat. “Oh,” he moaned toward a watchful chickadee, “she only gave me a quarter!” How terribly disappointed he was. “But,” he consoled himself, “twenty-five cents, added to the seventy-five cents I already have, will still buy a good gift for Mother.”
He hurried down the hill. When he was sure that Mary could no longer see him, he stopped to put the coin in his pocket. Tears filled his eyes as he stared in disbelief at the shiny nickel. He let the coin slide off his mitten and watched it roll down the trail a short distance. “She cheated me!” he hissed between clenched teeth.