Celebrate Women’s History at the Center for Indian Country Development
Seventy years after the first International Women’s Day, President Jimmy Carter established National Women’s History Week. Then, in 1987, Congress made that recognition the full month of March.
Of course, women have been influencing the course of history for centuries—and history is more than simply what happened and more than what women and men did to make it happen. History also is what is remembered of the past, and the lessons it offers for the future.
For Women’s History Month at the Center for Indian Country Development, we share the recollections of a granddaughter about her grandmother’s legacy in the Bois Forte community.
My grandma, Phyllis Boshey, is the definition of an Ogitchidaakwe, a “Warrior Woman.” Born in 1937, right on the tail end of the reservation era in Minnesota and during the Indian boarding school era, she demonstrated that she would not let circumstances, people, or institutions—even the federal government—dictate the way of life she knew was right for her family and her people.
She was roughly seven or eight when she was moved to the “Indian school” on Sucker Point on the Vermilion side of the Bois Forte Reservation. My grandma admired the spirit of Chief Sucker and the people of Vermilion because they refused the federal order to move to Nett Lake. They were descendants of Lake Vermilion and thus were called the renegades for defying the order to move. She recalled hearing their story: “Boy! That’s really great, you know, ’cause they defied the government. They wouldn’t move. They didn’t get allotments. They might starve. But they wouldn’t move.” Their success in staying on the land of their ancestors told my grandma that you can make decisions for yourself and exercise self-determination, especially when the stakes are high. Moreover, many of those who moved to Nett Lake starved because the trading post never provided enough food to feed everyone in the village.
These were important lessons to learn, and my grandma and our family took pride in not needing the “BIA men” to survive. Our family worked hard to feed themselves. My grandma would wake up early in the mornings before school and stay up late at night tending our family’s horses, chickens, goats, cheese, potato patches, and vegetable gardens. Everything they ate was raised, farmed, or caught wild. Their household income came from trapping. Grandma remembers camping on the river and filling canoes full of furs each day, always earning what was needed.
My grandma also ran away from school a lot; she did not see the point in the boarding school that existed only to “make us like them.” She married at 16 without completing a formal secondary education. Nevertheless, she was very clever and helped effect significant changes that would leave an inheritance for the people of Bois Forte—a modern decision-making system steeped in cultural values.
One of my grandma’s most significant contributions was her service in our tribal government. For 16 consecutive years, my grandma served as the District II Vermilion Representative on the Bois Forte Tribal Council. Her longevity is nearly unheard of in most tribal politics. In the early 1980s, she was the driving force for the Bois Forte gaming enterprise to bring new economic development to the area. Beginning with a small bingo hall in 1986, Fortune Bay Resort Casino now contributes millions of dollars toward our tribal programs and creates hundreds of jobs for tribal citizens, reducing our dependence on federal grants. Another one of my grandma’s achievements was establishing minor trust accounts for our youth, which safeguards their funds until they are 18 years of age. She was also a tireless advocate for the creation of the Bois Forte Heritage Museum or Atisokanigamig (Legend House), which she said was needed for youth to learn about our history and culture because we are losing our stories. The museum shares the rich history of Bois Forte with our youth, as well as visitors and tourists, and supports local artisans.
As important as these legacies are, my grandma also demonstrates the transcendent lessons of her life—that we do not have to be asked or invited, that we must learn to stand on our own through our own efforts, and that innovation is necessary for the advancement of the community.