Reconciling My Native American Upbringing with
My New Islamic Faith
By: Megan Kalk

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My story is influenced by a woman who gave me strength to pull myself out of generational poverty, to cope with tragedy, to pursue education when most didn’t, to make an impact in the world, and to not lose my identity and the uniqueness I found along my way. That woman was my Ojibwe grandmother, Rita.

My Ojibwe Grandma

I grew up on an Indian Reservation (rez) in Northern Minnesota. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe on Lake Mille Lacs is where I call home. My father is Ojibwe (the name of our tribe) and my mother was white. My mother, a “free-spirit” southern belle, ferried my brother and I from place to place looking for her own idea of happiness. In between those turbulent times, my father always called us back to stability and sanity. Back to the rez. My father worked hard until he was finally classified as a permanently disabled veteran.

I was raised by my very traditional Ojibwe grandmother in a government subsidized HUD home on the shores of Mille Lacs. We would sit on long summer days beading traditional patterns, teaching moccasin classes at the Indian museum, and making birch bark canoes and white ash baskets. My grandmother and her sister would tease me in Ojibwe as I beaded or sewed backwards, always in good spirit. Ojibwe people love humor, a central characteristic of my people. Even funerals in our communities are joyous affairs. Family must recount all of the embarrassing and funny things the deceased did in his/her lifetime. Four nights are spent laughing, reminiscing, celebrating and eating with the dead. Four days are spent keeping a fire going for the spirit to pass into the next world. My grandmother made sure to always have fun, immunizing us against hurt feelings and grudges a white family might inadvertently teach.

Humor and women’s traditional skills were just a few things my grandmother taught me. Ojibwe humor would come to rescue me through the tough times I didn’t know were lurking on the horizon. My grandmother taught me a few other absolute essentials for life that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else such as resilience and perseverance. Through, hunting, spearing, netting, ricing, tapping maple trees, and gambling, Grandma used to teach me resilience and perseverance. Pulling up empty nets on cold spring mornings. Stalking the woodlands fruitlessly for hours. Missing spearing a great big walleye on a rough and wavy lake in a little canoe. Waiting for maple trees to spill their syrup. Dealing with a big thunderstorm that knocks the wild rice harvest into the lake, decimating one of our staple foods. Puzzling over the money lost in a card game to a mischievous cheating grandma (this was a tool to look out for inconsistencies in life, a lesson to keep your eyes open).

My grandmother had her own struggles in life, too. Going to a white school off the reservation, in her childhood years she fought off boys bigger than her who called her and her brothers ‘dumb squaws’. She married a white Jewish man to the disapproval of her family. Eventually he was accepted by tribe. When she travelled with her husband, they frequently came across restaurants and businesses that declared ‘No Indians Allowed!”. Yes, this was a common sight in the1960’s in upper midwest America around Indian reservations. They would go in anyway, her husband using his white privilege to assert that she and their children be served. And in 1972, at the age of 30, her husband died tragically of a brain aneurism, leaving behind her behind with five boys, all under the age of twelve 12. She drew on her experiences and wisdom from her mother to successfully raise them all.

Tragic Turn of Events

Eighteen years old, newlywed and an expectant mother, my husband and I lived near the reservation. Awakened by a phone call from my father one morning, I rushed over to his home.

Greeted by devastating news, my mother and grandfather had been the victim of homicide in their home in Arkansas. Gun violence. A home invasion. By a mentally ill family member. Hardship and heartbreak enveloped my like a dark night. Life outside the reservation was harsh and unpredictable. I doubted if faith could get me through this, but I held on to Islam and the teachings of my grandmother.

I questioned if it would be safer for me to take off the hijab. I reflected on my grandmother’s childhood and experience with her white husband. I decided to not take off my abaya and hijab. My grandmother couldn’t remove her skin color. I drew on the strength she taught me in those days dealing with anti-Muslim sentiment.

Travelling to rural southern Arkansas in my traditional Islamic attire, for my mother’s funeral, I was confronted by Islamophobes. “We don’t serve you people here!” I was in disbelief because in Minnesota, no one had confronted me like that. I questioned if it would be safer for me to take off the hijab. I reflected on my grandmother’s childhood and experience with her white husband. I decided to not take off my abaya and hijab. My grandmother couldn’t remove her skin color. I drew on the strength she taught me in those days dealing with anti-Muslim sentiment.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed my mother’s absence felt like wandering through the hunting grounds aimlessly. Longing for her advice and companionship was like pulling up an empty net in a rough and icy lake. The sting of missing her felt like the cold net cutting through my bare hands as I pulled it out of the water, forgetting my netting gloves. The tragedy felt like the big thunderstorm ruining the wild rice crop the night before the harvest. But I had all the tools to survive, to thrive after this tragedy. I drew on those lessons of resilience, steadfastness, perseverance, and humor to carry me through the grieving process. Even our handcrafts helped to busy my mind and reconnect me with my culture during those dark times. My grandmother’s wisdom and my new faith guided me to healing. These days, I live the ease after the hardship. With my Master’s almost completed and my flourishing career, I acknowledge the intersectionality of my Ojibwe upbringing and my Islamic faith.