By Joann M. Ringelstetter
Ruth and I usually take our longer photography trips in the spring because we love taking one or two-day trips around Wisconsin in the fall. However, in 2012, we decided to take a lengthy fall trip and one of the subjects on Ruth’s never-ending list was an old Ojibwa cemetery that she had stumbled on in her research. The only problem was that it was from an old historical list from the 1970s and the directions weren’t specific at all. They just said it was on a dirt road off an old highway.
Ruth is always very resourceful and a pretty good detective when it comes to figuring out where something might be located, so she took her best guess and we found the dead-end dirt road she had in mind. The road looked something like this fall color road scene from Wisconsin, only it was a much sunnier day. We slowly crept down the road looking carefully on both sides, but everything was so wooded, and we didn’t see any sign of the cemetery.
When we reached the end of the road, we were sitting in the car discussing which road we would try next if we didn’t find it on the way back from the dead end. As we were turning the car around, we saw a man in the yard of the house at the end of the road. We told him what we were looking for and he laughed and told us that we had driven right by it. He said that it was very hidden in the woods, but we would find it on the right side as we headed back down the road. Sure enough, it was there, but not easily spotted.
A simple homemade sign at the entrance stated that this was an area where a battle had taken place between the Chippewa (another name for Ojibwa) and the Sioux in 1840. It also said that the cemetery contained the graves of the chiefs of each tribe, buried facing each other, along with their tomahawks. There were a few traditional stones with names on them, but most of the grave markers were simple wooden crosses with no names. They were in rows that led to a large unadorned wooden cross.
As we walked among the crosses, it felt like we were standing on very sacred ground. We found ourselves whispering to each other. And we tried to determine where the two chiefs might be buried, but we couldn’t figure it out.
And then we noticed something we had never seen in any of the cemeteries we’ve visited over the years. Most of the crosses and gravestones had coins on top of them or around the base; lots of coins. We wondered what it could mean.
Although we didn’t have an understanding about this custom, we felt compelled to participate in it. So, I ran back to the car and gathered up some change. I returned to the cemetery and Ruth and I respectfully placed coins on some of the crosses. There was something about this place and the Native Americans who called this country their own before our ancestors arrived from Europe that touched our hearts.
In researching for this blog post, we found a bit of information about this custom. According to a cemetery director, there is an old superstition that if you leave a coin on a grave, the spirit will grant you a wish, such as wealth, love, or health. And if there are evil spirits around, they will be more interested in taking the coins than the soul of the deceased.
As we left the cemetery, we reflected on the Ojibwa Prayer that was posted on a sign at the entrance. In part, it said:
Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds
And whose breath gives life to everyone,
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever
behold the red and purple sunsets.
Make my hands respect the things you have made.
And make my ears sharp so I may hear your voice.
Make me wise, so that I may understand what you
have taught my people and
the lessons you have hidden in each leaf
and each rock.
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