June 1977: In a community center in the village of Naytahwaush three old ladies were sitting in a circle, quietly conversing while they hand-sewed a quilt. I recognized one of them as Mrs. Keahna, the Ojibwe woman who came to our school the previous winter to demonstrate making traditional black-ash baskets. Downstairs in the basement of the former schoolhouse, Grandpa and I were putting in a new water heater, struggling to convert the old cast-iron lines to copper to make the connections. While I waited for him to signal me to turn the water on, Grandpa went upstairs to check the pressure at the sink. After the test, Grandpa walked past the old women on his way back downstairs. They grew quiet for a moment as he made his way down. Then I heard one of them say something in Ojibwe and they all tittered like schoolgirls.
Grandpa Ray was a man of many talents and many jobs. He was adept at stringing together just enough part-time work to pay the bills but not so much as to interfere with his hunting and fishing. Of course it helped that Grandma Arleen worked full-time running their crop insurance business. One of Grandpa’s part-time gigs was as a plumber for the tribal housing authority on the White Earth reservation. I spent my high school summers working for him as a plumber’s helper.
We split our time between new housing projects and service calls at existing homes, community centers and other facilities. I liked working on new home construction best. The first step was reviewing the blueprints and figuring out what fittings and lengths of pipe we needed. Then we did the “rough-in”, starting with the PVC drain lines and stubbing the water supply lines into what would be the kitchen and bathroom. We came back several weeks later, after the drywall was installed and painted to set fixtures and hook everything up. By the end of the summer, I got proficient enough that Grandpa would have me doing nearly all the work in the crawlspace. Working on the new homes was predictable and easy because everything was new. There was also satisfaction in knowing that, in some cases, we were helping provide the first homes with indoor plumbing for some families.
Doing service calls around the reservation was anything but predictable. The work could range from fixing a leaky faucet in a mobile home to retrofitting old plumbing in a disused building being converted to a new use. Our supervisor, Bill Englund, did his best to brief us on the assignments for the day. Bill and Grandpa were hunting and fishing buddies from way back and liked to start the day with cups of coffee and the latest news and gossip. I still can picture Bill, his arms resting on the side of the pickup box out in the housing authority’s parking lot, telling stories in his low, gruff voice. Bill spoke with a sing-song rhythm unique to native people at White Earth. His stories were usually about colorful characters around the reservation, with nicknames like Cowboy, Dude and Smoke.
One such character was Pat Clark, Grandpa’s sidekick and my fellow plumber’s helper. Pat came from a large family of mixed-bloods who came to the reservation around the time my family did. A long-time farmhand, Pat walked stooped with his square head and big shoulders leading the rest of him. Pat was not much younger than Grandpa and probably in worse physical shape, so he mainly handed Grandpa tools and parts. More than his help, I think Grandpa enjoyed his company. Pat also spoke with that White Earth lilt, mixed with a brogue that suggested Irish roots. An inveterate gossip, Pat seemed to know everyone on the reservation, or at least he had a story about everyone.
Some days the three of us spent more time riding in the truck than working. Getting to remote parts of the reservation took a lot of time, but I enjoyed exploring this land of woods and water. Occasionally, Grandpa would get the itch to try out fishing on a small lake in the middle of nowhere. On these days he had his jon boat and three-horse Johnson outboard in the back of the truck when he stopped to pick me up on the way to work. That is not to say we played hooky, but finished up early enough to drop a line at the end of the day. Grandpa also liked to bring a small grill along and cook up lunch on the job sites.
Like so many of my adventures with Grandpa, working on the rez was a learning experience. As a farm kid from the edge of the reservation, my eyes were opened to a different world. In some homes dysfunction and despair were evident and the work was sometimes unpleasant. In others, we encountered families who lived mainly subsistence lifestyles and held traditional beliefs. Here we were met by people with a quiet dignity who were sometimes friendly and sometimes not. These encounters were my first real experiences with a different culture. What little I knew about my family’s history as mixed-bloods on the reservation did not prepare me. I went home everyday with questions spinning in my head: who were the real Indians? What did it mean to be Indian? Where do we mixed-bloods fit in? I still ponder these questions today.
As for Grandpa, he enjoyed meeting people and learning about their lives. He was not afraid to ask questions. As with the many other places he traveled, he made friends on the reservation. Many white men of his generation looked down on Indians with disdain but Grandpa treated everyone with respect. As a kid growing up in a white man’s world, I could have easily picked up bad attitudes about people different from me. But Grandpa showed me how to be a decent human being.