ELDER RECOGNITION: Cleo White
LCO News: Tell me a bit about yourself. Maybe start with your parents, where your parents met and where you were born and where you were raised as a young girl?
Cleo: Okay, well, my mother was from Gordon, and I don't know if you know about the history of Gordon. There was a really big settlement of Native people that would come there and gather from all different tribes. Did you know that?
LCO News: I heard Rick St. Germaine tell me about the meeting place.
Cleo: Yeah, there was a meeting place there. I guess it was quite big. And my grandmother and my great grandmother were born and raised there, too, in Gordon. And they ended up my grandmother had like, I think it was something like 280 acres of land on both sides of the St. Croix River. And now our relatives only own five acres of it. But anyway, then my dad is from White Earth, Minnesota reservation and my mom and dad met during, I think it was during World War II. And a lot of the guys went off to war and a lot of women worked in the shipyards in Superior, too, because the men left. But my parents then moved down to Minneapolis and they were married there. They came back to Superior. My dad worked as a laborer and my mother was just a stay at home mom. And there was just me.
I was the only child and I was born in Superior. I went to school at St. Louis School with the strict nuns, very strict and almost to the point of being abusive. But anyway, I grew up there and I thought I had a nice childhood with my parents, but my parents were both alcoholics and my mother was very, I think it was because of going to boarding school. She went to boarding school when she was nine years old. They came and got her in Gordon and they took her off and she didn't speak one word of English. And she went up to Bayfield. They took her there and she didn't have a good time. She was sexually abused and raped by a priest. And she ran away from there and then came back to Gordon. And she has a sister and a brother that we're living there, stayed with them for a while and then that's when she moved to Superior and then they met my dad. But anyway, my mother was a very bad alcoholic. I mean, she'd have to be hospitalized. She would have convulsions. And she died at the age of 49 when I was 17. So I lost my mom at 17. And my dad was twelve years older than her. And he was always so proud of being Ojibwe. He'd always talk about how him and a friend, they start at the Superior Indian Center in Superior, and to this day, I can't find any information on it. I try to look up in some of the archives in Superior and find out about it. Nothing is written about it. And they formed this center.
LCO News: Is it downtown?
Cleo: Yeah, right downtown. It was on 6th and Tower, right on the corner there. Yeah. So anyway, my dad was proud of it. I think my mom was, but my mom was a fluent speaker of Ojibwe, and my dad wasn't he had trauma when he was in boarding school, too. He went to it at Fort Totten, North Dakota, where he was at. And because he was speaking the language, they punished him. And the nuns put a piece of open his mouth, tied a wet rag around him, put them in a corner, and it burned blisters on his tongue. So that was a real traumatic thing. And my grandmother was so mad that she went to the boarding school and she knocked the nun right out and took my dad and hurt his brother.
And my grandpa was a BIA agent, and one of the guys came over and said, you need to leave. They're going to come, and they're going to incarcerate your wife for doing that. So they left during the night, and they came back to Minnesota then. Yeah. And then my grandpa was a tailor. He opened up his own tailor shop in Superior. Yeah. My dad had a really nice three piece suit that he had made, so whenever they go vote, they always dressed up. My dad wore a three piece suit, my mother wore a suit. I dressed up. Yeah. Then when I was in the fifth grade, my mother's drinking got really out of hand, and there was a local family in our church that took me in, and they raised me without going to the authorities or anything to get money. They had six kids themselves, and then I was a 7th one. And my foster mom then said that all she had to do is throw another handful of macaroni in the soup for me. So I stayed with them until I graduated from high school.
In the meantime, I found out about my Indians and read lots of books that I could find. And of course, my grandmother was living at the time, too, and she was a fluent speaker of Ojibwe, so her and my mother always spoke together.
LCO News: So the family that took you in, were they Native or not?
Cleo: No. They were Polish and German.
LCO News: Did you get to see your parents?
Cleo: Yes, I did. Yeah. I wasn't completely taken away from them. I got to see my cousins and my uncles, but it was just that my mother was very sick, and then I graduated from Cathedral High School. It's Catholic school. We owed tuition, and I think I owed, like, $150. And back then, that was a lot of money. I worked as a nurse's aide in St. Paul, and I got the money and I went back there and I told him I wanted my diploma and I got it, so I paid for my tuition. And then after that, then I decided that I was going to go to college, but when I was in high school, the guidance counselor told me that I should think about going to a vocational school. And I thought, no, I want to go to college. And he didn't think I was the right material for it. Stubborn as I am, I said, oh, yes, I can go to college if I want to. So it was a year later, because I worked for a year in St. Paul as a nurse's aide. And then I came back and I enrolled in school in Superior, and that was where I met Dennis. A year and a half later I met him.
LCO News: Was he at the same school then?
Cleo: Yeah, at the college there? Yeah. I was majoring in art and dance. Dennis in mathematics. Yes. Then we were on our venture of finding out who we were, and I'm trying to find out more information about our background of being Native. And then we just went from there and kept studying the language. And then Dennis was asked to teach at the school in 76. And when they first opened the school up in New Post, I never lived on the reservation. It was the first time. And there was a big drought that summer. It was so hot. I thought to myself, man, if this is how the weather is here, I won't like it because Superior was so cool. And then I had Wabigonence, my oldest daughter. And then five years after that, I had my youngest daughter, Zigwun. Yeah. And I don't have any grandchildren, but I have a lot of nephews, nieces.
And then just recently, a very wonderful thing happened in my life. My mother had a baby before me and she was I think she is twelve years older than me. And for years and years I knew about it, but I could never find and it was because she was adopted through the Catholic Charities Bureau. And they will not open up a sibling record only if you're looking for your mother or father. But siblings cannot find siblings. And that's the law. That was the law here in Wisconsin. I don't know how it is in other states, but that's what it was. But I tried and tried. I had a lawyer friend for a while that tried to help me, and I went through years and years trying to find her. I knew her first name, I didn't know her birthdate, so that was always a stump. And about 15 years ago I did that what is that called? Ancestry.com. And I got a couple of hits that said it was a cousin about five, six generations. And I thought I have first cousins like that and I don't really need to know them. But anyway, one day out of the clear blue, like about a month and a half ago, this lady writes to me and she says, my mother and you are sisters, and her name is Rosemary. And I almost fell off my chair.
And so I got to meet her. We met at Flat Creek restaurant. And she brought her two daughters, her granddaughter and her son in law, who drove. And then we've been conversing back and forth. She messages me. She calls me her baby sister because I'm twelve years old.
LCO News: Where is she living?
Cleo: She lives in Hammond, Wisconsin, by Hudson. Okay. Only a couple of hours away from here. Never knew that she lived that close. And of course, when I met her, I balled like a baby. And she says, I hope they're happy tears. And I said, of course they are.
I do have foster brothers and sisters that have always kept me as family all the time, every event. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, everything. And so now I've got two families. And then I got to meet her children. They invited us over, they did an early Thanksgiving and boy, they had their place all decked out real nice. It was very pretty, and each place setting was nice. My niece, her name is Joy Anne, and her husband makes really wonderful breads. And so he had all these nice breads to give us and for us to have for our Thanksgiving meal. But that was wonderful. That was a real highlight of my life to be able to find her. And I kind of had mixed feelings. I thought, well, will she like me? I don't know if I'll like her, and all this kind of stuff. Anyway, and I had baby pictures of her that she never saw, that my mother had. So I blew them up and made her bigger, and I gave them to her for a gift. But then going back to how I got to teaching at the college was this one changing the subject, but there was this one guy, he was teaching art, and then I guess he left and they were kind of in a panic. So the president of the college then, and I can't remember his name, he asked me if I'd like to teach there, and I said sure. So I taught a few art classes and eventually I ended up working at the college for 17 years, just adjunct. And then Dennis did adjunct, and they hired him full time after a while. And I've had so many students that people will say, I remember you taught me. And I was like and they remember my name and I forgot their name. There's just so many I probably had hundreds of students in 17 years.
I taught at a high school and university, and I still keep track of my kids on Facebook, and their families grow, and it's just it's more rewarding than the pay, is to be able to see what you put into some young person's life and how they took. That and develop it. Well, even like with Mike Sullivan, he was one of my students, and then now he works at the college, and he has a PhD in linguistics. Yeah. So I've seen a lot of different students come and go and then succeed. It's great working at the college. And then I used to do a radio show at WOJB, and I did it for 17 years. And one time I got an award. It was a volunteer of the year award, and that was when Camille was there, and they had it at the casino auditorium there at the convention center, and there was a lot of people, and they kept naming off all these volunteers. And Janice goes, they didn't mention your name. They're not even saying your name. And then finally, Eric gets up and says, last but not least, the award for the volunteer of the year is Cleo White. And, oh, my gosh, I just lost everything. I had to get up on stage, and I was going to do my Boozhoo speech, and I looked out to the audience, and my mind went blank. I could not think of anything more. And Dennis was thinking, please don't look out. Please don't look up. And they did. So that was a really good thing to get that volunteer of the year award.
LCO News: What keeps you busy today?
Cleo: Well, I do beadwork, and during the summer, we did a little bit of gardening up at the college garden, and that was fun. And then Dennis does workshops, and I go with him and help him. Yeah, that kind of stuff. And then I still do home cooking and take care of my dog. And I like to read, so I do a lot of reading.
LCO News: What things do you like to read?
Cleo: I like to read Native American books.
LCO News: Any volunteering at the LCO school?
Cleo: I did. I used to volunteer there, and I also worked for Waadookadaading. When they first started, I was in what they called the Nest, and it was preschool children that were in there. Yeah. So I really enjoyed that. I did that for a year, but then I had trouble with my knee, and I had to have surgery, so that kind of ended that. And I couldn't get on the floor with the kids anymore. But they really liked me.
LCO News: What's your favorite age group of young people to work with?
Cleo: I like junior high school. Yeah, I do. I taught art classes at the LCO School for a while, and they're gifted and talented program, and I love the junior high kids. And Dennis would say, oh, they drive you nuts. And I said, that's what I like about them, because they're in between. The hormones are all going, and they're in between. Do they still want to be a child or do they want to grow up? And it's so fun to see them in action, and that pleases me and makes me happy.
I used to work at the high school. I was at a high school for five years. I don't have a teacher's degree, but I was the technology person at the school. And so I worked with an English teacher who taught journalism, and then I would teach how to use the electronics because this English teacher didn't know anything about it. So I like that. Then when I got to the university, not this one here, but one in Minnesota, the kids were a little more responsible even from a high school to the college level. That was pretty fun.
LCO Newss: I always ask people one big question about seven generations from now, what advice would you give seven generations from now, what advice would you have for them today?
Cleo: Probably to keep their culture and if they really don't know too much about their background, to try to have someone help them. Even if going to ceremonies and learning that way and trying to preserve the language, to keep the language going. I know that Waadookadaading is doing a wonderful job of keeping the language alive, which makes me very happy. And just keep going and being good people and always try to help one another and be kind to one another. That's what I would say for the next 7th generation, just to keep moving forward and to be proud of who you are as Anishinaabe people.