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Throughout her life, Maude Kegg worked to preserve Ojibwe traditional culture — and interpret it for others

Kegg’s life was life guided by cultural traditions, continuous adaptation to a fast-changing world, and an inherent skill for interpreting her people’s culture and history.

historical photo of maude kegg
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Maude Kegg at Mille Lacs, undated. Photo by Monroe P. Killy.
In 1904, along Portage Lake, in a birch-bark-and-cattail wigwam, a baby named Naawakamigookwe (Middle of the Earth Woman, also called Maude) was born to Agwadaashiins (Nancy Pine) and Gwayoonh (Charles Mitchell). She took her first breath in the traditional Ojibwe home of her family. It was the beginning of a life guided by cultural traditions, continuous adaptation to a fast-changing world, and an inherent skill for interpreting her people’s culture and history.

The exact date of Maude’s birth is unknown because her family did not measure time according to the Western European calendar system. Later in life, she chose August 26 for a birthday because she recalled her family saying that she was born during the wild rice harvest. When her mother died, while she was still an infant, her grandmother became an important caregiver and teacher.

The Mitchell family, like other Ojibwe people in the early twentieth century, were adapting to a changing world. During the winter, they lived in a farmhouse northwest of Mille Lacs. By 1911 Maude was attending school in a one-room schoolhouse, which she enjoyed. Although she was the only Native American in her school, she never experienced bullying from the other children. Along with most of her classmates, she completed school through the eighth grade. Unlike her classmates, however, she continued to receive an Indigenous education from her community and family.

Although Maude spent each winter (biboon) living in a farmhouse and attending a school, she spent the rest of the year following the traditional Ojibwe seasonal cycles. In the spring (Ziigwan), she and her family moved to a sugar bush camp along Misi-zaaga’igan (Grand Lake, or Mille Lacs). There, they harvested sap from maple trees and processed it into maple sugar. They also returned to their farmhouse to plant gardens and harvest berries along the Gichi-ziibi (Mississippi River).

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In the summer (Niibin), Maude learned how to prepare fish caught from the lake, and to maintain the gardens that provided both food and medicine. When the fall season (Dagwaagin) arrived, her family moved to the relatively small Rice Lake, which was filled with manoomin, or wild rice. Maude learned to set up the ricing camp by making birch bark homes and creating areas for parching, threshing, and winnowing the wild rice.

Maude experienced common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, measles, and mumps, but she always recovered. There were no Western-medicine doctors in her area. Ojibwe medicine men treated her and others in the community using the traditional, sacred medicine practiced during the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. Maude later remembered that although the medicine men treated Native people with frequent success, those same treatments rarely worked on the white people in the area.

Midewiwin became an important part of Maude’s life, and in 1917, she met Martin Kegg, another Mille Lacs Band member, at a Midewiwin ceremony. She married him in 1920 in a traditional Ojibwe ceremony; two years later, the couple had a Christian church wedding.

In 1929 the owners of the trading post opened an on-site museum. Maude aided in the construction of the museum’s main attraction, the Four Seasons Room. She began working as a tour guide, interpreting her people’s culture and history for visitors. When the owners of the trading post and museum donated their collections to the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) in 1959, Maude continued her cultural interpretation as a MNHS employee. Outside of this work, she and her husband and children continued the traditional labor of the Ojibwe seasonal cycles.

In the 1970s, Maude became concerned that Ojibwe people were forgetting their history and culture. Inspired to make a change, she set out on a mission to lift her memories from her mind and record them on paper. She enlisted the help of scholarly writers and produced several books: When I Was A Little Girl (1976), At The End of the Trail (1978), What My Grandmother Told Me (1983), and Portage Lake (1991).

On January 6, 1996, Maude Kegg took her last breath and joined her ancestors.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.