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In Her Own Words: Frances Irene Goodwin Keahna on Life, Medicine, and Bingo

Tish Keahna, Frances Goodwin Keahna, Cleo Frances Keahna, & Vince Keahna c. 1997

I’m the last Goodwin.1Disputed. They’re all gone—my mother, my father, my grandmother, my brother and two sisters. I was the second to the youngest, and now I’m the only one left.

We lived on a little farm in Heier Township near Duelm. Everybody had certain jobs. We just all pitched in and did things together, like feeding the chickens, slopping the hogs, and feeding and watering the horses and the cattle. 

We had to make a lot of our own food in those days. We had our own gardens and did a lot of canning. We’d go pick berries and can them or make jellies and jams. We raised our own meat right on the farm, and pumped water from a little creek down the hill from our place. My mother made dried sweet corn. She’d buy a whole bunch of it, cut it off the cob, lay it on cheesecloth and put it out on racks. I’ve never made it myself, but I did like to eat it!

We got around with horses and buggies. Every morning we milked the cows and separated the milk with an old-fashioned separator before we walked to school. It was about a quarter-mile away; I remember making our own trails through the deep snow. We had a store, a church, a post office and the school in those days. Now it’s all fields. Everything is gone.

Our first school had one room with all the grades from first through eighth. We brought sandwiches for lunch in a little syrup pail. We studied the ABCs, math and just the everyday language. Of course it was easier in those days, not like it is today. We had a strict old man for a teacher who’d hit you with a ruler. Nowadays that would be abuse!

My mother’s father was a Warren. Her great-grandfather, William W. Warren, wrote the book The History of the Ojibwa Nation.2Considering the “History” opens with the line “the red race of North America is fast disappearing before the onward resistless tread of the Anglo-Saxon,” one should take care to read the account with an entire Dead Sea’s worth of salt. One must also remember that William Whipple Warren went to university at age thirteen in Whitesboro, NY, and barely survived the Sandy Lake massacre before suddenly succumbing to tuberculosis in his late twenties. The oral histories were then published over thirty years after his death by the Minnesota Historical Society. My grandmother was a Chippewa—from Canada, I think.

My father’s father, old George Goodwin, was white. He came from Maine over the Great Lakes with the fur traders and trappers. My grandmother spoke Ojibwa, but she didn’t speak English very well. My father and mother never spoke Ojibwa unless there was something they didn’t want us to know, so I never learned the language outside of a few basic words. I don’t recall them ever discouraging us from using it, though.

We lived on the farm until 1918, when my father ran out of work. He was a logger, and used to drive logs down the Rice River. When work ran out, we moved here to Nay-tah-waush. He became a carpenter and built a lot of these houses around here.

I went to school here, then, through eighth grade. After about half a year of high school, I transferred to the Indian boarding school at Haskell, Kansas. I was there for about three years. I don’t think I came home at all, except for the summers. Of course, I never did stay on the campus. I had a job. I took care of some elders and stayed right in their home.

I met my husband in school. He was a football player—and you know how that goes! They were winning all the games. He was from Iowa, a Sac and Fox Indian. We Chippewa liked to chase the Sac and Fox down!

We were married February 17, 1925, in Toledo, Ohio. He died in 1965. I’ve never remarried, and I haven’t been looking. There’s nobody around who could keep up with me, anyway, even if I am 90 years old. My son-in-law calls me the ringleader.

I have seven children, all living. My daughter Deanna lives in Burnsville. In her house she has every kind of basket I’ve ever made—baskets all over. She and her husband are retired from the BIA. One daughter lives in Oklahoma now. She used to live in Chicago, but she had little tots growing up. They would come home all beat up, so she said, “That’s enough.” She works with records in a hospital there. Nancy is in Idabelle, Oklahoma. Bonnie’s in Dallas. Cookie’s in San Mateo, California. Vincent is in Minneapolis; he’s retired from the BIA, too. And Lauren works here at the school in Nay-tah-waush.

Annie Warren with her daughter Frances Goodwin

I can’t remember exactly when I started making baskets. It’s so long ago! My mother learned basket making through an Episcopal minister who came here to our church. They were Ottawa Chippewas from way up on the peninsula of Michigan. His mother came here to visit, and she taught my mother basket-making. My mother didn’t stick with it because it was such hard work, but she taught me how to do it. 

Frances Keahna learned basket weaving from her mother on the White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota during the 1920s. Keahna’s baskets have earned an international reputation, and once were on display at the Smithsonian Institution. She is shown here with several of her Black Ash basketry creations. Star Tribune photo August 26, 1990, by staff photographer Joey McLeister.

I’ve often given demonstrations of my basket making at craft shows and exhibits. I’ve been to the Minnesota State Fair three times. I’ve been down at Chanhassen. I’ve been all along the Iron Range. We once went over to a show at Cass Lake with a big bundle of about 25 baskets. We started out at ten in the morning and by two o’ clock we didn’t have one basket left. The others still had their baskets. It wasn’t the price either. I had one basket left, and asked a woman I know who’s a coordinator for the aging if she wanted to buy it. She said, “Sure, I’ll buy it.” And we went home with nothing left. 

I’ve worked with the State Arts Board and have been to the Historical Society in St. Paul and all over the city. I went to the tribal college in Cass Lake last April and to Maplewood State Park in May. They wanted me at some other events, but enough is enough. I said, “I’m getting too old for this.” But making baskets does make me feel good. 

Up until ’66, I set (fishing) nets through the ice. We went ricing and sugarbushing. Our family would tap hundreds of trees right up the road four or five miles north of the village. It would take three good weeks. We made sugar cake and syrup to keep through the winter. It took a lot of boiling of sap to get the syrup. Nowadays they are really making it easier and better with the evaporators and plastic tubes—but we did it all the hard way.

I learned a lot about using medicinal plants from my mother. We’d go out and pick the plants in fall after they had blossomed. I remember picking pennyroyal; you make a hot tea from it to use for cold or congestion. It would make you sweat and bring the cold right out of you.

For headaches, you can use parts of the birch tree—the little shelves, the fungus things that grow on their white bark. You take off the shell and remove the brown part on the inside, then burn a piece about the size of your fingernail in an ashtray. Cover your head with a towel and inhale the smoke and your headache is gone. I still use that when I get a headache. You just try it! You have to believe in it, though—believe that it’s going to get you well. 

Once I talked to a medicine man from Montana. I told him I have tendonitis in my shoulders. I gave him some tobacco, and he sent his helper out to the car to bring back some medicine, a little bottle full of grease-like stuff that came from a female bear. I rubbed just a little of it on my shoulders. Before I saw him, I couldn’t move my arms. Now I can raise them.

I’m satisfied with things just the way they are now. I’m not hard to please. I watch TV, read, work puzzles and make baskets when I feel like it. And I like to play bingo. One Sunday morning I went to play bingo. They feed you a free dinner, then you have all afternoon and night to play, so I stayed all day. That night, when I got home, I saw numbers everywhere I looked. Numbers on the doorknobs. Numbers all over the place. I thought I was going crazy! But I’m still healthy. See, I don’t have arthritis, and I don’t have diabetes—but I do have bingo eyes!

Frances Keahna was born over 90 years ago on a farm in Heier Township, northwest of Mahnomen on the White Earth Reservation. Her Ojibwa name was Naynakawobequa (“stands before the people”). Noted for her mastery of traditional Chippewa basket making, she demonstrated her art and exhibited her baskets at the Minnesota State Fair, the Minnesota State Historical Society and many other locations, and worked with the Minnesota State Arts Council. Mrs. Keahna lost her husband of 40 years in 1965, and she was the mother of six daughters and one son. She was well known and respected as an elder with a wonderful sense of humor throughout the reservation.

from an obituary for Frances Irene Goodwin Keahna, March 25, 1905–February 15, 1998

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