By Brett Larson Inaajimowin Staff Writer Photo by Dino Downwind Mille Lacs Band Member
The Mille Lacs Reservation was a very different place in 1974, when Frances Davis, Ozhaawas- hkogiizhigokwe, first went to work for the Health and Human Services Department.
The modern Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic was decades away. HHS was housed in the old community center, which was built in 1968 where Grand Casino stands now.
During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, many changes were taking place on the reservation. Head Start came in 1968. Social programs expanded through the Indian Health Service — everything from medical and dental care to chemical dependency programs to food distribution and elderly nutrition.
And in 1972, Art Gahbow was elected Chairman, replacing Sam Yankee. Joining him on the Reservation Business Committee were Maggie Sam, Floyd Ballinger, Earl Sam, and Lee Staples. The Band’s current Separation of Powers government had not yet been developed.
Frances remembers Art stopping by when she was mowing her lawn to ask if she wanted a job. She asked what kind of job, and Art said, “Just show up, and I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do.”
Good old days
The Mille Lacs Reservation was even more different in the 1930s and ‘40s, when Frances was growing up as the third child of Henry and Annie (Dorr) Davis.
On the menu at the Henry Davis house were rabbit, venison, fish, rice, berries, maple sugar, and garden produce. Henry would hunt, snare, and fish after working his day job as janitor at the reservation school.
According to Frances, families shared their harvest with neighbors — Davises, Dorrs, Mitchells, Gahbows, Hanks, Benjamins, Andersons, Wadenas, Eagles, and others. They were always getting stuck on the muddy roads and helping to push each other out.
Everyone spoke Ojibwe then, kids as well as adults and Elders. They learned English at school but spoke Ojibwe at recess, at home, and at play.
There was no running water or propane furnace in the Henry Davis house. Frances and her siblings had to take a milk can to fetch water from the pump down the road and gather wood before they could go out to play — sledding on the small hills in the winter time, or skating on Vineland Bay.
In the summer they would go swimming by the Roll-In Lodge (now Band Member Legal Aid) or help their mothers make baskets, birdhouses, and toy canoes, which were sold from tarpaper shacks constructed along Highway 169.
As they grew older and more adventurous, they’d go across the highway to play in the gym at the Catholic church, or listen to music at Cash’s Store. Frances remembers walking back at night with Ole Nickaboine and Mabel Sam. They’d hide in the woods whenever a car went by.
Weekday mornings, they’d walk to the highway to catch the school bus to Onamia.
After graduating from high school in 1951, Frances went to Chicago as part of the relocation program along with Mabel Sam, who was interested in nursing.
“We were looking for work, but they separated us,” said Frances. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I came home after two weeks. I didn’t like it there.”
Frances started a family and worked as an assistant cook at the marina until that day in 1974 when Art offered her a job. Frances had recently returned from the hospital. “In October, my oldest son got killed in a car accident,” she said. “I was so devastated I ended up in the hospital. I came home and was cutting lawn in my yard when Art showed up.”
Frances started out in the Energy Assistance Program but didn’t care for it, so Maggie, who was Secretary-Treasurer at the time, asked her if she’d like to work as a Community Health Representative.
From there she moved on to Women, Infants, and Children — better known as “WIC” — another of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.
In 1978, Frances moved to a new clinic, also where the casino is now, and worked as WIC coordinator before becoming assistant to Mabel Smith. When Mabel retired, Frances took over the Contract Health program, and she was there until her retirement last year.
In Contract Health, Frances processed Band members’ medical claims and authorized payment. She always liked working with numbers.
Frances has seen a lot of changes, not just at work but also in the Mille Lacs Reservation community.
Nay Ah Shing School was developed in the mid-1970s, a new government center was built in 1981, and a variety of business enterprises came and went over the years. The Band adopted a new form of government, created its Tribal Court and Tribal Police Department, and went to court for recognition of Treaty Rights.
Sovereignty was strengthened; self-determination gained steam; programs grew and developed, including Health and Human Services.
In 1991, just before Grand Casino opened, Art passed away and Frances’ sister, Marge Anderson, became Chief Executive. Frances admired both Art and Marge for their persistence and their strong leadership. Frances also thanked Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin for all she's done for her.
Many faces came and went during the 44 years Frances worked at HHS. “I don’t know how many commissioners I went through, but Sam Moose was one of the best bosses I ever had,” Frances recalled.
Frances changed with the times as well. “When computers first came out, I said I would never learn anything on a computer.” But one of her bosses threw a book on her desk and told her she had to. “I taught myself,” she said, with just a hint of a smile.
Safe at home
Frances had two daughters of her own plus six foster kids, and even now she’s taking care of her great-grandson, with help from her granddaughter, who is also her personal care attendant at the Assisted Living Unit in District I.
Frances’ siblings — Virginia, Marge, and Harold — have all passed on, joining their parents and three siblings who died in infancy: Richard, Louise, and Fairy. Frances was able to be at home until last April when she broke her hip and decided to move to the ALU rather than impose on her children and grandchildren.
It took some time to settle in, but now she feels safe and secure at the ALU.
Frances is troubled by the devastating opioid crisis, which has affected her family, like most others in her community. She appreciates the work of Natives Against Heroin and the Per Cap Patrol, and she says she’d be out there with them if she could. “I’m there in spirit,” she said.
Like most Elders of her generation, Frances doesn’t boast about her accomplishments and doesn’t complain about the hardships she faced as a child and throughout her long life.
“We were a lot happier than we are now with all these changes,” she said.