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Drivers provide last trip home: ministry helps city Indians honor their dead.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Miigeweyon, in the Ojibway language, means "I am going home." To Indians of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, especially elders, miigeweyon brings the peace of knowing that when they die, their bodies will be returned to the ancestral plot, often on the reservation where they were born.

That is because Miigeweyon is the name of an American Indian funeral project, a service provided by the Office of Indian Ministry of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese.

Transportation is the centerpiece of the funeral project, which arranges for moving deceased American Indians from the Twin Cities to ancestral burial sites. The sites could be a cemetery on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota or a traditional Indian mound at Big Sandy Lake or a remote section of Mille Lacs Reservation in Minnesota.

In 1993, the project's 13 volunteer drivers transported the bodies of 38 Ojibways and five Dakotas to reservations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota, almost 15,000 miles. Without the project, families would have had to pay between $200 to $1,000 per burial, a price that would have prevented most families from returning their deceased relatives to a traditional burial site.

One rule of thumb for the project is to limit trips to 400 miles one way, said Janet Stately, project coordinator and administrative assistant for the Office of Indian Ministry.

The need extends further, however. Christine Roy, and Ojibway who is the office's outreach worker to families, said most Indians think of home "as the reservation where they've lived or where they have family."

Roy, Stately and Fr. James Notebaart, director of the Office of Indian Ministry, spoke of a Navajo whose body was cremated not long ago for the trip to a distant Arizona reservation at a cost the person's family could afford.

The trio agreed that many other urban areas have significant Indian populations -- Chicago, for instance, Los Angeles and Denver -- that would benefit from transportation assistance. As far as they know, however, the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese is the only agency in the country to provide the service.

Miigeweyon received a 1992 achievement award for Hennepin County from the National Association of Counties. The project's 13 volunteer drivers belong to Hennepin's volunteer program, and the county partially reimburses the project for transportation within Minnesota.

Miigeweyon encompasses more than transportation. The Office of Indian Ministry prepares and prints memorial cards for grieving families, saving them $35 to $160, and it operates a funeral food shelf to help families feed visitors at wakes, which continue around the clock for up to two days. Notebaart said "there's an ancient custom of eating in the presence of the dead. A plate is made representing all the foods served, and it's called a spirit plate."

Roy explained that grieving families traditionally provide food for relatives and friends -- sometimes hundreds -- who come to the wake. Indians believe the soul of the deceased remains with the body until a medicine person, priest or minister tells it to leave, she said. "That's the time they usually have the burial." Before that, "when you're eating, you're eating with them, having your last meal with them."

Tobacco is also distributed. Tobacco is a generic rather than specific term referring to a plant that in Indian culture is a medicine rather than a carcinogen. Among the Ojibway, tobacco traditionally comes from red willow shavings, a source also of aspirin.

At a wake, tobacco is smoked or held and is believed to carry prayers to the Creator. "In the Ojibway tradition, it's the first plant that grew on the earth. God gets that first plant back," Notebaart said. After mourners pray with it, Roy said, the tobacco is gathered and usually put "out by the gravesite with the person for burial."

Sometimes the wake is in the building that houses the Office of Indian Ministry, sometimes in larger spaces donated by area American Indian social service agencies, Roy said.

The Office of Indian Ministry also sponsors an annual ceremony and feast for area families that have lost members, "whether or not we transported them," Notebaart said. The service includes a traditional pipe ceremony and songs honoring those who died during the year.

The annual ceremony takes place in November, in conjunction with All Souls' Day, but Indians need not be Catholic to receive funeral projects services. "We never ask" about religious affiliation, Notebaart said.

"I think it's a trend of the church to be more supportive of the traditions of various cultures," he added, recalling that Pope Paul VI visited Uganda, canonized Ugandan martyrs and "wrote a lot about the respect the church owes cultures and the validity of cultures and their religious expression."

The hearse project originated in the mid-1970s when the late deacon John Spears, an Ojibway, was associate director for the Office of Indian Ministry. He owned a pickup truck, and Indian families, financially strapped, would ask him to drive their deceased member to the family plot.

Eventually the Leech Lake Reservation bought a used hearse from a mortuary and contributed it "so we'd have a more dignified way of doing it," Stately recalled. Of Norwegian and Irish heritage, she lives with her Native American husband and children a block from the Office of Indian Ministry.

As the project grew, metropolitan area Indian agencies began contributing to support the vehicle, and Indian Family Services donated a small room where records and finances were kept. As one vehicle after another burned out and other demands consumed volunteers' time, the project withered in the late 1980s.

But the need for the service remained strong, so when Notebaart came to the Office of Indian Ministry in 1991, he revived the project. The 13 volunteer drivers -- including Notebaart, Stately and Roy -- became an official board, and a minivan was purchased and customized to transport the deceased. Today a new hearse is needed at a cost of nearly $20,000.

More food is needed for the funeral food shelf, too. About three years ago, 10 perishes contributed food, Notebaart recalled, but food contributions have been sliding as the numbers of hungry people have increased in the metropolitan area, even in the suburbs. Today two parishes contribute regularly, St. Therese in St. Paul and St. John Neumann in the suburb of Eagan. A twinning program is developing between St. John Neumann and the Office of Indian Ministry.

Reservation also contribute to the funeral project from their gaming proceeds, and Notebaart solicits help from his friends. So does Stately. "I don't have a bashful bone in my body" when it comes to asking help for Native Americans in need, she said.
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Title Annotation:St.Paul and Minneapolis, Minn. Archdiocese
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 25, 1994
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