Tradition assumes constancy and when constancy changes, does the tradition? We live in a world where if you want to keep the essence of the traditions alive sometimes you have to adapt and change the materials the tradition is created from.  Joyce LaPorte, Giiwedanangikwe (North Star woman), is an Ojibwe elder from the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota. I first met Joyce when we were both selling at the Annual Native American Arts and Crafts Holiday Fair in Minneapolis.  Her quiet and gentle manner while making dolls of buckskin and horsehair with cattail or buffalo hair stuffing drew me to her.  As Joyce told me the ‘becoming’ story of her being a dollmaker she also taught how she has adapted her grandmother’s tradition to these modern times and materials.


Joyce speaks of her grandmother, Catherine Cadotte Smith, “When I was five, my grandma made a doll with me. She had a rawhide leather bag with all these pieces of leather; just scraps; no big pieces.  She gave me a needle. My grandma used her own hair for the dolls she made, and she told me this story. If you don’t hear your Native name called after you die, you can’t cross over to the other side. So the women always have long hair. That way someone can grab onto their hair if they don’t hear their name. That way someone can pull them to the other side.  Those are my words.”


Those are my words, pulls me into the stories as Joyce sets out a family of leather dolls with black hair and no faces. “(My grandmother) She did pack it with the cattails.  When I had my own grandchildren, I knew it was my role to make these. John Losh, my husband, he was a great artist. I told him I wanted to make a doll for my granddaughter.  He said, ‘Let’s look what is in here. Oh, it’s cattails.’


Then came the tanning of the buckskin. Joyce first followed the traditional method of leaving the deer hides in water, then pulling the hair off the hide, then scraping the flesh.  She then cooked the hide in deer brains to soften it and finally it was stretched to dry.  Again, Joyce laughs softly, “Today, I buy my buckskin from a tanner.” But in that telling, she has given a lesson on traditional tanning methods just as earlier she gave a lesson on the importance for Ojibwe people to have an Ojibwe name.  After all, who wants to cross over by needing to pull someone’s hair?


In another departure from tradition, Joyce often uses buffalo hair for stuffing, as she can no longer tromp around in the cattail swamps. She laughs at herself as she describes trying to clean buffalo hair in the washing machine and it just balled up. Tradition and convenience in that instance didn’t work well together.


Joyce continues, “She used the stinging nettle to sew with but I didn’t know that until someone else told me about it. When you walk along the road you see where the big leaves will fall off. The grey stalks separate and you pull it off and make a ball of it. We did find this in a basket after she passed away.  My brother showed me where it was and how to gather it; just to have it, to go and show the kids.”  With her own work she says, “I tried to do it perfect. It took five times.  John told me, ‘let the needle work for you.’ Finally after the sixth time, I finally understood and then my body relaxed. Those are my words.”


Joyce’s art studio is her senior housing apartment on the Fond du Lac reservation.  It is the place most relaxing for her to work.  And it is where, listening to Joyce tell how the dolls are made, you learn the traditions of the Ojibwe.  You learn the uses of different plants and how to prepare the animal materials required to create the doll. You learn that as an Ojibwe grandmother, her art is not a career or vain self-absorption with talent; rather it is a manifestation of a way of life she wants to pass on to her grandchildren.


As Joyce is talking, she sets out another family of faceless dolls, “I did ask my grandma – why isn’t there a face on it? She walked me to the crick. She took my hand, she didn’t say anything, she seldom spoke. I was hopping around.  She was looking into the water, then I did too. She told me the story of how your face is never supposed to leave the water spirits. Of course, there is a reason behind these stories.  She asked me as we looked at our reflections in the water, ‘which one of our faces should I take?’ Then I knew. Neither.  Those are my words.”


Joyce pauses and rearranges the doll family in quiet reflection.  “So I just started selling them. The more I became good at it, the more I raised my price. I feel guilty about it. It was at Itasca, The Seasons of the Ojibwe, where people really started buying my dolls. It was hard to be proud of myself, but John was proud of me. It was therapy. It was being totally me. I’m not tense when I’m working on the dolls. At the art show, I would be sitting there sewing and I would feel foolish sometimes that they were asking me questions. It’s still embarrassing but I’m getting better at it. Those are my words.”