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Ojibwe naming ceremony re-affirms a Benson, Minn., family's roots

Marie and Chuck Koenigs and granddaughter Eliza lead the procession to the arbor for the naming ceremony. Visible behind them are a tipi and sweat lodge, which are part of John T. Hutchinson's "outpost'' along the Chippewa River south of Benson. (Submitted photo)

BENSON -- Marie Lightning Koenigs' family roots belong to the tiny Buffalo Point first nation in southeastern Manitoba, Canada, on Lake of the Woods.

It's where her mother had to make a fateful choice. Live a largely subsistence lifestyle on the Ojibwa band's land in Canada, or take up residency off the reservation in Warroad, Minn., where she had a one-room log home to shelter her family.

Her mother chose Warroad. It meant that the day came when her daughter moved away to attend college in Iowa. Marie lived in Colorado and later, Hawaii, before moving to Bemidji, Minn., to finish her studies.

There she met Chuck Koenigs, a Minnesotan of Swedish heritage. She wore her buckskin dress at their wedding.

More than 30 years ago they made Benson their home, making Marie, her children and, for a time, her mother, Alice Qualey, the only American Indians in a community where the high school mascot is the "Braves.''

She never forgot her heritage.

Nor have her children.

Although life has brought marriage to non-Indians and scattered the children to locations in California, Georgia and the Twin Cities, they gathered again to renew their family bonds and -- especially, their heritage.

They joined near the banks of the Chippewa River south of Benson on June 26, surrounded by extended family and friends to hold a traditional naming ceremony for three grandchildren.

Six drummers called the procession of some 75 people to an arbor of spruce built for the occasion on John T. Hutchinson's land known as the "outpost.'' A medicine man and artist from the Buffalo Point First Nation, Robert Kakaygeesick led them as they invited the spirits of their grandparents to join them.

A naming ceremony is marked by both prayers and celebration as children receive the names by which they will be known in the Anishinabe world, according to Koenigs.

"There were so many tearful moments,'' said Koenigs of the happy but emotional moments of the day.

No one was immune to the emotions, not even her oldest son Luke. He had left Benson more than two decades ago. He now holds a doctorate in chemistry and is the owner of a bio-tech start-up company in San Francisco, Calif.

His moment came as the names were given to his two young nieces, Eliza, age 4, and Olivia, age 2, daughters of Jenny Eberhard of Marietta, Ga.; and his nephew, Austin, age 16, son of Cathy McKenna of Alpharetta, Ga.

"I got really choked up because I didn't expect the names that he gave them,'' said Luke Lightning Koenigs when reached by phone.

Kakaygeesick told the family he had prayed, dreamed and looked hard for their names.

Everyone remembers looking up to the sky as three pelicans glided over the gathering just as the medicine man announced that the children would keep the names of the family's ancestors.

Olivia took the Ojibwa name of Marie Koenigs' mother, Wa-kay ba-nee-sick. Its meaning is not known to the family.

Eliza took the Ojibwa name of Marie Koenigs' grandmother, Mem-a-no-beek, a female thunderbird.

Austin took that of her grandfather, Be-dway-be-nes, or rolling thunder.

"It made sense what he was doing,'' said Luke. "I just didn't expect it.''

The ceremony was held according to tradition, complete with the passing of a peace pipe, offering of tobacco to a sacred fire, the gifting of a strawberry to participants, and the sharing of sacred water.

Everything involved in the ceremony was blessed and smudged according to the traditions.

Kakaygeesick led the ceremony speaking Ojibwa, but followed with English translations explaining what was being said and the significance of the actions.

Luke and his brother Jonathan, a tennis instructor living in the Twin Cities, were among those who had sounded the heartbeat-like call of the drum that brought the procession of people to the arbor.

Afterward everyone gathered for a feast.

All of Marie Koenigs' children have carried on her appreciation for her cultural heritage. Her oldest daughter, Cathy, was born in Hawaii and given up for adoption and raised later in Daytona, Fla. Mother and daughter were re-united some years ago, and Cathy has been very dedicated to preserving her Native American heritage. She had initially suggested that the family hold the naming ceremony.

While growing up in Benson, brothers Luke and Jonathan and their sister Jenny often joined their parents on trips to visit Buffalo Point. At one point, Luke took a nine-month break from his studies to live with the Buffalo Point people and research his family's history.

Medicine man Kakaygeesick's arrival in Benson represented a reunion of sorts. In 1976 John T. Hutchinson had hosted a rendezvous at which Kakaygeesick exhibited his work and sold one to the host. He found the painting on prominent display in Hutchinson's home.

The naming ceremony strengthened both family bonds and cultural ties, according to Koenigs.

It was also telling of the life journey her family has made since leaving the reserve on the Canadian side of the border for life in the U.S. "My mother would never have believed she'd have a little, great-grandchild with blond hair and blue eyes,'' she said, laughing.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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