Retired educator Ken Litzau shares memories from his traditional Ojibwe childhood
Ken Litzau shared his stories of growing up with traditional Ojibwe practices in an event on Thursday hosted by the Beltrami County Historical Society.
BEMIDJI — Ken Litzau’s first memory takes place in his grandparents’ home, where he stood as a toddler quietly examining and slowly chipping away at the chinking between the logs that made up the cabin’s wall.
“I suppose everyone has those first memories, where you suddenly realize you’re a being,” Litzau said. “That was my first memory.”
Born in 1945 and a retired educator, Litzau grew up with his grandparents in Pine Point, Minn., a township that’s part of the White Earth Nation.
He recalls a childhood filled with traditional Anishinaabe practices: harvesting wild rice, fishing, trapping and snowshoeing.
“It was a great time for me, I have happy memories of growing up there,” Litzau said.
He shared these stories, and others from his life, with a small audience during an event hosted by the Beltrami County Historical Society on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 17.
A happy childhood
For Litzau, his early years were defined by learning. He learned how to participate in traditional practices, how to pay attention to his surroundings, and how to be a part of his community.
“I learned a lot from (my grandparents),” Litzau said. “They were my teachers, they helped me understand who I was.”
He fondly recalled setting up camps in the fall to harvest wild rice, watching his grandmother set up fishing nets for under the ice in winter, and going out with his family to collect sap to make maple syrup in the spring.
“I learned from my grandfather, my uncles, how to hunt and trap,” Litzau said, “how to pay attention in the woods, how not to get lost — which I did once.”
Litzau also discussed the significance of community to him in his childhood, and how that has continued throughout the rest of his life.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to be a part of this community,” Litzau said. “You’re just a part of it, it becomes a safe place.”
In a somber moment, he mentioned how this sense of community was taken from his grandparents when they were young, recounting how they were forced into boarding schools designed to violently separate Indigenous children from their culture.
“My grandparents were forced to go to boarding school,” Litzau said. “(My grandfather) was 8 years old when they took him. He didn’t come home until he was 16, not once, ever.”
Litzau described how his grandfather told him that he used to sit at a high point at the boarding school he was taken to in South Dakota, saying he told him “I used to sit up there for hours, look north, and cry.”
Despite their own painful histories with education, Litzau’s grandparents fostered a love of learning in him and encouraged him to receive an education.
Litzau went on from his childhood home to graduate from Bemidji State University in 1969, and would eventually receive his doctorate at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
“I learned how to love learning from them,” Litzau said, describing his grandparents. "Education was extremely important.”
Life as an educator
Litzau went on to become an educator himself, and throughout his career, he was deeply involved in his community. He started teaching in the Twin Cities in the early ’70s, where he would also help found the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
He eventually returned to northern Minnesota, where he became the administrator of the newly built Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Bena.
When he took the position, Litzau described how he was responsible for organizing everything from hiring teachers and organizing curriculum to planning bus routes.
“I remember that first day, we had kids coming from all over, I didn’t know how many kids were going to show up,” Litzau said. “It was an incredible feeling.”
For his first few years in the role, Litzau was utterly devoted to his work at the school.
When things were still being established in those early years at the school, Litzau was absolutely devoted to his work.
“I was at the school for two years every day, except Christmas,” Litzau said. “We had to get everything organized.”
Now, even though he’s retired, Litzau continues to educate in other ways. By sharing stories from his youth, he feels he is able to teach others about his own experiences and how they intersect with the history of Ojibwe communities in the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake Nations.
During the event, Litzau reminisced on smaller stories, chatting with old friends he knew from his university days and sharing stories of families and people whose lives connected with his own.
Small and large histories alike are passed through the memories and stories shared by others, and events like those held by the Beltrami County Historical Society can serve as a tangible example of how local history is kept alive.
Litzau was the first speaker in a series of Brown Bag events that will be hosted by the historical society, which will take place at noon on the third Thursday of each month. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own packed lunch and join to learn about different topics pertaining to local history.
The next event will be held in March with speaker Barry Babcock, who is scheduled to discuss early explorers in Minnesota.