A woman's path from wilderness to MIT

Author:
Updated:
Original:

As a young child in the wilderness of northern Ontario, Mildred Noble
watched the multicolored Northern Lights shimmer and dance like heavenly
fire across the sky.

More than six decades later, Noble would watch other lights - Boston's city
lights - glow steadily as she reinvented her life as a student in the
Community Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For Noble, Ojibway, who will turns 85 in October, the journey from
wilderness to MIT scholar and self-fulfillment as a writer took her along
painful paths through racism, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, the death
of a son in the Vietnam War, the murder of a daughter and years of cultural
alienation, isolation, and depression as an urban Indian cut off from the
natural environment of her childhood.

Noble's hard work in getting an education went hand-in-hand with reclaiming
her Indian heritage. It was a struggle almost every step of the way, she
said.

"I left school in Canada in the third grade, but I had learned to read and
I became an avid reader all my life; so when I went to college, I was able
to get by. I wasn't a great student, but I just wanted the experience and
the process," Noble said.

Noble's parents, who were band members of the Ojibway Nation, had left
their tribal connections behind on the reservation. The family - three
girls and an adopted boy - spent summers canoeing the waterways of the
northern tundra living in a tent or on the outskirts of a small mining
town. Her father fished and hunted; her mother made moccasins and leggings
from moose hides and blankets from rabbit skins. Occasionally, her father
would be arrested and hauled off to prison for hunting and fishing "out of
season." When he was finally brought to court, he would be released after
showing the judge a copy of the Robinson Huron Treaty that asserted the
rights of tribal members to hunt and fish without restriction.

At age 18, Noble left her family, married and moved to Boston, where she
bore three children and began to experience "the havoc of city life," she
said.

Her two sisters died young of tuberculosis, her mother died soon after
Noble moved to Boston, she was estranged from her father and became caught
in an abusive marriage that ended in divorce.

"I was out of contact with all I had ever known and all that I was familiar
with. I was overwhelmed by the assimilation process. When life's troubles
came to me, I was literally without a place to return to," Noble said.

Like many American Indians, Noble's reconnection with her "Indian-ness" was
seeded in the consciousness-raising Indian rights movement of the early
1970s.

"Up until 1972, my association with Indian people was limited to neighbors
of Micmac descent, and to mother's brothers and sisters who came on annual
visits from the reserves in Canada. I soon became aware that I was bereft
of Indian-ness. I had little knowledge of my tribe or my Indian heritage,"
Noble said.

The importance of education came crashing down in 1973 after a horrendous
year of loss in which both her son and a daughter died.

"My heart and spirit were crushed with pain. I lived with an enormous sense
of guilt. I thought to myself, 'If only I had been a better mother. If only
I had an education.' These thoughts haunted me," Noble wrote in her 1997
book, "Sweetgrass."

Noble began working at the Boston Indian Council (later the North American
Indian Center of Boston), which provides an array of social services in
health, education, tutoring and alcohol counseling to the area's American
Indians.

Because the council was federally funded, its employees were required to
take college courses related to their jobs. Noble began taking evening
courses at Boston College and graduated in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in
social science. She was 60 years old. It was a hard-won achievement, Noble
said.

"When I graduated college, one of my grandchildren was there and he became
a college graduate, and my two other grandchildren are in the process of
finishing college. My daughter was going to college at the same time I was,
so they understood that education was important," Noble said.

Noble's reclamation of her heritage blossomed in 1987 - '88 when she was
accepted into a unique program at MIT called the Community Fellows Program.

Mel King, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning,
designed and taught the program from 1971 until his retirement 25 years
later. The program included around a dozen students each year from all over
the country, including one to three American Indians.

"The program was principally to get people who were community organizers,
developers, educators - folks who were on what I called the front lines of
the struggle - and what we wanted was, since most of them were in community
agencies, a way for them to have a sabbatical - but one in which their
fundamental purpose would be rest, reflection, revitalization and
redevelopment," King said.

"Reflection was for them to take a look at where they were, the issues
they'd been struggling with, and to think about new strategies for dealing
with them. The redevelopment would be [when] they would develop a new
program or some approach they thought would make a difference in the
communities they came from," King said.

Noble did "extremely well" in the program, educating not only herself but
also others, King said.

"She's not a shy person, even though it may sound like she is at first. She
got people to understand aspects of the culture, which we all had to do.
She played a very positive role in the program in terms of giving people
insight and understanding. No, they didn't know much about American
Indians. I would say that maybe three or four out of the group may have had
some background."

It was the right program at the right time for Noble. She had excellent
references from Boston College and the Boston Indian Council. During her
year in the Community Fellows Program she plunged into the research,
traveling to the Whitefish River Reserve in northern Ontario to research
her family name - Paibomsai - and the Ojibway.

"At the reserve I met relatives and may other people at a Sunday church
service, where I was introduced as a Paibomsai. I heard people say, 'She
looks like us,'" Noble wrote in "Sweetgrass."

Noble accomplished several goals during her year at MIT in addition to her
travels and research into her family's background. She developed skills of
networking and knowledge about how to get things done. She took classes in
literature and art. She completed a children's book called "Jason's Story"
as her major project. She researched material on American Indian women of
the Northeast; finding there was very little available, she wrote a profile
of a Micmac woman she had interviewed.

"I also began to think about writing about the assimilation process that I
had personally experienced. I took the initial steps to do just that -
never realizing that seven years later I would be still working on it,"
Noble said.

"Sweetgrass" includes a long autobiographical section as well as portraits
of six other women, and provides a rare insight into the experiences,
struggles, triumphs and sometimes failures of contemporary American Indian
women's lives.

For those who survived and thrived in urban America, the common thread was
education.

The book, which is collected in various Indian archives and museums, is
currently out of print and rare to find. Noble said she would love to have
it reprinted.

Noble said she would not have completed "Sweetgrass" without having
participated in the Community Fellows Program.

"Everybody wants to create something. This is something," Noble said.

King, Noble and others are planning a 35th anniversary of the Community
Fellows Program to take place over Memorial Day weekend next year.

"We're just going to get people to think about what happened and if they
were to be a Community Fellow today, what would be the issues they'd take
on," King said.