Ojibwe elder loved handing down language, culture

Even though the name tag says “John,” this is Jerry James Lightfeather Sr. when he served in the U.S. Army. His brother, Aaron Lightfeather, says the “John” name tag is a mystery. (Courtesy Aaron Lightfeather)

Eddie Chuculate

PORTRAITS FROM THE PANDEMIC

Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS – If any organization or family in the Twin Cities needed spiritual assistance or Ojibwe language translation, Jerry James Lightfeather Sr. was the man to call.

Lightfeather, a Bois Forte Band of Chippewa tribal member, was a fluent Ojibwe speaker and spiritual leader, sometimes officiating funerals and helping with language classes and drum groups at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

A U.S. Army veteran, Lightfeather, 63, died April 19 – two days after his birthday – at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center from complications related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

He was the second Ojibwe to test positive for the coronavirus and likely the first in Hennepin County, said his brother Aaron Lightfeather of Minneapolis.

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Jerry Lightfeather (Photo courtesy Aaron Lightfeather)

"He was a humble, quiet man, and I respected him a lot,” said Cheryl Secola, director of the Culture, Language, Arts Network program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “If we needed an elder to pray or speak, he was always willing.”

Brother was best friend

Lightfeather’s best friend in Minneapolis and regular confidante was Aaron, 42. They grew up in Duluth, where their father, Harry Lightfeather, worked for Northwestern Bell, but for the last 10 years reconnected in Minneapolis. Jerry, who was a smoker and had diabetes, moved into Bywood East Health Care facility in July.

The last time Aaron saw him in person was on March 29 on Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis walking down the sidewalk. 

Two days later, on March 31, Aaron received a call from the home that his brother had been transferred by ambulance to the VA hospital, where a blood test confirmed on April 4 that he had the coronavirus.

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Aaron Lightfeather (Courtesy Aaron Lightfeather)

“I got a call from him a couple days after he went to the hospital,” Aaron said. “He said there were all these nurses wearing yellow gowns and everyone had face masks on and shields. He didn’t really know what was going on [pandemic]. He didn’t watch a lot of TV.”

Jerry was quarantined and not allowed in-room visitors.

Aaron said initially Jerry never exhibited a fever, headaches or other symptoms except for trouble breathing, wheezing and coughing.

“He said it felt like a semi was parked on his chest,” said Bernice Ellis, White Earth Ojibwe, a peer recovery specialist in Minneapolis. Jerry gave her an Ojibwe name, Naashkii—webinesiik or “Low Flying Thunderbeing,” two years ago.

“He wouldn’t tell me how bad he was feeling. He’d only tell my husband or Aaron. Said it stung like ammonia when he inhaled and he coughed on exhaling.”

Aaron said the first week in the hospital Jerry seemed to be doing OK. But the week of April 5, his breathing problems worsened. 

During his brother's hospitalization, Aaron said they talked every day.

“It was hard to hear him with all the machines going, and by the time he got off the phone, he was huffing and puffing and gasping like he’d just run a marathon,” Aaron said.

On April 17, Jerry’s 63rd birthday, VA staff set up a telephone video monitor call with Aaron, who said Jerry was his usual joking and smiling self.

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Screenshot from Jerry Lightfeather and Aaron Lightfeather visiting over a video telephone monitor on Jerry’s 63rd birthday April 17 at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Jerry died two days later. (Courtesy of Aaron Lightfeather)

Two days later, on April 19, Jerry died. His cause of death is listed on his death certificate as COVID-19.

“I waited a couple days [after video call] to give him some rest, and when I called on the 20th, they said he wasn’t on file. They transferred me to the doctor, and I could tell right off the sorrow in his voice. … He told me my brother had passed away, and my heart just dropped.

“He’d always tell me [while in the hospital], ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get through this,’ always being positive. But on our last phone call, he said to me in Ojibwe, ‘I’m getting ready to leave this Earth.’”

Jerry was buried April 25 in the Lightfeather Cemetery on Nett Lake at the Bois Forte reservation. Steve Jackson, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, officiated.

It was a small gathering of 10 due to social distancing. Jerry, born on April 17, 1957, in Bois Forte, was buried with his sandstone-and-wood pipe and eagle feather on his chest, per his wishes, with his head pointing east in accordance with tribal custom.

“It was his decision to pass on to the spirit world, and we have to accept that decision," Aaron said. "He knew he couldn’t fight it any longer, but he died with honor."

Loved teaching Ojibwe

In addition to teaching Ojibwe and conducting cedar-smudging ceremonies, Jerry liked playing keno at the casinos and eating chicken at Golden Corral. His catchphrase was “Oh, yeah?”

“His smile could light up a room,” said his friend and care manager Marissa Hoffman, 36, at the Bywood East home. “Jerry and I had a really good rapport and out of all the employees, he and I were the closest. … He loved the Green Bay Packers, and I’m a Vikings fan so we would crack jokes about that.”

Kevin Smokeyday, Kinistin First Nation of Saskatchewan, also teaches Ojibwe and would drink coffee with Jerry at the Chippewa center or talk on the phone.

“He had so much knowledge of the language and culture and a passion for passing it on,” said Smokeyday, 52, who teaches at the Nawayee Center School for Indigenous education in Minneapolis. “He viewed kids as an open notebook who could be taught the language in different ways. When I talked [Ojibwe] with him, it was like talking to one of my uncles.”

It is undetermined how Jerry, who served as a communications specialist in the Army and was stationed in New Mexico, contracted the disease.

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Jerry Lightfeather (Courtesy Aaron Lightfeather)

Jerry was preceded in death by parents Evelyn Geyshick and Harry Lightfeather, both of Bois Forte. His biological father was Jim Pete.

He was also preceded in death by a son, Robert Lightfeather, in Seattle.

Surviving children are Darrin Lightfeather of Minneapolis; Jerry Lightfeather Jr. of Stillwater, Minnesota; Sonia Beaulieu (Lightfeather), Walker, Minnesota; and Dylan Lightfeather and Cheyenne Lightfeather, both of Bena, Minnesota.

Surviving siblings are Aaron, Kenneth Lightfeather of Duluth, Minnesota; Norman Lightfeather, Fridley, Minnesota; Elroy Light, Cass Lake, Minnesota; Harriet Lightfeather, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Diane Lightfeather of Duluth.

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis. @eddie_chuculate; chuculate66@yahoo.com

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Read more Portraits from the Pandemic: https://indiancountrytoday.com/obituaries/

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This story has been updated to correct Cheryl Secola's title. She is director of the Culture, Language, Arts Network program program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

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