It is with great sorrow and sadness to announce the passing of Ellen B. Olson on May 15, 2023. Ellen was an enrolled member of the Grand Portage Band. She is survived by numerous relatives residing in Grand Portage and other parts of the country. She is also survived by daughters, Shelley and Marcie. Ellen was the daughter of Peter and Sophia Bushman. Since the age of two years, Ellen was nurtured and educated by the kind and benevolent couple, Maymashquash and Songwewence, whose English names were Alex and Mary Posey. Consequently, Ellen spoke the Native language as a first language, and she was surrounded by all aspects of Indigenous learning. Ellen loved to read. She read Shakespeare and the Bible as a youth. She often quoted these source materials throughout her life. The histories of the Plantagenets, the Tudors and Napoleon were subjects Ellen read voraciously as an adult. She loved fiction, both historical and contemporary. Lastly, she was interested in reading about women’s history and contemporary feminist thought. She read about the fur trade and American Indian history and culture, even though many of the texts were basically flawed and laden with assumptions. Ellen loved music. She particularly loved the songs of her own Ojibwe people because her world as a child was filled with such music. She learned to love all music including classical, country, folk, pop, flamenco and ranchera. Ellen spent her lifetime as a vocal feminist. She learned her feminism from her Ojibwe tradition, whereby women are considered equal to men. She championed women’s rights and served as a good role model to other women, young and old. She defended the rights of LGBTQ persons also. Ellen often expressed the idea that women artists and crafts people are much happier and have greater self-esteem. Ellen practiced and perfected her skills as an Ojibwe craft specialist for the majority of her life. The renowned Ojibwe artist, Wendy Savage recently expressed that Ellen was a “national treasure.” The art of beadwork, porcupine quillwork, birchbark work, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, rug hooking, braided rugs, quilting, tailoring, weaving and fingerweaving were among the skills Ellen practiced on a regular basis. She reminisced about how she became an artist, “I remember the first article I made was a belt on black woolen material. I made tiny flowers and edged it in green and red ribbon on the ends. From the time I was a child, I watched how things were made. When you stand and watch somebody working and how they handle their tools, observe their hands and how they measure and cut, it becomes your unconscious goal too.” Ellen proved to be an accomplished designer having won prizes and awards at numerous juried art exhibitions. Regarding her design capabilities she stated, “I use my own designs. I get an idea in my mind and the designs spring from that. Basically, the designs I saw (as a child) were the animal designs, the beaver, the deer and the birds and the various motifs like hearts and stars. Beadwork designs now are the floral designs.” Ellen’s masterpieces form a part of numerous collections including Plains Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Minnesota Historical Society, the St. Louis County Historical Society, and Grand Portage National Monument, among others.
Ellen has been quoted in numerous periodicals, books and art catalogs. Particular interest is the fact that she starred in films including, U.S. State Department travelogue WWII; “My Chippewa Home Revisited,” Elmer Albinson, Producer, MN Historical Society collection; “Rendezvous with History: A Grand Portage Story, Great Divide Pictures, Grand Portage National Monument 2010; and “Aazhoniingwa’igan: Ojibwe Bandolier Bag, Plains Art Museum production, 1992.
Ellen was a lifelong community activist. She believed in helping others and taking a vocal stand on issues facing the community. Her activism has its roots in the Ojibwe tradition of Mino bimaadiziwin which represents the philosophical construct of how we should conduct ourselves as a people. Mino bimaadiziwin is comprised of numerous teachings, one of which stresses community involvement in order to care for our people. Most recently Ellen served as a delegate for the Grand Portage Constitution Convention. She served as a member of the American Indian Advisory Committee of the St. Louis County Historical Society, the Minnesota Indian Council of Elders, Wisdom Steps and many others. Her indigenous learning proved to be particularly useful when she assisted with writing the Grand Portage Land Use Plan. Ellen had the foresight to impart numerous Grand Portage teaching stories to others. Even though many of the story’s date to antiquity they continue to have modern day ramifications. Even the 1918-19 flu memories which have formed part of our oral history have served a useful purpose in the age of the Coronavirus Pandemic. One such story Ellen told about a year before her passing when her little doggie friend was choking. She said one time an old lady was visiting a young couple. This was during the days when a meal was served upon the arrival of visitors. The old lady was eating with the young couple when she began to choke. The couple thought she looked so funny that they sat there and laughed at her. They did not do anything to help the old lady and so she died. Therefore, human beings should help each other. A memorial service will be held for Ellen B. Olson on Friday August 11, 2023, 1:30 p.m. at the Grand Portage Community Center. Food donations are welcome.