Larry ‘Amik’ Smallwood: An Anishinaabe Success Story


Brett Larson Staff Writer

Larry ‘Amik’ Smallwood passed away on April 11, leaving both a legacy and a void.

Amik’s friend Lee ‘Obizaan’ Staples put his loss in terms that Amik would have appreciated: “At funerals I always talk about how each one of us was put here for a reason, and Amik was someone who was able to accomplish what he was put here to do,” said Lee, citing Amik’s roles as Drumkeeper and language teacher, as well as the many ceremonies he conducted, from naming to funerals.

“I always imagine that when it’s time for us to go down that path we take when we leave here, it must be a wonderful feeling to know you accomplished what the Manidoog wanted you to do,” Lee continued. “I call that Anishinaabe success.”

In his 69 years, Amik’s impact was immense — on the powwow trail, where his voice was familiar to thousands; in the classroom, where Amik shared his knowledge of the Ojibwe language for 47 years; even on the airwaves, where Amik was a regular guest on the radio and made appearances on videos and television.

But to many, he was more than just a face or a voice: he was an original, from the jokes and stories to the boots and belt buckles and beard and shades. (As Arne Vainio put it in an article that accompanies this one, he was “one of the coolest Indians anywhere.”)

Although his lasting legacy may be as a teacher of the Ojibwe language and culture, Amik was also a father, grandfather, great grandfather, brother, mentor, Drumkeeper and friend.

“He was a busy man, with work and everything else he was doing,” said Eli Staples, one of Amik’s children. “He was a road warrior.”

Amik’s friend and adopted brother Tom Benjamin said, “The man could not sit down.” He talked about Amik texting one-handed without looking at his old iphone. He was an early adopter of carphones, cellphones and texting and was surprisingly comfortable with technology for a guy his age.
Eli said, “He had a passion for his work, and he stressed that all the time. It was all for the culture. He loved it, and he loved meeting people. Whenever he met somebody, he always tried to help them out. He had a big heart.”

According to Eli, Amik always said humor was one of the best qualities of Anishinaabe people. “Every little story, he made it funny,” said Eli.
Eli spent his early years in St. Louis and got to know Amik as a teenager when he moved to Hinckley. In the early 2000s, he moved in with his dad. “We built a tight bond,” he said. “He became one of my best friends.” They’d shop for cars together, and Eli was amazed how many car dealers his dad knew.
Eli has kids of his own, who loved their grandpa. “He loved his grandkids,” Eli said. “He would hold ‘em, grab ‘em. That’s when he was happiest, when he was talking, joking, teasing, with the grandkids running around.”

In addition to teaching and family, Amik kept busy as a powwow emcee, where he was known for his resonant baritone, his sense of humor, his skill at moving things along in a laid-back kind of way, and his ability to teach the significance of the various dances, songs and other traditions.

His first gig as emcee was at the University of Minnesota – Duluth in 1982. Over the years, according to Eli, powwow season was a whirlwind of activity and a long series of road trips. “Damn near every weekend of the summer he’d be somewhere.”

Amik always loved the powwows at Hinckley and Mille Lacs, as well as the Veterans Powwow at Lac Courte Oreilles and the Red Lake powwow in Ponemah. “That one always wore him out,” Eli said. He was also emcee at the first two Ge-Ishkonigewag powwows in Minisinaakwaang in 2015 and ’16.

“It’s gonna be tough going to powwows, man, cause I’m used to hearing his voice all weekend,” Eli said.

He knows he’s not the only one. “Everyone’s gonna feel that emptiness,” he added. “He’s gonna be missed. I’m still in awe about how many people he touched.”

Early years

Amik was one of the youngest native speakers of Ojibwe in Minnesota. He was given that gift by Pete and Mary Nickaboine, the aunt and uncle who raised him and spoke Ojibwe in the home.

Amik told of going off to school in first grade with no knowledge of English. He experienced language learning in an immersion environment, and by the end of his first year, he could under- stand what was going on.

Pete and Mary lived in a one-room house, but Amik never thought of himself as poor. There was always enough, thanks to Pete’s work ethic and an abundance of jobs — from picking beans and potatoes, to cleaning and fixing resort cabins, to ricing and cutting pulpwood. Amik learned to work alongside his neighbors and relatives, and he maintained that work ethic throughout his life.

When he was old enough to quit school, he moved to the Twin Cities and worked on sod farms until he was drafted in 1968.

He was discharged in 1970 and ended up in school for auto mechanics in Los Angeles, pursuing a lifelong love of cars and travel.

He never ended up working as a mechanic because he had another skill that was in higher demand. When he moved back to Minnesota, he was hired to teach Ojibwe in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

During the next 30 years, he taught at Nay Ah Shing Schools at Mille Lacs, Leech Lake Tribal College, and the University of Minnesota–Duluth, while visiting dozens of other schools around the region as a “teacher coach.” In 1999, he came home to Hinckley and became the Mille Lacs Band’s Director of Language and Culture, a position he held until his death.

Amik was a storehouse of cultural knowledge — not just the language but the history, the Big Drums and other ceremonies, mide’, ricing and sugaring, and the stories of Wenabozho, which he told when snow was on the ground.

Last winter, when he told Wenabozho stories at the Grand Makwa, Amik explained that we all see Wenabozho when we look in the mirror because he’s so much like us: good sometimes, bad sometimes, a success, a failure, funny, serious, a truth-teller, a liar.

Amik was also closely involved in the production of television pro- grams, including “People of the Big Lake” and “The Jingle Dress Tradition,” which was based on Amik’s telling of the story of the origin of the jingle dress.

According to Adrienne Benjamin, who worked with Amik at the Anishinaabe Izhitwaawin Immersion Grounds in Rutledge, he was very proud of the lm and felt strongly that Mille Lacs’ story of the jingle dress deserved to be told. He would say, “I don’t care what anyone else says, I know what those old people told me, and that dream was had here first!”

Adrienne said Amik was a deeply loved mentor to many in the community who were interested in the language and culture. “The Anishinaabe Izhitwaawin was especially meaningful to Amik,” Adrienne said. “He would talk about how Art Gahbow, Marge Anderson and Dave Matrious all contributed to the vision of a place where tribal members could go to learn and practice our old ways — a place to socialize in Ojibwemowin, a place to heal, a place to harvest, and a place for community. In Amik’s mind, it was a place for all people to come and be together as a community and rough it like the old days. He would speak about how he saw those on the road to recovery from drugs and alcohol coming to the grounds to heal and be in nature, using the language and customs as a part of their healing process. He envisioned kids running around, winnowing rice, hauling sap buckets, and speaking the language freely with each other. Rutledge wasn’t just the place that Amik worked, it was the foundation for a dream that he carried for the tribe.”

Another friend was Michael ‘Migizi’ Sullivan from Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin. Michael was a seventh grader when he met Amik, who traveled to LCO as a teacher coach. “He was al- ways in LCO for our powwows,” said Michael. “He took a liking to me early. We had the same clan, and he knew I was really into language and music.”

Michael called Amik a “Hall of Fame singer,” as well as a keeper of rare ceremonial songs. As a young man who was fluent in the language, Amik spoke with elders from all over Ojibwe country to learn and pass on those songs and other traditions that might have been forgotten.

“He was the only speaker I knew who had all the words for tattoos and hickeys,” Michael said. “But he had no words for shame or guilt. He said those were Chimookomaan concepts.”

Michael and Amik worked together on the online Ojibwe dictionary while Michael was earning his Ph.D. in Linguistics, and at the time of Amik’s death they were working on a book of stories, which Michael said is 95 percent finished.

Like Eli, Michael said he would miss Amik’s sense of humor — but also his encouragement. “He was real supportive, eh? When it comes to us young guys learning Ojibwe, it’s hard. There’s a lot of critical people out there. He was one of those who encouraged us to be creative with our language, to use it and make things funny and descriptive, in a way that allows us to take ownership. He got a kick out of hearing us.”

Michael echoed Lee Staples, saying Amik had accomplished his purpose, and as much as people may want to be “stingy” and not let him go, it was his time. “He was engaged in language teaching for so long, and in the last 10 years, as some of us were learning to speak the language, it was like a victory lap as he came toward the end of his life.”

Several hundred attended Amik’s funeral in Aazhoomog — possibly the largest group ever gathered at the community center. The size of the crowd was a testament to Amik’s impact as a teacher, friend and warrior for his people and culture.

“It’s hard to believe how much of an impact he made,” Eli said. “From the time he died up until the funeral, I met so many people I didn’t even know about. They came from all over. It was a such a powerful thing to see how many people showed up. There was a lot of respect for that old man.”

Some wondered why Amik chose to be buried in Hinckley rather than Aazhoomog, but Eli said he had clearly stated his desire to family members and others. Passing the cemetery in Hinckley, Amik would say, “When I pass, that’s where I want to be buried.”

One time Eli asked him why. Amik said, “I want to be buried there so I can see my kids when they go by.”

“And I want to mess with all those white people,” he added.

“It was always humor with that guy,” Eli said. “I’m gonna miss that man.”