36 pages 1 hour read

Ignatia Broker

Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1983

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in 1983, Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative is a nonfiction work that lauds Indigenous history (specifically, that of Ojibway oral tradition). The author, Ignatia Broker, tells the life story of her great-great-grandmother, the titular Night Flying Woman (or Oona), who lived from the mid-19th century until the 1930s. An activist for Native American rights and a member of the Ojibway people, Broker received a Wonder Woman Foundation Award for her work toward equality a year after Night Flying Woman’s publication. In telling the story of Oona, she provides a detailed description of the Ojibway culture—one that reveres nature and its own traditions—before the arrival of European settlers.

Ignatia Broker uses the spelling “Ojibway” rather than the more common “Ojibwe.”

This guide is based on the Minnesota Historical Society Press paperback edition published in 1983.


In the Prologue, Ignatia Broker summarizes her life story, including the discrimination that she experienced as an Ojibway during and after World War II and her subsequent efforts to help Indigenous people. She explains that many Ojibway moved from their reservation to Minneapolis and other cities once discriminatory policies were challenged. Now living away from their people, many Ojibway no longer know their history or traditions. Broker writes Night Flying Woman as a “letter” to her grandchildren. She proceeds to tell the story of her great-great-grandmother Oona, as it was passed down to her orally.

Born in the mid-19th century, Oona began her life without the influence of European settlers. An elder woman of Oona’s village, A-wa-sa-si, was chosen to select her name. She chose the name Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe (Night Flying Woman) for Oona (“Oona” being the short version of her formal name) because the latter had been born during an eclipse. The formal name was unveiled during a naming ceremony and celebrated with a feast. Oona’s early years were happy ones, with the Ojibway sharing their food and looking out for one another. When Oona was five, a group of eight families, including her own, decided to move to avoid the white settlers. They fled their home silently so that these strangers would not see and count them. Among those traveling with Oona were her parents, her aunt and uncle, her cousin E-Quay, her grandparents, the elder A-wa-sa-si, and others. The journey to a new home was a long and difficult one, especially for the elders. However, they eventually made a new home in what they called “rainy country.” They selected this site because it would be difficult for the white settlers to find and required traversing through dangerous marshes. The village’s first years in this new home were fruitful: everyone worked hard, some fishing and hunting, others cultivating and collecting food, and others engaging in craftsmanship. They lived in the traditional way and held ceremonies and feasts.

As dreams and knowledge of medicine are important to the Ojibway, they try to determine which children are likely to become Dreamers and Medicine People. Oona was a Dreamer, which meant that some of her dreams indicated future events and that she had the special ability to commune with the spiritual world. The Ojibway believed in a great spirit and the spirits of animals. When it was clear that the elder A-wa-sa-si was dying, someone was sent to find her sons (as it is important for the Ojibway to hold their children’s hands before death). Oona had predicted how one of A-wa-sa-si’s sons would be found in a dream—surrounded by white settlers. A-wa-sa-si’s sons arrived in time to be with their mother. When the old woman died, the traditional mourning ritual—which lasted one year—was observed. One of her sons warned the villagers that the white settlers would be coming to the rainy country soon—and it came to be. When a stranger did arrive, he told the Ojibway that they must leave their home for a Native Area or reservation. Once again, the group had to make a long and difficult journey to a place called White Earth Reservation.

Arriving at White Earth Reservation, Oona immediately noticed the influence that the white settlers had on her people. While the Ojibway already residing there welcomed Oona’s group warmly, some had the clothes and homes of the settlers. Oona’s group decided to make their home away from the village and in the forest, where they would be most comfortable and could preserve the traditional way of life. However, an Ojibway man dressed like the settlers later informed them that their children were required to attend school in the village. If the group did not move back to the village, they would be forced to send their children away for long periods of time and have no influence on their socialization. Ultimately, they opted to move to the village.

Oona’s group built their own lodges, forming a village called Greenwood. While they retained many of their traditional ways and continued to plant foods in the forest, they adopted some of the white settlers’ ways as well. Oona’s mother, in particular, started to dress differently. Many of the men, including Oona’s father, worked in the logging camps of the settlers. He found the work disheartening, as the Ojibway valued the trees in the forest. The settlers did not deliver as much food as they had promised, but Oona’s group did not go hungry as they had planted plenty of their own food. The government agent of White Earth Reservation was displeased by this, so the Ojibway had to practice some of their traditions (such as the collection of medicinal herbs) secretly. Oona’s mother was saddened to hear that the white teachers at the village school spoke poorly of Ojibway culture. Oona’s grandfather encouraged Oona to retain the old ways with no shame and to only accept the new ways that were good.

When Oona was 15, her mother died and her father died soon after. At 17, Oona married a man who was part Ojibway—both of them Christians—and left to live on a farm. She brought her aunt, uncle, and grandparents with her. Following the death of E-Quay’s husband in a logging accident, she and her children joined Oona as well. At the farm, they retained many Ojibway traditions but also farmed in a new way. Oona had two sons who learned both the old and new ways. Later in her life, Oona visited the reservation less frequently. She was saddened to find that so many children did not know their own history and lived according to the new ways alone. In addition, laws made it more difficult to practice traditions.

In the 1930s, Oona and her husband became elders and their great-grandsons managed the farm. Before Oona’s husband died, she was able to send a spiritual message to her great-great-grandchildren to return home, so they could hold his hand in accordance with Ojibway tradition. As Oona was losing hope that the old ways would be upheld, a young girl named A-wa-sa-si (like Oona’s own elder years ago) visited her and asked that she tell the stories of their people. At that moment, Oona knew that the Ojibway people would survive.