Former Speaker Was a Man of Compassion


By Brett Larson, August 1, 2015

Alvina Aubele remembers when her brother, David Matrious, was born. “It was winter, and it was cold,” she recalled. “My dad had this old car hood, and he used it for a sled. We lived three miles from the main road, and he pulled my mom on that sled to the road.” From there they were driven to Cloquet, where David was born.

That car hood toboggan is a good symbol of David’s life — traditional and modern at the same time.

David passed away unexpectedly in June, taking with him a storehouse of cultural and historical knowledge and a loving heart that endeared him to his family and his community.

David served as District III Representative from 1986 to 1992 and as Secretary/Treasurer from 1992 to 1998. He played an important role in the development of the tribal government, the growth of the casinos and the victory in the 1837 Treaty case. During his time in office, David helped make decisions related to the planning and building of the casinos, the government center, schools, clinics, community centers, ceremonial buildings and a host of other projects.

Scott and Grace Matrious, David’s parents, were traditional Anishinaabe who lived in the Lake Lena community.

David and his siblings attended Twin Lakes School, a one-room schoolhouse near Lake Lena, as well as schools in Markville, Cloverton and Sandstone.

Scott made his income from logging, and he and Grace taught the children the value of hard work. The kids picked blueberries and beans to sell for extra income. They made birch bark birdhouses and peeled logs for their dad.

David always liked to be in the woods, according to his sister Carole Higgins. He was a Boy Scout, and he enjoyed sleeping in a tent and trying to live off the land. His mother would tell David, “I’m hungry for fish. Go fishing, Dave,” so he’d dig worms for bait and come back with fish.

David wasn’t exactly a saint, as his younger brother Gordon can attest. David once parachuted Gordon’s pet hamster off the roof, and he gave Gordon his first cigarette, then lied about it to their mom.

But Gordon admired David’s positive qualities.

“One thing about Dave, he always put everybody else before himself, even when he was in government office,” said Gordon. “Other people would get new houses for their family, but my brother wasn’t like that. He just got his house here two years ago.”

Once Gordon asked David why he didn’t get himself a house. David answered, “I don’t really need one. If someone needs one more than I do, they should have it.”

His sister Alvina said he waited a long time for that house, finally moving in less than two years ago. She remembered how he tried to give the house to her when she was having health problems. “Dave, I lived in this house for 20 years,” she told him. “You just got yours. Enjoy it.”

Carole thinks David inherited his warm nature from his Elders. “Our parents showed a lot of compassion, and David showed a lot of compassion too.”

Alvina agreed. “Years ago when our folks were living, they took in an elderly bachelor,” she said. “They took care of him, fed him, gave him clothes. I think what my parents did with that old man, that’s where Dave got his sense of helping people, because that’s what he did: helped people.”

David surprised his family in 1993 by marrying and starting a family. They thought he’d be a lifelong bachelor like his uncles, but according to his sister Carole, he took to family life and loved being with his wife Alida and their children, Alex, Angie and Scott.

He wasn’t just a father to his own kids. Alvina has a 45-year-old son who lost his father at a young age. When he heard his Uncle David had died, he said, “He was like a father to me.”

David was also a Drumkeeper, a role he inherited through his mother’s father. He took his responsibility seriously, making himself available for naming ceremonies and funerals. He also used his knowledge of the community to help people find the graves of their relatives.

David was also an advocate for sobriety, encouraging others to live well without using drugs and alcohol.

David ran for Secretary/Treasurer in 1998. Though he wasn’t successful in his bid for office, he continued to serve his community through research and teaching. In 2000, he helped establish Misizahga’igani Anishinabay Izhi Twah Win — the Ojibwe Language and Culture Center — in Rutledge, where he worked for seven years.

When Pine Grove Leadership Academy was started in 2007, David joined the staff, helping the Aazhoomog community pursue the dream of having a school to teach the Ojibwe language and culture. Earlier this year, Pine Grove became a satellite of Nay Ah Shing, and David was pleased to know the school would continue.

In recent years, David created artwork about clans and maps of the Anishinaabe communities along both sides of the St. Croix. He sponsored fundraisers for kids to travel to Alaska to meet native communities there, worked as a District III language instructor, and even put on a Christmas play with District III kids. David was named Outstanding Member of the Community in District III in 2011 after community members were asked to nominate people for the honor. David received the most nominations.

David’s passing was unexpected. Although he had some minor concerns about his heart, he had seemed healthy in the days leading up to his death — even dancing at a powwow with his friend Donald “Duck” White.
Alvina hopes Band members will carry on David’s legacy. “We should remember how Dave lived and how he was always helping other people. We need to do what we can to improve the community and be positive role models for the next generation.”

Carole said David’s passion was learning and teaching about Anishinaabe culture. “As we know, our Elders are dying, and a lot of knowledge gets lost. He would want us to get involved in learning traditional ways so we can help pass on that cultural knowledge.”

Remembering Dave Matrious
“Dave was a pillar of our community, always there to help anyone in need — anytime. He believed in our culture, and truly lived our seven values, one hundred percent. As a former elected leader, as a Drumkeeper and as a keeper of our history, he will be dearly missed by the entire community.” – Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin

“I was very saddened to hear of his passing. I first met David in the late 1980s when I was starting to research the history of the Aazhoomog or Lake Lena community in Pine County as part of my project to study the history of Ojibwe people through historical photographs. He was very kind and encouraging to me then, helping me to learn more about the history of the area and to get other band members interested in the project. He and I put together an exhibit of community photographs which we put up in the old community center where dances were held then. When I went to David’s wake a few weeks ago I was very sad to be there but I was happy to see those photographs still on the wall in the community center of today. After my book We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People came out in 2007, David took every opportunity to thank me and honor me for doing the book but it could never have been done without the active help and encouragement of David and his sister Alvina Aubele and many other people from the community. I had hoped that he and I could find opportunities to work together again to study the history of the area and even though he is gone the memory of his kindness will continue to be a help to me in every project I do. He will be greatly missed by me and by many others. I was honored to know him and to have him for a friend.” – Bruce White, historian and author

“Dave was on the Band Assembly when I first got to the Reservation in 1987. There was not a kinder, gentler soul on Earth. Often folks in politics feel they have to be tough or mean. Dave proved he could get things done by being a fundamentally decent human being and serving the people.” – Tadd Johnson, long-time Mille Lacs Band employee and consultant

“My friend David Matrious (Baadaasige): I had only met David in the last five years of his life. He was not only my friend but also my teacher. He taught me many native things, and though I was native myself I moved off the reservation when I was two years old and lost my native connection. We spent time in the sugar bush and the school he taught at. He would always be eager to help others and share his knowledge. I recently had a naming ceremony. He attended and was my sponsor. After I received my native name (Aawanagaabo – standing fog), he gave me his native name also, which to a native is an honor. I will cherish my time together and never forget my friend, my teacher, Baadaasige.” – Frank Blue

Dave Matrious in his own words:
Returning to My Cultural Roots
I grew up in the Aazhoomog community in District III of the Mille Lacs Reservation. We lived off of the trail that gave the area the name “Aazhoomog”, which means “crossroads” in Ojibwe. My father, Scottie Matrious, came from the St. Croix Band of Chippewa and my mother, Grace Sutton, was from the Mille Lacs Band.

My parents were very cultural people and spoke Ojibwe fluently. My mother stayed home with the kids and my dad was a logger in the spring and summer. He was a good hunter and liked to gather wild rice. I remember going to ceremonial events like the big drum with my dad and family. My father was a drum keeper. I learned a lot by watching him.

I quit high school in the tenth grade in 1969 and moved to St. Paul to work. Although I quit school early, I later got my G.E.D. and my A.A. degree in liberal arts. In St. Paul, I got my first job making $1.50 an hour as a set designer at the local PBS television station. When I went to work in television, I was very excited and fascinated with the programs and their production. There wasn’t electricity in Aazhoomog until the early 1970s, so I didn’t have television growing up.

I started out constructing and painting sets before moving to the production side. At that time, there were very few American Indians in television broadcasting. When I was 20 years old, I moved to Maryland to work at another PBS station. It was scary, because I didn’t know when I was going to return home. Working hard took my mind off of being homesick.

After four years in Maryland, I moved back to Minnesota. At that time, my parents lived on the St. Croix Reservation in Wisconsin. My father had a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side. My brother was finishing school, so I moved to Wisconsin to help my mother care for my father.

Coming home from Maryland changed my focus in life. The move brought me back to traditional tribal ways, which I had turned away from during my adolescence. I felt like I was starving for something more and turned to my heritage. I learned my Ojibwe name and that my family clan was Sturgeon. I also learned the Ojibwe language, although I can understand it more than I can speak it.

After about a year in Wisconsin, my family moved back to the Mille Lacs Reservation. Since my father was sick, I began helping him and my mother with the drum ceremonies. Before I went to Maryland, I was placed on my father’s drum, so I had some experience with the ceremonies.

In the mid-1980s, there was a special election for the District III Representative position and I decided to run. I lost the election, but still got involved in the community. I started attending community meetings and sat on the housing committee after being asked to do so by one of the Band Representatives.

Then in June of 1986, I ran again for District III Representative and this time was elected. I held that position for six years, at which time I was appointed to Secretary/Treasurer of the Band Assembly. I also held that position for six years.

Today, I continue to be involved with the Band. I now work at the Band’s Ojibwe Language and Culture Center as a resource specialist and help teach others about the Ojibwe culture. I don’t pretend to know everything about the Ojibwe culture and drum ceremonies, but what I do know, I want to pass down. It’s important to share these traditions, otherwise we’ll lose our culture.

Photo courtesy of the Mille Lacs Messenger