Mildred Noble, 86; writer and Native American activist

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2008

Mildred "Millie" Noble grew up under the Northern Lights in Ontario, in a small mining town where her father fished and hunted and her mother turned moose hides and rabbit skins into moccasins, leggings and blankets. Life was hard. She dropped out of school early on, and her life would take many painful turns.

But in her later years, she discovered a penchant for writing and called upon those experiences to portray the struggles of Native Americans.

Ms. Noble, an activist who helped start the Boston Indian Council, now the North American Indian Center of Boston, died Jan. 19 in Mashpee from complications of liver cancer. She was 86.

Her parents were members of the Ojibwe Nation, and the family spent their summer paddling around in a canoe, and camping out in a tent outside the mining town.

At around 18, she left the wilderness and moved to Boston, seeking, as she described it, "the havoc of city life." She married and had three children; her two sisters died of tuberculosis; her mother died not long after she moved to the city, and her marriage ended in divorce.

"I was out of contact with all I had ever known and all that I was familiar with," she told Indian Country Today. "I was overwhelmed by the assimilation process. When life's troubles came to me, I was literally without a place to return to."

In the 1970s, she was swept into a wave of Native American pride and celebration of culture that rolled across the country.

And then tragedy struck again - her son died in the Vietnam War and a daughter was killed shortly thereafter in a fire set by the daughter's husband.

"My heart and spirit were crushed with pain," she wrote in a book she published on the plight of six Native American women. "I lived with an enormous sense of guilt. I thought to myself, 'If only I had been a better mother. If only I had an education.' These thoughts haunted me."

In the early days of the Boston Indian Council, she worked hard to bring social services to Native Americans in and around Boston. She helped to establish Tecumseh House, an outpatient facility that helps Native Americans battle addictions.

Meanwhile, she took night courses at Boston College, where the dean of the school's College of Advancing Studies encouraged her to turn her stories into written works.

"She talked in stories, and people like to hear stories," the Rev. James Woods said. "She was a mothering person. She was a caring person and people were very important to her - specifically the Native American people."

She started writing her book while taking night courses, later recalling that it was quite a challenge to learn to type.

"I started by jotting down notes of childhood experiences that I remembered during a stressful period of my life," she wrote in the introduction to her book. "Those memories unfolded in graphic pictures, almost as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether or not I had the technical ability to 'write' was of no consequence. I just did."

And when writer's block took over, she powered through that.

But the process came together, in the end, with the help of her academic pursuits.

"My early efforts were written in a random and disorganized fashion, and, since I did not have the experience to rearrange it, the thought of completing the book was overwhelming to me. I contemplated this problem as I sat on a park bench, or watched TV, or walked about the city. I began to question the project's validity and whether I could finish it. 'Why must I do it?' I asked myself. 'What value is there in writing about Indian women's lives?' No answer."

As a sexagenarian, she earned her bachelor's degree from Boston College in 1987, the same year she started writing "Sweet Grass: Lives of Contemporary Native Women," which was published a decade later.

She earned a graduate certificate from the Community Fellowship Program at MIT in 1989. As part of the program, she visited the Whitefish River Reserve in Ontario, meeting many of her extended family members. She formed long-lasting ties with the Wampanoag community in Mashpee, and produced a local television program called "Wampanoag Women Speak," family recalled.

She reveled in her success in putting alcoholism behind her through Alcoholics Anonymous. She retired in the 1990s, and became a fixture at area powwows. Family members would take turns driving her around New England, bringing along folding tables to sell jewelry.

She continued to write, and a children's book called "Jason's Story" was published in 2003.

"I think one of the big things in her life was stressing to people the importance of education," said her grandson Jason Lang of Quincy, the inspiration for the main character.

And she was not one to mince words.

"You pretty much always knew where you stood with her," her grandson said.

She was also curious by nature, friends said.

"If anything whet her curiosity at all, she wouldn't hesitate to go up to you and ask you things, where someone else might hang back," Shirley Mills of Falmouth said. "She was really unique that way. In my mind she was a legend in her time."

In addition to her grandson, Ms. Noble leaves her daughter Carol Mills of Mashpee; three other grandsons; three granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. today in the North American Indian Center of Boston in Jamaica Plain.

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