In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Hero of Hinckley
By Leif Enger
September 29, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Premo's work is darkly radiant, almost stifling. Looking at it makes you loosen your collar.
A new mural commemorating the great Hinckley Fire of 1894 has been unveiled at the Hinckley Community Center. The fire produced a firestorm which incinerated hundreds of square miles and killed more than 400 people. The mural, by Ojibwe artist Steve Premo shows the historic rescue of a family by a young Ojibwe woman, whose identity has only recently been discovered.

UP UNTIL A FEW YEARS back, an aged Frank Patrick would visit the Hinckley Fire Museum to tell wide-eyed kids his tale of survival; how the day went black as the great fire reached their cabin on Grindstone Lake. How his mother, beating flames from her dress, lifted the two kids into a boat and pushed out into the water. How the three of them, adrift amid roiling smoke and hissing cinders, cried for help, then saw it arrive in a birchbark canoe.
Coffee: And out of the smoke and the flames came this Indian woman who rescued them, brought them back to her cabin, and kept them in the water overnight. She wrapped the two children in blankets and kept them in water and gave them food, and made them moccasins the next day, because they'd lost their shoes.
Over time, Patrick's narrative, retold by museum director Jeanne Coffee, acquired the shimmer of folklore. The museum displayed a cinder-burned blanket said to be that wrapped around the toddler Frank; Mrs. Patrick herself wrote an account of the event at the age of 85. But no one knew who the Indian woman was, or where she went after the fire. Then last year, artist Steve Premo proposed a mural portraying the rescue. The idea set museum director Coffee on a search for the missing hero.
Coffee: It was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. But through census records, through some documentation at the government center in Mille Lacs, we not only found her but found out who her mother and father were. We know she was a Mille Lacs Band member. She was an only child. Her full name was Mahkahdaygwon. Her English name was Katherine Wadena McDonnell.

In the shell of a creamery building across the street from the Hinckley Fire Museum, artist Premo is telling McDonnell's story. His canvas is a 12-by-40 foot frame wall, to be taken down and remounted on the community center a few blocks away. The work, nearly finished, is darkly radiant, almost stifling. Looking at it makes you loosen your collar.
Premo: The recounts of the day, it was black. Black as any night. The lights were turned on as far away as Duluth because of the smoke in the middle of the day. People said if you were escaping with someone and lost hold of their hand you couldn't find them again.
The painting shows two young women, four blanketed children - McDonnell had two of her own. Scared, determined, they stand in the black waters of Grindstone Lake under incandescent clouds. McDonell is shielding Frank Patrick, the smallest of the children. Steve Premo, himself Ojibwe, calls it a story of racial unity right for contemporary times.
Premo: There's a lot of misunderstanding between the two cultures. What interested me was trying to reach out from a band-member standpoint and give something to the community. One of the questions I keep asking is: "Why does great adversity have to show itself before two cultures come together?" It shouldn't take a Hinckley Fire.
Descendants of both families will be in Hinckley for the murals unveiling. Beverly Breiter, McDonnell's granddaughter now living in California, says her grandmother moved from Hinckley to White Earth in the early 1900s; that she was midwife in more than 200 births, while having 10 children with her husband.

Breiter describes her grandmother as a strong woman who treated the sick with native medicine and spoke Ojibwe all her life. To Brieter's knowledge, McDonnell never told the story of the rescue.
Breiter: I have a feeling she was the kind of lady, it was no big deal. I didn't know a thing about it. I was shocked, when my cousin, I call him my Indian Scout cousin, called (and) said, "You're gonna be amazed at what I'm gonna tell you." He said, "This is good news, Beverly."
When Katherine McDonnell - Mahkahdaygwon - died in 1956, her funeral was one of the best-attended in White Earth history.