digital portrait of Native American Elder

A Portraiture of Eliza Blaker

Since I was a small child, I have always loved the old family photos, especially when my mom would tell me stories of who the people were. The above digital drawing is based on one of three surviving photos of my Great Grandmother Eliza. My hope is to give a bit of life to the original photo which despite being blurry and in bad condition, still conveys the depth of her life’s challenges and victories. Children were of obvious importance to her self-identity as all three photos depict her with children.  After studying the image for hours, I began noticing wrinkles and facial features that aren’t readily apparent; somehow I felt I got to know her at least a little bit.

I used to think the baby in this photo was huge, but later learned Eliza was a very small woman.

My mom Elizabeth (“Chiz” drawing on the left) Matthews never met her grandmother and namesake Elizabeth (Eliza) Blaker, who died in 1935- four years prior to my mom’s birth in 1939.  She heard stories about Eliza; a spunky old Chippewa elder who kept life under control despite being such a tiny woman.  She knew Eliza’s maiden name was Irons and that she came from Ontario.  Other than that, there was not much known about her. However, based on genealogical research and archived pages of the L’Anse Sentinel I have been able to discover a little bit more about my ancestor.  

Eliza was born in 1853 on the Curve Lake Reserve in Ontario Canada. Her parents were Mary McCue and Jacob Irons. There are still Iron’s and McCues around Curve Lake and the name shows up in the history of the area. In the eighties, I worked with Hap McCue, a respected Ojibwa language teacher, not knowing he was a distant cousin.   Eliza’s grandmother had the impressive name of Mary Ishpahahmooqua Whetung. Eliza’s grandfather was Joseph Whetung, who is the also the ancestor of all my Whetung relatives spread across England, Canada and the United States.

My great grandmother married my great grandfather Wesley Blaker around 1890 in Canada where she gave birth to three children. In 1894 Wesley moved back to the L’Anse Indian Reservation with his young family.  One of the boys, Joshua (I knew Uncle Josh quite well when I was four-see pic of him below) wanted to be an American but was denied at first because there was a law forbidding Natives from other countries the right to apply for citizenship. Wesley, like his wife, was also a Canadian indigenous person. He had earlier fled to the States but returned to Canada to marry Eliza and bring her back to Zeba. 

Eliza and Wesley’s eldest son Amos appeared to be quite the celebrity in Baraga County. He was a musician, athlete, and a doctor in physical therapy at the Sanitorium in Battle Creek. The Sentinel has many postings of a “Dr. Blaker” visiting his parents. I’m sure that my great grandparents were quite proud of him. My mother also knew Amos and I sometimes would read the letters he wrote to her. She said that shortly before he died, the letters were written mostly in Ojibwa and she couldn’t understand them! 

Eliza buried at least two children. The first was a four-month-old girl born in Michigan shortly before my grandmother was born.  In 1920 her daughter Lucy Blaker Spruce died; she left many descendants, my cousins, and many still live on the reservation.  

Eliza, her brother-in-law Jonathan to the right, and son Joshua Blaker on the left.

Throughout history and up to the present day, Native women suffer a high rate of violence against them. Here is an article from June 12, 1897:

“Mrs. Wesley Blaker and Mrs. Dacota, who both reside at the M.E. Mission, made complaint against a man named Quinn Thursday afternoon, charging him with having attempted to criminally assault them while they were walking on the road leading to the mission.  Quinn made his escape and has not yet been found.”

There is no follow up article and chances are this “Quinn” wasn’t brought to justice. Many native women do not report assault for a variety of reasons, but I felt a sense of pride that my great grandmother and her friend decided to speak out. This article also reminded me of what happened to my grandmother Charlotte, Lizzie’s daughter, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver near the same road mentioned in the above article. He was never prosecuted either. 

Around this same time, Eliza sold finely crafted baskets she made to tourists. How I would love to see these baskets! They were probably black ash. I wonder if any still survive. 

The following article from 1934 touched me most and gives a peak into what life was like on the reservation in the middle of the great depression for my great grandmother and grandfather: 

I knew the Blakers lived along the Pequaming Road, which ran along the eastern side of Keweenaw Bay.  Wesley ran a general store and a watering trough for horses coming to and from Pequaming.  In the seventies, us teenagers used to hang out in an abandoned one-story building at this location. The walls were stuffed with newspapers that were 20 and 30 years old. After reading the above article, I sometimes wonder if this could have been the same structure that my great grandparents spent their last years in. 

Cabins near where the Blaker property used to be along Pequaming Road

Eliza’s obituary noted that she died 15 months after her husband passed and she was buried next to him at the Pinery Cemetery.  I used to visit the Pinery Cemetery with my uncle Matt who would show me the general area of the Blaker’s unmarked grave that was “between two trees”. Now the specific site is lost. 

Spirit Houses at the Pinery Cemetery

Most of the younger generations know nothing about Eliza. This short biography along with my sketch is an interpretation of her life based on my thoughts, feelings, and research. I knew many aunts, uncles, and cousins who had a first-hand relationship with Eliza and Wesley but are now all gone. As a child, I used to ask questions about my ancestors and my relatives sometimes talked about them but I don’t remember most of the specifics. It grieves me now that the first-hand knowledge they had is gone; how I long to talk with them again! I would have loved to share my research as this would have prompted more memories and stories. It is my hope that this short description of my great grandmother Eliza Blaker will be valued by the younger generations as well and help feed their desire to find out more about where they come from and for all of us to find out more from those who are still with us. 

Eliza with my aunt Sarah to the left

3 Responses

  1. Love this! Thank you, Michael for all the research you have done on our family. It’s so great to be able to read the stories of our ancestors. 💞

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