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Artifacts of a life: Onita Osborn passed away in June after a life of travel and sharing her American Indian culture

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Sharon Osborn, left, talks with her brother Joe Osborn about the wall their mother Onita Osborn built around the sewage mound in her yard. Onita was inspired after a trip to China. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 4
Onita Osborn with a group of school children that she had recently taught about American Indian culture. (Submitted photo)3 / 4
The walls of Onita Osborn's bedroom are covered in photos of family from over the years. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)4 / 4

BEMIDJI -- Sharon Osborn walked through her mother’s old bedroom, gesturing at the walls of framed photographs: family holidays, graduation photos, kids wearing the same hand-me-down shirt in different school portraits.

“These are her babies,” Osborn said. Beyond the bedroom is a porch, replete with hockey trophies, science fair awards and a bay-window view of Midge Lake.

Onita Osborn, 89, passed away in early June after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, but spent the bulk of her life voraciously traveling; working; collecting souvenirs from her travels and her family’s lives; and, perhaps more recognizably, teaching American Indian culture to northwest Minnesota students.

Osborn -- “Nita” to many -- spent the first half of her life as a mother and homemaker until she divorced her husband and moved to Grand Rapids, where she taught for 16 years. After she retired, Osborn moved to Cass Lake, but kept teaching American Indian culture at several Grand Rapids-area schools.

“This is her telling a legend to the kids,” Sharon said as she hit play on a cell phone video of her mom, whose voice warbled through the speakers as she told of a great spirit returning in springtime. Nita Osborn used handmade dolls in cradleboards and other “artifacts” to accentuate her lessons.

Nita’s interest and passion for American Indian culture came, in part, because her own mother was taken at a young age to one of Minnesota’s infamous boarding schools, where American Indian children were pressured to conform to European American standards and culture and often forbidden to speak in their native tongue.

“She really embraced her culture and our culture,” Sharon said of Nita.

The Osborn family matriarch boasted a sprawling family tree that encompasses 21 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren, and three great great grandchildren, and its roots stretch to reach some of Minnesota’s earliest pioneers: Jacob Fahlstrom, the state’s first Swede who came to live with a local Ojibwe tribe who called him “Ozawindib” (“yellow head”); and George Bonga, the rugged and widely-respected fur trader who was one of barely a dozen black Minnesotans counted in a mid-1800s census.

Nita and her family kept artifacts of their Scandinavian-African-American Indian family history, too: decades-old wedding portraits and a veil and laminated Star Tribune articles about Bonga and Fahlstrom.

Nita’s house is sprawling, too, and she built most of it herself. Her son, Joe Osborn, remembered the day Nita built the walls, framed the walls, “sheeted” the walls, and called Joe and her other sons only when she needed help raising the walls. Another time, Nita drove a roofing crew to near-exhaustion, pausing only long enough to devour a Snickers candy bar and soda before she clambered back up a ladder to the roof.

“She worked up until the day she found out she had cancer,“ Sharon recalled. “We'd always say that she's the slave driver, so if you're working with mom you'd better be ready to work.”

The house, too, has familial artifacts: a patio with cement impressions of her grandchildren’s feet and hands that grew as her family did, a replica statue of David gifted to her after a trip to Italy, and plates she got when she visited Joe Osborn in Australia, where she was fascinated by Aboriginal culture.

A few years ago, the county told Nita, then in her late 80s, that she needed to build a sewage mound at her home. Inspired by a recent trip to China, she built a waist-high wall around the mound.

“Rock by rock, cement batch by cement batch, rebar by rebar, by herself,” Sharon said. The wall is festooned with artifacts: rocks from Sault Ste. Marie, Boston, Ohio and other locales to which Nita traveled, some with small, faded inscriptions detailing their origin. Nita was preparing for a trip to New York, where she planned to climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty.

“They're always trying to sell her vacation packages,” Sharon said when a telemarketer’s call briefly interrupted a chat with the Pioneer. “Because she'll buy ‘em.”

The mound itself will eventually be a memorial garden, Joe and Sharon said, and they plan to preserve Nita’s old bedroom -- where the walls are covered in photos and trophies and evidence of a life and a family -- as a museum of sorts.

“She lived as fully a life as anyone,” Sharon said of her mother.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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