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My name is Vernon Ronald Eshkibok, known as "Butch" when I was growing up, and Vern since. I'm descended from Ottawa and Mohawk Indians and grew up mostly at the Wikwemikong reservation on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. My upbringing by my grandparents was very important because it taught me traditional ways that some other family members didn't know. My earliest years were spent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and my schooling was mostly on the reservation.
Through the years I went to vocational training school and had other educational experiences from working - logging camps, firefighting and home farming. For most of my adult life I've been a heavy equipment operator and sometimes a truck driver. I currently live in Delta, Colorado with my wife Sara.
In the fall of 1965 I first met Jack Freebury and Bob Lowery in Garden River, near Sault Ste. Marie. Their visit to the reserve was arranged by Chief Jack Wigwas. They had come to invite some of us young guys to Mackinac Island for Thanksgiving Dinner. They were recruiting more members for the work force that was building the library for Mackinac College. I think 19 of us went back with them, with some of our parents or relatives, in the old MRA bus, or Sing-Out bus! After a day of seeing everything about a dozen of us decided to stay. We eventually worked on erecting steel for the library, in the cold of the winter, through December, January and February. We topped it out in the spring.
During this process, along with others from many parts of Canada and the U.S., we developed an all-Indian version of the Up With People Sing-Out. We put on shows in Sault Ste. Marie and Harbour Springs, Michigan as well as on the Six Nations, Oneida and Walpole Island reserves in Ontario. We traveled on weekends by bus with instruments and our traditional regalia. We did dances as part of the show as well as the Up With People songs. We also spoke about why we were at Mackinac. I talked about how Indians had been silent for so long and the time had now come to stand up and speak and present our opinions. Other guys had their own messages. At each place we were billeted in the homes of people. When we went to Wikwemikong, my home reserve, no one had made arrangements for where we would sleep. Instead of worrying about it, I decided that I had better do something. So during the show I went around the audience and made arrangements for the cast members to stay in homes. Before the end of the show I got back up on the stage and gave the list of billets to the director, Don Libby. He was relieved to see me because he didn’t know where I had disappeared to. Everyone had a great time getting to know the people they stayed with and the families enjoyed meeting the cast members.
Through the years, being at Mackinac and affiliated with Up With People and Mackinac College, we discovered many things about life that we wouldn't have if we had stayed on the reservation. There were more important things to think about than just ourselves. It helped us not be so selfish, concerned with only ourselves. It was also the time I met Jerry and Florence Nelson. Jerry had a forward looking attitude and he had a vision of the college and Moral Re-Armament that he was able to help us understand. He was the head of the construction and was our leader. He helped me to be honest and he and I developed a good relationship. On my 21st birthday his mother-in-law, Constance Ely, loaned me her beautiful Chrysler New Yorker to go to Manitoulin Island, Canada to visit my family. She wasn't sure she would ever see her car again, in one piece! I drank Seven-Up with my mother and made it safely back for my birthday party on the patio of the Nelsons’ house on the Island. They were getting all set for dinner and were getting worried about me when I didn't arrive. However, I made the last boat, was met at the Shepler's dock, and made it to the house. Jerry then put steaks on the grill and we had a fantastic birthday party - cake, ice-cream and presents.
While at Mackinac I started driving trucks on the mainland for the construction project, picking up building supplies and materials. I trucked in maybe 80% of the materials we used for the rest of the construction, including the large classroom building. I might be on the island construction project pouring concrete and Jerry would show up with a trip to Chicago for concrete forms or shoring. I picked up cement in Petoskey, equipment in Lansing, and Steel Case furniture from Chicago. I flew to Caribou, Maine with Fred Anderson to drive a surplus Lorraine truck crane to Mackinac. I drove that crane across a bridge into downtown rush-hour traffic in Montreal! We went west through North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, all at a maximum speed of 40 mph, crossing back into Michigan at Sault Ste. Marie. There was only one seat for the driver so the other person would sit outside on the battery box or in the crane cab, if it was pouring rain. We had some amazing adventures and I think I still owe Bell Canada for repairs on one phone booth!
I was at Mackinac for about 4 1/2 years. A lot of people came and went, including Indians from almost every state in the U.S., at one time or another. We had Navaho from Fort Defiance and Fort Morgan in Arizona; we had Apaches from Arizona; Sarcee and Crow from Alberta in Canada; Pueblo from New Mexico and Ponca from Oklahoma.
There were other projects on the Island. We upgraded some housing and built new housing for the expected staff and faculty for the new Mackinac College. We built Lesley Court right on the water near the College buildings and row housing up the hill from the Ely residence. We were providing practical and educational working experiences for a large number of young men and the winters in Michigan were harsh. So we provided some work experiences in the south. Some of the crew went with Jack and Mary Jean Freebury to Florida in 1966/67 to work on a project there. I went to California three winters in a row. The first one, we worked at Bear Creek Ranch, west of Merced, to build dining and sleeping facilities for Up With People so that some people could have R & R. The same year we did maintenance and repair to the club at 833 South Flower Street in Los Angeles - this was a residence and meeting centre for Moral Re-Armament.
One of the last things the construction crew did was to build a modern building for the Mackinac Island airport in the fall of 1968. Bob Ford and a small crew did the foundation and constructed the building. The island power company had to bring electricity to the airport for the first time. I was involved later installing the sewer system. The septic tank had to be brought from the docks on a truck. To comply with island regulations (motor vehicles aren’t usually allowed) the truck had to be led by a horse-drawn dray. I took the back-hoe and did the work to set in the sewer pipes and leach-line and that was my last job on the island.
I went home to Canada for a visit before going to Arizona. I lived there for 35 years, working, raising a family and continuing to be friends with Jerry and Florence Nelson.
As told by Vern Eshkibok
November 18, 2006