Artisans and ancestry

Photo: courtesy of Ray Kerns. Ray Kerns with one of his stained glass projects.

Photo: courtesy of Ray Kerns. Ray Kerns with one of his stained glass projects.

Ray Kerns, veteran and artisan, reflects on ancestry and connections with – and separation from – the past

Larrie Wanberg

Feature Editor

A sole artisan designed and built the “7 Trails Trading Post,” which is home of the Knife River Indian Heritage Foundation as a “friends group” in support of the U.S. Park Service Knife River Historic Indian Villages at Stanton, N.D.

His name is Ray Kerns. I spent an evening with Ray recently, as we are friends and long-standing members of the non-profit corporation.

Ray’s large hands are nicked and bruised from creating art pieces in his workshop, but his hands can work the finest detail in cutting and leading fine art in stain glass and many other art forms. A part of his past art career in California stems from filming documentary stories and short video clips for TV advertising.

Across the plains of the Upper Midwest, most every home with an appreciation of their immigrant heritage displays some form of art to connect them to what the family holds dear, whether it is wall art, music, stories or personal artifacts from their ancestry.

Some create new art forms in their homes. One such place is “Strawberry Hill” in rural North Dakota, where Ray lives at a historic place in history – the homeland of Sakakawea of Lewis and Clark days.

His son Brian with his wife Joanne – artisans in their own right – live at an adjacent house on the same family farmstead. These modern houses were designed and handbuilt by father and son. Both houses are filled with personally created décor that is befitting an architectural magazine or a modern art museum.

Following a board meeting, I joined Ray, Brian and Joanne for a familiar time at dinner filled with gourmet food, storytelling of immigrant history, plenty of laughter from adventures – real and embellished – and reminiscing many good times of years past.

Ray is a veteran. We exchanged a string of stories flowed from Viet Nam days. He abruptly got up, went to the closet, took down a large file box, set it on the table and began to open it.

“I haven’t looked at this for a long time,” he said.

He pulled out a stack of yellowing newspaper clippings, some old photographs, and near the bottom, some photocopies of historic journal pages, government records that were almost brittle, and a sketch map that was marked with days where his grandfather camped on a military forced march to the Little Big Horn.

“He was a new recruit with the 4th Infantry stationed at Ft. Fetterman (at Douglas, Wyoming) on the South Fork of the Powder River Campaign on orders to reinforce the 7th Calvary at Little Big Horn. They were coming up from the South,” as he traced their route with his forefinger along the sketch map.

“At this point,” where he tapped his finger several times, “they were attacked by Cheyenne and Sioux Indians and pinned down for more than a day. His grandfather caught an arrow in the mouth, lost several teeth but survived. The Indians were outgunned and later disappeared into the darkness, carrying away their dead warriors.”

Ray’s began reading official commendations from Congressional records about the Army career of his grandfather, who later reenlisted for another tour and attained the rank of Sergeant. The box contained a few letters from the soldier’s retirement in San Francisco.

We kept going through the old papers for hours.

Despite his sense of connection with an adventurous ancestor who lived the Wild West with authenticity, Ray voiced his remorse about his relative being on the Army-side of the “Indian Wars.”

“I know there were atrocities on both sides,” he said, “but I don’t like to think about it in today’s times, because everyday, I engage with neighbors and friends who could have Indian ancestors that possibly fought in the same battles as my ancestor.”

“This is my next project,” he said. “I want to research and document the story of my Calvary Sergeant.” He declared a goal to fill in the gaps of his ancestor’s life story on the frontier of America’s history.

“It’s exciting to dig through family history – to realize the hardships people endured – but you never know what you may find.”

It was well past midnight by now.

He abruptly left the table again. “Wait a minute,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.

He went into his bedroom, took a small, framed photo off the wall and handed it to me.

The picture in color showed a three-man honor guard at the vanguard of a recent Memorial Day parade in his home community.

Ray was in the middle, dressed in American Legion attire, carrying the American flag. A Tribal member carrying the North Dakota flag flanked him on one side, and on the other side, an elderly Indian was wearing a Legion cap and carried the Tribal flag.

He proudly described the Honor Guard event that meant a lot to him. He detailed the parade, the ceremonies, and the social activities of that day, as if he were artfully putting together the pieces of a stain-glass window to tell a story.

He replaced the photo on his wall and retired. I lingered for a few moments, reflecting on the Memorial Day photo.

I was reminded that stories about a brotherhood of patriots have a healing quality, befitting a place on a personal wall of honor for a framed photo that says it all.

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.