After settling into our home for the week at HooDoo Point Campground on the shore of Vermillion Lake near Tower, Minnesota Monday, we drove the ten miles around Pike Bay to the Bois Forte Heritage Center today. It’d have been a two mile flight from our campsite if we were crows. This “Atisokanigamig”, or Legend House, was founded by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa to tell the story of their people. At the beginning of our journey through the museum we paused at the very impressive mural that illustrates the five hundred year migration of the Anishenaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) from the east coast of North America, near the St Laurence River to the Great Lakes region. Painted by renowned Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy and drawing upon the legends of his people it speaks to their long history prior to written record which began with the arrival of Europeans in the Seventeenth Century. From there the story continues with their traditional lifestyle, the fur trade, a brief gold rush in the area, treaties with the US government, Indian Schools, on to examples of beautiful beaded and birchbark crafts, and the people today. But just as valuable to us was the conversation with the gentleman at the front desk. As his infant child slept he spoke at length with us about his people and his own interest in learning more about the them. He also helped us with the pronunciation of Anishenaabe and Bois Forte (boys fort) as well as the meanings of the three names used to identify his people. “Anishenaabe” means “original or first man” and is the name they used to describe themselves. “Ojibwe” means “rabbit choker” and was a derogatory name given them by native enemies, and finally “Chippewa” is a French version of “Ojibwe”. He seemed a bit impressed with our little bit of knowledge but challenged us to learn more and even offered to quiz us about things we learned in the museum in exchange for a discount on our purchases in the gift shop. Our personal journey with the Ojibwe began with our visit to The Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St Ignace in 2019 and has continued since. We’ve definitely come away today, from one of the places where they have settled, with even more appreciation for these people and their culture.
As we began planning for this stop we were both excited about the possibility of visiting the Madeline Island Museum in La Pointe, Wisconsin knowing that this location has been/is a spiritual center for the Ojibwe. With our cruise scheduled on Wednesday morning we had planned to visit on Monday or Tuesday, but learned too late that for this season, they’ve modified their schedule and are closed those two days. Oops! So yesterday after our return to dock, we scurried over to the Madeline Island Ferry dock and took the short ride over to the largest of the Apostle Islands. Hoping to enjoy lunch before a museum visit, we were dismayed to learn that of at least a dozen eateries on the island that none were open for business on Wednesday afternoon. So we grabbed a couple of items from the Madeline Island Market for a quick repast at the picnic tables outside before walking to the museum. Established in 1958, this museum seeks to tell the history of the peoples who have called Madeline Island home, from the Chippewa who’d been here for hundreds of years and the earliest Europeans, fur traders and missionaries, to well into the Twentieth Century. We first watched an excellent movie about the history of La Pointe, the community of the southern point of the island. We paid particular attention to information and artifacts related to the native peoples who lived here and learned that they called themselves the Anishinaabe but other native people called them Ojibwe, and Europeans referred to them as Chippewa. We’d known that because of a prophecy that they had migrated from the east but today we learned that here at Madeline that they believed that all the gifts the creator had given them were here and that when they were forced to move that they had hidden birchbark scrolls in the caves because of a prophecy that their people would regain their lands. We were fascinated with the artifacts but disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to chat with one of the very knowledgable docents but we with did leave more knowledge, a curiosity of the relationship of the appearance of Halley’s Comet to the migration of the Anishinaabe, a greater thirst to learn about these peoples, and a book, Great Lakes Indians by William J. Kubiak. This morning over coffee we perused Chapter Four and did a Wikipedia search for “Chippewa” which yielded a monograph on the “Ojibwe”. We’re fascinated and can’t wait to learn even more.
It’s yet another Minnesota Historical Society site and it’s just as exciting as every other MNHS site we’ve visited. We arrived at the Snake River Fur Post in a light rain on the Saturday before the Fourth and were the only visitors on the tour with Jackie, our costumed interpreter. Dovetailing nicely with other opportunities we’ve recently had to learn about the Ojibwe peoples, this museum interprets the winter of 1804-05 when John Sayer of the North West Trading Company arrived with French Canadian Vogageurs, a British Canadian clerk, an Ojibwe wife, and tons of manufactured goods to establish a post from which to trade with the local Ojibwe band near their winter camp. It’s a part of early 19th Century global trade. The elite in England desired beaver hats, an important status symbol in their society, and the natives found English manufactured goods extremely useful in the maintaining their own way of life. We relished the opportunity to learn more about the Witney blankets, to try on a beaver top hat, and to learn about the intricacies of the fur trade in this era and how it fit into the big sweep of world history as well as how this particular site was rediscovered and reconstructed in the 20th Century.
Yesterday we picked up the brochure listings all the Minnesota Historical Society sites and realized we were within an easy drive of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. When we arrived the talk in the Four Seasons Room had just begun. Not getting enough of that we joined the next group with a different guide. It gave us an excellent perspective on the life of the Ojibwe peoples and how they thrived living off the land here in northern Minnesota by harvesting the gifts of the land. They moved from established camp to established camp with the seasons, harvesting and processing maple sugar, wild rice, and other plant foods, as well as hunting and fishing. In the Four Seasons Room the interpretation is as of the year 1750, after European contact. At that point the Lake Mille Lacs (pronounced mill-lax) Band of the Ojibwe were utilizing some trade items such as metal kettles and woven blankets and yet living in wigwams (birch bark covered tipis), moving in family bands, and maintaining all their traditional ways. Out in the rest of the museum we learned how the Mille Lacs have continued their ways even as American culture has altered their way of life. We browsed the trading post and learned about the interplay between the Ojibwe and American cultures here well into the 20th Century. Best of all was the opportunity to attempt to play Lacrosse under the tutelage of Coach John who has been instrumental in teaching this traditional Native American game to many in the Minnesota Twin Cities. We came away with a little more understanding of the Ojibwe peoples, then and now.
The Museum of the Ojibwa Culture in St Ignace, Michigan was established at Marquette Mission Park. The location speaks eloquently of the interplay between the Ojibwa peoples and the French missionaries/explorers/fur traders here on the Straits of Mackinac. The museum’s emphasis is on the portrayal of the Ojibwa and their way of life, the importance of family and reverence for the land that supplied their needs. Yes, the museum addressed the clash of cultures yet we both experienced a sense of gentleness and peacefulness here. We come away with a little more understanding.
Today we made our way to the impressive edifice on the northern North Dakota prairie, Fort Union! One of the rangers there told us that so many stories of the big white fort were told among the Native Americans that members of the Nez Perce made the journey over the Rocky Mountains not to trade but just to see this incredible edifice for themselves! While we were there today Native American dancers, drummers, and narrators came to give us a little insight into their culture and traditions much as their ancestors would have come here to participate in the ceremonies that surrounded the transfer of furs and trade goods. Costumed interpreters helped us understand some of the history of the American Fur Company and how they did business here in the early Nineteenth Century. Despite the impression we got from Aerial America, there is no evidence that John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire ever came here. It was his trading post in that he was instrumental in its establishment but he wasn’t directly involved in its daily operation. As a bonus we got to witness the firing of a four pounder cannon such as would have been used here primarily for ceremonial purposes. The building here is entirely a replica. After the trading post ceased operations the fort was purchased by the US Army, dismantled, and the materials used for the 1867 rebuilding of Fort Buford, a military installation just a few miles away.