Two cultures entwine and preserve history at the edge of Lake Superior
By Greg Breining
On a typical summer day, after the hikers and tourists board the ferry and depart for Isle Royale, the Grand Portage community slips into somnolence. The most telling sounds are the crackle-snap of a grasshopper, the crunch of gravel underfoot, and the gentle lap of Lake Superior in the protected bay. It seems strange to imagine that 200 years ago, Grand Portage was the busiest center of trade west of the Appalachians.
Strange but true. In the late 1700s, Grand Portage, at the tip of the Arrowhead region, was the crossroads of a lively trade extending from Europe to the front range of the Rockies and the northernmost reaches of the boreal forest in Canada. Each summer, Grand Portage was the meeting place of Scottish agents of the North West Company from Montreal; of French Canadian voyageurs bringing cloth, kettles, and other trade goods across the Great Lakes; of "winterers" carrying furs from Canada; of independent traders; of Ojibwe Indians who had settled around western Lake Superior in the previous decades; and even of African Americans who worked in the fur trade as slaves or canoemen. At the summer "rendezvous," voyageurs and winterers exchanged goods and fur. Alexander Mackenzie, in 1801, described the meeting this way: "There are sometimes assembled to the number of 1,200 men indulging themselves in the free use of liquor and quarreling with each other."
The operation of the North West post represented a terrific crisscross of cultures, most notably European and Ojibwe. Through the fur trade, for better or for worse, Indians throughout much of North America gained access to manufactured goods, such as woven cloth, metal cookware and tools, flint and steel, firearms, and alcohol. In turn, they supplied English and Scottish businessmen with furs. They also taught the skill of building birch-bark canoes for back-country travel, and revealed their well-worn trade routes to explorers and cartographers. The Indians furnished food so that traders might survive the hard winters.
The hustle-bustle of the post is long gone, yet the Grand Portage area still gives modern-day travelers an opportunity to become acquainted with Ojibwe history and culture.
For a quick introduction, visit Grand Portage State Park, one of Minnesota's newest parks, located on Highway 61, within the borders of the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. Only 300 acres, this small park stretches about three miles along the Pigeon River, the boisterous, rushing stream that divides Minnesota from Ontario. The rapids and falls of the lower Pigeon River are the very reason the Indians and voyageurs traveled the Grand Portage, a footpath nearly nine miles long that bypassed the unnavigable waters and linked the placid upper Pigeon and Lake Superior.
When I visited the park last summer, I looked up park manager Curtis Gagnon. A member of the Grand Portage band of Ojibwe, Gagnon explained that this park is unique among state parks: The band owns the land and leases it back to the state Department of Natural Resources for operation. Gagnon unrolled a map of the area and showed other tracts of land that the band is buying to consolidate ownership within reservation boundaries.
"I guess the band has been looking at what has been happening up and down the shore," Gagnon said, "all the development, the huge encroachment, people building fabulous homes and large cabins and demanding recreation areas. The band wanted something for the generations to come, for people to enjoy and see what it's like, what we enjoy today."
The park's major attraction is High Falls, a drop of nearly 120 feet, the highest waterfall in the state. A boardwalk affords an easy and safe view of the falls. In time, Gagnon said, a hiking trail will wind to Middle Falls, about two miles upstream. "It would put people in a spot to really enjoy some beautiful scenery. You can see out into Lake Superior, the Susie Islands, Pigeon Point, and way up into Canada."
Grand Portage State Park emphasizes Ojibwe heritage and history. Several times a week, state park naturalist Maryanne Morgan leads tours to the falls, while describing Ojibwe customs. That particular day, she showed me and others on the tour a makuk, one of many kinds of birch-bark vessels made and used by the Ojibwe. This makuk, with a loop to hang from a belt, was designed for berry picking. As we strolled through the forest, she pointed out various plants used by the Ojibwe, such as the black spruce, whose root served as a strong binder for bark baskets and canoes.
Morgan also talked about Ojibwe storytelling, including the pervasive tales of Nanaboujou, whom she heard about while growing up on the Red Lake Reservation. Known among the Red Lake Ojibwe as Maniboujou and among more southern Ojibwe as Winneboujou, Nanaboujou, as he was known by the Lake Superior Ojibwe, was the Ojibwe guardian, teacher, and trickster, a paradoxical character at once both powerful and fallible, wise and venal. He is described variously as the "prototype of humankind" and the "active quickening power of life." Nanaboujou, in his final repose, is the "Sleeping Giant," the well-known geological formation lying at the entrance to Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The waterfall itself was in fine form. The water was up a bit from recent rain, and a second plume gushed over the cliff. Mist filled the canyon, speckling my glasses; and rapids raced through the gorge downstream.
During the sleepy middle of the day, Gagnon and I drove around the community of Grand Portage. Profits from casino gambling have enabled the tribe to spend money to better manage the natural resources on tribal land and to improve the community through projects such as the new community center, Gagnon said.
Gagnon's own background says something about the intertwining of cultures at Grand Portage. Fifteen years ago, Gagnon shot a moose near the border of the reservation. It jumped to its feet and ran off on a path that took it far off the reservation. Gagnon tracked it until dark. He went home, considered the ramifications of what he was about to do, and then told the band game warden and tribal council that he intended to track the moose the next day.
"I told them I'm going after him tomorrow. Let the DNR game warden know. I can't leave it out there." Because Gagnon couldn't legally hunt moose off the reservation, the announcement was an invitation for his arrest. Sure enough, when he came home the next day, a state conservation officer wrote him a citation and took away his rifle, even though he never found the moose.
Gagnon's case led to a long confrontation between the band and the state over Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights on non-reservation land. Gagnon's case never went to trial, but the band sued the state in federal court, asserting that band members should be able to hunt and fish on public land in northeastern Minnesota without state interference. The state and three Ojibwe bands, including Grand Portage, eventually reached an agreement to pay bands to keep their conservation codes consistent with state regulations. Gagnon had opposed the agreement in several legislative hearings and meetings on reservations.
After establishing Grand Portage State Park, the DNR posted an opening for a naturalist. Gagnon applied. It was a lark, really, and he was astonished to be hired. When the park manager position opened, he applied -- again without any expectations. He got the promotion and again was keenly aware of the irony.
As if to underscore the intertwined relations between Indians and non-Indians at Grand Portage, Gagnon left his state park position several months ago to take over as trust lands administrator for the band.
The Reconstructed North West Company post stands on the lakeshore several miles southwest of the state park, on the exact site of the original fort. Actually, it is the second reincarnation of the fort; the first was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1969.
Grand Portage National Monument consists of a palisade, the handsome hewn-log Great Hall, and an adjoining kitchen with a fireplace and hearth so large you could set up a tent inside. In centuries past, the thick Scottish brogue of North West partners and clerks would have filled the Great Hall, as they talked business over dinner at place settings segregated by rank, the quality and quantity of dishes reflecting the company hierarchy.
These days the place settings are laid for partners who never show. When I visited, samples of furs were displayed on the tables. In a room off the main hall, women from the Grand Portage band made birch-bark baskets. Behind the kitchen other women baked fresh bread in the outdoor oven. Re-enactors in the "Ojibwe village" outside the palisade lashed together the framework of a wigwam, which they would later cover with birch bark.
At various times, staff members stage musket firings and give tours of the post. The most ambitious travelers can hike the Grand Portage, the trail that leads from the back door of the post up the slope of Mount Rose to the old site of Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River. Round trip, the hike is 17 miles.
Many of the people who work at the reconstructed post are members of the Grand Portage band. In fact, the band leased the national monument site to the federal government in 1958 to foster tourism and create jobs on the reservation. To tighten the historic ties between the band and the post, the band has just reached agreement with the National Park Service for the band to take charge of construction and maintenance of the facility.
One of the best times to sample both voyageur history and Ojibwe culture is the annual powwow and rendezvous during the second full weekend of August, this year Aug. 13-15. The band sponsors the powwow, which is not a sacred event and is open to non-band members. "It's a time," Gagnon told me, "to have fun and dance." Visitors can eat, examine or buy crafts such as beadwork and drums, watch dancing competitions, and even dance if they care to. Band members tell tales and sing songs of the Lake Superior region, long the homeland of the Ojibwe. At the same time, the national monument puts on its annual rendezvous, with craft demonstrations such as wood carving and basket making, and games such as tomahawk throwing and a "voyageurs' decathlon."
The powwow and rendezvous are unabashedly tourist attractions. "We're going to have to depend more and more on tourism in the future," Gagnon said. At the same time, however, the events recapitulate the historic rendezvous of the fur trade, where the intertwining of Ojibwe and European cultures began and continues, on this spot, to this day.
For information about the powwow and rendezvous, call Brian Sherburne, marketing director for the band, 218-475-2401.
Greg Breining, St. Paul, is a free-lance writer and Managing Editor of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.