The Grand Portage Story
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The Boundary of Cultures

Ages ago, an Ojibway prophet predicted that whites "would come in numbers like sand on the lake shore." It would be an "ending of the world." By the 1840s, it was clear that time was coming. Looking at the fates of tribes to the east, the Ojibway began to wonder if they were, as many whites insisted, "a doomed race." [1]

On the south shore of Lake Superior, deposits of copper and iron had been discovered, and developers were flooding in. As early as 1840 some leading men from Grand Portage told a fur trader that they dared not leave "their own land which they believe will soon be demanded by the U.S. Government, and . . . which they are afraid that others who have no right might dispose of without their consent." Soon those demands came. In 1849 a portion of the northern Ojibway traveled to Sault Ste. Marie to negotiate the cession of the entire Canadian north shore for £2,000 and yearly payments of £500. A Fort William missionary was bitter at the bargain: "Witness our poor Indians about to receive—not a fortune so great that they need never work again, as some fondly imagine—but some feeble aid which at least will help them buy clothing." [2]

In 1854 it was the turn of the bands south of the border. Representatives went to La Pointe, the ancient center of Ojibway settlement. Addikonse, the leader of the Caribou band, was determined not to suffer the fate of his northern relatives—he was "the last to yield title to their lands." He "long stood, solitary and alone, pitting himself, nobly, against the Government orators, and insisting that the proffers of annuities, &c., were inadequate." In the end the Ojibway won payments worth $19,000 a year for twenty years, plus a one-time bonus of goods in exchange for lands from Duluth to Rainy Lake. Each reservation got a blacksmith, and Grand Portage alone received a school. Unlike less hard-bargaining tribes, the Ojibway got reservations in the heart of land they already occupied. Four leaders signed for Grand Portage: Shaganasheence, first chief; Addikonse, second chief; and two headmen, Waywegewam and Maymushkowaush. [3]

With the signing of the treaty, the band's relationship with the United States changed. Legally, band members became wards of the federal government, which promised to act as their protector and advocate. Culturally, they became targets of a government project aimed at wiping out Indian identity and assimilating the Ojibway into the life-style and beliefs of Euro-Americans.

Grand Portage Reservation

Only a core of the band members actually lived on the reservation—at first called the Pigeon River Reservation; the rest stayed in scattered settlements at Beaver Bay, Grand Marais, Red Sucker Bay, Lake Saganaga, Rove Lake, Moose Lake, Gunflint Lake, and elsewhere. Each major settlement on Lake Superior was dominated by a different clan: the Bear clan at Beaver Bay, the Caribou clan at Grand Marais, and the Crane and Caribou at Grand Portage. The reservation, which was later estimated to contain 51,840 acres, was administered by annual visits from the agent at La Pointe, across the lake. [4]

In the first few years after the treaty, the continuity must have been more striking than the change. The government hired Henry Elliott and Nelson Drouillard, who were already working at Grand Portage as traders. On a rise of ground east of Grand Portage Creek they erected a squared-log warehouse for storing annuities. A new sort of rendezvous began to happen each summer, as the scattered members of the Grand Portage and Nett Lake (Bois Fort) bands came to collect the promised payments. It was a festive event. One seaman who witnessed the payment in 1865 said that about 1,400 people were camped at Grand Portage when the boat arrived. "They had a good time of it, our cargo of supplies being divided among them." [5]

The school opened in 1856 when an "industrious and untiring" Irish couple, Timothy and Mary Hegney, arrived to serve as teachers. They taught forty-one children and twenty adults the first year, though less than half that number attended at any one time. "I have no great difficulty in keeping them under reasonable control," Timothy Hegney said, but he complained about absenteeism during sugaring and fishing seasons. By the end of the year, the best students could "speak a little English, tell the names of all objects familiar to them, and understand what they are told in English well." Though the teachers changed and sometimes there were as few as six pupils, the school remained open. In later years, it was the only government presence at Grand Portage. [6]

The government's main goal was to encourage the band to "adopt the habits of civilized men." To this end Drouillard, the blacksmith, supervised the clearing and cultivation of land and the building of "comfortable houses." Each Indian who lived in a house was rewarded with a cook stove, utensils, a table, bureau, chairs, bedstead, and a looking glass. In 1856, in a burst of enthusiasm, the government even surveyed a village plat at Grand Portage, laying out town lots, streets, and alleys. By 1860 the Indians were raising as much as three thousand bushels of potatoes a year, and it could be said that the reservation was in a "prosperous condition." [7]

In the 1870s the annuity payments ran out, and so did the cheerful reports. The agent showed his frustration: "It is a sad feature of my work, that I am not able to meet all the demands made upon me for teachers, farmers, &c. . . . I have no funds, my hands are tied." As for Grand Portage, "It has been impossible to find any kind of labor for them to do, even though we had funds to do it with." Concerned about alcoholism and violence, the Office of Indian Affairs sponsored an Indian police force and appointed three respected old men as judges—an unsuccessful attempt to replace tribal forms of government with Euro-American ones. [8]

Contacts with the outside world were becoming more frequent. At first, the newcomers to Grand Portage were still a familiar type: traders. From 1849 to 1863, Hugh H. McCullough had a large trading business all along the border lakes: Saganaga, Basswood, Rainy, and Lake of the Woods, with an anchor post at Grand Portage. He employed thirty-six "packers"— probably local people—to haul supplies over the portages. On the Grand Portage he used ox teams. McCullough supplemented the trading business with commercial fishing between Grand Portage and Isle Royale. [9]

Grand Portage schoolchildren with their teacher, John A. McFarland, in 1889. (George A. Newton—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

The first nontraders to arrive on the north shore were Yankee prospectors, trappers, fishermen, land cruisers, and a few settlers. Among the latter were Asa A. and Caroline L. Parker and their family, who in 1868 settled on the old Catholic mission site at Pigeon River, calling the place Parkerville. "We had a nice home, large home, as it seems to me now," their daughter Mary later recalled, "and several log buildings that were used by the Indian families who worked for my Father. The Winters were very severe and we were practically isolated. . . . [A]bout once a month the mail would arrive on dog sleighs or toboggans from Fort William." Mary recalled that once, when several of the family were laid low by scarlet fever, "my Oldest Brother (Aldis) might have died if the little old Indian woman 'Nokomis' [Grandmother] we called her had not taken such good care of him. When he got better . . . she would strap him on her back and tramp out to her traps and keep him in the sun shine all day." The Parkers themselves raised a local Indian boy, Henry Le Sage. [10]

For a short time Parkerville was a busy adjunct to the Grand Portage community. To Parker's trading post the Indians brought their furs in winter and spring, maple sugar in spring (made up in "wee canoes" of birch bark for the children), and berries ("by the water pail full") in summer. Years later, local residents still remembered the Parkers' gardens full of potatoes, vegetables, and flowers: lilacs, pansies, even English violets. The family left in 1874, but the townsite would be inhabited again.

The panic of 1857, followed by the Civil War, slowed immigration to the region, but in the 1870s it picked up again. The height was in the 1890s, when booming fisheries lured migrants from Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The immigrants brought a new attitude—to them, land needed to be used, changed, and developed. In that brash, expansive era, resources existed to be stripped away, and the culture's heroes were entrepreneurs who made quick fortunes and moved on. The difference between the newcomers and the Indians was the difference between tapping a maple tree over many years and cutting it down for a quick profit.

The main resources of the north shore, minerals and timber, took only thirty years—1880 to 1910—to strip away. Thirty years of prosperity were followed by decades of impoverishment.

Even before the treaty of 1854 was signed, Superior, Wisconsin, was crowded with mineral prospectors poised to find fortunes in the newly opened land. One of them said, "What conversations I heard around me all turned toward copper claims. There were rumors of great masses of pure copper and large veins . . . that could be traced for long distances." On the Canadian side, mining companies had been at work since the late 1840s, and one of them was prospecting at the mouth of the Pigeon. Indian men soon found jobs guiding eager mineral seekers, hauling supplies, staking claims, and digging the test pits that still dot the countryside. Hopes soared in 1868, when a fabulously rich silver mine was discovered at Silver Islet on the east side of Thunder Bay. In 1884 visions of riches came even closer when Oliver Daunais discovered a vein of silver on Whitefish Lake, where the Grand Portage band once wintered. The mine, called Silver Mountain, soon made a boom town of the Canadian settlement of Port Arthur, near Fort William. A railroad was built to carry the ore to the docks at Port Arthur, and a whole complex of mines sprang up, with names like Beaver, Badger, Porcupine, Crown Point, and Rabbit Mountain. The Whitefish Lake mining region employed so many men from Grand Portage between 1885 and 1911 that a well-worn trail connected the two spots. But on the United States side all hopes were dashed. Despite an attempt to mine copper on Susie Island, no significant mineral deposits were ever found on the American side of the north shore. [11]

Timber prospectors followed hard on the heels of the miners. Today, when the forest attracts droves of nature lovers, it is hard to realize that most early non-Indian settlers looked on it with fear and hatred—as a dark refuge of savage animals, supposedly bloodthirsty Indians, and forest fires. In 1900 a Grand Marais high school graduation speaker hopefully described a day when "all that vast forest has gone and in its place is a large and noisy city." It looked like she might get her way. Around 1893, Alger, Smith and Company, which had already logged huge tracts in Ontario, Wisconsin, and Michigan, bought up several hundred million board feet of pine north of the Pigeon River, adjacent to the reservation. In the summer of 1898 the company established a base camp a quarter-mile from the river's mouth. Like fur trade depots before it, the camp complex included a warehouse, office, stables, blacksmith shop, harness shop, cookshack, bunkhouse, and dwellings. [12]

That winter the cutting began. It was a huge operation. The logs were hauled on skids to the Pigeon River and its tributary lakes. With the thaw in spring, the river-drive crews took over. Floating the logs down the zigzag chasms on the Pigeon would have reduced them to toothpicks, so the Pigeon River Improvement Slide and Boom Company built $48,000 worth of elaborate wooden sluices, dams, roads, and aqueducts to carry the logs safely to the lake. In Pigeon Bay, booms gathered the logs into enormous rafts to be towed to the Alger, Smith sawmill at Duluth, said to be the largest one on the continent at that time. The 1899 raft contained ten million board feet of lumber.

Logging dam at the beginning of Split Rock Canyon on the Pigeon River, shown here in 1922. When the dam was closed, water was diverted through a sluice that bypassed the cascades and two river bends. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

In 1900 a second firm—the Pigeon River Lumber Company—joined Alger, Smith, building another base camp at the river's mouth. For a few years Pigeon Bay was a busy harbor served by shuttling steamers. But at such a rate, it did not take long to strip the land. After only four years, Alger, Smith sold its stumpage, sluices, and camps to Pigeon River Lumber and left. By 1919 that company, too, pulled out, leaving the countryside bare and the people jobless.

For a short time the mineral and lumber bonanzas benefited the Ojibway. The men found seasonal employment, and the sale of reservation timber, which the government encouraged, brought income. In 1889 the band agreed that reservation land not owned by individual Indians be logged off, but the government apparently did not proceed with the timber sale until the first decade of the twentieth century. Between 1907 and 1911 A. V. Johnson of Grand Marais cut about 3.7 million board feet of pine. Cutting of cedar, spruce, and other trees used for pulpwood continued on and off till 1929, when they too gave out. [13]

In the long run, the logging had less desirable effects. The cutover acreage was prone to terrifying fires, some of which threatened even the village on the bay. The marbled forest ecosystem was reduced to a uniform second growth, robbing residents of many hunting and trapping resources they had relied on. And white entrepreneurs' eagerness to acquire Indian timber led to frauds that bilked many Indians out of their land.

A third resource—fish—took longer to deplete. It survived till the 1950s, when the predatory sea lamprey, introduced into Lake Superior by increased water traffic, almost wiped out the native fish. But in the 1880s and 1890s, itinerant Scandinavian fishermen regularly cruised up and down the north shore, taking herring, trout, and whitefish. In 1889 band members complained to the government that these fishermen, some of whom camped on Susie and the other islands just outside Wauswaugoning Bay, spread nets so large that they monopolized the fish. Around the turn of the century a more permanent fishing station started up at Grand Portage, this time on the island. It was the business of a French Canadian named Pete Gagnon, who worked with A. Booth and Company of Duluth. Gagnon had a store, a house, an icehouse, two dwellings for his hired fishermen, and a long dock for visiting steamers. In addition he opened a general store, rented rooms to visitors, and ferried goods and people to the mainland. He twice married women from the Grand Portage band—Nanette Maymushkowaush and Lucy Spruce. [14]

Nanette Gagnon, Bessie Gagnon Plante, Frank Paro, Sr., and Pete Gagnon photographed by Frances Densmore on Grand Portage Island, 1905. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

In 1882 a government harbor project at Grand Marais offered jobs, and so many Ojibway moved there that they formed an eastern suburb called Chippewa City. In 1895 they got their own Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier, a hewed-log structure that still stands, though the community around it was largely wiped out by the influenza epidemic of 1918. Relations with their neighbors seem to have been quite cordial. In the 1890s the small government payments for their land and timber ($9.70 apiece in 1896) arrived on New Year's Day and gave rise to a special holiday called Visiting Day. After collecting their payments and shooting off some celebratory rounds of gunfire, the Indian families would visit all their white neighbors—one house after the other—to sit on the floor, admire the babies, and gossip. They carried white flour sacks to bring away the cookies, cakes, pies, and fruit they were offered—for, according to Ojibway etiquette, it was rude for a guest to reject food. One early settler testified that the non-Indians "thought just as much of this occasion as the Indians did. We always dressed in our very best clothes." The Visiting Day custom was kept up as late as the 1930s, as some people still living remember. [15]

One reason the people of Grand Marais may have felt so kindly toward their Ojibway neighbors was that the Indians provided contact with the outside world. No roads, railroads, or telegraph lines reached the north shore in the nineteenth century; the mail was the main outside link. The government had established a post office at Grand Portage in 1856, but the deliveries were contracted out to local people—many of them Indians. In summer, the Superior-to-Grand Portage mail route was a two-week round trip by rowboat. One early resident wrote that "because of the possibility of bad weather, the carrier would continue his trip through much of the night. Settlements were few and far between, and should he feel the need for a rest, he would beach his boat on a convenient gravel beach and catch up on lost sleep. When the weather was rainy, he would sleep under the overturned boat, keeping a small fire alive nearby." [16]

But getting through in summer was nothing compared with the winter runs. "A dog team and sled or toboggan, traveling on the frozen lake, if the ice was safe, was the preferred transportation method. Otherwise, they mushed along the shore or through the woods, whatever was easier." The winter mail carriers became legendary. South of Grand Marais, the most famous was John Beargrease, a tall mixed-blood Ojibway from Beaver Bay. On the Grand Portage route, it was Joseph Godfrey Montferrand in the 1880s and Louis La Plante in the 1890s. Settlers along the way remembered that "in cold winter evenings the dog sled bells could be heard for miles before they arrived." In 1898, when La Plante arrived in Grand Marais just before Christmas "with his trained tandem dogs, jingling sleigh bells, U.S. mail, and toboggan, [he] resembled old Santa Claus coming to town." Starting in the 1870s the county improved the lakeshore trail so sleighs could get through, but not until 1899 was it passable for horse-drawn vehicles in summer.

Meanwhile, in the early 1880s regular summer steamer service began when the Booth company started running a fishing tug up and down the shore between Duluth and Fort William. In 1888 the Hiram R. Dixon was launched and soon had the summer mail contract. It made twice-weekly visits to Grand Portage till 1902, when it was replaced by the 182-foot coastal packet America. Such regular service made the north shore accessible not only to incoming settlers but to tourists. By 1905 the Grand Marais newspaper reported that "every passing boat has its human cargo of hay-fever fugitives, pleasure-seekers and rest-seekers." [17]

Mail carrier on the north shore, about 1880. (B. F. Childs; negative 39908—International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.)

The influx of people created a demand for land. Thirty-five years after establishing the reservation, the government changed its mind and decided the best thing to do with Indian land was to sell it off. In 1887 Congress had passed the Dawes Act, designed to abolish tribally owned reservations by parceling them up into private, 160-acre tracts, or allotments. But Minnesota tribes' fates hung on an even more drastic measure, ironically titled "An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota" (usually called the Nelson Act of 1889). It decreed that all the Ojibway reservations would be wiped out and their residents resettled on the White Earth Reservation in the western part of the state. But there was a loophole. Indians who wished to take allotments in their own homeland could escape deportation. These allotments would, in theory, make their owners independent and self-supporting. Indians who chose them, though protected by government trusteeship for a time, would eventually achieve citizenship—a code word for giving up the special status of Indian identity and the rights that went with it. That year, seventy-two of the leading men of Grand Portage assembled on the bay to meet with government commissioners. With "much cheerfulness and unanimity" (or so the commissioners said), they signed a document attesting that they "do hereby grant, cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all our right, title and interest in and to the said Grand Portage Reservation." Then they signed up for allotments that would allow them to stay precisely where they were. [18]

Members of the Grand Portage Ojibway community with annuity goods that are stacked in front of government warehouses, 1889; Indian Agent M. A. Leahy stands at the right. (George A. Newton—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

By 1909, some 24,191 acres of the reservation had been parceled out to 304 Indians; another 16,041 acres were slated to be opened to what was described as "public settlement." What an Ojibway was to do with 160 acres of inaccessible, rocky cutover land was a mystery. Few ever lived on their allotments; many sold them to land speculators and timber interests. The main rationale for the allotments was to give tribal members an anchor in their own land. But the system also allowed the government to sell the nonallotted land and abdicate further responsibility. [19]

Joe Caribou on the path leading to his grand mother's house. Chippewa City, 1905. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Welcoming Visitors

In the early twentieth century, two visitors to Grand Portage left us snapshot descriptions of the community. One was an unconventional thirty eight-year-old music teacher from southern Minnesota, Frances Densmore. Later, she would become a nationally known scholar of Indian music and culture, but her visit to Grand Portage was her first venture afield among the Indians.

Frances and her sister Margaret stepped off the Booth company steamer at Grand Marais on August 9, 1905. The first Ojibway person they met was Joe Caribou, or Iabedwaywaishkung. He was only thirty-eight, but he had been considered the leader of the Caribou clan for more than fifteen years. He may have been the grandson of Addikonse, He toured the two women around the tar-papered homes of Chippewa City and took them to meet his grandmother in her berry-picking camp. Later they met a prominent elder of the Grand Marais band, Shingibis, who was known locally as "one of the most interesting and best-liked Indian men." He gave the grave ethnologist-to-be a taste of his teasing humor. When she asked him about hunting songs, he said, "We didn't sing then. We kept still." [20]

Densmore took this photograph of Shingibis and his wife (seated at right) at Chippewa City in 1905; those standing are identified as Mrs. William Howenstine and Joe Caribou. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

It was pitch dark when the Densmores arrived at Grand Portage on a Pigeon River Lumber Company boat. The bay was too shallow for the boat to enter, so Pete Gagnon rowed out to fetch them. They stayed in Gagnon's house on the island. The village was still almost entirely Ojibway, and only the young spoke English. The Densmore sisters hired as translator Josephine Makosow, daughter of Coffee Makosow, who was one of two chiefs at the village. Frances visited the other chief, the eighty-year-old Louis Maymushkowaush, in his log home on the bay. He showed her the Franklin Pierce peace medal he had received when he signed the Treaty of 1854, as well as two British medals that had been passed down in his family. [21]

A priest from Fort William had warned Densmore that powerful non-Christian religious ceremonies were practiced at Grand Portage, so she set out to visit Menaheegonce, or Little Spruce, well known as a healer and member of the Wabenowin. Sitting in his log cabin, listening as the old man sang a song for her, Densmore observantly wrote down what she saw:

Hangers of twigs
Herbs tied up to dry
Guns on racks in two places
Four clocks, all of them wrong
Window held up by butcher knife
Hole in floor mended with red tin
London Ill[ustrated] News
Deerskin folded ready to make into moccasins . . . [22]

On August 23, members of the Wabenowin of Grand Portage gathered for a nighttime ceremony, feast, and vigil. They allowed Densmore to attend—although the ceremony "was not explained to me, and the Indians did not think I would attach importance to what I saw." She recorded all that she noticed—the drum with a green star on it, the drumstick in the shape of a cross, the sacred pole, the headdresses of beaver skin, the gifts and dances—but the meaning of it all was lost on her. Yet it still had an effect. "When one finds the Indian religion untouched by any shadow of doubt it cannot fail to command respect," she wrote. "This absolute fidelity to ancient traditions exists today in only a very few."

Menaheegonce (left) and his wife Wahzushkoonce at Grand Portage. 1905. (Frances Densmore—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Things had changed by 1922, when another visitor arrived. Dewey Albinson was an artist from Minneapolis who traveled north in search of a wilderness to pit himself against. He was a Jack Londonesque romantic with a cynical view of human nature. He arrived at night on the steamer America. By now there was a dock on the island, but Pete Gagnon had moved to the mainland, leaving his buildings in the hands of one of his fishermen, a man named Rousseau. "I soon enter the house," Albinson wrote, "into a fair-sized dingy living room. A base burner is aglow....The living room is as drab a setting as one can find, with the worst of mission furniture, about to give out. I settle in a battered rocker next to the stove where I can rest out the night." [23]

The next morning he had his first view of the village, "a row of white-washed log cabins near the waterfront. From each chimney rises a long, thin column of smoke against the distant dark blue mountains. I stand there entranced by the bleak beauty. I am aroused by shouts of 'Breakfast ready, breakfast ready!' I down two lard-tasting eggs, coffee, and store bread, without words."

When he crossed to the village, he found the typical dwelling to be a "French Canadian house of plain logs, with a narrow porch in front, just wide enough for a row of chairs. Here the family and visitors would line up." He stared at the older Indian women as they passed by him "in their black capes, with black handkerchiefs tied around their heads." [24]

Albinson took up lodgings with Leonard and Herman Hendrickson, Scandinavian brothers who had settled on Hat Point after the reservation was put up for sale. Leonard was "a husky blond of average build," while Herman was "a handsome rustic .. with a vivid pink-red complexion, which makes his pale blue eyes sparkle like beads." They were fishermen. "Herman is a natural, fishing by instinct, and has an uncanny way of sensing where the fish are running. Leonard loves to read and studies the stars and other signs which he fishes by." Their Hat Point settlement consisted of "fish net reels tucked in around the sides of the cove, a log fish house with a stubby dock, a tall pole for a hoist . . . and out a little distance, a break water, like a protective arm." The Hendricksons both married Indian women, and today the name is a prominent one on the reservation.

Albinson had not been on the reservation long before he heard rumors of the twisted old cedar tree on Hat Point, to whose inhabiting spirit the Indians still brought gifts of tobacco. His painting of it, which he titled The Witch Tree, was reproduced in a Minneapolis newspaper and shown in museums around the country. Thereafter, the name of the painting was applied to the tree itself. Many other artists later made pilgrimages to paint the tree. [25]

Dewey Albinson with Leonard Hendrickson at Hat Point, 1922. (Dewey Albinson—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

There had been a generational change since Densmore's visit. The old chief, Louis Maymushkowaush, had died and passed on the title to his son, Joe Louis Maymushkowaush. When Joe Louis died about 1921, his daughter's husband, Mike Flatte, claimed the hereditary chieftainship. This succession was unorthodox, but no one challenged it. The chieftainship was largely honorary now. The real power was the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs.

The government had embarked on a crash program to eradicate the cultural boundaries that separated Indians and whites. In the first decade of the century, it poured money and resources into an ill-conceived project to make the Grand Portage band into farmers on their hilly, infertile allotments. At the same time it pressured the younger generation to conform to the outside world. Many were sent away to boarding schools such as Tomah (Wisconsin), Carlisle (Pennsylvania), Pipestone (Minnesota), Flandreau (South Dakota), and the Haskell Institute (Kansas). At school they were weaned from their native languages and cultures and instead taught Indian history culled from sources like Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. Even their names were taken from them. Mike Flatte told Dewey Albinson that when he was a boy the government people came around asking everyone their names. When Flatte answered that his was Nabagadoway, the official asked what it meant. He replied it meant "some place flat." As Mike told it, the man said, "'O.K....Call him Flat, but he gotta have another name.' Another fellow say, 'How about Mike?' 'O.K.' he say. So now I be called Mike Flat." Such casual reassignments of identity were common. Many old family names were lost, and the sense of family and clan ties was weakened. [26]

The Cedar and the Birch by Dewey Albinson. This representation of the "witch tree" was painted about 1940. (Dewey Albinson—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Many people came to hate their Indian identity. "I no longer want to be Indian," Mike Flatte told Dewey Albinson. "I want to be white man." Others came to condemn traditional beliefs: "[Medicine] didn't help them when they were sick and needed help. Still didn't save them from their deaths." But some resisted the pressure to conform. One such couple was Alec Posey and his wife, Sangwaywaince. Posey, who had been found as an infant abandoned behind a stump, was nicknamed "Stump," signifying endurance. He was a bottomless source of tribal tradition, a member of the Midéwiwin, and a performer of shaking tent ceremonies. His wife, the daughter of Menaheegonce whom Densmore met, was an expert at ancient crafts such as snowshoe netting. Like many traditional doctors, Posey was a counselor as well as a curer, a source of community morale. "He was such a nice man," one Grand Portage resident recalled in 1962. "I still think he helped me in a lot of ways with his medicine. I just loved that man to pieces. We all felt that way." [27]

By the mid-1920s an all-weather road, Minnesota Trunk Highway 1, was open between Duluth and Fort William, It ran four miles inland from the village, but it still brought a new resource to replace the timber: tourists. Soon the highway was dotted with "Indian curio" shops that sold souvenirs to passing motorists and provided income to craft workers. At the border crossing, Sextus Lindahl opened a beer tavern, restaurant, and cabins. A settlement grew up around a general store at Mineral Center, where the dirt road to Grand Portage took off from the highway. Soon visitors were finding their way to the village on the bay. [28]

The former Grand Portage schoolteacher, Effie Falconer McLean, who had been born on Susie Island, now became the village entrepreneur. After Pete Gagnon's death in 1935, she bought his trading post—"for a few hundred dollars and an old car," said Dewey Albinson. Near the store she built some tourist cabins equipped with wood stoves, outdoor toilets, and an electric generator for lights. A former lumber-camp cook provided "heavy-duty" meals in a nearby dining room. Soon the McLean Resort was full of city people come to fish, hunt, and enjoy the rustic life for two dollars a day. Even more traffic was generated when some Duluthians organized Lucky Star Landing to run motor boats over to Isle Royale from Grand Portage.

The Grand Portage band's relationship with the government changed yet again in the 1930s, The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to reverse the old policy of forced assimilation in favor of self-determination. But it was not a return to the old days. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 gave tribes the option of organizing themselves into self-governing bodies based on the Euro-American model of representative democracy. In Minnesota this led to a proposal for forming an entity called the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to represent the Ojibway with outside organizations like the state and federal governments. It would include elected representatives from all the state's reservations. In 1937 the Grand Portage band joined the new Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Only the Red Lake band declined. Thereafter, the people of Grand Portage belonged to two entities called the Chippewa tribe—a legal and governmental body that included neither all Ojibway nor all in Minnesota, and an older tribe with bonds of language, culture, and kinship that spanned state and national boundaries but had no legal existence. [29]

Locally, the band also formed a new governing body—the Grand Portage Reservation Council, later called the Reservation Business Committee. It functioned much like a county government, handling all matters not concerning other reservations. One of its first acts was to establish a co-op store for residents.

Because it had reversed its policy on abolishing reservations, the government returned the unsold portions of land around Grand Portage to the Indians. Part went to the local band and part to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, creating a land-ownership patchwork of Byzantine complexity. Soon the band, with government assistance, began buying back privately owned tracts lost during allotment. By 1990, 79 percent of the reservation was tribally owned—a high percentage in Minnesota. [30]

The 1930s brought an influx of government money unheard of since the 1870s. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and Civil Works Administration all provided employment: forestry projects, road building, community improvement, even crafts projects. All this activity had a major impact on the geography of the village, which had always been oriented toward the water. Now, the government set to work "clearing out the worst of the old buildings which cluttered up the main village area adjacent to the water front" in order to restore its "primitive setting." The new frame homes built inland were oriented toward the roads. A new school and a community hall were erected on the ridge behind the old village site. To fit the rustic theme, they were built of logs—but the logs, imported from Oregon, were square-cut and had to be rounded again by hand in order to look like logs! [31]

The changes were not to everyone's liking. Dewey Albinson remembered meeting an old Indian woman on Mount Rose, looking out over the valley. "She is crying. She had returned to her place of birth to visit her friends, only to find the places dear to her memory gone, gone, never to be recovered." But others didn't think the development had gone nearly far enough. In the 1930s a new controversy arose. The immediate issue was a new road, but the divisive question really was economic development versus preservation of old lifeways. [32]

The state of Minnesota wanted to build a new road up the north shore, U.S. Highway 61. The first route proposed would have been disastrous—through the center of the village, then across the Pigeon at the spectacular High Falls. A coalition set out to block it: conservation groups like the Izaak Walton League of America and the Quetico-Superior Council teamed up with the secretary of the interior, whose main objective was preservation of the Indian community. [33]

The charge made at the time was that the main backers of the road were investors in Duluth and Grand Marais who had bought up lakeshore property on the reservation, anticipating that the value would soar if the road went through. Whatever the truth of the allegation, it was Duluth businessmen who lobbied hardest for the road. The reservation council, dominated by prodevelopment forces, came out in favor of the proposal. "The Indians feel that they do not want to be isolated," testified the attorney for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. "They want the whites to come to them. They do not want to be located at any dead-end street."

In the end it was not the conservationists that killed the road, but World War II. After the war the idea was revived, with changes: the highway would skirt the village on the north and leave the High Falls alone. The road was finally finished in 1966. [34]

A government commission that visited Grand Portage at the height of the road controversy left a view of life there in 1941. About 199 Ojibway people lived on the reservation, 100 more at Grand Marais. They supported themselves mainly by commercial fishing but also by hunting, trapping, guiding, handicrafts, and government work. A quarter of their food came from gardens and hunting. Despite the new frame cottages with shingled sides and roofs built during the Great Depression, a typical home was still "a pole frame dwelling covered with tar paper, one or two rooms, four windows, single floor, no storm doors or windows." Between 75 and 90 per cent of the people were Catholic, but most still used traditional medicines. Euro-American medicine was available only once a week when a doctor and a nurse visited from Grand Marais. The government noted that "practically all of the middle-aged and the younger Indians endeavor to dress, talk, and act like white people."

Uncovering the Past

In 1922 Solon J. Buck, director of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, received an alarming letter from a resident of Grand Portage. Many age-old rights of way on the reservation were being bought up, fenced, and posted. The old Grand Portage trail itself had been marked "closed." [35]

Concerned for the preservation of the historic sites at Grand Portage, Buck sent the society's field representative and a newspaper reporter to retrace the old trail. The resulting publicity roused public interest, and so Buck hired Dewey Albinson to make a systematic survey of the sites. Albinson, with a local crew, set off up the trail.

The portage was obstructed by fallen trees, but its route was still plain. In some places wagon ruts were visible. In others, Albinson said, "the old heavily trodden earth was so like a cushion that a blind man could follow it." When the crew reached Fort Charlotte, it found an old cellar hole and the remains of the dock along the riverbank. "Running back alongside a creek bed was a straight ridge, like one made by a plow, obviously the line of the former stockade," Albinson reported. He and his helpers cleared the dense underbrush, revealing more building outlines and cellar holes, which they mapped. [36]

The time was right to save Grand Portage's fur trade history. Public interest in the subject was high as a result of popularizations like The Voyageur by historian Grace Lee Nute. Moreover, conservationists were lobbying to preserve the boundary lakes as a wilderness canoe area. Buck's first idea was to promote a Fort Charlotte State Park, but the crazy quilt of federal and Indian land ownership in the area soon scotched the idea. [37]

Depression-era relief agencies finally got the ball rolling—a little too fast, in fact. In February 1936, to everyone's surprise, the Civilian Conservation Corps allocated $6,200 for reconstructing a portion of the North West Company depot at Grand Portage. The money had to be spent by June, the end of the fiscal year. The Office of Indian Affairs appealed to the Minnesota Historical Society, which insisted on an archaeological investigation before the site was touched, A funding extension was worked out, and archaeologist Ralph D. Brown arrived later that year to start excavations with a crew of local Ojibway men. [38]

On the depot site was a log cabin, two fish houses, and two barns, and the main road ran across the southern part of it. On the surface, little of the original post was visible: two furrows marking stretches of the north and west stockades and some scattered piles of boulders where chimneys had collapsed. The archaeologists laid out a checkerboard of exploratory trenches and soon ran into stockade lines. To their joy, they found the bases of more than a dozen pickets standing in position, sandwiched between horizontal support beams. The wood was later identified as white cedar. They also uncovered one spike-topped picket more than eleven feet long, plus a horizontal crossbar and pegs that had fastened the pickets together near the top. The main gate, which they had expected to face the lakeshore, turned up on the northeast side, next to the creek. [39]

The next year's investigations proved even more interesting. On a low ridge running across the center of the depot was the stone foundation of the Great Hall. West of it lay the remains of a typical trader's lodging with two fireplaces. East of it they found a cellar containing a complete plank door and fragments of walls constructed in French fashion with hand-hewn boards fitted into grooved upright posts. North of the Great Hall, the well, lined with eighteenth-century barrels, yielded a cedar shingle, a wooden bucket, and samples of the "Spanish brown" paint used on buildings. By the end of two seasons, the archaeologists had located all the stockade lines, including two that unexpectedly partitioned off the depot interior; the potential remains of thirteen structures; and hundreds of artifacts revealing the world of cheap, ready-made goods the traders inhabited: clay pipe fragments, bottle glass, earthenware, pewter, spigots, buttons, knives, lead balls, gun pieces, trade rings, files, chisels, hinges, and nails.

The reconstruction started in 1938. The palisades were erected again in the original trenches, and a rustic pioneer-style building rose on the Great Hall foundations. One end was devoted to a coffee and souvenir shop run by the Grand Portage band, while the other held museum cases full of historic artifacts and contemporary crafts donated by band members. This was the only building completed when World War II broke out, federal funds dried up, and Grand Portage was "literally abandoned" by all but the Ojibway. [40]

By the 1950s the depot was a pitiful sight: the palisade was rotted and falling, the Great Hall was leaking, weatherbeaten, and neglected. The Grand Portage band, lacking funds and fed up with seeing the tourism potential of the site wasted, turned to the National Park Service for help. It was a logical choice. Nearby Isle Royale was administered by the park service, and advocates of a major national park along the boundary saw Grand Portage as a springboard for their scheme. The first step was tentative: in 1951 the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Grand Portage a National Historic Site—a status sometimes given to sites before making them national parks—and agreed to provide the band with "technical assistance limited by available funding" to operate it.

The first reconstruction of the North West Company depot at Grand Portage. Shown here in 1951. (Alan Ominsky—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

The arrangement did not turn on the federal money spigot. Reluctantly, the reservation council came to a hard decision: the band would have to cede the land to the federal government in order to get the site developed. In 1958 Congress approved the unusual transfer, and in 1960 Grand Portage National Monument was formally established. The first park superintendent arrived that year, charged with "major restoration projects to transform the monument to its appearance 200 years ago." [41]

The lack of written sources on Grand Portage soon became apparent, making more archaeology critical. In 1961, in a cooperative agreement with the Minnesota Historical Society, archaeologist Alan R. Woolworth arrived to start what would become a fifteen-year project of excavations. Together with his historian wife, Nancy, and two young daughters, Woolworth soon came up against the cultural politics of living and working in an Indian community. Employing almost exclusively local band members, he had to make adjustments not unlike those of fur traders two hundred years before. [42]

Many of the excavations funded in the 1960s and 1970s were salvage projects made necessary by planned construction. Thus, to the archaeologists' frustration, the dig sites were often chosen not for their likelihood of yielding information, but for their suitability for sewers, buildings, and utility lines. At first, attention was directed across the creek from the depot. In 1961 three teams of archaeologists dug test pits north and east of Grand Portage Creek, finding the sites of several Office of Indian Affairs buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and what was probably a historic Ojibway dwelling. The next year the focus shifted closer to Lake Superior, where the National Park Service wanted to build an interpretive center—an idea that was quickly abandoned when four nineteenth-century Ojibway burials were found on the site. Digging three thousand feet of trenches, the archaeologists also uncovered several more Indian Affairs buildings, a turn-of-the-century log cabin, and a prehistoric projectile point. In 1975 they returned to the area and found traces of a fenced enclosure, a possible stone and clay fireplace, and some enigmatic structure sites near the road.

In 1963-64 and 1969 the projects that drove the archaeology were the replacement of the palisades and installation of the modern sewer and water lines for public facilities. The entire palisade line was excavated and a more accurate interpretation of the main gate worked out. A warehouse building was found outside the palisades (the present canoe warehouse). In 1970-71 the Great Hall was excavated again, this time turning up evidence of its porch. Historians had postulated a kitchen behind it, based on the layout of Fort William, and, sure enough, the outline of a square building surrounded by porches was found. The kitchen yielded almost 14,500 artifacts, including food remains that showed an unexpected dependence on domestic animals and eating utensils that reflected the formal manners, class structure, and international tone of fur trade society. Also found were the remains of a fireplace, apparently last used to burn a pile of furniture, and a small stone-lined dry well or cooler with its wooden floor still in place. A dozen or more building sites still await systematic excavation. Such archaeological treasure troves as trash pits and latrines have yet to be found.

Meanwhile, more research was going on at Fort Charlotte. The Minnesota Historical Society, which was sponsoring an underwater archaeology project along the border lakes, decided in 1972 to investigate the bottom of the Pigeon River. Archaeologist Douglas A. Birk was told to organize an expedition, and hardy crew members backpacked heavy equipment to the site along the rain-slick portage through clouds of mosquitoes. They proceeded to map, then literally vacuum, the mucky river bottom. A land team strained the mud for artifacts while a river team fought aggressive leeches that slithered inside wet suits and even divers' mouths. Unlike the depot on the bay, which was mainly yielding artifacts of the 1770s to 1790s, the river held everything from early French ceramics to modern camping debris. Wooden canoe parts, keg lids, and leather shoes had been preserved in the anaerobic sludge. By mapping the distribution of datable artifacts, Birk was able to show that the landing area had shifted upriver over its years of use, ending at the still-preserved remains of the North West Company dock. [43]

Excavating the Great Hall, 1970. Ruins of fireplaces lie at each end of the structure. (Alan Ominsky—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

On the rainy dawn of July 15, 1969, a tremendous clap of thunder shook Grand Portage village. Two campers who had taken shelter in the depot's gatehouse saw fire where lightning had struck the roof of the Great Hall, and they spread the alarm. As a local resident told it, "A sleepy throng gathers. Frantic efforts are made to bring pumps and hose into position. The fire spreads. Clouds of dirty black smoke begin to pour from the great stone chimneys. It is too late. . . . People stand in little groups watching quietly as the flames reach ever higher toward the gray morning skies. There is the feeling of a funeral and a sad farewell to a grand old building." [44]

The 1938-40 reconstruction of the Great Hall was a total loss. Dewey Albinson's original Witch Tree painting and many early Ojibway artifacts were destroyed. But the fire did give the National Park Service the opportunity to rebuild, this time basing the design on historical research. The work, much of it laborious hand hewing, was done by local residents. The new building opened in 1974, and four years later a reconstructed kitchen was added, bringing the site to a new level of authenticity. [45]

A diver conducting underwater archaeology at the site of Fort Charlotte in 1972 finds a brass teakettle. (Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Today, Grand Portage is a place where everyone carries around a few internal boundaries—boundaries between past and present, between cultures, between world views. Conflicting goals pull and tug at each other across the borders: the desire to attract tourists but preserve the seclusion, to use resources but protect the environment, to have jobs and well-being but keep old values strong. Living in Grand Portage is a balancing act, a precarious walk through a maze of boundaries.

Site interpreters Karen Evens and Don Carney inside the Great Hall, 1985. (National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

The business savvy that the band has shown since the 1730s began to pay off in the 1970s. The Reservation Business Committee became the sparkplug for development of tribal ventures. The first experiment, a maple sugar processing plant, failed after two years due to problems with transportation, seasonality, and cost. But plans based on the ancient Ojibway custom of hospitality succeeded. A multimillion-dollar tourist facility was planned, its keystone the Grand Portage Lodge and Conference Center. This hotel complex, built with federal grants and band dollars, opened in 1975. It was at first run in cooperation with the Radisson hotel chain, but the band took over its operation in 1980 and added a marina, campgrounds, and ski trails. After gaming was introduced in 1990, it was renamed the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. Each summer Grand Portage plays host to a rush of passing travelers, as it has done for more than two hundred years. [46]

The Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, about 1990. (Richard J. Novitsky)

Logging was resumed in the late 1970s, this time under Indian control. The Reservation Business Committee developed a comprehensive forest management plan that balances the needs of wildlife, recreation, maple sugaring, and timber harvesting. The local store, called the Trading Post, is run as a co-op by the band. Acting in its role as a local government, the business committee has also sought out money for home improvements (central heating was almost unknown on the reservation before the 1960s), roads, sewers, water lines, an ambulance, and fire protection. In many ways, Grand Portage is becoming a successful, self-reliant reservation.

Which is not to say there are not problems. It is particularly hard to balance economic progress against preservation of Ojibway language and culture. The younger generation sometimes feels alienated from the past. One teenager said, "My father says he thinks there are people in Grand Portage today who would be real ashamed to speak out and do the old ways. . . . Maybe they think it's going out of style. Like the clothes. Everyone wants to keep up with the new style, and they're ashamed of the old stuff." "It's just gone away," another teenager said. "All the people that did it are real old. . . . That was all long ago." [47]

The promise of the future radiates from the faces of Ojibway children like David Novitsky of Grand Portage, shown gathering blueberries in 1987. (Richard J. Novitsky)

James Hull, a longtime Grand Portage resident, expressed the conflict best: "To the older Indians of the Grand Portage Reservation, it is a tranquil, protected island of refuge surrounded by a turbulent sea of modern progress and feverish quest. It is a peaceful place where life is simple and unhurried, where wood smoke still perfumes the night air, and where an Indian can still be an Indian if he chooses. . . . To the younger Indian . . . Grand Portage is a hope for compromise wherein progress and opportunity might be brought to the Reservation to provide the kind of life which he, as an American, has a right to earn and enjoy. . . .

"In its essence then, Grand Portage is a puzzle and a challenge." [48]

As it always has been.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009