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Art and history come together in ‘Fur Trade Nation'

Melissa Olson
MPR News

On the outskirts of Two Harbors, Minnesota just north of Duluth artist Carl Gawboy sits in an overstuffed leather chair inside his light-filled studio. He’s sharing his space with a rack of young plants his wife Cindy has started in anticipation of spring planting. Half a dozen of Gawboy’s watercolor paintings line the walls.  

For the past two years, Gawboy has been creating hundreds of pen and ink drawings for “Fur Trade Nation: an Ojibwe’s Graphic History.”

Gawboy has used his thirty years of experience teaching the history of fur trade relations on Turtle Island, also known as North America, to create hundreds of illustrations depicting stories Ojibwe people and lifeways centered on entrepreneurship and freedom.

A citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and Finnish descent, Gawboy has been working as an artist even longer than he’s been teaching history.

The book is a result of Gawboy’s research and teaching on fur trade history. He’s taught courses on the subject for years at the University of Minnesota Duluth and St. Scholastica. He says his research revealed a common stereotype in histories and pop culture representations of the fur trade.

“The poor feckless Indians were cheated by greedy rapacious traders, and that traded valuable furs that went to Europe for a bunch of trinkets.” said Gawboy.

For Gawboy, teaching fur trade history is about seeing Ojibwe people and cultural values as the center of trade relations with European trading partners beginning in the 17th century.

What emerges throughout the book is a recognition of Ojibwe women’s economic decision-making over two and a half centuries.

“Cloth was the number one trade good by volume, not guns. Needles, cloth, kettles, axes,” said Gawboy.

“When the modern towns were built in Minnesota, there should have been the Indians waiting for them with hardware stores and grocery stores and feed stores. And that’s how it should have been. Why wasn’t it?” said Gawboy. Erica Dischino for MPR News

In place of an image of an Ojibwe man inspecting a gun and a French fur trader likewise inspecting a pelt, a drawing shows two Ojibwe women standing side by side, one holding up a trade knife and the other an axe.

Gawboy’s work also interweaves humor throughout the book. To underscore the role of women in the fur trade, Gawboy drew a present-day scene at a mall in Duluth where Ojibwe women shop for their families while their husbands wait outside on a bench.

“I just couldn’t resist,” said Gawboy with a chuckle.

Additionally, Gawboy depicts personal freedoms Ojibwe people had when it came to social structures like marriage.

“Because the Ojibwe somehow seemed to be such modern people. Their perceptions of freedom, their perceptions of good,” said Gawboy. “Marry whoever you want to. Flexibility.”

One example is the rendering of the historical figure of Yellowhead, an Ojibwe two-spirit person, whose gender might be both masculine and feminine. In “Fur Trade Nation,” Yellowhead is shown as someone free to pursue marriage to John Tanner, a white man. Gawboy illustrated how Yellowhead later became the third wife of a prosperous Ojibwe husband.

Gawboy also takes care to depict Ojibwe communities throughout the fur trade as thriving and prosperous. For Gawboy, it’s a history that poses a question about what happened to Ojibwe wealth by the mid-19th century, at the start of the treaty-making era.

“When the modern towns were built in Minnesota, there should have been the Indians waiting for them with hardware stores and grocery stores and feed stores. And that’s how it should have been. Why wasn’t it?” said Gawboy. 

Past and present on the same page

Rain Newcomb doesn’t remember when she first met Carl Gawboy. She was just six years old. Her father worked with Gawboy while he was teaching at St. Scholastica. The two men became good friends — and Newcomb grew up seeing Gawboy’s work.

Newcomb worked in mainstream publishing for a decade before arriving in Cloquet to teach at the college. “Fur Trade Nation” is the first book to be published by Animikii-Mazina’iganan, Thunderbird Press.

Inside the library on the second floor of the Fond Du Lac Community and Tribal College, Newcomb reflects on her work editing “Fur Trade Nation.”

“The great freeing things about working for this press, about working on this project, was that I got to pick Carl’s version,” said Newcomb. “Every time, I got to have my ultimate loyalty to what his vision of this book was and bringing that into fruition.”

In Gawboy’s hands, Rain Newcomb says illustration becomes a particularly powerful way to upend conventional notions of linear history by placing past and present on the same page.

“Taking out a lot of the details that you would see in more realistic drawings… it allows a little more freedom of interpretation, both from the audience,” said Newcomb. “And, perhaps for that original person who’s being drawn there, we’re not putting as much interpretation on them as the controlling author.”

A more recent painting by Carl Gawboy depicts one of his grandchildren with a graduation cap and gown Monday, at his home studio in Two Harbors. The scene, while not accurate with regards to his family, references situations in many families where someone is the first to graduate from high school. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

Newcomb says the book doesn’t fit neatly into a particular category.

“There were a couple of stories that he was absolutely determined to tell. And, so, I had to make them fit into the story,” said Newcomb. 

Newcomb also says Gawboy designed the book to invite Ojibwe readers to consider “how it reflects their own stories and their own family histories.”

Gawboy’s work, Newcomb says, has long been interested in teaching fur trade history as an example of a multicultural society, an interest she says which stems in part from his own lived experience as an Ojibwe and Finnish person.

“We are free to choose how to live together. And that became a really important theme as we were working on this book,” said Newcomb. 

Tracks in the snow

At a recent celebration of the “Thunderbird Review,” a literary journal published by Thunder Press, Ojibwe elder Janis Fairbanks reads from her essay on the need for healthy Indigenous foods in Ojibwe communities.

Fairbanks served as a consultant on “Fur Trade Nation.” She and Gawboy decided they wouldn’t add a glossary for some of the historical words and phrases found throughout the book.

“He wanted to leave some mystery in there,” Fairbanks said. “I think that’s a good thing… that’s what my grandma used to say, that ‘you don’t have to tell everything.’”

Fairbanks also contributed her knowledge to a series of illustrated panels depicting a tragic moment in 1850 — when government annuities failed to arrive at Sandy Lake and many people starved, and still others decided to return to Wisconsin on foot.

At her suggestion, Gawboy illustrated those events through a set of footprints left in the snow.

“That was kind of a double sign. It was a sign of tragedy that they had to do it. But it was a sign of hope that they decided to do it. We made a choice to do it. So, there’s always that. There’s hope and there’s choice,” said Fairbanks.

Gawboy says he hopes “Fur Trade Nation” will inspire others to add their own insights into history well into the future.

“There are some things that I’ve got in here that are just a mystery,” said Gawboy. “Solve the mystery. And let’s put something together, you know, 10 years down the road.”

This article was first published by Minnesota Public Radio and was republished with permission. 

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