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We’re Still Here: Reconnecting and Renewing Native Heritage in Duluth

The Duluth Indigenous Commission wants visitors and residents to see the Native influence and recall the Ojibwe history of this city by Lake Superior.

Back in 1901, promoters of Duluth, Minnesota, were pointing out where inquisitive tourists could see “Indians.”

Amid details on fishing regulations, prominent local industries, impressive downtown buildings and local mansions, the small “Pocket Guide to Duluth,” produced that year by The Duluth Improvement Association, noted: “To many people who come to Duluth, an Indian is a curiosity. Everybody wants to see one of the original copper colored inhabitants of North America. To study their complexion, their dress and their peculiarities is interesting.”

The booklet then proceeds to encourage tourists to take the train to nearby reservations—the 17 miles to Fond du Lac, the 30 miles to Cloquet, the 95 miles to Tower or 157 miles to Cass Lake.

Not surprisingly, the anachronistically racist mini guide failed to mention that downtown Duluth grew on land, once a thriving hub for the region’s Ojibwe people, that had been promised in 1854 to Chief Buffalo and that many Ojibwe people continued to live within and around the city limits.

Photo by Konnie LeMay

A small 1901 “Duluth” guide, definitely a product of its time, told tourists how to find “Indians”—mainly by heading far out of the city that was the original site of thriving Ojibwe commerce and community.

Today, the Duluth Indigenous Commission wants both visitors and residents to see the Native influence and remember the Ojibwe history of this city by the inland sea of Lake Superior. But the 11-member, mayor-appointed commission, formerly called the American Indian Commission and made up mainly of local Ojibwe people, has no desire for the Native heritage to be a tourist “curiosity.”

The idea is to acknowledge and to honor the indigenous roots over which the current city sprouted. To that end, the commission in May presented the Duluth City Council with its 109-page “Ethnographic Study of Indigenous Contributions to the City of Duluth.” The next steps, commission members and others hope, is for the information to be displayed in pertinent locations and for one of the city’s frequently visited downtown parks to be renamed and refocused to Native heritage.

“I was just amazed at the support of the city council,” said Babette Sandman, a White Earth Ojibwe woman who chairs the commission. “It’s a historic moment. We might get the visibility that we’ve been asking for. … That’s something that’s been missing.”

Native people are the largest minority among a “majority” population in the city. The 2010 U.S. Census recorded the city’s 86,266 population as 90.4 percent white, 2.5 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, 2.3 percent Black or African American, 1.5 percent Asian, 1.5 percent Hispanic/Latino and 3 percent who identified with more than one race.

“Aside from highly public disputes about the revenues from the Fond-Du-Luth Casino, Native people do not believe that their contributions to the city, either in the past or today, have been appreciated,” the ethnographic study reports in its opening paragraphs. “The invisibility of indigenous people was a prime factor in motivation for the Duluth Indigenous Commission… to undertake this study. The guiding intention was and continues to be the gathering of information on indigenous people in Duluth, from archival and written sources, oral histories, and archaeological evidence, and the beginning of a discussion of various means to use this information to educate present-day Duluthians about indigenous history and culture.”

Photo by Konnie LeMay

Several public artworks are intended as tributes to the Ojibwe heritage of Duluth, but because none were done by Native artists, according to an ethnographic study of the city, that “is a factor in the lack of enthusiasm for these sculptures among Native people interviewed during this project.” Pictured is “Spirit of Lake Superior,” a sculpture of a girl with a winnowing basket by Kirk St. Maur in Duluth’s popular Canal Park neighborhood.

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Already based on the study, the city has created an interactive map of indigenous contributions within the city that indicates points of cultural importance, historical significance and Ojibwe names for certain places. Duluth traditionally is Onigamiinsing, the place of the little portage.

Kathy Wilson, a city planner, says future plans include adding signage in city parks about historically significant sites. “It’s a good resource. We’ll use it whenever there is an opportunity when something is going on in the city.”

The study, which Wilson thinks of as an “encyclopedia” covers a lot of ground: historic notations, discoveries of artifacts, burial site locations, Ojibwe stories, current opinions about the city’s connection to its Native history.

One section points out the rare examples of public sculpture linked to Native heritage, but which were all done by non-Native artists. “Native artists who were interviewed saw these public artworks as symptoms of the general problem of indigenous invisibility in Duluth and the difficulty of Native artists, until recent years, to find places in Duluth which to display and sell their work.”

Photo by Konnie LeMay

Several public artworks are intended as tributes to the Ojibwe heritage of Duluth, but because none were done by Native artists, according to an ethnographic study of the city, that “is a factor in the lack of enthusiasm for these sculptures among Native people interviewed during this project.” Pictured is “Wild Ricing Moon,” an 89-foot-tall sculpture by Chicago artist David John Mooney “representing a full moon of late summer with a rice stalk in metal with a representation of a bird at its end” stands at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

There are high hopes for another opportunity to use the study’s information on the near horizon. Plans are being developed to rename Lake Place Park overlooking the city’s popular Lakewalk to the Ojibwe name Gitche O’de Akiing, or Grand Heart Place.

“We’re really in the visioning process,” said Sandman. The renamed park may become a focal point for Native artworks and information panels, perhaps including Duluth’s history connected to Chief Buffalo, who journeyed across country to Washington, D.C. when he was in his 90s to stop forced displacement of the Ojibwe from Lake Superior. Noting a history that few in Duluth recall, Sandman explained “that the president told Chief Buffalo in 1854 to take any area. … He was allowed to pick a special reservation and Chief Buffalo picked Duluth. This was Chief Buffalo’s reservation.”

The most exciting thing about the study, the council’s acceptance of it and the city’s intentions for its use, Sandman underlined, is that both the Native community and the broader population are beginning to recognize the rich indigenous past of this part of the world. “I wish my dad could have seen these times,” she said. “It’s an explosion of reconnection and renewing.”

Some of those interviewed for the study also pointed out positive developments, like the American Indian Community Housing Organization purchasing an old YMCA building in 2008 and turning it into the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan—Together We Are Beginning a Good Life—center with supportive housing for families that feature spaces for art and meetings.

Photo by Konnie LeMay

The Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan Together We Are Beginning a Good Life) is seen as one of the many positive developments in Duluth connected to the Native community. The study suggested that the center, which also has supportive housing, might be the starting point for walking tours that narrate indigenous history of the city.

But the work will continue to bring Ojibwe heritage into the public eye, she added. “Clearly, we need to make us visible in Duluth… from invisibility to totally out there in Duluth.”