Friday, September 4, 2009

Minnesotans! Get yer island back!

True or false? Isle Royale was mined by ancient Indians for copper, but ever since has been an uninhabited wilderness. True or false? Isle Royale belongs to Michigan because of its deep historic and prehistoric connections.

Both are false. And that should be good for Minnesotans’ cultural pride.

I read Timothy Cochrane’s new book this summer, and really enjoyed his revisitation of Lake Superior and North Shore history. Cochrane systematically dismantles much of the “common knowledge” about Isle Royale. Minong—The Good Place documents the deep spiritual, economic and cultural connections between the North Shore Ojibwe and Isle Royale.

Until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, Ojibwe from Grand Portage and Fort William not only lived on the Island, they fished, hunted and died there too. Traditional Ojibwe stories are rife with mentions of the Island. Yet the island, we learn, was bought from the Lake Superior Ojibwe with $500 of gunpowder and beef.

This book provides the historical basis for restoring North Shore Ojibwe relations to Isle Royale. In fact, Cochrane ends the book with a few specific proposals that would strengthen connections between the Grand Portage community and the National Park. Perhaps, Cochrane suggests, Grand Portage Ojibwe could restore their historic connection with Isle Royale, and generate much-needed income, by building and running a hotel at the western tip of Isle Royale.

This book is an important contribution to Minnesota history as well. Although Minnesotans just celebrated the state’s sesquicentennial, the earliest European settlements in the state go much further back than 150 years, including the vibrant community of Grand Portage. Cochrane shows how Grand Portage can lay claim to Isle Royale. By extension, Minnesotans can claim Isle Royale too, to the extent that they embrace Grand Portage.

If you’re looking for a light read to put in your Isle Royale backpack, this is not the book for you. It’s academic in tone, with almost a third of the book comprised of footnotes and bibliography. Despite the title, it’s as much about Grand Portage as it is about Isle Royale. Relying on primary sources to tell such an important story makes reading feel a bit like bushwacking through thick underbrush instead of following the easy trail. But if you’re interested in the history of Lake Superior, this is an essential book to read and understand.

Minong—The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale, Timothy Cochrane, 2009, Michigan State University Presss, East Lansing, 300 pages


Anonymous said...

I thought Minong meant High Place? said...

A good book:

Minong - The Good Place

This history book was written to solve a mystery that Timothy Cochrane discovered while working at Isle Royale National Park.

Andrew Slade said...

Anonymous...that was another of the "myths" that Cochrane addresses. The fact is, no one knows what Minong really means, but Cochrane settled on "Good Place" as an acceptable compromise based on his discussions with band members.