It all started on a whim. A year ago, Ely Folk School members Paul and Sue Schurke were looking for a novel get-away and noticed it was summer Pow Wow weekend for the Ojibwa community on the Canadian side of the Boundary Water’s Lac La Croix. Seizing the moment, they arrived there on an overnight paddle from the Little Indian Sioux trailhead. When Chief Norman Jordan warmly welcomed them, he noted how much the community appreciated having canoe visitors from Minnesota. “Back in the old days,” he reminisced, “dozens of canoeists would arrive from the Ely area for our Pow Wow.”
Rising to that challenge, the Schurkes resurrected that scene this summer in an event organized through the Ely Folk School. They arrived at the Lac La Croix Pow Wow with a flotilla of a dozen canoes and over two dozen attendees from Minnesota.
“It was great,” said participant Brad Carlson. “They embraced us like family at this annual reunion event which serves to sustain their cultural values. We joined the drum dancing, shared a banquet feast and breakfast generously provided by the community and we observed their spiritual ceremonies.”
These included a double wedding that was incorporated into the festivities and healing services for native families who recently lost loved ones. These solemn events, presided over by the tribe’s spiritual elder, included an exchange ritual in which the deceased’s belongings were dispersed on blankets on the Pow Wow grounds. Villagers were invited to select items for their own use and, in turn, leave gifts behind for the family. “It’s a means of keeping the deceased’s spirit alive in our community,” said one villager.
Another ceremony involved the honoring of the Ely Folk School’s traditional birch bark canoe. It was built this summer as a community project under the guidance of EFS instructor Erik Simula and was brought to the Pow Wow by car. The EFS group was invited to display the canoe by shouldering it as they marched it around the drum circle to applause from the gathering. Then it was placed in the waters of Lac La Croix where many enjoyed paddling it. Noting that the new canoe took on a bit of water, tribal elders commented with dry humor that perhaps the group had sealed the craft with pine-tar pitch on the wrong side.
The group also sought to have the canoe blessed by Lac La Croix’s spiritual elder, Daniel Geyshick, who presided over the Pow Wow’s Sunday morning prayer & incense ceremonies. Norman Jordan guided them through. EFS members Paul Schurke and Becky Rom were instructed to sprinkle pouch tobacco at spruce trees marking the eastern entrance to the drum circle. Then, entering the round house where the elder was seated, they placed token gifts including fruit, currency, a compass, candle & knife among the totemic items of stone & bone meticulously arranged on a ground blanket in front of the seated elder. Finally, approaching him with the Ojibwa greeting “Asama,” a term of supplication, they offered him tobacco for his ocher-colored stone pipe. His acceptance of this gesture signaled his consent to bless the canoe and name it after their village and their sacred lake, Lac La Croix.
He then proceeded to explain the meaning of the ritual’s many totemic items. Central to these was his pipe, a family heritage treasure that had been crafted generations back from stone quarried on Basswood Lake’s Pipestone Bay. “Pipe tobacco is key to our ceremonies,” he said. “The rising smoke is our communication with the spirits.” He wore a necklace of bear claws, a flute made from an eagle bone and an otter’s tail, all totems associated with health and healing. The canoe blessing involved incantations & prayers as the elder used a feather to brush smoke from a shell with simmering tobacco and sage over the canoe, followed by a dance around the round house with the chief.
“Our cultures are very different,” said EFS member Nancy Steege, “but participating in this Pow Wow underscored our common bond – our passion for these beautiful border lakes and forests.” Lac La Croix, a community of 300 people at the mouth of the Namakan River, is considered the most remote of northwestern Ontario’s many First Nation reservations. It includes 25 square miles of forest and 15 miles of Lac La Croix shoreline between Quetico Provincial Park and the BWCAW. The native name, Zhingwaako Zaaga’igan, means “Lake of the Pines”.
The EFS group tented on the shoreline Pow Wow grounds with other celebrants, which included dozens of members of various U.S. and Canada tribes. Drum circles from five First Nations, including Lac La Croix, participated in the Pow Wow with their ceremonial drums. It was noted that Stoney Park, a featured drum circle visiting from Alberta, has several recordings and a Grammie award to its credit.
The large bass-type drums are placed on the ground where drummers (from a few to a dozen or more) are seated around them to carry the rhythm with padded sticks and to sing, chant or wail the songs. Lac La Croix’s drum is 200 years old and was given to the community as a peace offering by Sioux warriors following the end of their conflicts with that tribe.
Dancers with different steps proceed in the clockwise circle around the open round house sheltering the drum groups. The “grass dancers” employ low sweeping, pounding strides that traditionally tamped down the grass to prepare a Pow Wow circle. Other “fancy dancers” in colorful regalia adorned with feathered headdresses and bustles, feature near-acrobatic moves that factor into competitive dances. But everyone is invited to join the dance, which for novices like the EFS members, just involved a simple two-step shuffle. And the events weren’t all traditional – when rain showers arose Saturday evening, attendees retreated to the village’s school gym for karaoke with a native rock band.
The Lac La Croix Pow Wow is held every summer on the last weekend in August. Pending interest, EFS will host another flotilla visit next August 24-27. This year’s trip involved a 4-hour paddle on Thursday with BWCAW day permits from Little Indian Sioux to the Canadian shores of Loon Lake, where the group camped with Crown Land Permits compliments of Zups Resort (and legally entered Canada with Remote Access Border Crossing permits). On Friday, a 7- hour paddle from Slim through Fat, Eugene & Gunn Lakes took them to Lac La Croix. They arrived at the village Saturday morning following breakfast at Campbells Resort, a century-old, fly-in facility on the Canadian shore. At midday Sunday, a Zups motorboat shuttle returned them to Loon Lake where they paddled back to the Little Indian Sioux trailhead on the Echo Trail for the evening drive home.