Bois Forte Native Names Map
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TOWER—Mesaba, Biwabik, Kawishiwi, Saganaga—these northern Minnesota place names are among many easily recognized as having native origins associated with the region’s indigenous Ojibwe residents.
Many other original names are lost to history. However, thanks to 19th-century archives, one of the nation’s most significant concentrations of original names and meanings exist for this area—and those names are going back on the map.
In collaboration with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the non-profit Ely Folk School (EFS) & volunteer artists have completed a two-year project to create a map of the band’s traditional realm. This includes a 100-mile expanse of boreal forest from Lake Vermilion to Nett Lake and entails over 100 original names and meanings.
The map was designed by Bois Forte artist Louise Isham and crafted on a hand-painted historic template by artisanal map maker Keith Myrmel. It will be unveiled at the Bois Forte Heritage Center near Fortune Bay Resort Casino at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 30, in conjunction with Native American Heritage Month and an intertribal gathering at Fortune Bay. Center director Jaylen Strong said the public is invited to the free event and to view the center’s many exhibits on Bois Forte’s history.
“We’re pleased to introduce people to the colorful and descriptive names provided by our ancestors,” said Bois Forte District II Representative Robert Moyer, Jr.
As examples, Moyer noted that the Ojibwe name for Vermilion (Onamani) means “lake with red sunset glow” and for Bystrom Bay (Gagons-ibi-madage-winik) means “place where the young porcupines swim.”
EFS board member and Bois Forte band member Rick Anderson said this project was a natural extension of the school’s mission to serve as a bridge between the region’s native and non-native residents.
“This map highlights our region’s native heritage and our Ojibwe ancestors who’ve lived here for hundreds of years,” he said.
Anderson noted that the map includes sidebars with historical information about the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, their chiefs, and their traditions. It also includes the migration story that led them here from the eastern seaboard 600 years ago following a dream vision about a place where food grew in great abundance on the water. That proved to be wild rice or “manomin,” which remains a central source of their physical and spiritual sustenance.
Anderson noted that copies of the map’s first limited edition printing would be available through an Ely Folk School fundraiser. He added that contributors of $100 or more will receive a photographic quality heritage print suitable for framing.
Isham noted discussions are in the works with area print shops to produce mass quantities of the map, which will then be sold at the Bois Forte Heritage Center & Cultural Museum, area businesses, and possibly online.
“We want to be able to reach a broad audience with this project,” said Isham. “A lot of hard work has gone into this project, and we want to ensure its long-term success as it will help the public better understand Bois Forte’s history and the lakes that are so important to our people.”
A grant from the Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation board will cover map printing and the production of large weatherproof map panels for display at area schools and information kiosks.
“This map underscores our voice and roots in the region,” said Anderson. He added that an online
version of the map is also being considered, including links to native pronunciations of the Ojibwe names and traditional stories about the places.
The project was prompted by summer programs at EFS for crafting traditional Ojibwa birchbark. That led to group canoe trips to Pow Wows at Ontario’s Lac La Croix village, where they learned the residents had researched and mapped native place names for Quetico Park.
“We wondered if something similar could be done for our area and, sure enough, we found the names,” said EFS board member Paul Schurke.
Sources included diaries of anthropologists and missionaries from Smithsonian archives, a 1922 roadless recreation area proposal (that led to today’s Boundary Waters) by landscape planner Arthur Carhart and his Bois Forte colleague Leo Chosa, and geologist Warren Upham’s “Minnesota Geographic Names.” This 800- page tome from 1920 is considered the premier collection of historical names and meanings found in any of the 50 states.
“This project is a Minnesota first,” said Schurke. He noted it might prompt other tribal communities among Minnesota’s 11 sovereign native nations (seven Ojibwe and four Sioux) to produce similar maps. The EFS research found several hundred additional native names and meanings through the Quetico-Superior region.
“Perhaps someday we’ll extend this map to include much of the Arrowhead and the Boundary Waters,” said Schurke. “Too many original descriptive lake names were replaced with names of lumberjack’s love interest.”
Moyer, Jr. said he hopes the map’s unveiling later this month will bolster pride among area residents and visitors alike about native history. He notes the map’s inscription, which concludes: “The vast maize of lakes and forest is honored by our rich Ojibwe cultural heritage and the means our ancestors created to travel it: jiimani (canoe), aagim-ag (snowshoe) and biboondaaban (sled). For that, we say “Miigwech” (thank you).”
For more information about the map, dive into these articles from MPR, the Star Tribune, the Ely Echo, Timberjay Newspapers, MinnPost, and this podcast from Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer. You can purchase a Legacy Edition copy now or wait until standard copies are available. These will be sold at the Bois Forte Heritage Center and the Ely Folk School.