Ojibwe scrolls come full circle

The sacred scrolls took a 275-year journey from a medicine lodge to a doctor then to his grandson in Kentucky — who came to realize he was their guardian, not their owner.By Larry Oakes
Minneapolis Star Tribune
TOWER, MINN. – For those who believe in spiritual forces, the story of the sacred scrolls of the Bois Forte Chippewa offers a wonderful affirmation. For those who believe we walk alone, the story offers an amazing coincidence.
In September, members of the northern Minnesota tribe gathered at Spirit Island on Nett Lake for a ceremony. There, according to witnesses, a drumkeeper named Shane Drift recounted his recent dream that forgotten stories and songs of the tribe would somehow “come back to us.”
About two weeks later, in early October, the phone rang at the new Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum, next to Fortune Bay Casino.
The caller was Raymond Cloutier, a physician in Bowling Green, Ky.  Cloutier said that hanging in glass cases on the walls of his study were 42 birch bark scrolls inscribed with symbols and pictures.
Cloutier said the scrolls had come with a letter saying that some of the scrolls were more than 200 years old, and all originated “at Nett Lake on the Bois Forte Reservation.”
The letter — a report from a historical society that had sought interpretation from Ojibwe medicine men — said the scrolls depicted ceremonial songs “concerning the most fundamental laws and needs of the [Ojibwe] people.”
Cloutier told the astounded museum curator, Bill Latady, that he had cherished the scrolls for decades, but he had come to believe they belonged with the tribe. Last week the band announced that the scrolls are back at Bois Forte, in a climate-controlled museum room, after untold decades away.
A group of elders has confirmed that they are long-lost records of the Bois Forte lodge of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society, a selective Ojibwe religious order that preserved its rites on birch bark and was driven underground for most of the 20th century, when Indian religions were outlawed by the U.S. government.
“Spiritually, this is probably the most important thing that has ever happened [to the tribe],” said Rose Berens, the tribe’s preservation officer. “I was awestruck.”
The Bois Forte Reservation is largely in Koochiching County in far northern Minnesota.
The band’s elders decided the scrolls cannot be photographed, or even seen, by anyone who doesn’t belong to the religious order, except for curator Latady.
Berens says that even she has not seen them, and won’t until she is initiated into the order next spring in a ceremony on the Red Lake reservation.

Mysterious journey

Cloutier said his grandfather, Dr. Herbert Burns, acquired the scrolls when he was superintendent of Ah-Gwah-Ching tuberculosis sanatorium near Walker, Minn., in the early 1900s. Bois Forte leaders speculate that poverty-stricken ancestors might have bartered them for treatment.
Cloutier isn’t so sure. He said Burns was a “Renaissance man” with many interests and collections, including a trove of Indian artifacts, most of which eventually went to a museum in Walker. Cloutier suspects his grandfather bought the scrolls and the authentication letter accompanying them, probably from another non-Indian.
A few years after Burns died in 1949, the scrolls, packed in cardboard drums, went to Cloutier, then only about 12.
The scrolls range from 9 by 3 inches to 6 by 2 feet, according to Latady. The drawings are on the brown side of the bark, some drawn with charcoal and others applied with red paint. Some images are carved, he said.
Out of respect to the band’s wishes, neither Latady nor Cloutier would describe the drawings, but experts who have studied similar scrolls say they most often contain “mnemonic,” or memory-aiding symbols, to recall songs among a people with no written language.
“The coming of the gods is portrayed bestowing creation of men and other creatures upon the land and in the waters of the earth,” says the Bois Forte scrolls’ accompanying report, written in the 1930s by the Becker County Historical Society. “The heralds of these gods, half land and half water spirits, serve the gods as ambassadors. … Another song relates how the gods give the Indians the privilege of for the first time eating meat.”

From owner to guardian

Cloutier said that in the 1990s he became aware of a law requiring institutions that get federal funds to return sacred artifacts to Indian tribes. The law didn’t apply to him, but he said a nagging idea grew in him: “The people the scrolls came from were not some dead Indians from a dead culture; they were still there, and they may have been suffering somewhat for having lost part of their culture. About the time I realized this, I stopped being an owner and became a guardian.”
He found the Bois Forte band’s website, saw that a museum had opened in 2002, and decided to return the scrolls. His only stipulation was that the band retrieve them; he didn’t want to risk shipping them.
A few days after hearing from Cloutier, Berens, spiritual adviser Vernon Adams and Bois Forte elders Myra Thompson and Phyllis Boshey drove to Kentucky, dined with Cloutier and his wife, Joyce, and left with their precious cargo.
“Once I got over the damage to my greed, it made perfect sense to return these things,” Cloutier said. “Unfortunately, most of the time, these things were taken from their owners in ways that probably wouldn’t make us proud today.”
Tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy wrote to Cloutier that his “thoughtfulness is deeply appreciated by everyone … from the elders who listened to the songs and stories in their youth to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who will once again have that opportunity due to your generosity.”
Adams said he now wonders if the strange journey of the scrolls was fortunate. Similar scrolls were destroyed by missionaries and others during the century that the Midewiwin was outlawed.
“To me, they took a path they were meant to take,” Adams said. “They left, were preserved and now have come back. It’s exciting to see. This is where our past meets the future.”

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