I have a deep love for the North Shore in my home state of Minnesota. It is a landscape in which one can witness true sublimity in nature — my father and I stood on the Palisade Head lookout in a frightening sleet storm only a couple of weeks ago, wind buffeting against our coats, the tempestuous Lake Superior crashing against the cliff’s face. It is also a landscape of subtle beauties, where one is rewarded for stepping softly, slowly, listening to the wind and the trees. The picturesque, fading industrialism makes desolation seem romantic here, an old world with a storied history.
As the date rapidly approaches November 26th, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the place that I find myself returning to, both physically and in my internal imagining, to try and perform some kind of reconciliation.
The territory depicted above was ceded to the United States by the Ojibwa people living there in the Second Treaty of La Pointe in 1854, according to mnopedia.org. The land’s value, for the United States, was in its natural mineral and pine timber wealth — for the Mississippi and Lake Superior Chippewa bands, it was and is an ancestral home.
As I have mentioned in the past, one of my favorite writers is Robin Wall Kimmerer. I had the immense pleasure of hearing her speak on the special anniversary edition of her book, and she spoke on the Anishinaabe Seven Fires prophecies. The Third Fire says that the Anishinaabe people would settle in a place where food grows on water, that this place is the chosen ground, and that ground is here, the Northern Midwest, where the quintessential manoomin (wild rice) grows.
The cultural importance of this land, both to these groups’ material realities as well as their spirituality, cannot be understated. As a consequence, I find myself pausing to think about my own relationship with this place and with its people. Often people romanticize to a fault, transforming reality into a false imaginary.
Since I am still in the throes of writing my National Novel Writing Month draft, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore two of the ways that I have consciously attempted to represent the material realities of a place that I hold dear.
The Fond du Lac Reservation logo features a numeric ‘8’ surrounded by fire, representing the Eighth Fire:
“It was said that out of the ashes of the Seventh Fire, the Eighth and final fire will be lit and a new people will emerge.”
Fire, especially in the natural world, is both destructive and creative. When a forest fire clears through acres upon acres of trees, we may feel saddened by the apparent loss of something old, sustained, something with a rich, living history. But while the old forest has been cleared, a new forest will grow from its ashes. The old nourishes the young, beginning the cycle of rebirth after death.
Fire is prominent in my story — the feeling of fire, like a flame in the mind, is used to describe a mental struggle; a car fire takes two lives, leaving deep scars on a third; a forest fire, caused by industrial logging, burns thousands of acres of forest and a mysterious, old hotel.
It is like a rite, or a ritual, in that a fire means an end and a beginning. It is neutral — it is no more good than it might be bad, only that which we assign to it matters to us. It is inevitable. It is a force, pure energy, a thing we cannot touch but alters life forever. Fire represents all these things to me, and its presence in my project is intentional.
It may be cliche, but one of the main setting elements of my story is that an old logging company once dominated the region’s economy. Old, as in, no longer functioning, or at least at a much more limited capacity. It’s exploitation of the land, however, has left visible scars on both the people and landscape: see, fire.
Where once the town in question may have been a thriving rural community, there is a dark presence resting over it, a kind of ennui or malaise that haunts its residents. The younger generation succumb to feigning meaning, or they work in the county hospital, the sort of new industry, one that peddles in actual bodies.
Where industrialism and the natural, material wealth of the area plays a key role in the general history of the setting, it is deindustrialization that tugs at the unsightly corners of life here. It becomes a question of meaning, of belonging, of holding onto a thing that is no longer sustainable. Even the younger generation is prone to the pitfalls of living like the rest, when in truth, there is a new people that they have the potential to become.
This post is a little haphazard, I know. I wanted to keep it within the theme of this month’s NaNoWriMo reflection while also giving space and recognition for National Native American Heritage month. Irony is, however, the declaration of this month’s focus — and the classifying of Thanksgiving as National Native American Heritage day — by a government that has abused and exploited the original peoples who inhabit/ed this place.
I encourage everyone to really take some time to appreciate where you are from, to learn its rich history, and the history of the people who’ve lived here for many hundreds or thousands of years. Take the time to reconcile yourself to where you live, and with who your neighbors are. Remember, that “no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try” (Louis Erdrich).
*Rather than posting a link to solicit free beers from readers, I would like to encourage you to donate to any of the wonderful non-profits helping to restore our knowledge of this place and its cultures. Dream of Wild Health is one such non-profit you might consider. Thanks!