DULUTH -- In September, the entire tribal council for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa gathered on a dock jutting into the lake to welcome a rare, fragile and culturally significant cargo.
Staff from Isle Royale National Park, an island offshore in Lake Superior, transported five hand-woven mats, called anaakanan in the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe language, made from cedar and sweetgrass.
Their destination was Grand Portage National Monument, located on the Grand Portage reservation in far northeastern Minnesota.
“It was really a special day,” recalled Anna Deschampe, the chief of interpretation for Grand Portage National Monument, and a Grand Portage band member.
The mats are about 100 years old, and fragile. To make the 60-mile journey safely across rough water, four of them were rolled around large tubes, wrapped in muslin fabric, and covered in plastic to protect them on the 22-foot Park Service boat.
The final mat was too brittle to be rolled, so it was transported flat in a specially-made cardboard folder.
As Isle Royale staff unloaded the mats from the boat, one of the council members, John Morrin, welcomed them with a prayer, Deschampe said.
Some people may look at the mats as mere objects, she said, something for daily household use. “But for us, we think of the people behind them. We see all these layers behind them, of our ancestors and the amazing things that they were able to do, and pass on, and carry forward.”
Several of the mats were made by Helen Robinson Linklater, or Tchi-Ki-Wis, an Ojibwe woman originally from the Lac La Croix area along the U.S.-Canada border, now within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
She lived on Isle Royale in the late 1920s and early 1930s with her husband John Linklater, a game warden. During that time she crafted mats and other items out of cedar and birch bark and porcupine quills and sold many of them to tourists.
The mats were woven on a large frame out of long strips of cedar bark. The largest is 8 feet by 6 feet. While they were designed to be used on the floor, like rugs, “they really are works of art,” said Liz Valencia, manager of interpretation and cultural resources at Isle Royale National Park. Some are dyed green, red and black, and woven in a checkerboard pattern.
While they were definitely made for everyday household use, Deschampe said, some Ojibwe people used them for ceremonial purposes, or gave them away to honor someone, or as a gift. “I see them as wonderful pieces of art, something that definitely took a tremendous amount of time to create, that had several different purposes.”
The mats are on long-term loan to Grand Portage National Monument, and join a collection that now numbers 17 mats. About half are on loan from Isle Royale. The others belong to Grand Portage National Monument or the Grand Portage Band.
It’s possible that many of the mats in the collection were made by Tchi-Ki-Wis, said Valencia. Several were donated to Isle Royale in 1941 by Frank Warren, a summer resident of the island who was friends with the Linklaters.
They’re especially significant, Valencia said, because so few people make them anymore. It’s a “one-of-a-kind collection,” she said, representing what could be the “largest collection of these types of objects from one craftsperson in the upper Great Lakes, possibly even North America.”
Anna Deschampe, speaking as both a Band member and an employee at Grand Portage National Monument, said she’s honored to be entrusted with the care of such important items.
“We're excited that they are closer here, so that people and family members and community members can see them, and they can be a part of people's lives,” she said.