"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tales from Grand Portage: The Great Hall Spirits

During the summer of 2008, I worked at Grand Portage National Monument in the northeast corner of Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior.  Located on the Grand Portage Chippewa reservation, the monument commemorates the historic fur trade and in particular the North West Company trading post that operated on the site for almost 25 years.  I served as a costumed interpreter, dressing like a historic voyageur and giving talks and tours about the history and culture of the area.

I learned many things during this time but the greatest lessons were not about history but real life.

The Great Hall

The showpiece of the reconstructed trading post is the Great Hall.  Built on the original foundations, it consists of a large central dining hall with four additional side rooms.  Historically, the North West Company partners would entertain guests, conduct business, and relax within the walls of this massive wooden structure.  Thousands of people, young and old, sick and healthy, native and European, passed through this very space.  They laughed, they cried, they danced, and they died.  Fortunes were made and the fates of many were sealed with the stroke of a pen or the grasp of a handshake- all within this very room.

Today, thousands of visitors stream through this magnificent building every summer.  Most learn a few historical facts and go along their merry way but on one innocuous morning, one woman experienced something beyond ordinary.

I go through my regular morning routine- open the side rooms, light a fire, stock brochures, and sit down in my chair to await the first visitors.  A few trickle in now and then.  A typical slow morning.

Two women are now standing in the doorway of the kitchen across the way, ready to walk the short distance across the wooden planks into the Great Hall.  I rise from my chair and slowly walk toward the middle, the thump of my buckled shoes echoing across the cavernous space with every step.

The first woman is middle aged and dressed like an average visitor to the monument- shorts and a top.  She takes three steps inside the Great Hall and stops dead in her tracks.  Before I can even get any words out she is already talking.

"Did you feel that?" She exclaims, "I feel like there is a presence in this room.  I feel like there are spirits in here."

The woman behind her steps in and stands still without saying anything.  I simply stare at them both not knowing how to react.

"I know my grandmother used to tell me that she was part Indian but...," her sentence trails off before she continues, "I don't feel comfortable in here, I have to leave."

The two women quickly depart.  Through the hazy panes of hand blown glass, I see two figures walking diligently toward the entry gate.  I haven't moved since they left, my mind processing the scene I just witnessed.  My mind is screaming out, "What on earth just happened?  Spirits in the Great Hall, please...  This lady must be crazy!"

The Great Hall by candlelight

I immediately have to tell someone.  Somebody has to corroborate my feelings.  With an empty Great Hall, I walk over to the kitchen where I find one of my co-workers.  I immediately start:

"The craziest thing just happened in the Great Hall.  This woman walks in and stops and is telling me that she can feel the presence of spirits.  She's telling me that her grandmother was part Indian and I just don't know what to make of all this.  Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

He looks taken aback and says, "No, that's real strange."  I am reassured that someone else thinks this is as weird as I do.

I walk back into the Great Hall and find another of my co-workers, one of the tribal maintenance staff, painting on the front porch.  I walk up to her and repeat my story, "So this crazy lady walks into the Great Hall and tells me she can feel spirits.  She says she's really uncomfortable and she might be part Indian and then she leaves without saying anything else."

My co-worker responds:

"Oh yeah, I have felt the spirits in the there too.  There are spirits all around here."

Now, I'm staring at my own co-worker not knowing what to say.  I respond with a quiet, "um okay" and head back inside.  I feel like a complete ass for having talked about the lady in such a dismissive manner and now my co-worker standing right in front of me completely agrees with her.

I spend the rest of the day reassessing the events that transpired.  It's a complete shock to my system.

To this day, I will never know what the first woman felt but my co-worker responded with such conviction and candor that I will never think about native spirituality the same way again.

Up until that point, native religion was something I read about in books.  It was a historical concept that I used to explain trading patterns and periods of warfare.  In my mind, the spirits were quaint beliefs from a time long gone.

I learned an important lesson that morning in Minnesota.  Native spirituality is alive and healthy today.  While I may not totally understand it or agree with it, I do need to respect it.

I have since had many more run-ins with living spirituality.  I listen, I learn, and I thank everyone for sharing what they do.  It may be a cliche but it is worth repeating: Never judge a book by its cover.  Especially when that book is another person and the pages within are filled with such powerful personal conviction.

Manido Giizhigance or Little Cedar Spirit Tree

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