A Visit to the Bois Forte Heritage Center


It’s common to describe the Boundary Waters as an untouched, uninhabited wilderness. It’s easy to think that we are coming to a place that is more or less the same today as it was 500 years ago.

But this is fiction, and doesn’t reflect the rich historic reality of the area.

The fact is, people have inhabited the area we now call the Boundary Waters for thousands of years. Understanding the long, human history of the Boundary Waters, and how that history is very much alive in the present, enriches any trip to the Boundary Waters.

Photo: Gary Noren

For this reason — and many others — we urge you to visit the Bois Forte Heritage Center & Cultural Museum on your next trip to the Boundary Waters. Located on the western edge of Lake Vermilion, the Heritage Center is about 30 minutes outside of Ely, and taking the time to walk through their exhibits will provide a valuable perspective on the past and present relationship the Ojibwe have with the land and the water of this special area.

The Migration

The opening exhibit is of a mural called “Keepers of the Path” by artist Carl Gawboy. The distinctive feature of the mural, which depicts a group of travelers coming to the rocky shores of a body of water, are the red lines in the shape of the Great Lakes. This is composed in the style of pictographs and maps and represents the migration the Ojibwe made from their homes in the eastern seaboard to the upper Great Lakes. 

Along with the birchbark canoe, this exhibit depicts the central legend of how the Anishinaabe or Bois Forte people came to Nett Lake. The legend, as told in 1977, by William Nassi Benner, a Bois Forte elder, is worth recounting in full:

Long ago the Ojibwe people were wanderers. They had come from far in the east to find a home for themselves. They stopped at many places but they knew that there was still somewhere that they would find.

In one band of Ojibwes, there was a wise old man. This man had dreams over and over about a large lake covered with manomin (wild rice). The lake was very big and had hundreds of ducks and geese on it. Around the shores in the forest there were many animals for the Anishinaabe to hunt.

After hearing this dream, the band followed the old man to the north. They traveled by canoes down a river.

Soon the old man saw a large beautiful lake. He knew it was the one in his dream. The people could see a small island in the distance.

The old man and his band walked on the island. The people saw many different symbols on the rocks. Even below the water they saw the sacred symbols on the rocks.

The old man looked up and saw a spirit which looked like a man standing nearby. The spirit talked to the old man and told him many sacred things. The spirit wore a shirt that looked like a net.

The Anishinaabeg still live today on this lake where the old man led them. Nett Lake is surely a special place.

This story sets the tone for the exhibits, which take visitors through the evolution of Anshinaabe or Bois Forte culture in the area and how their relationship with the land and water has changed over the years, but at the same time, been grounded by tradition.

A Rich History

For anyone who has spent hours looking over maps of the Boundary Waters, the 3D map at the Heritage Center, which encompassed northern Minnesota and parts of southern Ontario and shows the location of Ojibwe villages and seasonal camps, is particularly intriguing. It’s a powerful reminder of how interconnected these northern waterways are with the Ojibwe culture.

Visitors follow a path to a traditional birchbark house and a reconstructed fur trading post. Artifacts such as woolens, plugs of tobacco, furs from otters, beavers, packs and more highlight the essential role the Ojibwe played in the fur trade. As partners with the French then British, they were the foundation of what was the first global enterprises.

Following the collapse of the fur trade, the modern era is marked by treaties. Faced with an onset of settlers, the Bois Forte band resisted the 1854 treaty which ceded most of the land in northeastern Minnesota to the United States, and then faced a wave of prospectors and attempts at relocation during the much hyped but ultimately exaggerated Vermilion Gold Rush of 1866.

The boarding schools exhibit is a stark reminder of the US government’s efforts to eradicate the Ojibwe language and culture. Children who were sent to state-run boarding school were often forbidden to speak their traditional language, were forced to cut their hair, given English names and trained in vocations such as carpentry, printing, baking, masonry.

What is emphasized throughout the exhibits at the Heritage Center is that while such assimilation tactics are a part of the Bois Forte Band’s history and identity, it did not destroy the culture.

When asked what he wanted travelers to the Boundary Waters to get out of a visit to the Heritage Center, Jaylen Strong, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, replied that he wanted people to know the importance of traditional activities, and that these traditions are alive and relevant today. “So much of our traditional activities revolve around an abundance of water. Wilde rice, canoeing, fishing, our relationship with the land and each other are all based on clean water.”

Traditions such as the wild rice harvest (Manominikie), hunting (Giiyosewin), fishing (Gigoo’igewin), sugar bush tapping (Iskigamizige), bead craft, dress, the sky calendar — which is used to track the movement of the moons and stars in order to plant crops, predict seasons, tap trees for syrup and prepare for winter — continue to be an integral part of life for the Bois Forte Band.

Understanding more about how these practices have been woven in with the history of the area will give every paddler and Boundary Waters enthusiast a richer appreciation for the wilderness, and for the Anishinaabe people who continue to be an integral part of this magical land.


Visit the Bois Forte Heritage Center & Cultural Museum website

or call 218.753.6017 to schedule a group tour for ten or more.

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