An Ojibwe Artist makes his way home to share the richness of the Northland

People By Pete Marshall

Sam Zimmerman had just started his week-long stay as the Artist in Residence for Voyageurs National Park when he found the dead otter.

He was following a couple of park employees through a winding birch and pine-lined road, on route to the Park Headquarters in International Falls. Coming around a bend, he saw something on the road. It was an otter. Zimmerman stopped. He stepped out of his vehicle, kneeled, and left a traditional Ojibwe offering, a pinch of tobacco.

Sam carries a roadkill bag with him, which he admits that many may consider to be odd, but it’s part of his belief that every life has value, and that life should only be taken if it is to be used or to serve another purpose. Using the bag to take home an animal killed by a car and turning it into hide, moccasins, or food is an important way to honor a life that might otherwise be left to waste away. Normally, he would have put the otter in his roadkill bag, but since he was planning to go through the Park archives for a number of days, keeping the otter in a car for that long during the summer just wasn’t an option.

The Park vehicle ahead of him also stopped. One of the rangers opened their door to make sure everything was alright. Zimmerman would later learn that the Park employees he was following were rather confused as to why he would be concerned for a dead animal.

But this encounter made an impact. Later that year Zimmerman painted his second otter painting. Rich with symbolic details such as the number of stars reflecting the number of days in a year, three trees representing the three major lakes in the Park. Painting the picture was a way to elevate and acknowledge that the otter was more than just roadkill.

The painting is also an expression of how important it is to slow down, to observe and connect with creation, with the many forms of life around us.

In our loud, busy world, it’s common to hear about the need to slow down, to relax and enjoy the present moment. For Zimmerman, such a message was particularly important.

Up until a few years ago, he lived in New York City, working as the Deputy Director of Special Education, a position that involved overseeing more than 250 schools. This role led him to taking a position with the New York State Department of Education, drafting statewide policies for the legislature and overseeing special education across New York. As a faculty member at Pace University in NYC, he presented research at international conferences, and advised foreign education ministers on issues related to special education and inclusion.

It was demanding but rewarding work. Zimmerman felt his long hours made the world a better place and helped people. However, as his position grew, so did the disconnect from the students and families he worked for. 70-hour weeks were the norm. He spent weekends and holidays on the phone, putting out fires, responding to crises, and being trapped in an endless succession of spreadsheets and meetings.

Respite from this grinding schedule came when he traveled home to be with family in Minnesota and the Grand Portage Reservation, on the shores of Lake Superior. Several times a year he would return for either Grand Portage’s Rendezvous Days, for a family moose hunt, or to visit family. These visits were spiritual nourishment that helped sustain his energy and keep him going. As necessary as they were to Zimmerman, back east in New York and Boston, it was a challenge to make colleagues and supervisors understand why he needed to be home for two weeks, or for the spiritual and cultural significance entailed by these traditions.

In one of life’s many paradoxes, being away from his home strengthened Zimmerman’s connection to his home. Distance made the importance of family, land, water and his Ojibwe heritage, integral to his mental health and well-being.

On a trip to Alaska to celebrate his 40th birthday, Zimmerman was deeply moved by how Native artists preserved their culture in creative, vibrant ways that made their traditions and stories come alive. He credits this experience in Alaska with reawakening a passion for painting, which he had neglected for several decades. The trip reconfirmed many urges and thoughts that had been simmering inside of Zimmerman. Something clicked that would put him on a different path in life.

Within eight months, Zimmerman had moved back to the North Shore of Lake Superior. “Standing in the absolute silence of Alaskan landscapes, I finally listened to my own spirit and returned home to my family, to paint, and to learn,” says Zimmerman.

For the first time in almost twenty years, he began to paint regularly, experiencing an explosion of creativity that resulted in Zimmerman completing over 200 paintings capturing family stories, experiences along the North Shore, and Ojibwe teachings.

Zimmerman describes himself as a lifelong learner, a quality he credits to his family’s strong emphasis on education. His grandfather and father faced discrimination, which reinforced for them the importance of education. Learning and curiosity were nurtured in Zimmerman from a young age. In addition to growing up surrounded by thousands of books, his father was in the military, and as a child, Zimmerman moved frequently and grew up in many different places. All this contributed to a passion to remain open, to absorb his surroundings.

In the busy course of life and a career and mounting responsibilities, Zimmerman says he became disconnected from this passion for learning, for being open. Zimmerman’s decision to move home was a way for him to show his family and his culture that they are more important than professional life. It was a way to continue with his education.

“For many years I didn’t create space in my life for learning, or the space to celebrate my culture or to absorb its many lessons. Painting is a way to honor my heritage. One of my goals with painting is to remind myself and others to slow down and value nature,” says Zimmerman.

The experience of finding the dead otter in Voyageurs National Park exemplifies this journey of discovery and education. For Zimmerman, painting opens a space for him to connect and learn about the inhabitants of the land that the Ojibwe culture is so deeply rooted in. Through his paintings, he is able to share this personal growth with a wider audience, to preserve stories in art, and — as with the otter — to dignify creation.

“My paintings aren’t mine. I use this gift, if you can call it that,” Zimmerman says with a self-effacing gesture. “It’s a gift from the creator to teach, to put these paintings into the world. And I’m not the only indigenous artist who tells stories through their art or creations.”

At a point in his life, overworked, disconnected from his daily tasks and spiritually lost, Zimmerman asked an elder, “How do you know if you’re on the right path?” The way Zimmerman tells it, he expected a profound, nuanced response. Instead, he got a shockingly simple answer, “Your feet will always touch the earth where they are supposed to.”

This blew right past Zimmerman, who admits that he initially thought it was a dismissive response. In time, he came to understand the wisdom of being present to your experience.

One moment will lead to the next, one experience gives way to another. All things have their proper time and place. One needs to be aware and to be present to recognize this.

For Zimmerman, being present is a process of self-discovery, whether coming out as a gay teenager, or discovering his home while being away for almost two decades.

On his present path, Zimmerman is putting in the effort to intentionally learn the Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe language. He writes a monthly column for Northern Wilds where tells the stories behind his paintings, using a generous amount of Ojibwe words and phrases. It is a way to show that the Ojibwe people are rooted in a language, in a place, and a culture that is very much alive.

Artists have a different purpose. Some work to elicit an emotion or push the technical limits of their medium. Zimmerman is a storyteller and views his work as a way to preserve and share the stories of his experiences, his culture and his family. Those who have spent time in the northland know that it is more than a stunning collection of water and wilderness. This is a region colored by stories and memories, some personal, many shared. Zimmerman’s art gives creative expression to the vibrant Ojibwe presence in the area and provides a connection to a tradition and culture that make this such a rich area.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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