A Life Well-Painted: The Art of Carl Gawboy Audio Transcripts

Helmi Skipping on a Stump

There are two paintings of my mother. The first one was called Helmi Skipping on a Stump. Now, in northern Minnesota, there were two periods of logging. One was big logging—Weyerhaeuser and other big companies shaved off northern Minnesota of all this red and white pine. Then after that, [there] came smaller operations [of] logging pulpwood, the smaller sticks. And then in the 20th century, many of the Indians began working as independent contract loggers, working for the federal government on reservations and working for the state government on state land where they would bid like other loggers would [and] invest in logging equipment. They’d be smaller operations.

This first painting of Helmi Skipping on a Stump… one of her memories when her father took out his homestead at Birch Lake about 10 miles south of Ely. Now, the big loggers had already gone through. It was like a moonscape. There were no trees at all, except piles of brush and piles of branches and tops. So my mother remembered that the stumps were about four feet across and that she could actually climb up on them and skip around in a circle. This was about 1912. So to recreate this painting again from a story that she told, I showed her holding her kitten, her pet kitten, dressed in 1912 immigrant dress with the newly acquired dairy cows grazing in the distance but skipping on that huge stump that was left by the big loggers.

Now I always want to make it clear to that story because in the story of homesteading in Northern Minnesota, it wasn’t the homesteaders that cut the trees. They weren’t even allowed on the land until after the loggers were through with them, so Ely and Winton were big sawmill towns, so was Cloquet and Grand Rapids…and Two Harbors. All of them had big sawmills where they cut this virgin timber up into lumber to build Minneapolis and St. Paul. After that, it was open for homesteading, and that was when my grandfather just simply looked at a map with a bunch of squares on it, put his finger down on one of the squares, and that was the farm that my mother grew up on, and the place where I grew up on.


Helmi in her Garden

The other painting I have of my mother is her working in her garden. In the background, you see second-growth timber and third-growth timber, mostly poplar. And that painting takes place about 400 yards [from] where the other painting [Helmi Skipping on a Stump] took place. It shows her as an old woman doing the thing that she did that she loved the most, and that was planting a garden. She raised eight children there on this farm, and so we grew just about everything that we ate. But my mother still had an enormous garden after all of us kids were gone. She still had the cellar bins full of potatoes, and there were vegetables frozen in the freezer. She couldn’t stop. I still remember coming to visit her, and there she was working in the garden that was bigger than just about any garden I ever saw, still putting up that food.


The Thanksgiving Feast at the Roundhouse and Joe Pete's Apron Dance

It’s typical about the way that I set about doing a painting, especially one that’s set in the historical past. I was going through kind of a blank period for a while, and I was visiting my parents. This was in the 70s. They asked if I had been painting anything recently, and I said, “No…I don’t know what to paint.” And they said, “Why don’t you paint Joe Pete’s Apron Dance?” As soon as I heard those words, out came my sketchbook, and I basically said, “Well, tell me more about it.”

This was a memory of my parents when they were living on the reservation in the 1920s. When Joe Pete would do something like shoot a bear, he would throw a thanksgiving feast for everyone in the village. He would do all the cooking; he’d make a great big stew in the dance hall. In my painting, I show the interior of this log building, which was kind of an interesting folk architecture on reservations at that time, which were…they called them roundhouses or dance halls.

So all the people in the village came. [They’d] bring their own plates and spoons and cups, and he would wear what he called his dance apron, which was made of the feathers of a mallard duck. So it would be an iridescent green made up of duck feathers of the mallard drake. Today, we’d call them a dance apron. I’m not sure what they called them in those days. He would wear the bells, and he would dance from the big pot where the stew was cooking to where he’d serve the guests. And he’d dance to them and dish out with his dipper from his bucket—the feast, the stew. Women sat on one side, men sat on the other, and why the genders were segregated, I’m not really sure. At the time that my parents were telling me this story, I just didn’t think to ask why that was the case.

But it was a thanksgiving feast, and in the middle of the feast, there’d be a prayer given, and then as people were winding up the feast, the spokesman would once again conclude the feast. And this was primarily so that…the thanksgiving…let me put it this way. The thanksgiving feast was to ask the spirits of the bears to leave us alone, that they would offer themselves freely to people to be consumed, to be eaten. And in exchange for these niceties, like giving a feast for the whole community, the bears’ spirits would leave us alone. They wouldn’t torment us, or they wouldn’t attack us.

I thought that was such a nice story of the reciprocal nature of Indians with the natural world. This was the 1920s that this custom was still there. You hear echoes of it every once in a while…prayers [are] given at feasts and things like that, so it’s not something that’s disappeared.


The Last Roundup on Lac La Croix

All through the 20th century, the Indians, the Ojibways at Lac La Croix, had ponies, and they would use the ponies to skid logs out of the woods with firewood and pulpwood. They would put the horses, during the summertime, on an island, and this island had a campground on it.

When I worked for the forest service, one of our jobs was to clean that campsite. As I went on this island for the first time, I looked around and saw horse droppings everywhere. The ranger that was with us explained that the Indians put the horses on the island and stranded them there on the island for the summer, and in the winter [they] brought them to the village, where they were used for skidding chores.

In the 1960s, there was a fellow at Nett Lake named Fred Isham, who’d heard that the Lac La Croix Indians had mechanized their logging operations and were using snowmobiles and tractors. And so they were going to abandon their horses on this island. When he heard that, he thought there had to be a way to save the horses, so he arranged to have the horses rounded up. So in the middle of winter, with the local Indians driving their snowmobiles, they rounded up the ponies into corrals, then loaded them on trucks, on stock trucks, and drove them across the ice to the nearest highway, then drove them to a ranch in northern Minnesota, where they were put up and saved, and they were kind of protected from interbreeding with other horses because it was suspected that they were a very old breed.

They thought that they might have been old Spanish Mustangs from the Northern Plains that might have been sold to the Ojibwe by the Sioux in the late 19th century when they had to give up their horse herds. Well, that was before DNA testing, and [with] DNA testing around, they’ve tested the horses and found out yes, indeed, they were old Northern Plains horses; their markings are paints [or] paint markings, which suggest that they’re old Indian ponies. And just recently there were some newspaper articles about them and about this unique breed. There are people who own some of the stock now and drive around visiting schools and things, introducing children to this very old breed.


The Landing

The other painting is called “The Landing.” I love the theme of this painting so much, I did it about ten times. After the opening day of ricing…and usually, the day starts at 10:00 in the morning and ends at 3:00, because anything earlier than that or anything later than that, the dew sticks onto the wild rice and makes it very heavy.

 So, the first week or so of wild ricing is done only when the sun dries off the stalks. The wild rice is an aquatic grain, and it picks up moisture very easily. At about 3:00 in the afternoon, the canoes all come off the lake, and there's probably about 30 canoes waiting to be pulled up on the landing, where all the canoes are emptied out and loaded up into sacks. They're just waiting for the evening to start, where the fires are lit, and the first wild rice of the season is started to be roasted. The evening ends with the smell of roasting wild rice and firewood wafting across through the village.

When I first saw this scene, there were many canoes that were still wood and canvas.Now, outfitters in the 1930s and 40s used wood and canvas canoes to rent out for tourists, and then usually, these were sold at a discount in the fall. Every little town on the Range, it seemed, had a canoe factory, where these canoes were made.

 So, after the age of birchbark canoes, [there was] the age of wood and canvas canoes, so you see about half of these canoes in this painting are wood and canvas. And then slowly, the wood and canvas canoes gave way to aluminum, so we see some aluminum canoes here. The first aluminum canoes at Nett Lake were purchased the same way, from canoe outfitters here in the North. The King Brothers had a business where they rented out the canoes to wild ricers. The word "King Brothers" would be stamped or painted on the canvas.

 But then later, I remember in the 60s, the Indians themselves would buy their aluminum canoes, and it switched over completely to aluminum canoes after the old wood and canvas canoes finally broke apart or decayed to the point where they couldn't be used anymore.

I like to think of having seen the history of the Ojibwe as the type of canoes they used, and did I say, “Birchbark?” Yes, we had a birchbark canoe in our household, which we used for ricing. But the time that I remember it, we covered that birchbark canoe with canvas because the birchbark was starting to decay and leak, so the canvas helped give it another ten years of use.


Trading on the Laurentian Divide

Straight north of here along the Rice Lake Road, as you get past the towns of Aurora and Biwabik, you get to a highway that goes to Lake Vermilion and the city of Tower. Now that was an old Indian foot trail, then later it was a tote road for the Vermilion gold rush, where teams of horses would travel it. And then later, a highway was put over all of this, so you have all these different layers of different types of transportation over this Indian pathway.

 Well, on that trail, there's another old Indian pathway, which was the portage between Pike River and the Embarrass River. This was a portage that was just about as important as the Grand Portage or the Fond du Lac Portage, outside of Cloquet. This was an old fur trade route also. And so to paddle from Fond du Lac to Lake Vermilion, from Lake Vermilion, it went down the Vermilion River, to what is now the Boundary Waters; then from there to Crane Lake to Rainy Lake, to Lake of the Woods…that was all one continuous canoe route. That five-mile portage between the Pike and the Embarrass River was just absolutely crucial, and the Indians used it. And then it became an important fur trade route. But then the fur trade ended in 1850, and these big fur trade canoe routes fell out of use, and they became forgotten. The Indians didn’t forget them, of course. They continued to use them. But historians…as the Iron Range developed and as the logging era came, these old fur trade routes…nobody remembered where they were anymore and how important they were.

Now let’s jump ahead to 1842 with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. This was a treaty between the United States and Great Britain, to decide where the boundary was going to be between our two countries, Canada and the United States.

This was decided in Europe by people who had never seen this part of the country, and the decision was made to have the border be on the most well-traveled canoe route during the fur trade. Now, there were three important routes under consideration. One was the Kaminsitiquia route from Thunder Bay, arching through Quetico Park, and then joining onto Lac La Croix, and then from there, westward.

The other one was the Grand Portage route, and the other one was the Embarrass, Pike, St. Louis, Vermilion route. Now had the United States got their way, we would have gotten the Kaministiquia route because that meant Minnesota would’ve had a big bulge up on its north-eastern angle. The British wanted the Pike River-Embarrass route because that would have certainly (they didn’t know it at the time), but that would’ve given them the Vermilion Iron Range and Duluth and the North Shore. As a compromise, the Grand Portage route was chosen halfway between, and that's our border now. So we almost got that Canadian border running right through the center of this painting. Because in the 1910s and the 1920s, there was a homestead being built on the Pike River Portage. And the cabin was going up, as you see in the picture. Then, one day the homesteaders woke up, and this is from a testimony by Mrs. Floyd B. Anderson, who grew up on that homestead. They woke up one morning and saw the yard full of Indians. The Indians were taking this old historic portage, which happened to go right through their front yard. And so the Ojibwe did, whatever they did, whenever they saw somebody new, was to figure out how to trade with them. [I] don’t know if they’d share a language in common, but they certainly figured out that a trade was in the offering. The Indians offered fresh meat, deer, and venison in trade, in exchange for flour, tea, and coffee that you see in the foreground of this painting.

So, the Indians went on to the Embarrass, then from there to the St. Louis, and on the way back, they shot these animals on the river and then left them on their front doorstep as they passed through. Now, I changed it in my painting a little bit. I showed them exchanging the things right there in the yard. But Mrs. Anderson said that the Indians would leave them secretly on their doorstep and then disappear as they came very early in the morning through this portage.

Now, the reason why we know this is because there was a court case in the 1950s that was held at the courthouse in Virginia, because it happened to be that that portage was on section 16 of the survey, and the law said that section 16 income from it would go to schools unless it was a travel route. Plus, there was a highway on it. And so the court case was to prove whether or not it was a travel route. Of course, the Indians being in the yard was an indicator that, yes, indeed, it was a travel route. And that from there, more information came about its importance during the fur trade, and then, of course, its importance as an old Indian travel route even before that.

I mention that hardly anybody knew anything about the fur trade and canoe routes in the 1950s, and it’s true. I grew up there. I grew up then. Nobody knew anything about it! It was just blank. People know more about the fur trade and canoe routes today, than they did in the 1950s.