The Stone Tomahawk

Grandmother Victoria (center) with daughter Patsy; friend Catherine; sons Ray and Barney; Martin Drouillard, and their dog Mr. Drouillard, in front of the Drouillard Indian Stand.

I didn’t know the term “tourist art” until a local Native art collector used the term at an exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where I work. Displayed in an acrylic cube was a doll-sized teapot, cup, and saucer made of birchbark trimmed with sweetgrass. “Isn’t that pretty,” I thought to myself as memories of my family flowered and bloomed, unseen by everyone around me.

“That set is tourist art,” he commented, “made for sale to people as a souvenir.”

And I understood that there was a term that could define and include that lovely little birchbark set, and also understood in an instant that the Drouillard and LeGarde family arts — dolls made from rags, decorated birchbark baskets, beadwork, toy drums — like those arts made of other families like ours, are in a category that has no limit, really; the concept cannot be contained. For me as an Ojibwe woman who has experienced the histories and capricious government Indian policies of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, this was a moment of pride and freedom.

How would an art expert define this type of art making? Tourist, or souvenir, art is the creation of objects intended for sale or trade to consumers outside the crafters’ own tribal group or community. For the Native people of northeastern Minnesota, this type of artwork has been made since the first days of contact with the fur trade. The Ojibwe, who had been decorating and embellishing everyday objects with their artwork since long before European contact, then integrated trade goods into their own traditional works.

The Drouillard Indian Stand was on the Grand Portage Reservation, six miles south of the Canadian border, a half mile inland from the shores of Lake Superior on Old Highway 61. Drouillard ancestors lived there before the fur traders arrived; Drouillard descendants live there or nearby today. My grandfather, Elias LeGarde, was a maker of traditional and tourist arts, and sometimes worked at the Droulliard stand.

The entrepreneurship of Indian stands was more than a crass sale of goods, the desperation of people in need; it certainly was not an abandonment of traditional tribal ways and values.

The making and sale of arts and crafts, tourist and traditional, contributed to the survival of the Ojibwe far beyond the putting of food on the table.

In the Ojibwe worldview there is a strong awareness of the obligation of the individual to make a contribution to the group; for many, the cooperation necessary for success in the tourist art business reinforced the strength of the family and community groups while providing a driving force in the preservation of traditional arts as well as experiments with new.

When you are walking, along the lakeshore or in the woods, when you see a stone in a nice oval, or square or oblong, one that you can picture in a tomahawk that you will make, bring it home and save it. When you pick it up, acknowledge and give thanks to the Creator and to the spirit of the stone, which is moving because of you.

During niibin, summer, after the sap has finished running but before the cooler, shorter days of early dagwaagin, autumn, will cause the tree to change color, cut from a healthy popple or from willow branches that are the thickness of a man’s thumb. As you have been taught, pray your acknowledgment and thanks to the Creator and the tree, and put down tobacco. Cut the branches to lengths of about a foot. Drill a hole through the branch at one end, an inch below where you will attach the stone.

Buy or trade for a can of shellac, a paintbrush, and paint (red, green, yellow, black). If you do not have zhooniyaa, money, bring a sack of wild rice, or a jar of maple syrup, or a doll made out of scraps of secondhand clothing, to trade at the store. Paint the stone in patterns and designs.

When you cut down a basswood tree for firewood or for building, acknowledge that the tree is giving its life to you, and give thanks. Leave tobacco. When you cut it further for its uses, set aside the bark. While it is still pliable and soft, gently pull the fibers of the inner bark into thick threads that you store in a place they will not dry out. Use the basswood fiber soon; it must be flexible for ease while working it.

Attach the stone to the top of the branch handle with a length of basswood fiber that you wrap around the stone and through the hole in the handle, around and back and forth, snug but not too tight. Knot and wrap it under the stone. Because the fiber will shrink and tighten as it dries, let it alone, at least overnight.

Shellac the entire tomahawk, and let it dry.

Display it on the counter of the Indian Stand, where it will catch the eye of a tourist, or trade it for something you want. To a store owner for flour, coffee, a length of calico. Or to your cousin, for a pair of pliers or a bag of seed beads, that you will give to your sister to appliqué onto a deerskin bag that she will sell at the Indian stand. Your cousin will trade the tomahawk to a farmer, for a cast- iron kettle, that he will give to his mother.

Later, from the spirit world, walk with your feet that are lighter than dust over the scarred wooden floors of a bowery warehouse converted to an antique depot, where an elder Ojibwe man holds the stone tomahawk in two hands and gazes through decades at his sister painting tomahawks at a kitchen table, and at his mother packing them in a cardboard box to bring to the Indian Stand.

His daughter’s mortal fingers brush over a resin Indian maiden, over a dry and cracked birchbark basket, over the grimy gilt frame around an End of the Trail print; as she turns back toward her father, her earthbound feet step clumsily into your spirit space, causing chains of vapor to sway and rattle soundlessly. Do you hear that? she doesn’t ask. Over the stir she clears her throat.

“The wrap is a little loose,” she says.

“That’s easy to fix; a little glue would fix it, right underneath,” he answers in his soft and husky voice. The grace of his years calms the chains, which still and silence.

“I’m going to buy this,” he says.

Linda LeGarde Grover (she/her) is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and professor emeritus of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Details: