Front row seat: St. Louis County Historical Society showcases full collection of Ojibwe bags – Duluth News Tribune – 71Bait

DULUTH – In indigenous communities, bandolier bags were often presented as gifts, indicating exceptional honor or gratitude. They were sometimes exchanged in trade, but not in ordinary trade.

“There was a tradition that they used them for trade between chiefs,” said Michele Hakala-Beeksma. “Sometimes they’ve been traded for a horse or a pony just because they’re worth so much.”

It could take thousands of hours to handcraft one of the intricately beaded bags, Hakala-Beeksma said. She would know: she watched her grandmother make them.

Hakala-Beeksma, a member of the Lake Superior Chippewa Grand Portage Band, speaks about the shoulder strap bags on display Friday.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

“She had a table and a chair and she had all her beads laid out and that was her place. She was always working on something,” Hakala-Beeksma said. “It was either a shoulder strap bag, or they did purses. I actually still have some of her lockets and bracelets.”

Hakala-Beeksma’s grandmother appears in a photograph on the wall of a new exhibition of shoulder strap bags at the St. Louis County Depot’s Fesler Gallery. All nine of the St. Louis County Historical Society’s bandolier bags are on display, making the show a rare opportunity to see the entirety of one of Minnesota’s most important collections.

Although all bags are provided with eye-catching, elaborate patterns, the trained eye recognizes the regional differences. “This one’s very circular, so it’s going to be very northern,” Hakala-Beeksma said, pointing to a “circular and flowing” floral design on a bag in a display case near the gallery entrance.

She walked to the opposite corner of the gallery. “Then we have this one where everything is kind of prickly,” she said, pointing to a bag made of tan-colored fabric. “That’s a little more Wisconsin style, or at least to the Mille Lacs area.”

Hakala-Beeksma, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is a member of the Historical Society’s American Indian Advisory Committee. Last Friday, she was at the depot to speak to the media ahead of Saturday’s celebration of Native American heritage. The bags will remain on display until December 15th.

A flared shoulder strap bag.

A bandolier bag with red fabric trim and a white beaded background for the strap and bag. The strap contains motifs of wild rose, dogwood and maple leaves.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

“This is the first time they’ve all come out of the boxes on display for people to see,” Hakala-Beeksma said. “They’re seeing a kind of resurgence of interest in the local community. You see people making them back, you see people wearing them again.”
Bandolier bags developed, Hakala-Beeksma said, after indigenous artisans observed ammo bags carried by American soldiers. “We took the ideas they had, took them, and made them our own,” she said. “They had a functional purpose at some point.”

While some patterns are created bead by bead, others use an appliqué technique to create a different effect—and save a little time. Others are made by loom. The Depot exhibit includes examples of all three methods.

Woman speaks in front of an old picture on the wall.

Michele Hakala-Beeksma talks about the exhibition while standing in front of an old photograph of her and her mother wearing her grandmother’s shoulder straps.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

“It was Michele’s suggestion as we know we have these nine historical Ojibwe bandolier bags in the collection. They’re rarely looked at,” said Erin Hicks, curator of the St. Louis County Historical Society. “This was a really great opportunity for us to bring it to the community.”

The Minnesota Historical Society and the Minneapolis Institute of Art also have significant collections of shoulder strap bags, Hakala-Beeksma said. Both have at least partially digitized their collections for online viewing, a goal the St. Louis County Historical Society is working toward.

The society’s footprint at the depot is also changing, Hicks said, as part of the sales process, which will likely see the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra move in to use some of the space vacated by the Duluth Playhouse, and the Minnesota Ballet likely to take over the depot space known to Playhouse patrons as the underground.

“The Historical Society is (becomes) more centralized on the second floor,” Hicks said. “We now have more opportunities to market the area for the Historical Society in a given space.” On the second floor, the Historical Society currently has “our favorite exhibition spaces,” she said: the immigrant waiting room and shower room.

An upcoming exhibition for the new space is about the county’s history with iron. “There is a team, including the American Indian Advisory Committee, working to develop this exhibit,” Hicks said.

“The goal of our committee is always to educate,” said Hakala-Beeksma. “We want to be that bridge between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, where indigenous people feel welcome and represented in the building, but also a place for non-indigenous people to come in, learn about indigenous culture and ask questions be able.”

That means not just displaying items, but using them in events like celebrating Native American heritage “to somehow bring them into the present,” Hakala-Beeksma continued. “To let people know that it wasn’t just a historical thing, that we’re still a vibrant culture and those traditions are still being cherished.”

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