Grand Portage National Monument protects a trading route use by people in northern Minnesota for centuriesSep 14, 2021 11:53AM ● By Editor
By Christopher Hommerding from the Minnesota Historical Society - September 14, 2021
The Grand Portage National Monument in far northeastern Minnesota was established in 1960, after the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) ceded nearly 710 acres of their land to the US government. A unit of the National Park Service (NPS), it consists of the eight-and-a-half-mile Grand Portage trail and two trading depot sites—one on the shoreline of Lake Superior and one inland, at Pigeon River. A partially reconstructed depot sits at the Lake Superior site.
The Grand Portage is an ancient overland trail used by Indigenous peoples since at least the start of the first millennium CE. By the middle of the eighteenth century, European fur traders used it and depots at either end to transport people, supplies, and trade goods between the Great Lakes and inland waterways. They abandoned the area in the early nineteenth century. Ojibwe people, however, continued to reside on and near the Grand Portage reservation, which was formed after the ratification of the Treaty of La Pointe in 1854.
The site was largely forgotten by white Minnesotans until the 1920s, when interest in Northwoods history, conservation, and tourism grew rapidly. In 1922, Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) director Solon Buck launched a campaign to preserve the Grand Portage as a state park. In response to a Grand Portage resident who was worried that private property owners were fencing off the trail, Buck sent MNHS field secretary Cecil Shirk and journalist Paul Bliss to retrace it. The subsequent newspaper coverage generated public interest and support. Because the area was tribal land, however, it fell under federal regulation, and a state park was not possible.
Efforts to preserve and interpret the Grand Portage received federal backing in the 1930s. From 1933 to 1940, archaeologists, historians, and crews from the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared the trail and conducted archeological digs. They then reconstructed a Great Hall and stockade at the Lake Superior depot site. In 1936, as a result of this work, the federal government declared the Grand Portage a site of national significance.
That same decade, the Grand Portage Band formed a Reservation Tribal Council, as a result of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. After World War II, the council joined with white conservationists to urge the federal government to help bring more tourists to the site. Toward that end, the Department of the Interior designated Grand Portage a National Historic Site in 1951. In 1958, the tribal council took the unusual step of ceding 709.97 acres of tribal land to the US government. This allowed the NPS to establish the Grand Portage National Monument two years later.
The creation of the monument sparked a second round of archeological studies and reconstructions. Information from these excavations helped builders design more historically accurate reconstructions. In 1966, for instance, the stockade was rebuilt with a more historically accurate gatehouse.
In 1969, lightning struck the Great Hall, starting a fire that destroyed the building and its artifacts. Excavations beneath the rubble revealed information incorporated into a new Great Hall, completed in 1974. A kitchen building found behind the Great Hall was built a year later. A canoe warehouse was built outside the stockade in 1973.
Despite the early involvement of the tribal council, interpretation at the site was largely focused on European fur traders. Slowly, interpretation at the site shifted to include more Ojibwe community histories. One of the most popular yearly events at the monument, Rendezvous Days, began in 1962. This event is a reenactment of the period during midsummer when fur traders, voyageurs, and Indigenous people convened at Grand Portage to exchange furs and supplies. By 1972, Rendezvous Days coincided with what would become the band’s annual Celebration Pow Wow. In 1992, an “Ojibwe village” was reconstructed outside the stockade walls to interpret seasonal cultural practices of Ojibwe people.
In the 1990s, the tribal council advocated for a greater role in site management, and in 1999, the Grand Portage Band and the NPS agreed to co-manage the monument. Together, they moved forward on the construction of a new visitor center, opened in 2007. Known as the Heritage Center, the new building provided more room for interpretative materials, created additional job opportunities for band members, and moved the monument’s offices from Grand Marais to Grand Portage.
Christopher Hommerding is a historian of US LGBTQ history and holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work has appeared in the Public Historian, in the Annals of Iowa, and on the history of sexuality blog Notches. He is the recipient of a 2019 Minnesota Historical Society Legacy Research Fellowship.
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