Front Row Seat: St. Louis County Historical Society displays complete collection of Ojibwe bags
It can take thousands of hours for an Indigenous artist to make a single intricately beaded bandolier bag. Nine of them are now on display at the St. Louis County Depot.
DULUTH — In Indigenous communities, bandolier bags have often been presented as gifts, indicating exceptional honor or gratitude. They've sometimes been exchanged in trade, but not in any ordinary trade.
"There was a tradition that they would use them for trade between chiefs," said Michele Hakala-Beeksma. "Sometimes they would be traded for a horse or a pony, just because they have that much value."
It might take thousands of hours to make one of the intricately beaded bags by hand, said Hakala-Beeksma. She would know: She watched her grandmother make them.
"She had a table and she had a chair and she had all her beads set out, and that was her spot. She was always working on something," said Hakala-Beeksma. "It was either a bandolier bag, or she'd make coin purses. I actually still have some of her medallions and bracelets."
Hakala-Beeksma's grandmother appears in a photograph on the wall of a new exhibit of bandolier bags in the St. Louis County Depot's Fesler Gallery. All nine bandolier bags held by the St. Louis County Historical Society are on display, making the show a rare chance to see the entirety of one of Minnesota's most significant such collections.
While all of the bags feature striking, elaborate patterns, a trained eye can spot the regional differences. "This one's very rounded, so this is going to be very northern," said Hakala-Beeksma, indicating a "circular and flowing" floral pattern on a bag in a vitrine near the gallery entrance.
She walked to the gallery's opposite corner. "Then we've got this one here, where everything's kind of spiky," she said, indicating a bag made of yellow and brown fabric. "That's a little more Wisconsin style, or at least down into the Mille Lacs area."
Hakala-Beeksma, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is on the historical society's American Indian Advisory Committee. Last Friday, she was at the Depot to speak with media ahead of Saturday's Native American Heritage Celebration. The bags will remain on display through Dec. 15.
"This is the first time that they've all been out of the boxes on display for people to see," said Hakala-Beeksma. "In the Native community, they're kind of experiencing a resurgence of interest. You see people making them again, you see people wearing them again."
Bandolier bags evolved, Hakala-Beeksma said, after Indigenous artisans observed the ammunition bags worn by American soldiers. "We took the ideas that they had, and we adopted them and made them our own," she said. "They did have a functional purpose at one point."
While some patterns are created bead-by-bead, others use an applique technique to achieve a different effect — and save a little time. Others are made by loom. The Depot exhibit includes examples of all three methods.
"It was Michele's suggestion, knowing that we have these nine historic Ojibwe bandolier bags in the collection. They're rarely viewed," said Erin Hicks, St. Louis County Historical Society curator. "This was a really great chance for us to bring them out for the community to enjoy."
The Minnesota Historical Society and the Minneapolis Institute of Art also have significant collections of bandolier bags, said Hakala-Beeksma. Both have their collections at least partly digitized for online viewing — a goal the St. Louis County Historical Society is working toward.
The society's footprint at the Depot is also changing, said Hicks, as part of the turnover process that's seeing the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra likely moving in to use part of the space vacated by the Duluth Playhouse, and Minnesota Ballet likely taking over the Depot space known to Playhouse patrons as the Underground.
"The Historical Society is (going to be) more centralized on the second floor," said Hicks. "We'll have more of an opportunity, now, for us to in one particular space brand the area for the Historical Society." The second floor is where the Historical Society currently has "our most beloved exhibit spaces," she said: the Immigrant Waiting Room and Shower Room.
One forthcoming exhibit for the new space is about the county's history with iron. "There's a team working, including the American Indian Advisory Committee, on developing that exhibit," said Hicks.
"Our committee's goal is always to educate," said Hakala-Beeksma. "We want to be that bridge in between Native and non-Native culture, where Native people feel welcome and represented in the building, but also a place where non-Native people can come in, learn about Native culture, ask questions."
That means not just exhibiting items, but using them at events like the Native American Heritage Celebration, "to kind of bring it into today," Hakala-Beeksma continued. "To let people know that it wasn't just a historic thing, that we are still a living culture and these traditions are still being cared about."