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Jottings from Janis: Gawboy's graphic novel explores fur trade from Native view

The Animikii Mazina'iganan: Thunderbird Press team joins the community of small regional presses in our area with its first publication, "Fur Trade Nation: An Ojibwe's Graphic History." The new press will celebrate with a release party Tuesday.

Using pen and ink drawings, Carl Gawboy (a Bois Forte Band member) explores the history of the fur trade and its impact on Minnesota in a graphic novel. Gawboy is a retired history teacher and an excellent artist whose work has long presented images of Native American historical scenes recognizable by the Ojibwe community and beyond in Minnesota. He uses his knowledge of history and artistic talent to enhance the information he provides in his new book.

In 200 pages of comic-book style with endnotes covering the history of the fur trade, the reader will have a chance to decide whether they agree with a key quote: "The Fur Trade was all about food." The journey we take through the fur trade country - as the author describes man vs. nature and the struggle to survive in a changing world - provides new and personal insights shared with the author by his father, who had run his own trapline.

Gawboy's graphic history shows how the fur trade had lasting effects on everyone who has lived on this land. Indigenous interaction with the other main players in the fur trade, the French and the British, forever changed the demographics and population of the landscape. Ojibwe women were key players in the fur trade era, and Gawboy is subtle in depicting their role in Ojibwe life, kinship, and clan systems. The author revisits and reinforces events through his detailed, sometimes poignant, sometimes comical, and sometimes understated commentary.

This historical work has only one colored image and that is on the glossy hardcover of the book. The rest of the book is black and white, which may be a disappointment to fans of his familiar full color paintings but will appeal to readers who may want to use the book as a chance to apply their own or their children's artistic talents to coloring the pages themselves. The use of black and white sketches places the emphasis of the book on the historical narrative the sketches illustrate.

Current inhabitants of the United States and Canadian former fur trade locations may be surprised to learn that other life forms became extinct or disappeared in vast numbers during the fur trade years. The wanton slaughter of the buffalo and the disappearance of the passenger pigeon defied the thousands of years that their populations had held steady. Established hunting patterns employed by Indigenous people had fed the tribal nations who participated in the hunts without depleting the herds. That changed during the fur trade era. These and other developments illustrate tremendous changes that took place during the colonial fur trade era of approximately two hundred years, 1640 to 1840.

During a sneak preview April 8 hosted by the Twin Ports Festival of History during 1854 Treaty Authority events, editor Rain Newcomb presented highlights of the hardcover book to an estimated audience of 60 people of all ages, with children seated in front on the floor close to the projection screen. A family emergency prevented Gawboy's planned appearance. Newcomb presented book information and images that drew appreciative applause from the audience. It is a book that will appeal to all ages.

Joining Newcomb at the presentation were two members of the editorial team, Rick Gresczyk, who reviewed the spelling of the Ojibwe language used in the book, and myself, who also assisted with proofreading and a history review.

Newcomb concluded her presentation with an intriguing question. "What would happen to our nation's dialogue if we just trusted each other to think a little more?"

In summary, the book will certainly serve as a springboard to further inquiry into the short topics introduced in each chapter. Overall, this is an important book that I recommend reading. ​​

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