|In the near-century since their
accidental discovery, most of the artifacts have been in storage at
the Minnesota Historical Society, where they're known as the Crane
Miller, of the Bois Forte Heritage Museum, held ceramic shards
that were found near Nett Lake and have been a part of the
museum's collection. (photo by Aaron Lavinsky - Minneapolis
TOWER, Minn. A storm lashing
at their canoes, three men from Virginia, Minn., abandoned their
fishing trip and sought shelter on a remote northern island.
The following morning, while
waiting for the weather to clear, one of them found a cave and ducked
inside, stumbling upon a find of American Indian artifacts including
birch scrolls, medicine bags and a fur and feather belt. Nearby,
in a three-sided box, rested the skeleton of a man.
In the near-century since their
accidental discovery, most of the things found that day have resided
in storage at the Minnesota Historical Society, where they're known
as the Crane Lake Cache.
Sometime soon, thanks to a federal
act that requires museums to look through their collections and
return to Indians anything that should be, the items will be repatriated
to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and enshrined in a hallowed space
out of public view. The items could be returned as early as this
"These are sacred objects," said
Leah Bowe, of the Minnesota Historical Society. "They are conceived
as being animate, living beings."
The spiritual dimension of the
Crane Lake Cache is so great that the Bois Forte Band until recently
wasn't prepared to take them back because they didn't have an appropriate
place to keep them, said Bill Latady, curator at the Bois Forte
The museum, built in 2001, sits
at the edge of a pine forest, a round-shaped building with high
ceilings and a collection of artifacts from Bois Forte Band life.
Nearby, cars and trucks pack the parking lot of the Fortune Bay
Resort Casino that has helped reshape the fortunes of this tribe,
which traces its history back for centuries in Minnesota's deep
The Crane Lake artifacts stem
from the secretive religious society known as the Midewiwin, roughly
translated as the Grand Medicine Society. Common to Indian tribes
in the Great Lakes region, as well as New England and the Maritimes,
the Midewiwin live on among some tribes today, said Latady.
Midewiwin members from the Bois
Forte Band will collect the Crane Lake Cache, and they alone will
know the collection's final resting place.
"It's very important that these
things not be where they don't belong," said Latady. "They belong
with the tribe."
Discovery and removal
It's most likely that
the religious items were intentionally left in the Crane Lake cave,
said Latady, with the intention that they never be disturbed. It
was only by accident that some fishermen found them in the 1920s.
A May 21, 1924, article from
the Duluth Herald detailed the discovery. One of a trio of fishermen,
Fred Hill climbed up the side of a steep bank and found the cave
the day after his group took shelter on a remote island.
Inside the cave he found scrolls
of birch bark. He took some back to the camp thinking he would use
it to line his pack for carrying fish, but when he showed them to
his companions, they found engravings on the soft side of the bark.
The engravings show a man shooting a small animal, and in a second
drawing the figure attends to a child in a cradle. A third drawing
shows the figure dressed in war regalia and seated in a canoe with
The men returned to the cave
and found drums, a rattle, packages of medicine, dance regalia and
shells. They also found the skeleton.
Their find was widely reported
at the time, and was thought to be a stark reminder of a deadly
smallpox plague in that area.
When they were found, the artifacts
were wrapped in a Duluth Herald dated May 10, 1904. Some 20 years
later, in an article on the discovery, the newspaper speculated
that the skeleton belonged to a healer who took his own life after
smallpox wiped out his band around the turn of the century.
A 1928 entry in the Minnesota
History catalog of acquisitions says much of the cache was handed
over to the museum in 1927. No mention is made of the skeleton.
The objects might have
stayed in state custody even longer if not for a federal law that
encourages museums to review their collections. The Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires federal
agencies and museums to prepare inventories of items that might
qualify for repatriation, and then notify tribes about the items.
That task fell to Bowe, who holds
the title of NAGPRA mediator at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Last fall she contacted the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa near Tower,
Minn., to tell them about the artifacts.
A notification published in the
Federal Register describes them as a set of 54 Midewiwin medicines.
The cache was originally 57 items, but three have gone missing.
The remaining objects include
a bear claw, quartz crystals, a nut, glass beads, a shooting diagram,
a snakeskin bundle, a can rattle and four birch bark scrolls, among
Bev Miller, a Bois Forte tribal
member who works at the Heritage Museum, said she's pleased to see
the items repatriated.
"Everything does have a spirit,"
she said. "You just have a good feeling when they come back here."