Not quite knowing what to expect, my family recently visited the Forts Folle Avoine in Northwestern Wisconsin.
Turns out it’s one of those places where historical reenactments are followed to the letter, with your guide staying “in character” the entire time. In this case, our guide was an Ojibwe (St. Croix Chippewa) woman living on a French fur trading post along the Yellow River in the year 1800.
The first factoid we learned was how Ojibwe women changed diapers back in the day. “Diapers” meaning a wad of moss. Then, as the tour went on, I accumulated even more useless trivia knowledge (useless unless I end up a member of a Wisconsin Indian tribe living on a fur trading post in the year 1800!!!), such as:
- The bark of the birch tree has endless functions, especially as building material for canoes and wigwams (photos of both are below, and yes, wigwam is fun to say over and over.)
- Fur traders were called “voyageurs,” (pron: voy-ah-ghurrrs) and they were often very short (under 5’4″) while the Ojibwe were often very tall (over 6’0″). More on the lingo.
- Beaver pelts were the currency of the day, so prized they led to the Beaver Wars.
- Voyageurs trapped the unwitting fuzzy mammals in the wintertime, when their coats were the thickest. They were primarily used for men’s hats, and then, later, fur coats. Thankfully, the craze for beaver pelts died out right before the beavers were driven into extinction. (I can’t think of anything more unpleasant than hunting beavers on a river during a Wisconsin winter.) The cabin that contained the pelts could smell quite bad, so no fireplaces were allowed there.
- Ojibwe ate wild rice, which was a bitch to harvest, and maple syrup, which was a bitch to create. Women handled these tasks, of course.
- Since guns were scarce, all men of the area became quite adept at killing by axe.
(Fellow family members who went on the tour with me — what else did we learn?)
Here’s a photo tour. This is our guide, and she’s standing next to a birch-bark canoe:
This is a cradleboard, which Ojibwe women used to carry babies on their backs. If the cradleboard was dropped, the large bar shifted the gravity of the board, meaning it fell face down, with the bar receiving the blow, protecting the baby. (Babies were often hung out on tree limbs while in the cradleboard – but not on tree trunks, since bears could get them there!) The “diaper” would be under the cloth, where moms would stuff a bunch of moss. The babies were tied tightly in, too.
And this is a summer wigwam, which, I want to stress again, is worth repeating over and over. Wigwam, wigwam, wigwam! There’s also birch bark on this.