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 week.
“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 Heritage Museum.
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 North Woods.
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 other men.
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 other things.
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.”