By Tom Irvine
Visiting Grand Portage National Monument’s Rendezvous Days festival is an immersive experience that not only fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation of the past—it also invites direct and deliberate personal interaction. Rendezvous Days stands as a testament to the significance of cultural preservation and historical appreciation in Grand Portage. Through historic reenactment, educational demonstrations, and cultural performances this unique annual tradition brings people together from diverse backgrounds to celebrate and learn about the shared history of the Ojibwe people and fur traders.
The annual Grand Portage Pow Wow, hosted by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Anishinaabe), is a cultural gathering focused on dance, song, and family celebration.
At a personal level, I found my visit to both events this year to be one of the most interesting and visually stimulating experiences I’ve had.
My Rendezvous Days adventure started out bright and early in a chilly morning drizzle. Karl Koster, a Grand Portage National Monument Park Ranger and de facto elder statesmen of the event, had called a meeting under the big tent for all the reenactors. He offered welcoming comments, general housekeeping rules, workshop schedules, and other details. Karl then wished everyone a great Rendezvous and reminded them that no Crocs were to be seen in the encampment from that moment forward. The accuracy of the period clothing was amazing as was the intricate knowledge that all the reenactors have for this historical period. I asked one actor about his compass, and half an hour later I had a full history of the compass makers from 1650 on.
Walking through the encampment, there was a cacophony of smells emanating from campfires and traditional food being cooked—bacon, grains, root vegetables. Karl estimated at least a thousand pounds of bacon were cooked over the weekend. The re-enactors are from across the U.S. and Canada, maintaining years of generational family friendships. The reenactors thrive on interaction with the public, but it’s clear this is a big tight knit family.
It was refreshing to see hundreds of people just talking, not burdened or distracted by digital devices.
Children enthusiastically joined in groups to learn new crafts and witness historical traditions for the first time. A re-enactor from Idaho was making a bullboat, which is a wood-framed boat with a buffalo hide wrapped around it, primarily used for floating short distances across rivers. He began construction on Thursday and was finished by Saturday. There were artists—one was an oil painter specializing in traditional portraits and still-life paintings another led a class about making corn husk dolls. A blacksmith offered demonstrations. Musicians played traditional stringed instruments like violin, cello, and classical guitar. The period costumes were vibrant, detailed, and historically accurate.
All of these elements happening at once, from August 11-12, evoked the feeling of time travel back to 1740-1810, when Grand Portage was the epicenter of international fur trading. NPLSF is a proud sponsor of Rendezvous Days and I will most certainly be back.
The Pow Wow, which took place August 11-13 on the hill above the Monument, is a place where family and friends return every year to honor the traditions of the tribe, make new friends, and rekindle old friendships. Grand Entry Saturday and Sunday are particularly inspirational and colorful as flags from the Grand Portage Band, U.S., and Canada are raised to honor military veterans from Grand Portage.
Honoring the military and the Elders is an important beginning to Grand Entry. Soldiers are given the same consideration as warriors of the past as they fought under the flag.
The drum ceremonies, dance, and pageantry are truly breathtaking. Ringing the ceremonial grounds are regional indigenous artists and makers selling their wares. Food stands serving traditional foods are particularly popular and create ample opportunities for conversation.
Children to elders gather for this annual celebration. The Pow Wow is open to the public and everyone is encouraged to visit and take in the activities. Being new to a Pow Wow, I was particularly curious about how to respectfully observe and participate. Everything revolves around the circle at the Pow Wow. It represents the never-ending cycle of life, no beginning no end. The drum circle is very important and always prominent at a Pow Wow. The drums represent uniting the people and are the heartbeat of the gathering. The drum circle controls the energy of the Pow Wow and the pace of the dancing.
The amazing beaded clothing and accessories of the dancers and participants were among the most beautiful things at the Pow Wow. The native dress is referred to as regalia. Each dancer’s regalia is special to them and typically handmade personally or by a family member. The regalia is considered spiritual and is passed down for generations. There are multiple traditional dances performed at Pow Wow, the Men’s Traditional Dance, Men’s Fancy Dance, Men’s Grass Dance, Women’s Traditional Dance, Women’s Shawl Dance, and the Jingle Dress Dance. Each dance has its meaning and each dance is its own celebration.
I came away from my weekend at Grand Portage both inspired and insatiably curious to learn more.
About the NPLSF The National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation (NPLSF) exists to provide financial support for projects and programs that preserve the natural resources and cultural heritage of the five Lake Superior national parks: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Funded through grants and private donations, NPLSF projects and programs ensure that these great parks and historic sites are maintained for the enjoyment of all current and future visitors.