Learning the old ways

CALUMET – Sitting in a talking circle around the same fire they’d used that morning to temper hand-forged copper bowls, 23 students from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin talked about what they’d learned from the process.

Patience was a common theme, as many student’s bowls needed to be returned to the fire over and over and over again, as many as 15 to 18 times, before the bowls took on desired shapes and the deep reds hidden within the copper emerged.

Even when a work in progress wasn’t promising, “the final product might be something great,” student Katie Johnson explained.

“I feel like I made a connection with the copper,” said Theo Wagner, who later explained that instead of “imposing my power” on the copper, as he’d done in previous metal-working experiences, he learned to try to understand the copper’s own needs and tendencies and to work with the metal.

That meant listening and feeling for a higher- pitched vibration as he worked the metal, and knowing that meant it was time to return it to the fire before it began to tear.

“The copper will talk to you,” he said. “Putting it in the fire is like letting it rest.”

For Calumet artist Ed Gray and Carroll professor Deirdre Keenan, these lessons are about much more than specific arts and crafts, they’re also a part of the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe Life-Way, and they’re the reason Keenan brought her students to the Calumet Arts Center for a week-long “Footprints of our Ancestors” cultural immersion experience.

This is the second year Keenan has brought a class to the Keweenaw to learn from Gray, an Anishinaabe elder, artist and executive director of the Calumet Art Center. The Art Center is hosting much of the class, though the copper bowl making took place at Gray’s home and the students will also be gathering materials and spending time in many other Keweenaw locales.

Along with the bowls, Keenan said the said the group had also created clay “life-tracks” tablets, with symbols representing important points in their personal history, as well as pinch-pots, beading and other arts activities. The next day, they would be going to Gratiot Beach to collect materials for talking sticks.

But while much time was spent on the arts activities, she said, many of the more important lessons came later, when students discussed their experiences in talking circles and even when smaller groups got to know each other while cooking dinner feasts for the rest of the class.

“It’s a radically different way of teaching,” Keenan said.

In the long run, more than the artwork and crafts they created, she said, she hoped students would “learn new values about nature and other people, and think about the kind of person they want to be.”

Gray said he didn’t grow up in a Native American community, and his parents didn’t talk much about his Indian heritage, but his Native American grandmother taught him the Anishinaabeg traditions.

He said while many Americans seem to have lost connection to the earth, the class “gives us an opportunity to share what this is all about, and why life is important.”

“Everything we’re doing, the clay, metal, it all has a story related to the culture,” he said.

“We’re not really teaching art as most people see it,” he added. “But by doing the copper bowls we learn a lot about culture and how it’s used.”

Johnson said the biggest lesson she’d learned was the Anishinaabeg’s respect for the earth.

“It’s kind of humbling, they put so much stock in nature and its power over people,” she said.