Friday, February 16, 2018

Local Art Scene: Vern Northrup Discusses Ishkode -- The Role of Fire in Native Culture

Early last week author Judy Budreau, DAI Director Christina Woods and I met with Vern Northrup at the Dr. Robert Powless Community Center to learn more about his exhibition of photography and especially the manner in which traditional Native culture has utilized fire as a tool. The exhibition of Northrup's photographs in the AICHO Gallery is titled Ishkode, which means "Fire" in the native Ojibwe tongue.

Vern Northrup, brother of the nationally recognized poet Jim Northrup, began his talk by noting his own background as a professional firefighter, as in forest fires. But his interest in fire has deeper historical roots. Generations of native tribal peoples used fire as a means of land management.

The current focus for Ishkode is the Apostle Islands off the coast of Wisconsin on the South Shore of Lake Superior. According to Northrup, the Apostle Islands served as a refuge in the Western migration of the Anishinabe from the East. On these islands there was an abundance of pines and blueberries, as well as game.

To put his Ishkode exhibit in perspective Northrup shared a few details about the Native culture. The clan system was a means of protection for tribal peoples. They also had fairly sophisticated means of delivering information. Birchbark canoes were a breakthrough… faster, lightweight. Innovation and technology developed, resulting in tools that made hunting or building easier. Traditions evolved, but some things were constant. The people strove to follow the path of their elders, because it was important to remain connected to the traditions. "Becoming removed from the traditions makes life hard, and life is not meant to be hard," he noted.

One of these traditions was the process of land management, or Ishkode. Ironically, the U.S. government squashed this tradition in the 1930s by making the burning of land illegal. Legislators did not understand the function of the burning, which helped in growing one of Algonquin food staples: blueberries. The Algonquin were practicing forestry. Planned burning helped keep the bugs down and reduced disease as well. In fact, according to Northrup, there were 70 different benefits to the managed burns in various areas every five to seven years.

"Fire is another spirit, another one of our grandfathers," Northrup said. "We have to venerate it. Fire has always been a part of me. My grandfather was a fire warden for Minnesota."

Northrup was modest about his work. He brought with him a portfolio of more than 100 additional photos, many capturing nature's most exquisite beauty. He expressed himself with warmth and authority, and seemed to take pleasure in sharing, perhaps in part because he had such an attentive audience. Our attentiveness was, in part, due to the sense that we were in the presence of something profound, the manner in which the native peoples lived a life fully integrated with respect for the land.

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The context for this talk was the larger display of Northrup's photos reproduced on anodized aluminum. Vern Northrup began doing photography just 3 years ago in 2015. His tool of choice is a Galaxy S7. It's easy to transport and takes vivid images, to which these photos on the walls of the AICHO Gallery  attest.

Northrup has a keen eye, and understands that the best stories unfold by focusing on small details. Here are my own iPhone reproductions of his S7 shots. You can be certain that the original photos are far superior in person, just as the Grand Canyon is superior to post cards of the same.

It was interesting to see this same split in the shoreline rocks in various seasons.

RELATED STORY: Read Judy Budreau's "How far is the far?"

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For more information about AICHO, visit 
Tonight the community center in Trepanier Hall will be hosting 
a special presentation of SKIN(S), a dance program 
by Seminole dancer Rosy Simas.
Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Program begins at 7:30.

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