Guest Commentary: Remember origins of BeargreaseThe 2011 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon begins this weekend. I always look forward to seeing the mushers, the dogs, the “Cutest Puppy” contest, the excitement of the start, the latest news of what’s happening on the trail through Lake and Cook counties.
By: Linda Grover, University of Minnesota Duluth, Lake County News Chronicle
The 2011 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon begins this weekend. I always look forward to seeing the mushers, the dogs, the “Cutest Puppy” contest, the excitement of the start, the latest news of what’s happening on the trail through Lake and Cook counties.
For the past quarter century, this exciting and grueling event has been held nearly every January, the coldest month of our long winter season. For three or four days, competing mushers and dog teams from the United States, Canada, and Europe experience firsthand the challenges of rough terrain and unpredictable weather as each attempts to be the first to complete a course that is the longest and most brutal in the lower 48 states.
The race is named for John Beargrease, an Ojibwe man who carried mail up the North Shore of Lake Superior between 1880 and 1910. In his honor, the registration and race number for the first team is always reserved and held in his name.
Daniel Lancaster, a Minnesota native, is the author of the very readable and interesting “John Beargrease: Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore,” published by Holy Cow! Press in 2009. I really enjoy everything about this book, especially its conversational tone, the photographs, and the way Lancaster weaves together the stories of the Beargrease family, the Ojibwe people of the North Shore, and the immigrant pioneers and entrepreneurs.
We Ojibwe know that everyone has a story. Lancaster has taken tremendous care in collecting and organizing both written and oral records, and tells us through the biography of John Beargrease a collective story of the North Shore in a book that echoes Ojibwe oral storytelling tradition. In the process, Lancaster’s own story is subtly and modestly present throughout the book and eloquently communicates a love of the North Shore settlements and the people who live there.
This book has been well received in the areas where it is set. References to pioneer families and homesteads, to historical events, names, and places, resonate with both descendants and those who enjoy the glimpse into the human past of today’s northeastern Minnesota.
An outstanding feature of the book is Lancaster’s recounting of the struggle and endurance of the Ojibwe against the backdrop of federal Indian policy, Indian-white relations and regional history of the time. The collective story of Beargrease’s life, as well as that of community, reservation, and tribal entities, is told in a series of linked vignettes that, although in written form, brings to mind the oral tradition that is the gift and legacy of our grandparents.
We read in Lancaster’s unobtrusive and considerate voice the wrenching stress of the times, the choices and compromises, the maintenance of the language, culture, and worldview, the sheer courage and dignity of a people surviving while reeling from tremendous loss. And we feel admiration for John Beargrease and his family as well as a sense of pride in knowing that as Ojibwe people we share in the story.
I will be re-reading “John Beargrease: Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore” this week, and the story will be in my mind as I follow the intrepid mushers who will follow his mail route, acknowledging and honoring the story of a hard-working Ojibwe man. The first registration and race number will be held for John Beargrease; the mushers and dog teams follow the trail he broke, and his story.
Linda Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.