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More than once I’ve mentioned the North Shore’s great love of Fairs, Festivals, and Events. Or as they play out In practice they’re affairs done for love of tourism and tourists. Actually it is tourist money that is most loved and if we have to smile beatifically at droves of oddly dressed and predominantly plump outsiders then so be it. Our culture frowns on prostitution except when is flung down for all to maul and grope is art, history, or local custom. If there’s money it in we are your folk ready and able to show you how to fling a dead fish, paint a rock, or build yourself an ever handy kayak for times is rains heavily in the lands of metro wherever. About the only things not yet celebrated as a tourist attractant are Armadillo Art and a Celebration of Salad Cream; but these possible candidates may already be under commerce chamber consideration. I wouldn’t know as that’s a loop I’m generally left out of.
But there really is one (and it’s hardly the most publicized) event that is both authentic and of quite long duration. That’s Rendezvous held this time of year in Grand Portage. A number of our touristy events grew from local celebrations from a time when a summer holiday meant you and your neighbors had a community pot luck and ball game. Most of the what-not fairs and hoopla’s are more than less cooked up to lure buyers. There seems no end to the number brightly painted saw blades and mugs from China with a moose on them vendors feel the public must have. How many do you own? There’s a quota.
In contrast Rendezvous is the real thing. The earliest rendezvous predate the US by a century or so and were the result of traders needing more than a year to bring in trade goods and take away furs. Some point to this as an example of cruel exploitation of native people and wildlife. In ways I suppose so, but trade was not done at gun point and seems to have been quite willing. If you were the one spending two years to bring glass beads from Italy and woolens from England by sailing ship and then inland by canoe you’d want to do more than break even. It very much was the case that trade goods made life easier. Cooking in a copper vessel was more convenient. A gun was an improvement over a bow. An argument is sometimes heard that trade guns were deliberately inferior, but any all-around weapon such as a smooth bore trade gun is inferior due to its multiple roles. A trade gun would shoot ball or shot depending on what you were hunting. If a trade gun lacked the range of a supposedly better gun it didn’t matter much because any smart hunter would get as close as possible to save powder and lead.
Rendezvous today is very much a social gathering where connections are affirmed and there is an exchange of info and bartering. Rendezvous is unlike any of the other weekend tourist related activities. On one level it’s surely the biggest in terms of people and area covered. Rendezvous is big. People come from far away to reconnect at Rendezvous, so if you don’t plan well ahead you won’t find a place to stay at the last minute, and in any case you need to be prepared to do a lot of walking. Activities sprawl all over the immediate area with participants involved in historic reenactment, native dance, crafts, and of course food and beverage. I’m not a crowd person myself, but the times I’ve made my way through the Rendezvous have always been interesting and rewarding. There’s more, really, to see and tell about than I can comfortably put into a short article. But I can tell of one incident that sticks in my head as a special form of contrast.
I was there on a Sunday morning when there were drifts of low fog hanging in the slow moving air. At a distance there was the sound of native drumming that in the foggy atmosphere had an eerie echo. In itself the sound of native drums in the fog would have been enough to steal into heart and mind, but there was more. One of the older churches in Minnesota is in Grand Portage. Holy Rosary is a log structure covered in clapboard. From its short tower the sound of the bell announcing Sunday Mass joined with the drumming in the fog. It was an aural meeting and blending of cultures, times, and histories. Almost regardless of an individual’s ethnic origin we are in some way mixed in much the same way the English language is a mix of Latin, French, German, and Anglo Saxon with smatterings of almost every other language group the globalism of the trade era began introducing hundreds of years back in the history of our language and culture. The sound in the air that Sunday morning was a blend of the past. There is no escape from it and in my view no need to be regretful.
European trade extended into Asia and brought back Darjeeling Tea and porcelain. Arab traders scoured Africa for centuries to supply the slave trade. American whalers hunted whales to light the parlors of home before Rockefeller developed standardized oil for lighting wick lamps. The European trade that took tobacco worldwide also brought goods that were otherwise unavailable to people living on the North Shore before the US came to be. The trade and traders of the past that are sometimes judged harshly by a modern critic aren’t all that much different from the E-Bay, Amazon, or Listing service of today. Commerce is a common human activity. Socializing is another very familiar human trait. Rendezvous is a current and very authentic reminder this has been going on for hundreds of years and likely as not other trade predated the fur trade. The big picture is large. Larger than a trend, it is the way we are.