Learning Wigwam: Portal to Aboriginal Culture

On August 12th 2000, employees at Thunder Bay's Fort William Historical Park, "the World's Largest Fur Trade Post," were making history. The living history site, renowned for re-creating the fur trade activities of the North West Company in the early 1800s, was the scene of a little drama.

It was roughly 2:55 p.m. when the Fort's Program Coordinator Rod Davidson, braced 25-feet up on a ladder, was struggling to put into place the last sheet of birch bark at the peak of a wigwam. Assisting him from inside the huge structure standing on a scaffold were Native Life interpreters Ann Magiskan, Nathaniel Moses and Anthony Watts. 

The stubborn sheet kept shifting. Ann and Anthony were trying to poke a hole through the bark with an awl to secure the piece with moose hide, while Rod was trying to line it up from the outside. Finally, with a bit of tightening, it popped into place.

"Got it!" said Rod, and with his triumphant exclamation, a new chapter in the contemporary history of Fort William Historical Park had begun---the Fort's new Learning Wigwam was complete.

Woman constructing Wigwam.png"It's been a lot of hard work but it's worth it," said Ann, Native Life Team Leader for the Fort.  "I'm so proud right now," she said with a smile.

There is good reason for the feeling of accomplishment. The Learning Wigwam is no ordinary aboriginal shelter. It towers at least three times the size of the traditional Ojibwa wigwams that sit adjacent in the Fort's Native Encampment.

The ambitious project is a dream come true for Native Elder Freda McDonald, who was determined to make aboriginal culture more accessible to visitors to Thunder Bay. The idea came to her over a decade ago while she was working at the Fort as supervisor of the Native Encampment. 

While the Native Encampment, originally constructed by Barbara and Gilbert Baxter, is a popular site for visitors and students, the custom-designed Learning Wigwam now provides greater opportunities for diversified programming such as large-scale overnight visits.

However, aside from the dimensions, some structural reinforcement and an extra entrance for safety, the authentic atmosphere is still an important priority for the visitor experience. "The Learning Wigwam will meet our programming needs," says Fort Collections Team Leader Shawn Patterson, "but it will also remain in keeping with authenticity." 

Visitors sitting in Wigwam.pngAs you step inside the shelter, Shawn says, visitors will see the blending of aboriginal and European technology and culture that was occurring during the 1800s in Canada. Animal hides, snowshoes, toboggans, clothing and toys will be in evidence along with wool blankets, copper and brass kettles, flints, fishing nets, traps and other domestic trade items.

"We will also attempt to illustrate not only the aboriginal role as trappers," says Shawn, "but also as ‘provisioners,' in the harvesting of wild rice and maple sugar."

Given the demands of existing infrastructure and budgets, such an endeavor took some time to implement. It was reborn in the spring of 1999, when Program Coordinator Paul Pepe consulted with Ann Magiskan and Education Team Leader Carla Gibson to expand Freda's original concept. Both employees indicated that there was a growing demand for aboriginal programming, especially to accommodate groups of school children that were studying the Old Ways. A new structure was needed to facilitate large-scale visits.

The initiative gained momentum when Group Sales Co-ordinator Tanya Wheeler enlisted Bearskin Airlines as sponsor for the project last summer. Given the air company's long association with First Nation Communities, Bearskin was an ideal partner in the initiative.

Local businesses also got involved. Abitibi Consolidated and Bowater donated dozens of spruce logs during the winter that helped to reduce costs while aboriginal students from St. Patrick and St. Ignatius Schools assisted in trimming the logs in the spring.

Once the poles were up, staff from all areas in the Fort including Maintenance, Marketing, Administration and the Visitor Centre pitched in, feverishly working alongside other costumed interpretive staff to help meet the completion deadline for the Ojibwa Keeshigun Native Festival this summer.  

Learning Wigwam Exterior.pngIt has been a mammoth task. More than 3,500 square feet of birch bark cover the spruce poles that support the structure. Another 4,000 feet of natural fibre have been used to stitch the bark sheets together. Over 600 hours of staff time have gone into the construction.

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism sees the Learning Wigwam not only as a very important addition to Fort's programming but also as a major draw for regional tourism. 

Tourism Minister Cam Jackson has been actively involved in the initiative, discussing programming ideas with the Learning Wigwam Advisory Council that the Fort had assembled, including leaders from Thunder Bay's aboriginal community. Cultural exchanges and programming for school classes, special interest groups and community organizations are just some of the ideas formulated.

The Learning Wigwam will be one of the first structures for visitors to see as they reach the historic site. In keeping with Freda McDonald's dream, aboriginal culture will more accessible than ever at Fort William Historical Park.