Mike Whetung Remembers Whetung Ojibwa Crafts
November 4, 2023
Whetung Ojibwa Crafts, 1963
In the 1960s, the economy of Curve Lake was in transition. Many older residents hunted and trapped, as their ancestors had since time immemorial. But the fur trade was on its last legs as the fur coat had was transitioning from a fashionable style and something to be treasured for older generations to being the target of some younger people’s animal rights activism. While some older trappers still gathered furs, their children tended to look for something else to do with their lives.
The Crown interpreted a ‘basket clause’ in the Williams Treaty of 1923 to mean that the Michi Saagiig had surrendered any and all special rights they might have, including the right to hunt and fish—which had not been the intent of the Michi Saagiig. In the years that followed, the Province of Ontario would attempt to enforce game regulations on Michi Saagiig hunters, so hunting and gathering typically entailed figuring out how to evade game wardens. Given the population of Curve Lake, if they were not able to hunt beyond their own reserve, it would have been the end of this way of life. As it was, having to avoid the game wardens certainly made things much more difficult.
It was not an easy time for the older residents who had always hunted, gathered and fished. Cliff Whetung remembered that a driver would take hunters out to a certain point and pick them up somewhere else. They always had to keep moving to stay one step ahead of the game wardens. There were many stories of middle of the night escapes. At times it was not legal to sell furs in Ontario, so sometimes the harvest had to be taken to Quebec.
For many years, Curve Lake had some of the best muskrat and beaver pelts in Canada. In a good year, (Mike’s father) Cliff would buy 10-15,000 muskrats, which local workers would process. The Whetungs lived at the store, and had a room where the skins were processed. Muskrats had a very distinctive smell—“I guess that’s why they were called Musk Rats,” Cliff recalled the smell, like a musky, sour, not quite rotten meat. Once the skins were scraped and stretched, Cliff sold them to a fur buyer in Peterborough.
Local residents would sell the pelts of animals and ate the meat, except for skunks. Groundhogs and muskrats were good eating, and for many years it was common when travelling past a house to see a whole rack of muskrats out front to dry. Muskrat brains were a delicacy, though Cliff recalled that once the minister was appalled to see the Whetungs cooking muskrat heads over the coals in their stove. Pelts were much more saleable if they did not have bullet holes in them. Often, the Whetungs were facilitating their customers buying on credit, as they themselves were buying from their suppliers on credit.
By the 1960s, trading furs was becoming an ever more challenging pursuit. Though many of the old time trappers would carry on until they were quite elderly, their descendants were not interested in living the same way, so it just faded away as the years past. There was little nostalgia for the changing times, the new generation was looking to make a better life for themselves. Mike remembered how the fur trade was just not an occupation for him. “I was probably a weak stomach and I had to be careful not to throw up when I smelled the muskrats—Oh God!” For some inexplicable reason, just as the trade was ending, local muskrat populations declined precipitously, and now they are close to extinct in the area.
As early as 1818 the Whetung family was trading furs at Curve Lake. In 1898, Bill McCue Jr. opened the first post office at Curve Lake, and three years later it passed to Dan Whetung Sr. (Mike’s Great-Grandfather). Needless to say, the Whetung’s Store at Curve Lake goes back many generations—it has been around as long as anyone can remember. In the late nineteenth century, it was operated by Dan Sr., who was succeeded by his son Dan Jr., who was Curve Lake’s chief for over 30 years. As Cliff was growing up, the general store sold milk, meat, eggs, tea, dry goods and hardware. Until the advent of electricity in 1952, they also cut ice on neighbouring lakes for their own use and sale in the store. In exchange, the Whetungs bought furs, which they resold in Peterborough. On the return journey, they brought back bread from Stock’s Bakery, which in those days was wrapped in newspapers.
Whetung’s Store also sold locally harvested rice. “When I was a youngster,” Mike remembers, “I spent an awful lot of time out on the lake. There was a big weed bed from Fox Island over to the mainland, 100 yards wide, a mile long, filled with rice. It was so thick that you couldn’t drive a 10 horsepower boat through it, it would get bogged up. When I was a kid, people would go out and make rice. They had to separate out the seeds, heat it on a steel pan so the hulls broke off, then throw it up in the air to winnow it. We used to sell it at the store, but that probably ended about 1960. As the boats on the lake got bigger, there was more wake. The big waves knocked the rice around, and then it had trouble reproducing and growing.”
Dan Sr. also founded a tourist lodge. The first cottage they had, was the second storey of a boat house. Dan Jr. acquired a motor boat (which was a new technology in those days) to take tourists out on the lake. He called it the “You-Go-I-Go” because it didn’t work half the time, and they would have to paddle. But even if it didn’t start consistently, it was a novelty, and his guests enjoyed having a tour of the nearby lakes.
Many doctors and lawyers journeyed to visit Curve Lake for a week or two. Guests regularly came from as far away as New York. Sometimes during tourist season, when every bed was needed, Cliff and his brother Murray would stay in the barn, so their bedrooms could be rented. The kitchen in the Whetung’s home also served the lodge, as the family prepared many dinners. Prior to the First World War, duck was often served. In later years, pickerel was the favourite local dish—albeit a fish that was not common until the mid twentieth century. Cliff and Murray would gather frogs at night on lily pads, bringing home sacks full of them. After skinning and cleaning the frogs, they were frozen or prepared as frog’s leg dinners. In the next generation, as a youngster Mike also helped with frogging. “Everyone who went frogging had an area where they processed them. You had to take the skin off and head off, gut them and sometimes would cut the feet off.” To keep the cabins heated and camp fires burning, the Whetungs cut about 50 cords of firewood a year.
As a youngster, Cliff’s first job was guiding at the lodge. At its peak in 1956-58, there were up to thirty local fishing guides working at Whetungs. The Whetungs had a marina, with about 20 boats and motors that they rented out. For generations, gentlemen went on vacation (often their wives would stay home and look after the kids… imagine what people would think today!) but as times changed, the number of gentlemen coming to Curve Lake for a two week hunting trip was ever decreasing. Instead, families might visit for a night or a weekend, and interest was generally declining. In 1973, the Whetungs retired from the lodge business.
“One of my first jobs at the store was delivering ice around Curve Lake in a truck,” Mike recalled. “There was a man who went around cutting ice for a lot of people in the area. He had taken the chassis of a car, removed one rear wheel, and put a gigantic saw blade on the back. He started the motor on the vehicle and he had it balanced so he could tip it up and down. We would clear a spot on Chemong Lake for him, and then he would cut block after block. He was careful to nearly, but not quite, cut through the ice. We would then break off each block with an ice chisel and store it in an ice house, insulated with sawdust. When someone bought a block of ice I would saw them to the right size and deliver them around the village. Though electricity reached the reserve in 1952, for the rest of the decade, many people could not afford an electric refrigerator, and used ice boxes.” The ice business carried on until about 1960.
Until the 1970s, Whetungs had the only store at Curve Lake, which included the post office. Back then, Curve Lake was a very busy tourist destination, and most of the visitors came by road. The road into the village was not paved, and it was a rough old dirt road. Given the condition of the thoroughfare, everyone drove 30 miles per hour or less—there was no speeding back then! Up to the late 1960s, Whetungs had a small sales building out by the gate.
Cliff’s wife, Eleanor was a nurse, who also met patients at the house. Working back in the days before universal Medicare, she did her best to help with all the conditions that came through the door. She often remarked, that as she was starting out, there was nobody else working to provide Medicare at Curve Lake. In serious cases, a doctor was summoned from Peterborough.
When Cliff was young, a lot of women on the reserve made split-ash baskets. Men would help by pounding the black ash wood until the grains separated—making a sound like a drum as they worked. The weavers showed great skill and imagination in the shapes that they would make, and often traded the baskets either at the store or with settler ladies from the surrounding communities. Often ladies would take their baskets to a nearby town, and spend the day selling them as street vendors. But it was challenging for these weavers to consistently sell their baskets.
Cliff took over the store from his father in 1947. As he looked around him, Cliff saw a community that was facing a lot of momentous changes. The fur trade, which had been such an important part of their business, and the livelihoods of local residents were becoming ever more challenging. The tourist industry was also in transition. It was difficult for people who worked in crafts to find a consistent market for their product, and there were too many people facing unemployment. Cliff explained, “Kids were coming out of school, and sitting on the floor all winter playing cards, because there was nothing else to do—there was no employment.”
“The reason we got into the gallery business in the first place” Cliff recalled, “was to create employment on the reserve. At that time, the older people were doing quill work, basket work and so on with no market for it. So we talked to the older folks and said if we can organize a business and market this stuff, will you teach the younger ones how to do it?” Local elders taught the skills to the younger generation, and before long there were 200 people working at making crafts for the business—the total population of Curve Lake was approximately 700 to 1000, so this was about one person in four.
When they started selling crafts, Cliff and Eleanor were just working out of their home, and much craft work was done in their living room. Whetungs would sell handiwork that had been traded in at the general store. Customers would come in wanting to trade their creations for groceries, and the Whetungs needed to find a way to sell what came in. Before long they had orders from all over the world, many of them for resale in other businesses. Though such interest was promising, Cliff was concerned that these retailers would subsequently try to reduce the prices they would pay, so he decided to focus on local sales. In 1966 Cliff built a craft shop—a beautiful log building, with stone stairs leading up to the entrance, and a totem pole on either side of the front door. Once there were other stores at Curve Lake, the Whetungs closed their general store. In 1982, they added an art gallery to the back of the craft shop.
Over the years, a few barns were constructed on the reserve, and one was conveniently located right beside Whetung’s Store. It stood as a relic of the days when there were farm animals pasturing at large all over Curve Lake and when horses were used for help transport commodities to and from Curve Lake. But it was also a building that already had a long history of being repurposed to meet the needs of each successive generation.
The Whetung family set to work transforming the barn into a centre of crafting activity. The great loft that had once stored hay, could be converted into multiple floors of space to store and assemble supplies to make souvenirs. For generations, artwork made from quills and bark had been an important part of the culture at Curve Lake, but Whetungs turned it into mass production.
Mike returned to Curve Lake full time in 1969, and started working at the craft business—and would take over the business in the 1980s. While there was enough bark on the reserve to keep up with traditional barkwork without injuring the forests, mass production of souvenirs required much more bountiful supplies. In seasons when the sap is running between the inner and outer layer of birch bark, it was easy to harvest the bark—“you just step up to the tree with a knife, run it straight down the tree, then push the back off and it falls to the ground. Then you spread it out, and add more sheets to make a big bundle that you can barely lift. The best season to harvest is mid-June, when the wild strawberries were ripe. This was also the season when the mosquitoes and black flies are at their peak. As you are carrying this great bundle of bark, there is of course nowhere to put it down, you just keep going until you get to the truck.”
Though it was easy to harvest bark, it would often kill the trees. If the trees did live, the regenerated bark would be harder than the original bark, and it was not suitable for craftwork. To avoid needlessly decimating a forest, Cliff arranged with the Department of Lands and Forests to harvest in a region that would be logged the following winter, often around North Bay. They would book hotel rooms, and take 2-3 trucks and six workers, and harvest bark from Monday to Friday. One trip would produce several thousand pounds of birch bark.
Porcupine quills are a living part of the animal and connected to the body. In the spring, the quills fill up with a milky substance, so it is best to harvest them in winter. The grass that was used for decoration was harvested in late August. The Whetungs acquired feathers from local farmers. Local women would travel to farms, and pluck turkeys in exchange for the feathers, which were of course covered in manure at the time. They brought them back to the shop, cleaned them, and sorted them. Red fluffs were often used for dolls, and the larger turkey feathers would curve either left or right, depending on which wing they were from. Tail feathers were straight. All in all, it took practically a whole year of advanced planning to have the materials on hand to make the crafts.
Creative minds at Curve Lake came up with several appealing designs of bark and quill work—including teepees, canoes and drums. They were not necessarily reflective of local culture, teepees were traditional in the Great Plains, not the woodlands that the Michi Saagiig called home. “When I saw a teepee in movies, I would say, ‘Yeah, I could make that out of bark.” They also decorated dolls, often dressing them in leather and fur outfits. For many years, Aretha Williams made teepees for the shop. She plucked quills from the porcupine, cleaned them, and sorted them by size. Then she dyed the quills and soaked them in water so they would bend. Whetungs would travel around Curve Lake picking up the products of this cottage industry, while making deliveries of items from their store at the same time.
Over the years, Inez Knott did the beadwork on many doll outfits. There were a few patterns that they could cut out on a punch press, but most were cut by hand. In the 1970s, Mike created a rawhide drum. It would have been difficult to make a circular wooden frame, so he made one that was eight sided, gluing the octagon together. Every drum that Mike made sold. At the same time, the Whetung Gallery sold countless souvenirs, moccasins and became a much-loved art gallery. Their customers really appreciated their unique selection of art, as many returned time and again.
For many years, the locally made souvenirs were really cool, and sales were strong. Ojibwa crafts were important to the community, and the business helped to put Curve Lake on the map. A lot of people came to Curve Lake to visit Whetung’s Ojibwa Crafts, and it became a product that tourists valued all around the world.
But much like what had happened a generation earlier, sensibilities changed. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, Ojibwa crafts were fashionable, beloved by a generation people that would proudly display them in their homes and show them to their friends, by the 1990s, there were critics who no longer found all of this art tasteful. Sales tapered off, and at the same time, ever fewer people were wanting to make the crafts. “If you could get a job at Outboard Marine, that was good. People wanted a nice clean job where you didn’t have to wash the smell off afterwards.” So, much as the fur trade had just petered out in the 1960s, so the Ojibwa crafts disappeared in the 1990s. “It wasn’t being done much culturally either, and today no one would do it, even as a kids’ activity.”
But this time of cultural change, though it represented a vast curtailment of an art form that had been very important locally for many years, it was also a new beginning. Fifty-five years after the gallery opened, the Whetung Ojibwa Centre remains a popular destination. For about fifteen years, they have featured Freddy Taylor’s vibrant paintings—with a personal reflection written on the back of each. As it has for decades, the store still sells collectables, some of them still made at Curve Lake and a great many moccasins. But it is also a business that has kept pace with the times. As it was born to reflect how society was changing in the 1960s, today it continues to reflect the ever evolving interests of its community and clientele.
This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: email@example.com