Sacred stories burn bright on Minnesotan's Ojibwe star map

Carl Gawboy at his studio
Carl Gawboy at his studio near Knife River, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Ojibwe scholar and artist Carl Gawboy grew up listening to his father tell a thrilling creation story, a titanic struggle between the legendary Ojibwe hero Nanaboujou and the panther.

Nanaboujou has nearly won the battle, but the panther tries one last desperate measure. "The great panther called down the rains to flood the Earth," Gawboy says, "so it's left to Nanaboujou then to try to get a new world out of the old."

The story can be found in the stars, although you need the right map. It can't be seen in the familiar constellations of Orion, Pisces and Taurus. Instead, you need to scan the Ojibwe star map of the moose, the fisher, the loon — and the panther.

Gawboy, who helped create the Ojibwe map, says the panther star arrangement in the spring was a reminder of the danger of the snow melt combined with spring rains.

"When you see that constellation rise in ancient culture you remember that story, to say watch out, be careful ... because the floods are gonna come anytime and they're going to come and sudden."

Gawboy is best known by many as a painter and a muralist. His work includes murals in Ely and Grand Portage in northern Minnesota, in St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center and in the Superior, Wis., public library.

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He also works stints as an Ojibwe culture educator for schools and other groups, which is why he's working to ensure the Ojibwe stories of the heavens and the natural world aren't lost with age.

Gawboy was inspired to start work on the Ojibwe star map decades ago when he read accounts about the Pueblo people in the southwestern United States.

Gawboy is active in Native Skywatchers.
In addition to being an accomplished artist, Carl Gawboy is active in the Native Skywatchers astronomy program.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Archeologists realized their structures and art reflected a keen understanding of the universe — "astronomical alignments in Pueblo buildings, and their rock paintings with astronomical events like supernovas depicted on them," he says.

It dawned on Gawboy then that Ojibwe culture was also influenced by the stars.

Scholars credit him for a theory of Ojibwe rock paintings that others have missed. Nearly a hundred of the pictographs are in a line, more or less, from northeastern Minnesota toward Canada's Hudson Bay.

Some thought the pictures told the story of great hunting trips. But Gawboy believes the rock pictures are sign posts for astronomical observations.

"They usually have a big open area above them, and it's up in this great big dome of rock that sits above the rock paintings where all the rock paintings took place," he says.

These days, Gawboy's relationship with the natural world is obvious when you hear him talk about where he lives. His home and studio in Duluth sit a hundred yards from Lake Superior. The big lake can be serene one moment and deadly with wind and waves the next.

"It sits there cold and wants to kill you, so you learn that you're not gonna splash around in it ... nature is something you do battle with and you try to keep alive in it as well as really enjoying yourself in it."

Carl Gawboy worked on a watercolor.
Carl Gawboy worked at his studio near Knife River, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Gawboy grew up on a small farm near Ely. The family spoke three languages — his father's Ojibwe, his mother's Finnish and then the eight kids learning English. Like other Ojibwe, his parents wanted the kids to learn English to succeed in life, and yet still know their culture.

"He would tell me legends all in English," he says, "So, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's how I heard the stories."

At 72, Gawboy is sometimes introduced to audiences as an elder. But he says he's not qualified.

Elders in American Indian culture, Gawboy says, are fluent in their native language, have lived an honorable life and have deep knowledge to pass along.

He does have advice on the knowledge part of being an elder.

"Most of us are lucky if we can do one thing and be known for it. And so, I always tell people just know one, one thing and be sure you try to pass that on to other generations."

Editor's note: This is Dan Olson's last story for MPR News. He retires today after 42 years. Please check out the archive of all his wonderful Minnesota Sounds and Voices stories. He will be missed.