James F. Frechette, Jr.’s wood carvings stands in two worlds, that of art and that of the Menominee culture. His artistry interprets Menominee culture and joins the two with fidelity. To grasp the meaning of these Little Menominee it is necessary to understand the cultural milieu from which they have emerged. I have drawn up this brief guide in the hope that understanding of the one world will make the other world more meaningful to you.
As with any effort to provide cultural understanding in so brief a compass, much has had to be omitted and much has had to be shortened to meet the practical use of the space available. It is hoped that a cultural perspective has been set down for you.
The hand carved figures are from wood, chiefly Menominee white pine, with some birch, ash, and other tribal species employed from time to time. They are painted with acrylic. Each feather, object, skin, drum, and so forth, is entirely from wood and authentic to the Menominee. The designs, colors, and forms are also genuine.
Woodland traditional art
The art of the Indian people of Wisconsin belongs to the Woodland cultural tradition. This is characterized by use of certain materials, designs, motifs, and colors taken from the region’s forests and waters that coalesce into a distinctive identity. Out of wood, for example, they formed over one hundred and fifty objects, ranging from canoes, cradles and maple sugar molds, to wigwams, feather boxes, and baskets, each decorated and made into elements of beauty. Numerous other categories exist, such leatherwork, quillwork, weaving, and copperwork. Woodland art is largely unknown by Americans whose minds are dominated by the great attention the media and scholars have given to the Southwest and Plains traditions. Many perhaps do not even realize that a fully developed art exists in Wisconsin, encapsulating the aesthetic ideal of the human species and worthy of appreciation, necessary to preserve, and ideal for collecting and displaying.
The depiction of the trees shown here on this page do not specifically relate to any clan in particular. They are merely representative of the various kinds of wood used by the Menominee Clans from the forests they inhabited.
An example of this would be the Bear Clan and Maple Tree. The Beaver Woman, member of the Bear Clan, is shown making birch bark baskets for collecting maple sap from the maple trees for the production of maple sugar.
Example: The Golden Eagle Clan and the hickory tree. The Red Tailed Hawk, member of the Golden Eagle Clan, is shown making bows from the wood of the hickory tree.
Example: The Wolf Clan and the basswood tree. The White Tailed Deer, member of the Wolf Clan, is seen with storage bags woven from from the inner bark fibers of the basswood tree.
Example: The Crane Clan and the butternut tree. The Loon, member of the Crane Clan, is depicted carving a dugout canoe from a large log of the butternut tree.
A final example would be the Moose Clan and the white birch tree. The Elk, member of the Moose Clan, is portrayed washing the wild rice in a large dish made from the bark of the white birch tree.
The Great White Pine tree shown here is the tallest tree in the forest and its needles grow in clusters of five, symbolic of the five primary clans of the Menominee Nation.
One of six tribes on eleven reservations presently resident in Wisconsin the Menominee have had a continuous presence in the state that traces back to the beginning of time while in recent years they endured phases of non-Menominee history, French (1634-1763), British (1763-1783), United States territorial (1783-1848),and state (1848+). Indeed they came into being as a people—genesis—in the extreme northeast corner of the state along the banks of their beautiful and sacred Menominee River. Their name translates as "The People of the Wild Rice."
Menominee traditional lands extended from a portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, then sharply narrowing reached to the Mississippi River, including the cities of Marinette, Green Bay, Appleton, Marshfield, and La Crosse. Through a series of treaties with the United States, they ceded most of their domain, keeping a portion of their land to form their present reservation at the headwaters of the Wolf River where they have resided since 1852.
Menominee art not only belongs to the general themes of Woodland art, but also possesses distinctive cultural elements that clearly set it apart from the work of other tribes. One of these traits is wood carving.
Among the Menominee, a tradition of carved wooden figures existed, executed in an old style manner that the artist has drawn upon to express the cultural life of the people. So, too, the Menominee had developed a unique, intricate system of clans, highly complex, with origin accounts, functional structures, and cultural forms. Basically, the clan system served as the organizing principle of Menominee society around its structure that embraced politics, defense, family, economics, education, and other facets of life.
While the majority of the carvings discussed here are totems, or clan symbols two represent the origin story. Each clan figure unites in its form three elements: the clan symbol, the tradition of carved wooden figures, and the distinctive interpretation of that culture by Jim Frechette. He remarked:
Symbolism is an important part of any culture.
We all use symbolism in our lives. I think we
have to be careful not to place the value on the symbol
and forget about what it stands for.
Within Menominee society each Menominee had a place and a responsibility. For some members the defined tasks might be mundane and for others they might be much more demanding; yet, all duties, be they great or small, functioned only in a larger system of the tribal structure where all activities have to be referred to be ultimately understood. If the tribe was to achieve its purposes, everyone had to be governed by the ordering principles of the society. The story tellers, the pipe makers, the hunters, the cooks, the warriors, and on and on, had to function in order that all obtained a meaningful life. In that ordered whole the individual found his life enhanced.
The Menominee found liberty to be attained in the organizational life of the tribe, in the culture rightly related to. No idea is more fundamental to the cultural form than this intensely held love of personal freedom. The culture expresses it in a thousand ways. The first European explorers and traders to the tribe set down in letters and published in journals their perceptions of and experiences with the Menominee’s great love of freedom coupled with an abhorrence of slavery or other types of authoritarian forms.
James F. Frechette, Jr.
A Menominee born on the Menominee reservation Jim grew into adulthood when many tribal elders yet lived, men and women steeped in the tribal culture whose memories went back to the generation that had first moved onto the reservation. From them he acquired many insights and much knowledge of the old Menominee culture. From the elders, too, he received training in some of the traditional arts of the tribe, especially wood carving.
Mama:ceqta:hsak, or the Little Menominee, faithfully represents that traditional culture and art handed down to Jim. Each design, motif, color, and cultural instance is authentic, from the type of pipe in The Great Light Colored Bear’s hand, to the manner the leggings were laced, to the way the maple tree was tapped. Taken as a whole, they capture in art the traditional way of life as well as the culture of the Menominee.
In accordance with the natural rhythm of the earth and the rule of time and the blessings of Grandfather’s gifts the vital tribal clan system unfolded. The Five Principal Clans depict the interpretation of this component. As we view each figure, we shall have the occasion to return many times to this striking element of inter-relationships within the order, but we direct our attention now to the method of cultural transmission.
The Menominee confronted the problem of how to transmit from one generation to the next their accomplishments, lore, religion, traditions, history, and insights into life gained at considerable difficulty and held to be significant. To meet this challenge, their culture developed the mechanism of story telling. It was the factor that established continuity on a rational basis and became the indispensable feature of their culture. Without the story-telling system, they perish; with it, they thrive.
How often do we pause in our daily affairs to contemplate what links one generation in society to the next? During the pace of our ordinary activities most of us rarely pose the question to ourselves, leaving the task more or less blindly to the erstwhile efforts of church, school, television, and the like. But the old time Menominee viewed the subject with great intensity, for it was ever a live issue for them, one they met with in their daily tasks and reticulated frequently in conversations.
The tribe gave elders the task of handing down the culture from one generation to another. Elders accomplished it by telling stories and legends, scores and indeed hundreds of tales repeated to youth whenever they found them and whenever opportunity arose. They repeated them "exactly" as they had received them from their elders, who in turn had received them from their elders all the way back to the beginning of time and the origin of the Menominee. Story telling had several characteristics that elevated it to an art. Elders accompanied the telling of stories not only with absolute fidelity to the tale as they had heard it, but also when a particular story involved natural, bird, or animal sounds and motions, they dramatically and accurately reproduced them along with gestures where appropriate.
Two illustrations of the ancient method of story telling convey the social sense and critical importance of this philosophy-art. In a summer camp of an evening with the fire banked into a bed of red coals, that fragment of celestial eternity (Grandfather’s fire or the sun), with the stars above stark and white against a black canopy of the heavens, tribal members, youth, and older Menominee, men and women flocked to hear once more exciting legends and stories. They would govern their lives by the principles they contained. At the same time they were witnessing as they participated in the preservation of the tribe as the words flowed forth. The elder began with the ritual opening words.
Another typical method involves a teaching story. After receiving a gift from the youth the story teller required the young person to stand before him so that he or she might focus and listen attentively. When the elder finished he would inquire of the youth: "What does the story mean?" If the youth failed to give the correct meaning, the elder would then re-tell the legend and at the conclusion once again propound the same question as before. The meaning of the story penetrated to the principle of the culture, a point not often obvious in a well told and thrilling story.
Story telling then had this secondary but vital benefit for the tribe. It sharpened the mind. To recount the story properly, an elder had to think; likewise, to listen in the right way, the youth or listener had to think. In the act of telling the story, the elder invigorated the culture; through this method, the life systems kept themselves constantly fresh and flexible.
In summary, the elders became the vitalizing element of the Menominee culture.