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Historical role-playing teaches lessons about the peninsula’s past

May 20, 2012
By JOHANNA BOYLE - Journal Ishpeming Bureau ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - Time travel might not be your typical elementary school field trip experience, but kids from across Marquette County are getting to do just that this spring thanks to a role playing program through the Marquette Regional History Center.

A year in the planning process, the museum's fur trading unit is designed to teach third graders about the Upper Peninsula in the late 1600s, when French voyageurs arrived and began trading with the native Ojibwa peoples, exchanging European manufactured items for food and furs.

"It gets them really doing a hands-on thing, putting themselves in a place," said museum educator Betsy Rutz. "I feel like the interaction with the items and the people, the mood of the time travel, and also the permission to pretend and play is very effective."

Article Photos

Marquette Regional History Center museum educator Betsy Rutz welcomes Jim Maki’s Aspen Ridge Elementary School third-grade class to the museum Wednesday. Kids from local elementary schools are getting the chance to step back in time at the center this spring, thanks to a fur trading program. The kids learn about the Upper Peninsula in the late 1600s by taking on the roles of French voyageurs and native Ojibwa peoples, trading goods for animal skins — primarily beaver pelts. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)

The program splits classes into two sections, one taking on the roles of the voyageurs and the other the Ojibwa. Each group receives names and pieces of clothing appropriate for their roles.

They then learn the ins and outs of trading by exchanging replicas of historical items like metal pots, jewelry and weapons for furs and food, led by adult volunteers.

Within each group, kids take on roles that would be needed in the real trading sessions. For example, the voyageurs have leaders, who bring gifts to the Ojibwa chiefs - tobacco and a felt top hat and then act as negotiators. Two other "voyageurs" take the roles of assistant clerks, who record the trades and prices for the different items.

The trade itself takes place in the museum's main exhibit gallery, which includes a trading post, to help the kids get into the act.

"It's neat we get to use our trading post for actual trading," Rutz said.

Following the trade, the kids get to take part in a variety of activities, including porcupine quill embroidery, using real porcupine quills and birch bark.

"We do fairly simple designs," said volunteer Beth Gruber. "We use awls to poke holes in the birch bark. This is how they (Native Americans) decorated a lot of items before they had the voyageurs come with beads."

Although the fur trading program is designed specifically for third grade classes, families can have the chance to try their hand at trading during Voyageur Days, set for Saturday, May 26 at the museum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Families will have the chance to go through the same trading program as the classes, along with seeing demonstrations of Ojibwa life and culture, live music and workshops. Voyageur Days is available with regular admission to the museum.

Also, from May 21-26, local artisans Jan Zender and Rochelle Dale will be at the museum constructing a birch bark canoe using traditional methods, which visitors can check out free of charge.

Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is



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