Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Morrisseau Legacy missing links (Part III)

The Whetungs of Curve Lake
/Curve Lake First Nation, Ontario CANADA/


 ~ The following text was originally published in June 2000 ~

"Experience the beauty of our history and gain insight to the present during your visit to the Whetung Ojibwa Centre" reads the opening line of the promotional brochure. It is a fitting introduction to a building which houses one of the largest displays of Aboriginal arts and crafts one will ever see in North America. And that’s not all. In an adjacent building, formerly a cattle barn since renovated, is the heart of the operation where hides are prepared, crafts stored, and wholesale orders shipped to national and international clients. Next to the converted barn is a tea shop which serves delicious fried bread (zosgun), herbal teas, wild rice, corn soup and other tasty items. Located in the beautiful Kawartha Lakes Region near Lakefield, Ontario, the Centre stands as a monument to an enterprising family, the Whetungs of Curve Lake.

Entrepreneurship is nothing new to the Whetung family. Although the enterprise has been handed down to Michael Whetung who now owns and manages the Centre, the patriarch responsible for its existence is never far away. Whether tending his beloved flower gardens surrounding the complex, talking with tourists or helping out his son Michael, now-retired Clifford Edward Whetung has remained close to the business. He’ll be 82 years old in September, but he moves around with the energy of a man in his early 60s.

Whetung was born in the community which at that time was called the Mud Lake Indian Reserve. As we sit at the huge communal family table in a 100-year-old home which once housed the Whetung general store, he tells his story. “It was a good life...things were a little more primitive.We had no electricity so everything was done by hand. It was a hunting and fishing situation more than anything.”

The Ojibwa people used to hunt and fish throughout the area until the signing of the Williams Treaty in 1923. It restricted any hunting and fishing to the 1,000 acres of land allotted to them, a peninsula between Curve Lake and Buckhorn Lake.

“We were always entrepreneurs, I think,”Whetung says. “My grandfather who died in 1928 was the original Dan Whetung. He farmed and fished and had a little store.” The store was built with lumber floated over from nearby Jacobs Island, when the New England Company, a trading post, ceased to exist shortly before the signing of the treaty.“The store business in those days provided things that you could not produce yourself such as sugar, flower and tea.”The family slept upstairs over the store.

Five generations of Whetungs have kept the family business growing.Whetung’s father put in cabins which were rented to tourists who came to the area to canoe and fish. They would eat at the main house which also housed the store.When Whetung took over from his aging father, he added arts and crafts. “We started selling a few of the handicrafts that were produced here to a few of the tourists...we eventually got out of the farming business and so converted our just kept evolving.”

Financing was not a problem as Whetung was able to secure a bank loan. “The Royal Bank at Peterborough was not supposed to finance people on Indian reserves. But he (the manager) said “I don’t exactly agree with that policy.” He was more interested in the character of the people he dealt with than in assets for collateral.

Whetung’s life and business partner, his wife Eleanor, is an integral part of the business and is still active in its daily operation. Her first association with Curve Lake was as the public health nurse assigned to the reserve. It was natural that they would meet as the general store also served as a medical dispensary. They have been married for almost 56 years.

The burgeoning summer craft business soon outgrew its location in the store/lodge/family residence. “We decided we had to build a new building...I had the boys cut the logs for the building, we dragged them out, then dug the hole and put them up with the help of a good friend of mine from Peterborough.”Whetung makes clear that they had many people help them along the way. The construction of the Centre is a good example of this. His friend, who is in the structural engineering business, brought an architect to the project. Clifford and Eleanor Whetung were initially alarmed.“I asked him about how much the architect was going to be.” The answer was that his company, Timber Structures, would take on a project every year that they thought would be good for the community. Timber Structures sold them the materials at wholesale prices from their plant in British Columbia.“So they designed it and we put the logs up with a couple of elderly band members who were experienced in the trade.”

The Whetung Ojibwa Centre officially opened in May, 1966. In 1980, a new addition doubled its size.

Today, the Whetungs go to large gift trade shows twice a year, and orders keep coming in from across Canada, Europe and the United States. The art gallery carries the work of well-known artists, such as Norval Morrisseau and Maxine Noel. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of help from other people. We’ve maintained all of the people from the reserve as employees. I don’t think you could
find a better place to live and work than Curve Lake, really! It’s got everything.”

His advice for would-be entrepreneurs? “I would say, do what you think is right and always remember that you only get out of business what you put into it. If you take too much, you’ve got nothing left.”

The Whetung Ojibwa Centre is well worth the visit if you can manoeuvre around the bus tours and the tens of thousands of tourists who gather at this little million-dollar miracle in the woods every summer. A museum chronicling the history of the community and the business is in the making and Clifford or Eleanor Whetung are never far away for a friendly chat. You’ll probably find them in the tea room.

Much more could be added to describe the Centre, but the brochure says it best. “Indian-owned and operated.”

Fred Favel

Source: "Circles of Light" - June 2000

Ref. Link: 

NOTE: Norval Morrisseau lived at Curve Lake First Nation, Ontario from 1979 to 1981 when he rented a house from Clifford and Eleanor Whetung.

>>> Reference posts:
- The Morrisseau Legacy missing links (Part I),
- The Morrisseau Legacy missing links (Part II),
- The Art of Norval Morrisseau in Commercial Art Galleries Around the World (Part XXXI) &
  /Whetung Gallery /Curve Lake First Nation, Ontario CANADA/
Morrisseau's artwork in Auction Houses, Commercial Art Galleries & Museums Around the World.-

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