July 24, 2013

Night Train / Red Dust

About the project:

Night Train/ Red Dust began as a quest for my grandparents' stories. I grew up on the Vermilion Trail, also known as Highway 4, the road that runs through the Lake Superior National Forest, through the community of Island Lake, and to the Iron Range.  I learned this road was the original route to Lake Vermilion, and it was used since 1000 AD (by the Woodland Indian tribes whose burial mounds are found near Lake Esquagama). There is evidence of early mining among the Woodland Indians. In 1856, gold prospectors came to Lake Vermilion. The gold was there, but too difficult to extract from the quartz. Then iron ore was discovered. Around the small town of Biwabik (population 1500), the town where I went to elementary and high school, ten iron ore mines were working by the early 1900s and trains ran the length and breadth of the region.   

My grandparents came to upper Michigan and Minnesota's Iron Range in the early 1900s. Out of curiosity, I began to look at the community of the Iron Range when they arrived. The Iron Range culture was unique and similar to that of New York City because of the great diversity of cultures.There were nearly 40 languages spoken. Economic development happened fast, beginning a pattern of boom and bust common to many mining communities. 

As a result, I've created a narrative that uses historical research to tell my story along with the stories of many women who were instrumental to the Iron Range community from 1900 onward. These include Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, union organizer for the IWW; Meridel LeSueuer, journalist and writer; Charles and Mary Bray, doctors in Biwabik; Native Americans (Ojibwe and the earlier culture of Woodland Indians who created the burial mounds near Esquagama Lake); Rev. Milma Lappala, Unitarian minister; women miners in WWII; Finnish immigrant stories; Sigurd Olson, naturalist; the founders of the Mesaba Co-op Park; and others. These people were influential to many.  Flynn became one of the founders of the ACLU. This project has taught me so much about the place that I grew up, and in writing poems and stories, I hope to help others experience the strength of our roots. Some of my research can be viewed online at http://www.scoop.it/t/vermilion-trail/

Night Train / Red Dust performance is a sampling of a larger manuscript. These women's stories, so often lost or forgotten, are the inspiration of this work. The earlier stories of the progressive politics form a strong foundation for my own story. I came of age in the 1970s, in the era of civil rights, feminism, and gay rights.  

In this project, I began with family documents, and then I went to the Iron Range Resource Center.  The IRRC is a rich archive that provides excellent primary sources for writers.  As a poet, fiction writer, and essayist, I have visited the archive to listen to oral histories and browse through the materials.  I needed to dig a little deeper in order to find the stories of women.  Too often, these stories are not recorded or given much attention. The staff were very helpful, and they helped me find information. I found the photograph collection particularly meaningful, and some photographs of women miners became the inspiration to create stories.  http://www.ironrangeresearchcenter.org/rc5/women_at_work.htm

One of my grandmother's story was one of walking through domestic violence. She also had to contend with my grandfather's alcoholism.  The culture of the Iron Range is working class: men's work was arduous and physically dangerous, and it was not different for women. 

Rights for women were hard won and cannot be taken for granted. Women's bodies are not just their own; men, churches, states, governments and other groups continue to assert ownership and/or strictures. In order to become independent, a woman must confront these concerns. The women's stories I found renew my own strength.  

Mining interests and environmental issues are often in conflict. The goal of maximum profit can negatively impact quality of life.  It is a "double-edged sword."  The economic development of the area comes at a cost.  People on the Iron Range have a greater risk of mesothelioma, a lethal lung cancer often associated with asbestos. Taconite fibers are similar to those of asbestos. 

Right now, these tensions have flared again as the prospect of copper mines. Those who want to preserve the beautiful lake country have found themselves dealing with powerful corporate interests who push forward with the development of more mines.  

The mining companies at the turn of the century proved themselves to work against the interests of their employees; we shall soon see another wave of development, and I hope that fairness, environmental protection, and balance can be attained. As a friend told me, "We consumers contribute to the pressure. Everytime we buy an iPhone, iPad, or computer, we drive the need to acquire more minerals." 

The issues are complex. Creation of jobs and technologies are correlated with the destruction of the environment. Can we consume less? Can we get accountability from the corporations? Can the legislators act in the best interest of the people who live in these regions? Now is not the time to "tune out" or assume that others will address these questions on our behalf. We all need to participate in the information seeking and decision-making.  

Another important aspect of Night Train Red Dust and my creative work is the ongoing collaborative performance work I do with my life partner, Kathy McTavish. Because Minnesota has voted for marriage equality in 2013, we will be wed in August. She is a cellist, composer, video artist and software architect. We both are passionately engaged in creative work and push each other to deepen our art and find new ways to explore and share our work and sustain ourselves.  If you are curious about our projects, please visit: www.wildwoodriver.com and www.cellodreams.com

This project has received funding support from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council with money from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Fund and the McKnight Foundation.

postcard photograph by Magic Box Photography

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