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Fall Arts Preview - The Mapmaker's Eye 

by Kevin Taylor & r & At first glance, the journal entry -- scratched onto the page possibly with homemade ink and a quill made from a local goose or swan's feather -- is a straightforward pay list of goods and supplies fur trader and explorer David Thompson was issuing to his trappers. But a longer look at the page of looped handwriting and faded ink shows much more, says local historian and author Jack Nisbet: "There are revelations on it."


Book after book of revelations will appear in Spokane on Oct. 8, when the original journals from Thompson's travels around what is now Spokane and North Idaho will anchor a major 11-month exhibit, "The Mapmaker's Eye," at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture. In addition to the journals, original paintings and sketches of this area by Paul Kane, Henry James Warre, Karl Bodmer and Gustavus Sohon are part of the display. Although they came decades after Thompson, the four artists depicted many places Thompson had been and the same Indian tribes Thompson had visited.


The MAC will display items from its extensive collection of artifacts from Columbia Plateau tribes -- many, such as conical bear grass hats, are depicted in the paintings and sketches.


Sextants and other survey tools of the type used by Thompson have been borrowed from the Smithsonian. (Thompson had to pawn his own gear near the end of his life.) The Ontario Archives are sending reproductions of the massive maps -- some are six feet tall by 10 feet wide -- that Thompson made of the Inland Northwest areas he traveled.


"Spokane is the perfect place to have this exhibit," says Nisbet, who published Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across North America in 1994. Nisbet has been working for a decade on a second volume (to be published next month).


"Thompson was here five years. His crew has been here for nine generations," Nisbet says. "Everything changed when he came."


Which takes us back to the pay list. Some items on the list, such as "two steel traps" per man, are to be expected, Nisbet says. But what about black silk handkerchiefs, cotton shirts, corduroy pants and belts with red striping?


"These guys weren't trappers. They were downtown," Nisbet says.


The trappers in question are five Iroquois free hunters -- Baptiste, Pierre, Martin, Ignace and Jaque -- that Thompson had sent for from back East.


This is part of the revelation. Unlike his contemporaries, Lewis and Clark, Thompson spent the better part of 25 years among Columbia Plateau Indians as he worked for the Halliburtons of his day -- the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company.


Though he is remembered most often as an explorer, Thompson was a businessman, interested in obtaining beaver pelts to keep all the highbrow heads of Europe covered in high-fashion hats.


Despite his best efforts, members of the tribes around here -- Kootenai, Kalispel, Spokanes -- just didn't desire to spend an entire winter amassing stinky beaver pelts. Some, sure. When it was handy.


"He came to understand," says Nisbet, "that they didn't get commercial-level thinking, [they didn't get] that the entire economy of Canada was fueled by beaver pelts." Instead, Nisbet continues, "They would go out, trap, then come back and dance like they have always done in winter to spiritually renew themselves in a way many white men cannot understand. Thompson certainly didn't understand it."


So Thompson sent for the Iroquois, members of a tribe that had already spent 200 years assimilating with European culture. The five free hunters knew the difference in status between silk and cotton and wool. Their clothing was meant to show them off as dashing, as elites -- 19th century bling.


There are many families here who can trace their ancestry back to these five. And the whole spool of assimilation, of French Jesuits, begins to unspool from this fading page in a journal.


"And I don't mean sort of. I mean it unspools from this pay list," Nisbet says.


The revelation, the recognition, that things today are tied directly to things 200 years ago is represented in images as well as words. The painters whose original works are coming to the MAC were the photojournalists of their day. Their works are not just art, but were highly detailed transmissions of information. And as such, they are a treasure, Nisbet says.


A Warre painting shows a Kalispel fishing camp on an island in the Pend Oreille River. The island, among many now submerged by the Box Canyon Dam, is believed to be just off the present-day Usk Bridge, which connects the towns of Usk and Cusick with the Kalispel Reservation on the eastern bank. It is a bucolic scene with distinctive sturgeon-nosed canoes at the bank. Behind are pole-frame dwellings, some covered in tule mats, others by skins. Behind those are buffalo-hide tepees in a Plains style.


It shows we can't think of the Kalispel, or any tribe, as living in a vacuum. The painting clearly shows there were trade networks, travel to distant hunting areas, and the possibility that someone was having Flathead cousins over for a visit.


By extension, "The Mapmaker's Eye" will show that we don't live in a vacuum. The stories told back then never died; they've just moved to later chapters.

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