Robertson has been key to several cultural projects in the area
Recently, while Robertson sat in his small office in the 130-year-old building that houses the Cultural Center, the white walls displayed colorful paintings by renowned wildlife artist John House. A few feet away, a large display of artistic fish decoys was arrayed on tables and a group of frog decoys from a Perham artisan was on display in a box. In the front of the Center an employee greeted visitors in the gift shop. It was the perfect picture of an art gallery.
“We’re not just an art gallery,” Robertson said.
To prove his point a group of youngsters thundered by on their way upstairs to a puppet making work shop. They’d been working for two weeks to get ready for the New York Mills sixth annual Kalavela Puppet Pageant.
“Art is part of culture, but culture is broader,” Robertson said.
As part of the puppet pageant, children from New York Mills and Wadena have the opportunity to work for two weeks under the direction of puppet artist and professional stiltwalker Anne Sawyer-Aitch. Sawyer-Aitch teaches the children how to make amazing 6-foot-tall puppets that include a skateboarding witch and a bear on stilts. It’s a wonderful opportunity for children, along with a few adults, to discover and enhance their artistic skills. But, since the story they enacted was a Finnish epic poem, the children also learned stories from their ancestors’ native land.
Robertson is proud of the fact that the Cultural Center isn’t a gallery set on an artistic ivory tower apart from the community and it’s culture of today. While teaching ancient Finnish mythology, the center is also an integral part of life in 21st century New York Mills culture.
“The puppet show comes after a community sweet corn feed sponsored by the New York Mills Civic and Commerce Association,” Robertson said. “It’s free. It’s their way of saying ‘thank you’ to the community for their support over the last year.”
Food is an important part of a rich culture that includes visual art and mythical stories, according to Robertson. That’s why the Cultural Center – sponsored New York Mills Farmers Market was set up right along side the free corn feed site.
Each of the last 23 years a question has been posed by a committee made up of the men and women of New York Mills. Once posed, the question is sent out to the larger world to respond to.
“We ask people to respond by writing an essay,” Robertson said. “We choose four finalists to come to New York Mills and present their essays. The audience questions them and talks among themselves and finally votes. This year love won out over fear.”
The Great American Think Off is “for common men and women who prove that great thoughts are not the sole province of scholars and philosophers, but also of dentists and housewives, students and artists,” the Star Tribune wrote prior to the 2012 Think Off.
It was that idea of common men and women being responsible for the development and preservation of their own culture and art that drew Jamie Robertson and his family to the Cultural Center in the first place. He had left his job teaching at Ogallala Lakota Tribal College (now known as the Ogallala Lakota College) on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to come to Wadena County to farm. He wanted to raise sheep and farm with horses.
“I don’t know why I always try and do things the hard way,” he said, referring to his brief stint working the land with horses.
As Jamie and his wife, Sally, were working to create a life on their farm in Leaf River Township, north of Wadena, John Davis and other visionaries in the New York Mills area were imagining what a small town regional arts and cultural center might be like. When they launched their project the Robertsons were among the early members.
Over the years, prior to becoming executive director at the Cultural Center, Robertson had a number of jobs that helped develop his thinking about what local rural culture was. As he began to move away from farming Jamie took a position as a planner at the Region 5 Development Council in Staples. When a planning position opened up with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibway in Cass Lake, Jamie’s experience at the tribal college in South Dakota, along with his experience at Region 5, made him a perfect fit. So, he began making the long commute from the Leaf River Township farm to Cass Lake every day.
One of Robertson’s projects as a planner was to investigate the possibility of a program to sell traditional and wild-crafted foods. While doing so he learned first hand about the deep cultural significance of community feasts and food, such as wild rice, maple syrup and whitefish.
“These foods are central to the culture and can be harvested by anyone,” he said. It was an accidental encounter that led to what he describes as one of his most important and satisfying accomplishments.
“I was sitting in a café one day, and I heard this guy say something about a tribal college,” Robertson recalls. “I thought that was neat so I went over and introduced myself to him.”
The guy was Larry Aitkin. Aitkin eventually became president of Leech Lake Tribal College and is now considered one of the tribe’s most eminent historians. But at that café table that day the tribal college was no more than a vague notion talked about over a cup of coffee. Robertson’s experience at Ogallala Lakota Tribal College was an important element that allowed the college to move from a notion to a reality.
“Today they have a beautiful new campus with programs for associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in a number of areas,” Robertson said.
But the path from coffee cup to new campus involved delving deeply into an understanding of the different ways Ojibway people and people from the majority culture learn.
“We had to become accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Accrediting Agency before we could offer degrees in anything,” Robertson said. “To receive accreditation we had to teach courses using the methods of the majority culture, but we still had to respect Ojibway culture and ways of learning. Sometimes it was like walking a tightrope.”
Robertson eventually became dean of instruction at the college but the long-term goal was for administration and instruction to be done by the tribe. After 12 years at Leech Lake, Robertson worked himself out of a job.
“The college still has a lot of white instructors, but they have come a long way,” he said. “I’m very proud of what we accomplished.”
His main project over the next year will be to work with the Board of Directors of the New York Mills Cultural Center to pass the center on to a new executive director and to prepare it to be a meaningful resource for people now in their twenties.
“I plan on stepping down next July,” Robertson, who was born in 1946, said. “Our audiences and participants are getting older. We need to figure out what young people want and to provide that for them.”
Robertson said he is encouraged by the steady stream of young people that are returning to their rural roots after having a taste of urban culture. Some of them have come, in part, because the Cultural Center is there.