Pamela Hovland

Reflecting on Minnesota Woman discovery near Pelican, writer ponders the ‘survival’ items carried thousands of years ago–and what we hold in journeys of today

By Pamela Hovland, Guest contributor 

A turtle carapace. A wolf’s tooth. A dagger made from an elk’s horn. A conch shell fragment from the Gulf of Mexico.

These are the objects found near the skeletal remains believed to be one of the earliest human beings to have lived on the North American continent. The prehistoric young woman and her assorted possessions were found in 1931, about a mile north of Pelican Rapids during repair work to Highway 59. 

This year marks the 90th anniversary of this important archaeological discovery and, thanks to local volunteers, Pelican Rapids will host a number of events to celebrate the occasion.

The mysterious young woman was given the honorary name ‘Nimuué’ or ‘Lady of the Lake.’ She is believed to have lived up to 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch when this area of Minnesota was a large glacial lake. Because of the way Nimuué’s bones and possessions were found, one theory is that she may have died by drowning, either by breaking through thin ice or by falling off a log or crude raft.

There are so many unanswered questions: 

Who was Nimuué? 

Where did her journey here begin? Was she traveling alone? 

Why did she choose to carry those objects? 

What events took place that pushed her remains ten feet below the surface? 

What else might we find if we took another look at that area, just north of town?

Reading about Nimuué reminded me of a woman I met a few decades ago during a week-long hiking adventure in the southern California desert. Vicki was an outdoors enthusiast who sported Birkenstocks and a perennial tan resulting from significant time in the great outdoors. She was also thoughtful, spiritual and one of the most intense listeners I have ever met. Her native American face (Lakota, as I recall) had laugh lines that gathered up like fine cotton cloth at the corners of her eyes, implying that a smile was her default facial expression. Vicki had an undeniable aura.  

Every evening, all of the hikers in our small group gathered for what we called ‘last lights’ – a time to regroup after a long day, check for blisters and compare water supplies before the day’s sun was no longer available to guide us back to our sleeping bags. We talked and laughed but we mostly just listened to the howls of wolves in the hills and stared at the 180 degree expanse of sky full of (often shooting) stars.

During one long period of collective silence, I watched Vicki take from her pocket a small crocheted pouch with leather strings that wrapped around several times before being tied tightly shut. I was amazed she had managed to fit anything but the most critical survival supplies into her backpack. (I didn’t have a square centimeter of extra room in mine.) Then I watched her carefully untie the pouch and pour the contents into her cupped hand.

Vicki explained that this was her ‘medicine bag.’ It consisted mostly of fragments, ambiguous in form and quite meaningless to anyone but her — a piece of a tortoise shell found during a challenging chapter in her life, a rock smoothed from fast-running water by a favorite river, a lost-but-now-found amulet given to her by a former lover. The objects themselves weren’t valuable; it was what they symbolized, as well as her desire to share their stories that mattered. These were cherished possessions because they had the power to cure most ailments, Vicki explained. Her well curated collection was ‘medicine’ culled over decades of travel both far and near; medicine made mostly from the earth. And she didn’t go anywhere without it.

Both Nimuué and Vicki have inspired me to think about what we carry with us in 2021 and what those choices signify. A pocket knife. A comb. A driver’s license. A wedding ring. Cash. Keys. Matches. Lipstick. Cell phone.

My late father never left the house without a toothpick and a one hundred dollar bill, neatly folded in his brown leather wallet. My husband always carries gum. (He has recently added his vaccination card and Minnesota fishing license to his jeans pocket.) My son says he feels naked without at least a few braided leather or rope bracelets on his left wrist. And I rarely go anywhere without a small black journal and my favorite black Uni-ball Micro pen, as inspiration can strike anywhere and anytime. 

How about you? 

What do you carry? 

And what story could be conjured up in 20,000 years based on the objects you choose?

Celebrating Minnesota Woman discovery, Pelican’s multicultural heritage June 18-19

Tickets for Fair Hills Resort dinner event, MN Woman theater event available at various businesses 

“A Bridge from the Past to the Future: Glacial Minnesota Woman and the International Friendship Festival” includes many different events celebrating the history of Minnesota Woman, June 18-19.

• “Adventure North” dinner and program, featuring modern day voyageurs and their experiences paddling to Hudson Bay. June 18 at Fair Hills Resort on Pelican Lake. Buffet style dinner, ribs and chicken. For information contact Phletus Williams, 218-863-5388. Dinner tickets available at Bell Bank in Pelican Rapids, Pelican Rapids Press office, Birchwood Golf, Envy Salon, Riverview Place and Muddy Moose. 

• The Glacial Minnesota Woman exhibit at the Pelican Rapids Library has given 14 artists the opportunity to try to imagine the post glacial world in which Minnesota Woman lived and perhaps to illustrate some understanding of the real woman who died near Pelican Rapids. The exhibit continues through June. 

• The multicultural celebration “Friendship Festival” is all day on June 19, at Sherin Park in Pelican Rapids. Featuring ethnic performers, and music and foods of the world. 

• Original theatrical production recounting the discovery of “Minnesota Woman” at the Pelican Rapids High School auditorium, 7 p.m. June 19. Tickets available at the door and advance tickets at Bell Bank in Pelican Rapids, Pelican Rapids Press office, Birchwood Golf, Envy Salon, Riverview Place and Muddy Moose 

Events are organized by the Pelican Multicultural Committee and the Glacial Minnesota

 Woman Organization.