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A Tale of Friendship

Iverson brothers reveal their grandfather’s unique relationship with a Native American shaman in their book “Hunters and Hearts.”

It would have been easy for brothers Jim, John and Steve Iverson to publish a book about their grandfather Emil Iverson: a well-documented Danish ice hockey player and ice skater, one-time coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, world traveler and explorer of the Minnesota/Ontario wilderness, avid outdoorsman, and a pioneering educator of women, children and the disabled.

With a background like that – and boxes full of photos, newspaper clippings and journals documenting his career – Iverson’s story alone would have made for a fascinating memoir. But his grandchildren – who since childhood, listened intently as their father Ivey  retold tales of his father’s expeditions – knew such a book would not be complete without the story of his friendship with a man named Two Rivers.

Two Rivers was an elder shaman of the First Nation Ojibwa people and believed to be the last remaining member of his band. The Ojibwa were known for being great warriors and are storied to have driven the Sioux to the Great Plains. Iverson employed him as a guide at his Minnesota outfitter Iverson Outdoor Life. This kindred spirit to Iverson, however, would become everything from a father figure to Iverson to a caretaker of his children.

“Because Emil’s Viking heritage and belief in woodland spirits was much like that of Two Rivers and his Ojibwa people, they found they had much in common,” Jim said. “This was very unusual for a white man to say the least.”

In 1926, Two Rivers told Iverson about his former village in a remote area within the Minnesota/Ontario wilderness where many perished from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Others would be forced onto reservations by the Canadian government so the land could became part of the National Park system – an expulsion Two Rivers refused.

With Two Rivers’ blessing and guidance, Iverson set out on a 1927 expedition with a group of men where, after an often treacherous journey, they discovered the remains of 50 tribespeople. Native artifacts, muskets, eroded dwellings and other evidence of a once-thriving village were found. “After discovering the village, he made sure the dead got the proper burial rites and brought back many artifacts,” Jim said. “This was significant at a time when many denied these people’s existence.”

For his efforts and continued advocacy, Iverson became well respected by the Ojibwa and was given a ceremonial drum and the tribal name “Chief of Big Waters.” The bodies proved once and for all that the size and scope of the village was much larger than previously thought. The group’s movie and photos of the expedition were shown to President Calvin Coolidge to help preserve the Quetico and Boundary Waters area. “Hunters and Hearts” tells this story in detail.

“The goal of the story is to pay respect to our grandfather while drawing attention to the plight of Native Americans,” Jim said.

‘Hunters and Hearts’: The Back Story

“Hunters and Hearts” captures Iverson and Two Rivers’ friendship using a decade’s worth of research, including journals and oral history handed down from generation to generation, 30 years worth of travels into the region and investigations using museum archives.

“In the process of researching this book, some of the best insight into the Ojibwa culture came from discussions with Rose Berens – the drumkeeper and executive director of the Bois Fort Heritage Museum in Lake Vermilion, Minn.,” John said.

Facts mixed with folklore and legends make for a compelling book that can be read by chapter as short stories or sequentially.

“In the book, we meld ancient folklore into the actual story of the native and white settlers who had once inhabited the Minnesota/Ontario  border  region  centuries  ago,”  John  said,  “combining
the spirit wisdom of the earth with the sound reasoning of the modern era.”

“Hunters and Hearts” is also a reflection of the relationship between its authors. Jim, John and Steve, three of seven siblings reared in Deerfield, Ill., relied on their personal strengths to complete the book. John, now based in California, credits his background in the military, survival training and flexible schedule for allowing him to make trips to the Minnesota wilderness for research. He also restores and sells fossils and has written three screenplays.

It was John’s idea to describe the history of the Ojibwa people using the narrative of humans, spirits, the elements and animals. For example, the Raven Spirit Guide appears throughout the book, serving as a protector of Two Rivers from birth to death.

“John is the creative one – he brings a different perspective to the project,” Jim said.

Jim, who lives in Cary with his family and works fulltime as the general sales manager at Schaumburg Audi, brought his knack for historical research to the table, often pulling late nights after work at the dealership to piece together facts that comprise the backbone of the story.

In their research, the brothers have largely received enthusiastic support from historical societies, Native American groups, museums and universities.

A Storied Childhood

The Iversons’ earliest memories of this family legend include a ceremonial drum from the 1800s that hung in the Iversons’ childhood living room, playing “Cowboys and Indians” with real artifacts, coupled with their father’s tales of their grandpa and Two Rivers. The drum is said by the Ojibwa to be a living thing and the gathering place for spirits, dreams and visions.

“We took the tales for granted when we were kids,” Jim said, figuring, at the time, that certainly every family has such stories. “It wasn’t until we saw the photo album of the expedition that we realized, ‘This is true,’” Jim said.

Their father “tells us new stories even today,” he added.

And even though the family has always remained connected to the Minnesota wilderness through camping, hiking, canoeing and fishing near their grandfather’s stomping grounds, it wasn’t until 10 years ago that the brothers decided to take their pursuit to the next level.

“We gathered journals, photo albums, newspaper articles – everything we could find,” John said, noting his grandfather’s belongings were spread among family members from coast to coast.

“This project has brought all seven siblings closer together,” John said, adding sister Anne and brothers Tom, Mike and Emil all contributed much to the development and research of the book.

“I think our grandpa would be very proud of us [for creating this book],” Jim said, especially because it is a lesson in tolerance of other cultures and religions as much as it is a tale of friendship.

The Iversons said they are grateful for growing up in a home that encouraged interest in Native American culture, fossil collecting, anthropology, storytelling and exploration, and are proud to share their account with others through “Hunters and Hearts.”

Today, the Iversons are seeking a publisher for their book and – after many trips to the Minnesota/Ontario wilderness – said they are closing in on where they believe their grandfather found the Ojibwa remains and artifacts, an area not likely traveled since
his 1928 expedition.

The Iverson brothers can be reached at james-iverson@sbcglobal.net.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Turning Leaves” of the book “Hunters and Hearts,” by Jim, John and S. Moyer Iverson:

In the early mornings Two Rivers could swear he was able to see his ancestors standing on a distant shoreline – across the lake, laughing, mending nets, and singing. He had given up the foolish act of paddling out and attempting to join the merriment of his ghostly tribe, because trying to approach his people would turn them into smoke, easily lost in the pale flaps of whiteness hanging off the birch trees. Blaming the mirage on his bad vision was more sensible.

The Ghost Tribe’s disappearance left only speculation behind, “have my wishes become illusions?” Two Rivers questioned.

So in harmony was Two Rivers to the spirit world, that he did not need a translator for him to understand the earth-song and the emerald-notes, ringing up through the rocks and over the water, “on this day your Niboowin has come.”

The whispering breeze – shaking the last of the leaves from the trees, chimed in and made the message undeniably clear. On this day he was armed with nature’s affirmations and morning visions, enabling him to foresee his death, making him confident that he was about to revisit his ancestors.

“I have no fear and am rather anxious to see my Ojibwa brothers and sisters; most of all the ones who had been driven from their lodges at gunpoint and those who had died of the Spanish Flu epidemic so many years ago.”

He recalled the memory of the sick villagers, stricken from disease, clutching themselves in pain. Nearly every last one of them had died and remained unburied for many years. No rituals or ceremonies were given to put their spirits at peace. That is … until his friend, a white man, had led an expedition – ten winters later, to find the lost village. His white brother proved once and for all the size and scope of his village – against all government denials. The white man had also had the ability to hear the spirits of the woodland and could call on their wisdom.

Two Rivers said the white man’s name in a hushed voice, “Emil Iverson.” Then he said the Ojibwa name given to the man, “Chief of Big Waters.”

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