A Native Celebration
Long Ago and Far Away…
Betsy Turner grew up in small town Ohio and spent summers on Lake Huron in North Ontario. “I looked forward to those trips all year. I saved my money to spend at a store in Little Current, near our cottage. They sold Inuit art, Hudson’s Bay blankets; it was a whole northern experience.”
Little Current is situated on the north shore of Manitoulin Island where over a third of the population are native peoples; modern day descendants of the Ottawa, Potowatamie, and Ojibway. Betsy’s summer trips there inspired a lifelong interest in native culture and tradition. And as with all good stories, there’s more.
As luck or fate would have it, she finally met the handsome chap whose parents owned her favorite store. Founded by Isaac Turner in 1879, the shop was a fixture in Little Current and this handsome chap, Turner’s great-great-grandson Grant.
An MVT Business is Born.
Fast forward several years. The young couple Betsy and Grant try out Vermont. They try out their old hometowns. “It was after those first few years that we decided we wanted to make a longer-term commitment and that’s when the lightbulb went off. We headed back to Manchester.” Inspired by Grant’s family business, and sparked by the couple’s shared appreciation for culture and art, Long Ago & Far Away began.
Among the first items stocked, Inuit sculpture. Paintings. Southwestern Pottery. “We brought some friends out from Taos,” Grant explained. “Dee Dixon was a trader and offered to come out for Columbus Day. He brought a lot of Navajo jewelry with him and while we hadn’t actually considered jewelry as important at the time, we realized that it was a serious point of interest for our new customers.”
Long Ago is curated with distinct areas of focus. Sculpture. Weavings and textiles. Vermont pottery. Art. Jewelry – lots of jewelry. A little Fetish garden. “A fetish is like a totem or a lucky charm for native peoples. You might take along a mountain lion fetish with you if you’re going hunting. An animal with which you have an affinity, you might want to collect.” The fetishes range in price from $6 to $1k, depending on the stone and the quality of the carving, and are a terrific way to begin a collection.
“Generally,” Grant explained, “our store represents people’s connectedness to nature. The sculptural pieces, the polar bears, the birds, the transformative pieces… They remind us that this level of connection exists right now, today, for the many remote cultures. And you can couple that with a little bit of lore and mysticism.”
Betsy pointed us toward an elegant dancer, about fourteen inches tall, carved from a piece of whale rib that had been buried in the sand for hundreds of years. “Native people dance to celebrate and this piece is really special.” She touched on various details, the whalebone, walrus tusk, polar bear fur, and fossilized walrus tusk.
Long Ago is a mosaic of relationships. One connection leads to another. Friends recommend artists to Grant and Betsy, others recommend the gallery to an artist. Plus, G&B are mission-driven, too. “There is a way to be useful as a merchant where you take things from where they’re common to where they are rare. And where you can take creators who are not getting exposure and give it to them. In remote arctic areas, there’s no cash economy. We’re able to work with makers to move their pieces from their small area of the world down here to Manchester. And for the tens of thousands of people we meet who are interested, we can offer a window into that particular culture from that particular, remote place. We try to tie those two worlds together. That’s the path, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Our purpose, too,” (from Betsy) “is to represent artists who are working today. Sometimes there is a preconceived notion that a native arts store is showcasing artifacts but that’s not the case with us. Grant and I invest our energy and dollars in representing living artists, and focus on showcasing their work and supporting them so that they can continue to work and create.”
“In any hunter-gatherer culture, hand skills are vital. Vital for food preparation or making clothing. And excellence is mandatory. If you’re the wife making the clothing that your husband will wear standing on the ice fishing all day, it better be the best to keep him warm. If you’re the husband standing out on the slab, you’d better have the strongest, straightest spear, so you can be sure you catch your dinner.”
“We’ve found that a lot of our artists are not only creative but also masters at every step of the making process. They’re the guy that’s a really good shot, with a sled that’s the very best sled with the best-trained dogs, the four-wheeler that’s always tuned up. “The guy who created a little model of a kayak last winter in hopes to sell it to someone during the summer is also the best fisherman and hunter in town.”
Also, there are simple craft traditions that have become highly collectible down here in the states. “Where I grew up, native women work with birch bark to create vessels and objects, decorated with sweet grass trim and porcupine quills.” These are practical and beautiful. Each one is different than the next.
There are pieces from New Mexico artist Hib Sabin for sale, on display. Sabin carves from Juniper wood, sometimes cast in bronze and painted to finish; the kind of art objects to pique your spiritual curiosity. “The reactions that people have, moved even to tears as they encounter a particular piece that speaks to them, is what has always inspired us to go further down that path, to learn more,” Betsy explained.
“On more than one occasion I’ve pulled out a piece of art and someone has burst into tears. The piece touched something in their soul, which is very cool.”
A Big Anniversary.
“It was a fast thirty years,” they both agree. “It went by in a heartbeat.” The Turners agree it’s great to sell things. But the store is about more than that. “We want to sell things to people who appreciate them. When someone leaves us, even with just the experience where they’ve discovered something new, they’ll look us up next time, they’ll go to a place like ours that’s somewhere else, they’ll tell their friends. And that’s how the whole cycle works. And that’s the reason to keep the door open every day.”
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