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Jim Banks

James Banks Photo

Jim Banks: It was His Country

By Harvey Broome

Ober managed to get Jim Banks to guide a short canoe trip in September 1956. The group included leaders and families involved with the Wilderness Society. In an article written that year by Harvey Broome, President of the Wilderness Society for a time, Jim Banks appears as an important character. Harvey expresses deep respect for his skills and his knowledge of the northland. Here are selected excerpts shared in memory of Jim who died a year ago last month:

“Jim Banks was reserved. He husbanded his words. His face was similar to that of some Mexican Indians I have seen. It was slim and dark, with flashing black eyes. There was no flaunting of his strength or his competence. He launched the first canoe and packed it, and I joined him as bow paddler. Enroute he spotted a mink, used one word to call it to my attention, and then twisted and turned the canoe until the creature was almost under me—looking up with terror in its eyes before it dived.

“I did not know how far we had to go. I felt awkward; and self-consciously felt I was being weighed in the balances of the north country. Perhaps I was. I asked Jim to criticize my paddling. ‘You do all right,’ he said.

“<Later, on land> another storm was coming. Jim said, ‘It will rain again.’ And then I felt at home. How many times have I put up a tent against the rain in the Smokies! I unrolled our mountain tent, showed Jim how to fit the stakes together, and before the others arrived we had our tent up…

“The next morning we readied our canoes for a trip up Crackshot, into Whitewater, and perhaps on to Eagle Lake.

“When he slid his canoe into the lake, Ober said to Jim, ‘Who’s going with you?’ Jim said, ‘I take Harvey.’ And my heart jumped that those restless timeless eyes had seen me. What a curious thing that I should secretly glory in his favor…

“I should like to think that some of my pleasure came from recognition of the oneness of this Indian boy with his environment. Perhaps, though changed as it is, he felt more at ease here, more at home, than any city people ever feel under the demands and tubs and stresses of complex urban life.

“He of course brushed white civilization on every hand. He spoke our tongue. Back on Rainy Lake he operated an outboard motor. He was paid in money. He wore white people’s clothing, and when his shoes got wet, he even donned Bean boots.

“But this was his country. He was too young to have known it at its best except by the stories of his elders, but, wrecked and impoverished as it is, he felt at home.

Here was simplicity, here the exaltation and resultant weariness of hard work. Here people drew together around the cook fire. Here everyone worked to a common purpose. Indian life had been like that, and he perhaps enjoyed our stumbling and fleeting imitation.

“Going up the lake, <Jim> always cut corners. He would hold close to every point—always safely out. He said once in one of the few remarks he volunteered, ‘I like to paddle close to the shore.’ Here were the trim spruces, the ragged cedars, careless firs and bunchy pine. Here the multicolored lichens and mosses, the flush of the blueberry bushes, the flash of the eagles. Here was the detail—the open book—which Jim loved, and which he read with a discernment lost to us.”

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James Banks, O-Zhaa-Wish-Gobii-Taan, died September 20, 2012. Jim worked for and with Oberholtzer on Mallard Island for several summers during the 1950s. He and Frances Andrews were also very good friends. Nancy Jones (Ogimaawigwanebiik) is his sister. Jim taught several Canadian gardeners the details of Mallard’s historical garden spaces. His energy remains part of the island.