The workshop is nothing fancy — a corner kitchen table under a sunny window where a tabby cat naps in a chair, a pot of coffee brews strong and a roast begins to slow cook. It is here Gus Theobald takes his simple tools along with a chunk of pipestone or length of sumac and with an open mind and heart, begins to carve.
The soft pipestone gives way under Theobald’s fingers and tools as a figure starts to take shape.
“I’m never exactly sure what it’ll be,” Theobald said with a smile. “I look at a piece of stone, and I see something. I started this and realized, it’s a turtle. This one was going to be a carving of a woodpecker, but it turned into a pipe.”
The Lac du Flambeau artist and Tribal member has called the area, its woods and lakes, his home for his entire life.
Theobald learned the deep cultural art of making pipes — “opwaagans” — nearly 30 years ago, and it is something precious he has carried with him throughout his years, even when those years were dark and he battled with addiction.
It was when Theobald went into recovery at Lac Courte Oreilles, where he met spirit leader, pipe-maker and instructor Jeremy Smith, that he was first introduced to the art.
“We got to be friends pretty quick,” Theobald recalled. “He asked me if I wanted to make a pipe. I said, ‘Sure.’ Jeremy was very instrumental in teaching me how to carve.”
The primary carving rock is pipestone, or “opwaaganasin,” which is a type of red, carvable rock mostly used by Native Americans for pipes and effigies and other cultural arts. It is only found in a few places in the world — including Wisconsin and Minnesota. Accenting the pipes also can be sumac, often collected from nearby woods. All materials are gathered with offerings of tobacco and prayers to the spirit of that source, Theobald relayed.
The art of pipe-making has helped Theobald heal his own body and spirit, and it is an art he took home with him after he left recovery to return to his home roots.
Pipe-carving is an art that began thousands of years ago, origins so old, no one is exactly sure where it began in the Native American lines, Theobald indicated. Some in existence are at least 500 years old.
“They are passed down, some people are buried with their pipes,” Theobald said. “It was thousands of years ago the pipe came to the people. Great spirit gifted the Aniishnaabe people with the pipe to help offer prayers of giving thanks for all that is provided.”
The practice of pipe-carving gives Theobald a sense of peace and meditation as he works, allowing him time to quietly think, feel and consider how his ancestors once lived and thrived right here in the Northwoods.
“All of our people, all of our ancestors, were busy, busy people,” Theobald said. “They had to stay working to make a living and get by. So they made things, and they traded. That’s what I like to do, too.”
Theobald will trade a pipe or fish for something such as tobacco or wild rice or other handcrafted arts.
“What we’re doing all over is creating cultural things and creating. It’s not going to make you rich, but you are picking up what your ancestors did, and in that process, you are making and using something that means something,” Theobald said.
‘It will help you’
Having found the practice so helpful to himself, Theobald wants to continue to pass along that art to others who need it.
“I want to tell and teach young people we have a number of cultural things here, and you can use them to stay on a good way,” Theobald said.
He has taught the art of pipe-making to youth in the community as well as other area communities in addition to those serving time in incarceration.
“I say, ‘Pick this up and learn; it will help you.’ I like to let people know there are ways to get back to a good and sober road. By picking up crafts, by doing what our people have been taught, we can help youth stay on those good roads,” Theobald said. “It’s good to see the young people learn and be immersed in the culture … It keeps our ancestors alive. You are doing what your grandpa’s grandpa did, or your grandma’s grandma. What you give is what you get.”
In his teachings, Theobald tells learners to relax and enjoy the process, to let the art come to them.
“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, you don’t have to get it done fast,” Theobald said. “Shape it slowly, put yourself into it. What they are making will show how they feel about their self and what they are making. Just come together, become one with the art. A lot of people (in recovery) don’t feel good about themselves. It takes a lot to say ‘I need help.’ People are so down in life from the drinking and the drugging, they hit rock bottom. I was there. So now, I try to help folks stay sober and away from that. I just want people to know there other ways than the bad ones. It’s all about helping those young folks.”
Theobald is a well-rounded artist. Besides being a “mookodaasowinini,” or carver, he also enjoys making fish decoys — an art he began when he was in about the eighth grade — as well as hand drums and sweat lodges.
“We have a good number of carvers here in Lac du Flambeau,” Theobald observed. “I’m proud to be one of them.”
Theobald currently works for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin Tribe in the culture and healing program.
“We use cultural approaches for those folks in alcohol and drug recovery,” Theobald explained. “When I see someone with a pipe they’ve made, I say, ‘I’m so glad to see you are using that.’ It’s good to see young people doing these things, and I’m glad people are still utilizing the cultural arts to help heal.”
In his spare time, Theobald enjoys time with his family, pets, hunting and fishing.