Paul Bunyan and Settler Nostalgia in the Northwoods

Two people stand in front of a giant statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Ox.

Across the Northwoods, a geography that spans the U.S.–Canada border, stories are used to make and claim space. They are tools of placemaking. Throughout northern Minnesota, legends of Paul Bunyan, the fictional giant lumberjack, have been used to claim space. These tales assert Paul Bunyan as an oversized lumberjack who, with his trusty companion Babe the Blue Ox, altered the landscape through his heft and ax alike. Though we focus on the Northwoods, the fabled Paul Bunyan has been credited with creating Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon while simultaneously logging millions of acres of forests. From numerous roadside statues to Paul Bunyan Land, to the Paul Bunyan Historical Museum, to the Paul Bunyan Water Park, to the Paul Bunyan State Trail, he is everywhere. His overwhelming presence and visibility expose the ways settler nostalgia informs public memory, past and present.

Paul Bunyan’s mythical connections to place(s), as seen in these settler colonial contexts across the U.S., are outgrowths of German settler nostalgia. He acts as a cultural connector, linking a celebrated history of logging across the Northwoods to the spread of German forestry. Through this lens, we consider the ways Paul Bunyan stories establish settler belonging across Indigenous homelands while simultaneously contributing to Indigenous dispossession. As a white male logger, Paul Bunyan’s literal and figurative imaginings advance American Indian erasure narratives, leading to the invisibility of these same communities today. At the same time, Paul Bunyan narratives underscore the tensions of Indigenous claims to place and settler placemaking. Together, we juxtapose the history of two forests—the Paul Bunyan State Forest and the Chippewa National Forest—to reveal how German settlement, logging, and forestry have contributed to placemaking narratives, and how settler nostalgia links past and present. 

A large sign advertises "Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty" with a large put out of Bunyan and his ox next to it.
Paul Bunyan’s name and image are everywhere in the Northwoods. Photo by Amy Meredith, 2015.

The Northwoods have been popularized and imagined as America’s version of northern Europe. Indeed, most nineteenth-century settlers to Minnesota were from what became Germany in 1871. Census records confirm ethnic Germans and their descendants were “by far the largest foreign-stock group” in Minnesota through the twentieth century, and many continue to see themselves as German to this day. German influence on settler claims to place are seen in place-names throughout the region. Across Minnesota, towns like New Ulm, New Munich, Heidelberg, and Luxemburg bear witness to the ways German settlers have conferred familiar and meaningful place-names to new environments.

Here, settler colonialism meets autochthony, as German settlers sought ways to situate themselves on this landscape. Autochthony, a Greek term literally meaning “born from the soil,” denotes a particularly strong claim to place. More recently, Native scholars Michael Dockry and Christopher Caldwell have examined the Menominee Nation’s use of autochthony as “the belief that the Menominee people originated from the land near where they currently reside . . . and the Menominee people’s profound sense of place and their intimate relationship with place.” This stands in contrast to the ways German settlers worked to establish their own historical rootedness, or “belonging.” German settlers used “autochthony to describe a territorial claim or to control the land,” as reflected in forest management techniques. Together, folkloric tradition and forestry practice have inscribed settler belonging while displacing and replacing historically accurate Indigenous claims to space.

The ethos of Paul Bunyan is a permanent fixture of Minnesota’s forest geography.

Ojibwe dispossession, well underway by the late nineteenth century, is not told in any Paul Bunyan story. Similarly, American Indian people are glaringly absent from the tales of loggers and logging. The “heroic labor” of logging formed a significant portion of Great Lakes region economies at the turn of the twentieth century, on the heels of, and entangled with, Ojibwe dispossession. While Paul Bunyan narratives emphasized whiteness, in reality, Native bodies served as cheap and reliable labor. Ojibwe workers “incorporated wage labor [via the lumber industry] into the seasonal round in a manner that allowed them to exercise treaty rights while compensating for the loss of resources and land.” In this way, Ojibwe workers were able to rely on what was familiar and traditional (harvesting wood) to earn money, despite being dispossessed of their own land. Ojibwe lumberjacks did not simply yield to assimilation—they worked to retain agency. As historian Chantal Norrgard argues, Ojibwe lumberjacks did not fit the mold of what was accepted as a typical lumber worker: “Ojibwe workers challenged Euro-American assumptions about the assimilation and disappearance of Indians following the growth of the lumber industry and affirmed their distinct presence through wage labor.”

Paul Bunyan narratives glorify a time when Indian people were removed and dispossessed, and their timber-rich lands destroyed by logging. To better understand the complex, interwoven nature of myth and reality in these stories of nostalgia and dispossession, we turn to the neighboring Chippewa National Forest and the Paul Bunyan State Forest in north-central Minnesota.

Illustrated image of Paul Bunyan and Blue Ox with signs marking future mine sites and Lake Superior
Paul Bunyan and the Iron Range. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Formally established in 1908, the 1.6-million-acre Chippewa National Forest (CNF) lies nearly contiguous with the Leech Lake Reservation. Originally named the Minnesota National Forest, the CNF was the first national forest created “for the benefit of [American] Indian people.” Yet the history of the CNF goes back further and is much more complicated. In the 1855 Treaty with the Chippewa, the Mississippi River, Pillager, and Lake Winnibigoshish bands of Chippewa ceded a significant swath of land to the federal government. The treaty set aside “a sufficient quantity of land for the permanent homes” of the Mille Lacs and Leech Lake bands, with this land in trust by the federal government. With the treaty finalized, logging continued unabated across the lands they called home. Soon, the Nelson Act of 1889 was passed for “the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota.” The act allotted the little Ojibwe reservation land that remained. Any land left after tribal members were allotted, the “surplus,” was opened for sale to settlers, loggers, miners, and railroads alike. It would not be long before clearcutting across these newly opened reservation lands was underway.

Ojibwe lumberjacks did not simply yield to assimilation—they worked to retain agency.

In 1902 came the Morris Act. Authored by Duluth congressman Robert Page Morris, the act “created the first forest reserve established by congressional action rather than presidential proclamation.” The act established the 225,000-acre Minnesota Forest Reserve as a “compromise,” a way to tackle the “Indian problem” while allowing for timber harvest. Here, Ojibwe homelands became “a laboratory for the first comprehensive forest management plans undertaken by a federal agency.” In 1928, the forest was renamed the Chippewa National Forest, as it remains today. In this way, land that was promised to Native people through treaty became a national forest, open for widespread access and use by lumber barons and public visitors alike.

From its conception, the Chippewa National Forest (CNF) has been imagined and described as “co-managed.” This co-management has its roots in the federal government’s trust responsibility, or legal obligation, to tribal nations. Importantly, unlike in national parks, national forests allow logging by private companies for profit. In many ways, this is at odds with historic and present-day tribal natural resource management, as the “timber focused management approach has led the CNF to be one of the most harvested forests in the country and has had negative impacts on the resources that Leech Lake Citizens need for spiritual, cultural, and economic well-being.” Though ubiquitous, co-management of the CNF in this case is unique, as no other national forest shares a border/land with a federally recognized tribal nation. To carry out the CNF co-management, the Forest Service is required to consult with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, as stipulated in a 2018 memorandum of understanding.

A recreation of a wigwam by the side of a road.
Wigwam shed near Lake George, Paul Bunyan State Forest. Photo by Joseph Kent Whitson.

While the Chippewa National Forest forces us to consider the many ways logging and forestry has usurped American Indian peoples’ access to land, the nearby Paul Bunyan State Forest encapsulates the material legacy of symbolic myth. The forest, named after a fictional clear-cutting logger, highlights the paradoxical claims to autochthony that undergird the retellings of his tales. Officially recognized in 1935, the Paul Bunyan State Forest evolved from the site of the Red River Lumber Company sawmill. Founded in 1884, the Red River Lumber Company (RRLC) directly participated in and contributed to Ojibwe dispossession. By the end of the nineteenth century, the RRLC had purchased most of the land that comprises the present-day Paul Bunyan State Forest, milling millions of board feet of lumber at the company town of Akeley. After the RRLC left Minnesota for California in 1915, “small operators with portable sawmills came into the territory and cut the remainder of the merchantable timber.” The expansion of RRLC to California precipitated another key move: using Paul Bunyan in their marketing. William B. Laughead (pronounced Log-head), advertising manager in 1914 and a logger himself, spun another Paul Bunyan tale for the promotional booklet “Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, Cal,” which included Bunyan’s first pictorial representation. This marketing campaign relied on the new and growing nostalgia for the grand logging days in the Great Lakes to keep the transcontinental corporation rooted in place.

An old ink sketch of Paul Bunyan on an envelope
Laughead’s depiction of Paul Bunyan helped make him famous across the country. Image from the Forest History Society.

With logging long established throughout the Great Lakes region, the ecological damage was clear. To remedy this, in the mid-1930s (German) forestry was introduced to manage timber on a sustained yield basis. This, then, is the irony of the Paul Bunyan State Forest: named for an American legend who is said to have literally cleared the path for settlement, forest management now proposes to maintain the integrity of the forest. While today the importance of forests is well-recognized beyond the sale of timber, the underlying premise remains tied to resource extraction and economic development. Forestry strives to maintain forest spaces in perpetuity. Settlers are thereby able to maintain logging lifeways, encapsulated in the Paul Bunyan narrative, while American Indians remain closed off from their traditional homelands. This makes the ethos of Paul Bunyan, not just his name, a permanent fixture of Minnesota’s forest geography. The shift from cutover to conservation anchors settler claims to belonging in Minnesota to this day.

Though Paul Bunyan narratives dominate the landscape of the Northwoods, if we look closely we can see the ways Native people resist the legendary exploits. Indeed, a lesser-known Ojibwe oral story reminds us that the Anishinaabe people, their culture, and their histories will always prevail over dispossession and logging. In the story, Nanabozho, an Ojibwe trickster or cultural figure, confronts Paul Bunyan, who had already logged off most of the northeastern states before making his way to Minnesota. Nanabozho tells Paul to leave, to not log any more timber. A fight ensues, and after forty days and nights, Nanabozho swings a Red Lake walleye at Paul, knocking him off his feet. As Paul stumbles, Nanabozho pulls at Paul’s whiskers, making him promise to leave the area.

Paul Bunyan falls away as Nanabozho hits him with a Walleye
Indigenous narratives have been used to reclaim land in the Northwoods. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

This is why, today, Paul Bunyan does not have a beard and why he is facing west at the statue on Lake Bemidji, as he prepares to leave the region. This is also why we have the Chippewa National Forest, because Nanabozho and his Ojibwe kinsmen saved it from being logged. It is this contemporary narrative that highlights the complexity of Ojibwe storytelling and Ojibwe cultural survival and renewal. The story creates space for Ojibwe people in the Paul Bunyan narrative and, importantly, reinscribes Ojibwe claims to place. 

Note: The spelling of Nanabozho’s name varies based on geographic location and tribe. We have selected the spelling most common in the Ojibwe community.

Featured image: Statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on the shore of Lake Bemidji in present-day Minnesota. Photo by Kasey Keeler.

Kasey Keeler (Tuolumne Me-Wuk and Citizen Potawatomi) is an assistant professor of Civil Society & Community Studies and American Indian Studies in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact.

Ryan Hellenbrand is a graduate student in Environment & Resources in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Contact.