Bringing history to life

From left: Gilbert Elementary students Genevieve Steel, Charles Lininger, Mykal Roggenbuck, Skylar Spencer and Alex Clairmont pose in front of a large screen projecting scenery and music from Tibet, their classroom’s assigned country, one of the many Marco Polo traveled. (Journal photo by Jaymie Depew)

MARQUETTE — Photographer and world traveler Denis Belliveau, who traveled in the footsteps of Marco Polo from Italy and China and back, was in the Upper Peninsula this week sharing his journey with students at Gwinn Public Schools and Northern Michigan University.

Throughout the week, Belliveau presented to NMU history, anthropology and international studies classes at the college. On Wednesday evening he held a presentation in one of the large lecture rooms in Jamrich where public was welcomed. Belliveau also worked alongside staff and fourth and fifth-grade students at Sawyer Elementary and Gilbert Elementary schools.

Belliveau, a New York native, and his friend Francis O’Donnell spent two years retracing the entire route of the 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo.

During his presentation at NMU, Belliveau noted that “the Marco Polo story reads like a fairytale” and inspired him and O’Donnell to follow in his footsteps. After realizing the 700th anniversary of Polo’s excursion was coming up they started planning.

Belliveau and O’Donnell met with different cultural organizations in New York to connect with people, learn about the countries they were to encounter and see if their connections could get them in contact with people living in those countries, Belliveau said.

Fin Andrews, right, and classmates celebrate Tibetan culture by playing the part. Andrews stated he was meditating. (Journal photo by Jaymie Depew)

“We definitely were at an advantage being from Queens because it’s so culturally diverse,” he said.

The explorers set out on their two-year expedition in the spring of 1993, documenting the journey each country and step of the way.

According to Belliveau, one of the most difficult parts of their travels was getting stuck on country boarders.

“Afghanistan was definitely the most dangerous country — but also one of the most exciting. Maybe because it was so dangerous. We hit a lot of road blocks along the way. People were wondering who we were, where we were from and what we were doing,” he said. “A lot of them thought we were the CIA. We had to explain that we were just two normal guys — two artists — wanting to bring history back to life.”

Belliveau and O’Donnell retraced Marco Polo’s complete route from Europe to Asia and back.

Belliveau and O’Donnell were treated like royalty when they got back to Venice — they were sailed down the grand canal in a royal regatta of gondolas and the church bells of St. Mark’s Basilica rang in their honor, Belliveau said. They ended their journey by sleeping on cots in the former home of Marco Polo.

A PBS documentary film and companion book “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo” was released in 2008. Belliveau said that after the release of the film and book, schools have continually contacted him throughout the years asking if he would present to classes — which is what brought him to the Upper Peninsula.

Last week students and staff at Sawyer Elementary and Gilbert Elementary schools studied countries Polo, Belliveau and O’Donnell visited on their journeys.

Each classroom was assigned a different country to study.

“The students have been really having fun,” Gilbert Elementary teacher Debbie Goldsworthy said. “They made their own headbands, outfits and decorations.”

On Friday students celebrated different cultures with food-tastings, dressing up and presenting learned materials to other students. Belliveau walked through each classroom and talked with students about their assigned countries.

Belliveau works with students and schools around the United States performing a mix of assemblies and workshops.

“After the book and documentary came out, I started receiving phone calls from teachers all over the country asking if I would do presentations,” he said. Belliveau stated that Goldsworthy was responsible for him being in the U.P.

The “Explorer in Residence” program was made possible by the financial and logistical support of NMU’s Department of History, NMU’s School of Education, NMU’s International Studies Program, the NMU Foundation, the NMU Provost’s Office and Gwinn Schools.

For more information about Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell’s excursion or to buy the book, visit

Jaymie Depew can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is