Restoring a Multi-Cultural Society in a Sacred Place

Winona LaDukeApril 21, 2015

Prior to European settlement, Madeline Island on Lake Superior was the spiritual, cultural and economic epicenter of the native Ojibwe. On September 30, 1854, the treaty signed on the island established the Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff and Lac du Flambeau reservations. Today, La Pointe, Wis., has become the first town in the region to incorporate native translations for the town's roads, landmarks and points of interest.

Orig­i­nal­ly all the inhab­i­tants of the earth (Chippe­wa Indi­ans) who were to learn the Mide lived on Made­line Island, in Lake Supe­ri­or, in that por­tion of the coun­try. They were select­ed by the divine Manido to be taught the Mide religion…”

From the The Ori­gin of the Mide,” as doc­u­ment­ed in the 1905 com­pendi­um of oral Ojib­we tra­di­tion, Nawa­jibikok­we.

It was like read­ing about Atlantis. That is my ear­li­est mem­o­ry of the Island. Mon­ing­wu­nakaun­ing Min­is — home of the gold­en-breast­ed wood­peck­er” — now called Made­line. It is the Anishi­naabe home­land, a Mec­ca for the Ojibwe.

This is the place where the Cre­ator and prophets instruct­ed our peo­ple to move. In the 2lst cen­tu­ry, it is a place where the com­plex­i­ty of restor­ing a mul­ti-cul­tur­al soci­ety in a sacred land is being revealed. The ques­tion is, How do we do so with grace?”

Akawe—In the beginning

Long ago, dur­ing the time of prophe­cy, the Anishi­naabeg were told to fol­low the Migis shell which appeared in the sky. And from our east­ern home­land, along the great water, we would stop sev­en times, end­ing final­ly at Mon­ing­wu­nakaun­ing Minis.

It is here on this island that we flour­ished and spread our wings as Anishi­naabe peo­ple. Mon­ing­wu­nakaaun­ing Min­is served as the south­ern capi­tol of the Anishi­naabe nation, which now stretch­es across what are four Amer­i­can states and three Cana­di­an provinces.

Mon­ing­wu­nakaaun­ing Min­is became a cen­ter of our Midewewin Soci­ety, our pow­er­ful reli­gion, which con­nects us to the four lay­ers beneath the earth and the four lay­ers above. It is here on this island that we refined our lacrosse game, and where the Anishi­naabe women per­fect­ed our game of shin­ny, a sort of Ojib­we broom­ball. It is here that we launched fish­ing boats, col­lect­ed berries on the many sur­round­ing islands and became the largest inland naval force in North Amer­i­ca — dom­i­nat­ing the Great Lakes with trade, agri­cul­ture and fishing.

We lived on the Island for 300 years before we were found.” The French found us, and, as Euro­pean empires do, they built a fort. Got­ta have a fort. That was in 1693, the fort was La Pointe.

Our treaties were signed at La Pointe, allow­ing access to the Great Lakes for min­ers, log­gers and set­tle­ment. It was cheap­er for the fledg­ling Unit­ed States to treaty for land than to fight wars. The west­ern Indi­an wars cost the Unit­ed States mil­lions of dol­lars. Treaties were the equal­ly treach­er­ous, less-expen­sive answer. An Indi­an Agent at La Pointe once cal­cu­lat­ed that mil­lions of acres of Ojib­we ter­ri­to­ry were acquired through treaties for less than 10 cents an acre.

The val­ue of the fish­eries, maple syrup, wild rice, agri­cul­ture and fur from our treaty lands was incal­cu­la­ble. The cop­per tak­en from our home­lands alone was worth $5.72 bil­lion based on 1971 markets.

Wan­ishini­wag—They Dis­ap­pear

Four treaties were signed by the Unit­ed States with the Ojib­we, each pro­vid­ing for min­ing in Anishi­naabeg ter­ri­to­ry. These treaties, the 1837, 1842, 1854, and 1855, cov­ered both the Keweenaw Penin­su­la of Michi­gan’s Upper Penin­su­la and the Mesabe (Sleep­ing Giant) iron-ore belt in north­ern Minnesota.

As ear­ly as 1849, cop­per pro­duc­tion in the Keweenaw Penin­su­la of Anishi­naabe ter­ri­to­ry led the world. Sim­i­lar­ly, begin­ning in 1890, min­ing in the Mesabe Range account­ed for 75 per­cent of all U.S. iron ore production. 

Greed is an amaz­ing dri­ving force in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca. Not con­tent to steal our wealth, some decid­ed to steal our lives. In 1850 and 1851, four promi­nent offi­cials of Pres­i­dent Zachary Tay­lor’s admin­is­tra­tion con­spired to force the Anishi­naabeg onto lands in Min­neso­ta Ter­ri­to­ry. In 1850, while our ances­tors gath­ered to col­lect their treaty pay­ments, the Indi­an Agents moved the meet­ing place from Made­line Island to Sandy Lake, in present day Minnesota. 

Four thou­sand Ojib­we canoed to Sandy Lake that autumn. They arrived on the pay­ment date, fatigued and hun­gry, only to find no one there to dis­trib­ute the sup­plies. Wild game was scarce, fish­ing was poor and high water had wiped out the wild rice crop. Ill-equipped and con­fined to a water­logged area, dis­ease, expo­sure and star­va­tion rav­aged the Ojib­we, killing three to eight peo­ple each day.

In ear­ly Decem­ber, with over a foot of snow on the ground and the water­ways frozen over, the Ojib­we final­ly received their annu­ities. With 170 peo­ple already dead, they start­ed on the bit­ter trail back towards our land here at Gichi Gum­mi, the great lake, now known as Supe­ri­or. Anoth­er 230 peo­ple died on that frigid jour­ney, lat­er called the Wis­con­sin Death March or the Sandy Lake Tragedy.

Those who sur­vived returned to our home­lands and the pub­lic out­cry forced the sus­pen­sion of the removal order.


After the Sandy Lake Tragedy, the Ojib­we were moved to reser­va­tions through­out the region, but we nev­er for­got our place. The Ojib­we word for reser­va­tion is ishkon­ji­gan, or left­overs. It is not a home­land. The reser­va­tion era was the begin­ning of an immense trau­ma for the Anishi­naabeg people.

We were sent away from our beloved Island. Edith Leoso, the Trib­al His­toric Preser­va­tion Offi­cer for the Bad Riv­er band of Ojib­we, remem­bers what is told about Mon­ing­wu­nakaun­ing Minis: 

We left that island with the under­stand­ing that we would nev­er hold lodge there again. Eddie Ben­ton (of the Three Fires Midewi­win Soci­ety) talks about how the old peo­ple who had to leave built this huge bonfire…and then we left. They say that when we got to Bad Riv­er we could still see the fire…We want­ed to remem­ber where our home­land was at, so that when we did cer­e­monies, we would always know thisthat fire, it was also a part of let­ting go. Yet know­ing our con­nec­tion. Per­haps it was part of the detach­ment. To try and for­get and cope with the trau­ma of leaving.

Three decades lat­er, most of Made­line Island was pri­vate­ly held and divid­ed into home­steads. In 1854, the Ojib­we received a small guar­an­tee that land at the North End would remain for the peo­ple, some 200 acres that were reserved fish­ing grounds.

The Com­plex­i­ty of Wealth

The wealth amassed from our ter­ri­to­ry would also come to the Island. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, it came to the Island in the form of sum­mer homes for some of the most afflu­ent fam­i­lies of the Great Lakes, many from the same fam­i­lies who had orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed the min­ing and lum­ber com­pa­nies from our lands.

Iron­i­cal­ly, some of the poor­est res­i­dents of Wis­con­sin live next to one of the state’s wealth­i­est town­ships — at least dur­ing the sum­mer. To be spe­cif­ic, on the Red Cliff reser­va­tion on the main­land, two-and-one-half miles from the Island, unem­ploy­ment hov­ers around 50 per­cent; 65 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives below the pover­ty lev­el; the medi­an house­hold income is about $8,000 and the esti­mat­ed per capi­ta income is $1,450. A new casi­no, Leg­endary Waters, recent­ly opened on the reser­va­tion that brings some new mon­ey and prob­a­bly some more tourists. But, frankly, it does not change the struc­ture of pover­ty and wealth.

All in all, jobs are scarce, and many jobs dur­ing the sum­mer involve build­ing or clean­ing homes for those who can afford to live on the Anishi­naabe home­land. A real­ly nice house on Made­line Island sold last year for $1.79 mil­lion. There are some inex­pen­sive build­ing lots offered at $50,000, and quite a bit in between. 

There are a dozen or so beach homes built on the small amount of land that was reserved for the Ojib­we as our fish­ing grounds — the 200 acres on the North End. The Bureau of Indi­an Affairs first leased these lands out in 1967 as a trib­al mon­ey­mak­ing enter­prise. It became the Amni­con Bay Asso­ci­a­tion con­sist­ing of 12 or so families.

Those leas­es expire in 2017, which invari­ably is a heat­ed top­ic of dis­cus­sion with the new res­i­dents of the Island. Mary Annette Pem­ber, a Bad Riv­er Ojib­we jour­nal­ist, took a trip to the North End of the Island in the sum­mer of 2013 to talk to some of the lease­hold­ers of the Amni­con Bay Asso­ci­a­tion. She was sur­prised that one cou­ple, Amy and Har­ry Funk, bought a home only sev­en years before the pos­si­ble end date of their lease in 2017. Dur­ing an inter­view with Mary, Har­ry Funk explained,

The peo­ple in town said we were crazy to buy a cab­in out here, the tribe is tak­ing the land back. But if we did some­thing sil­ly, we did some­thing sil­ly. We love it here. This bay is my spir­i­tu­al renew­al and I’ll be sor­ry to lose it if we have to move. But I’m just hap­py we’ve had the time that we’ve had here.

The Funks, feel a rela­tion­ship to the Island like all oth­ers. Mary not­ed, The Funks and oth­er cab­in own­ers expressed grat­i­tude and accep­tance, albeit reluc­tant­ly, about the land and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of it return­ing to the tribe.”

Island Cul­ture

Sep­a­rat­ed by the deep­est of waters in a great inland sea, it is very pos­si­ble to believe you are alone on the Island. The world is dis­tant. That is why peo­ple come to Made­line Island — for refuge — and that is how an island cul­ture — or sub­cul­ture — emerges.

Sum­mer homes and a tourism econ­o­my came to dom­i­nate. Farm­ing and fish­ing sub­sided while the four remain­ing farms dis­ap­pear­ing one by one, until the Island became an importer of almost every sort of food that would be con­sumed there.

In 1850, 40 res­i­dents of the Island pop­u­la­tion were Cadottes — a Métis, French and Ojib­we fur trad­ing fam­i­ly. In 2015, around 40 res­i­dents of the Island are Nel­sons, fam­i­lies of enter­pris­ing Swedes who own a stake in the Made­line Island Fer­ry Line, a con­struc­tion com­pa­ny, acres of land, Tom’s Burned Down Café and oth­er points of inter­est. The year round res­i­dents, num­ber­ing maybe 250, are by and large real­ly nice people.

In some ways there were two class­es of peo­ple who came to the Island, the very wealthy and those who care for them. This does not mean that the Island is not beloved by both, but it does result in inter­est­ing land use pol­i­cy decisions.

The Yacht People

Amer­i­ca has an excel­lent case of his­toric amne­sia. But it turns out that even if you do not remem­ber his­to­ry, it does not mean it did not hap­pen. The Ojib­we were not myth­i­cal beings, nor were we Phoeni­cians. We were and are a liv­ing com­mu­ni­ty of 250,000 peo­ple. We con­tin­ue to live in our home­land, just not on our beloved island.

Many of the yacht peo­ple for­got about the Ojib­we. This is made evi­dent by the mari­na of the Made­line Island Yacht Club that adjoins the ceme­tery where Chief Buf­fa­lo, one of our great­est Chiefs, is buried in a mod­est grave among about l00 oth­er Ojib­wes who were allowed to be buried in the Catholic Indi­an cemetery.

The ini­tial mari­na was dredged pri­or to any reg­u­la­tion or over­sight. It was an ambi­tious moment for the Yacht Club when, in 1984, they decid­ed to expand the berths to allow for more yachts. As it turns out, the entire area sur­round­ing the mari­na is like­ly full of Ojib­we remains.

Paul DeMain, from the Lac Courte Orielles reser­va­tion, points to a place next to a mon­u­ment erect­ed by the Ojib­we near the mari­na, and says:

That was when they ran into the ances­tor, an old man in a dugout canoe, right in the mid­dle of the dig. … The ances­tor was there, and here is where we remem­ber those who left for Sandy Lake.

Por­tions of the island of been includ­ed on the list of Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, but these include a small frac­tion of the tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al land­scape. A mem­o­ran­dum requir­ing the Army Corp of Engi­neers and La Pointe offi­cials to con­sult trib­al elders pri­or to devel­op­ment projects has also been pro­posed by the Advi­so­ry Coun­cil on His­toric Preser­va­tion (ACHP). This fed­er­al des­ig­na­tion, from an Ojib­we per­spec­tive, will afford more pro­tec­tion for trib­al his­to­ry on the Island.

All of this is unfor­tu­nate if you are an ambi­tious devel­op­er. There has been a set of ongo­ing pro­pos­als to expand the mari­na, each of which has been turned down for a num­ber of rea­sons. This is, in part, what hap­pens when one cul­ture decides it wants to build on top of anoth­er liv­ing culture.

Mon­ing­wu­nakaun­ing Min­is 4.0

A cou­ple of sum­mers ago, our fam­i­ly built the first res­i­den­tial sum­mer wig­wam on the Island in prob­a­bly 100 years, maybe more. It’s called Gii­wedi­nong, or the place we come home to. It was an inter­est­ing meet­ing with the zon­ing offi­cials one night — all nice peo­ple, many of them Nel­sons. I am not sure this com­plies with the uni­form build­ing code,” the zon­ing direc­tor, Jen­nifer Croon­berg, earnest­ly explained to me. I smiled and said, I believe it pre­cedes the uni­form build­ing code.”

The wigi­wam is not built on the trib­al land in the far north of the Island, but on the edge of town with­in bike-rid­ing dis­tance for young kids. That is because we too are a part of the com­mu­ni­ty. The trib­al pres­ence is grow­ing stronger, and meet­ings and cer­e­mo­ni­al gath­er­ings have been held with increas­ing fre­quen­cy on the Island. This year, for the first time, an Ash­land Coun­ty com­mis­sion­er was elect­ed from the Bad Riv­er reser­va­tion—Joe Rose, an elder states­man and pro­fes­sor at near­by North­land Col­lege. Rose rep­re­sents not only the reser­va­tion, but also Made­line Island. Change is slow, but it is one thing that is constant. 

There are new com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens on the Island, there are signs, now, final­ly, in Anishi­naabe­mowin, put up by set­tlers and Ojib­we alike. Nick Nel­son, recent­ly elect­ed to the town board, in many ways rep­re­sents a new gen­er­a­tion of set­tler on the island. He led the project to install bilin­gual signs on the island. And in April, the first of four dozen such signs have appeared. 

Lan­guage is an intro­duc­tion, a launch­ing point, for pro­tect­ing and re-estab­lish­ing an endan­gered ele­ment of La Pointe’s past and present,” says Nel­son. This project is essen­tial­ly about using lan­guage as a focal point for reveal­ing the region­al impor­tance, the beau­ty and the depth at the cen­ter of the Anishi­naabeg culture.”

La Pointe’s project makes Made­line Island the first place in Wis­con­sin to have bilin­gual signs not on a Native Amer­i­can reser­va­tion. For 400 years Anishi­naabe­mowin was the pri­ma­ry lan­guage spo­ken through­out the region,” says Nel­son. It seemed essen­tial to hon­or this sig­nif­i­cant ele­ment of island history.”

Not all things are, by any means, yet resolved. The Made­line Island Muse­um holds a hefty col­lec­tion of Ojib­we cul­tur­al and cer­e­mo­ni­al wealth. Ojib­we who vis­it the muse­um often feel very sen­si­tive, as if it is a genet­ic mem­o­ry of a great loss. Edith Leoso explained to me:

When I was in the muse­um, and saw all those parts of our cul­ture, it evoked his­toric trau­ma. It’s the heart wrench­ing sad­ness — sad­ness of see­ing them, and leav­ing them, those cer­e­mo­ni­al items. But when I go to the Island, I also feel real­ly good. I went to the ceme­tery with my migis shell on. I walked into this gate and this huge wind came by. And I won­dered when the last time was that a migis was here with our rel­a­tives. When I went over there, I didn’t want to leave, I want­ed to stay there and reconnect.

Why does it mat­ter that the Ojib­we gii­wewag [are come home]? Denied a home­land we are with­out a com­pass. Where we were forced to live is not the place the Cre­ator has instruct­ed us to live. And that is why niwii gii­wemin [we are com­ing home]. The wood­peck­er waits. She remains there, watch­ing, cen­turies of humans come and go, and she remains. Each time I am present on the Island, I look up and see the gold­en-breast­ed wood­peck­er and I know I am home.

Winona LaDuke is Anishi­naabe, a writer, an econ­o­mist and a hemp farmer, work­ing on a book about the Eighth Fire and the Green New Deal. She is ready for the Green Path, and would pre­fer not to spend her gold­en years clean­ing up the mess­es of enti­tled white men.LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reser­va­tion in north­ern Min­neso­ta, where she found­ed the White Earth Land Recov­ery Project. She is pro­gram direc­tor of Hon­or the Earth and a two-time vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with Ralph Nad­er on the Green Par­ty ticket.
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