Restoring A Multi-Cultural Society In A Sacred Place

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.

By Winona LaDuke
In These Times (4/23/15)

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 this… that 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.” … Read the Rest

(Winona LaDuke is the founding director of the White Earth Recovery Land Project and the author, most recently, of The Militarization of Indian Country.)

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