A series of six suspicious fires over the July 14-15 weekend destroyed three important traditional ceremonial structures on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojbwe Reservation near Hayward, Wisconsin. The Ceremonial Lodge, housed in a historic log cabin and used for generations of Big Drum ceremonies was a total loss; a Big Drum dance ring in a separate location was also severely damaged.
Additionally, two private community sweat lodges were destroyed. Two buildings behind the Trading Post owned by longtime local journalist and publisher of News From Indian Country Paul DeMain were severely damaged. Finally, the speakers stand at the long running Honor the Earth Powwow grounds received minor damage from a fire started there. The traditional powwow, described by the Hayward Chamber of Commerce, as the largest in North America, was scheduled to begin the following weekend.
LCO tribal member Chris Grover, 37 has been arrested and jailed as a person of interest in connection with the fires that are considered to be criminal in nature according to a press release from the Lac Courte Oreilles and Sawyer County Sheriff Departments. The Wisconsin Fire Marshall Office is also involved with the ongoing investigation. Grover is no longer listed on the roster of the Sawyer County jail and according to an unverified source has been transferred to a neighboring Wisconsin County jail on a separate arrest warrant.
In a report from the Sawyer County Record online news site, Town of Hayward Fire Chief Bob Shamro expressed relief that no one was injured in any of the incidents. More than 30 firefighters from six departments worked to extinguish the fires.
Several LCO community members as well as a story in the Sawyer County Record confirm that former tribal council member Jeff Crone turned his son, Chris Grover, in to police as a suspect. Crone made the announcement during a feast on July 17 opening the Honor the Earth Powwow and publicly apologized for his son’s actions whom he described as having mental health issues.
LCO tribal member Wabigonence White described the July 17th feast as a community-healing event for the losses exacted by the fires. Clergy from area churches joined the feast and prayer. According to White, one of the powwow founders Eddie Benton Benai spoke to those gathered about the strength of the traditional community and the importance of the powwow. Benai is a well-known and respected spiritual leader in the Ojibwe community. The Honor the Earth powwow was founded 39 years ago as a grass roots expression of sovereignty. The event, held July 19-22 routinely attracts more than 10,000 people according to the Chamber’s website.
LCO school staff and youth workers repaired the powwow speakers’ stand in time for the powwow. The event went off without a hitch, according to White. “The fires didn’t scare anyone away. It seemed that many people came to support us. There are tons of people here,” she noted on Saturday, July 21.
In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Paul DeMain observed that the traditional communities were clearly targets of the fires.
Many members of the community agree and noted that the perpetrator(s) had to possess intimate knowledge of the community as well as the structures’ remote locations. “The Ceremony House, Dance Ring and sweat lodges are not marked or easily visible from the road,” noted White.
“You have to have been shown where they are,” she said.
“These fires hit at the heart and soul of the Ojibwe people and our way of life,” observed LCO tribal member Dianne Sullivan.
She noted that many people in the community want the perpetrator(s) to be charged with a hate crime.
“This was no different than the firebombing of a church,” she said.
White noted that the resilience of Ojibwe people and their traditional spirituality was apparent in the arsons. Although the suspect(s) tried to repeatedly run over the Dance Ring with a heavy vehicle after fire failed to destroy it, the foundation of the ring was still standing.
“I think that’s a testament to the strength of our ways,” she said.