“This is our land, my girl,” my mother said. It was all she said during the hours we walked along the beach and gazed out into the gaping maw that is Gichigami, the great sea. We seldom spoke during these visits to the lake, but this trip to Madeline Island and the beach at Amnicon Bay was especially quiet. Her emotion was palpable and didn’t need any words. The wind and great glug-glug voice of Gichigami would have swallowed them up anyway and so we were simply there together.
This is how my mother taught me to pray. She never spoke of complex theories regarding ancestral memory or ties to place or even of the spirits that Ojibwe know are imbued in all things. She just put me where I needed to be and trusted that I would know, as she knew, that our Ojibwe hearts and souls are part of our water and land that includes Madeline Island, Moningwanekaaning, the place of the flickers (yellow breasted-woodpeckers).
All of our visits home to the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin began the same; first we “greeted the lake” in her words and then we saw relatives, friends and places. But our first and only trip to Madeline Island together was unique. Funded by my new newspaper job, we rode the ferry to the Island and rented a room for the night in the upscale tourist enclave that white people have made of La Pointe, the island’s only town. I knew immediately that I needed to return.
And so I come whenever time and money permits, and now I bring my own children. The legacy of this place is being revealed to me slowly; each visit bringing a new revelation and connection to the business of being an Ojibwe woman, whose job is to care for the water.
Last summer, I traveled to the Island again, taking along my teenage daughter, Rosa, who spent much of the time pouting in the car. Our first stop was Winona LaDuke’s self- described Ojibwe timeshare on the outskirts of the town of La Pointe. She maintains that it the first residential wigwam built on the island in over 100 years.
LaDuke, Ojibwe activist and economist from the White Earth reservation in Minnesota describes Madeline Island as the cultural and spiritual equivalent of Mecca or Jerusalem for Ojibwe people. Accordingly she has staked a claim here.
The wigwam is set back in the woods. Covered with heavy plastic sheeting and accessible by walking over sheets of plywood laid over the soggy ground, the entrance features a bright red door. The old wood door hangs awkwardly in its frame and scrapes the plywood when opened. Whimsically painted green lawn furniture sits in the entryway. The site and the structure are a sweetly defiant expression of Indian presence that has mostly been welcomed by non-Native residents.
She recalls however that the town’s zoning commissioner expressed concern that the wigwam didn’t comply with the uniform building code. “I think it predates the building code,” LaDuke responded. And so she continues work on her time-share, her little piece of Ojibwe heaven.
Later that evening, I walked out to the little cemetery that is now dwarfed by the Madeline Island Yacht Club with its posh sailing boats and the quietly expensive vacation homes that surround it. A faded sign reading “Indian Cemetery,” points the way. About 100 Ojibwe are buried on the modest site.
Chief Buffalo, the great Ojibwe chief who helped resist removal from our homelands, is buried here. The crows set up a terrific warning chorus as I open the little iron gate and enter. They are proclaiming the Chief’s deeds and warning me to take care in my behavior, to show the proper respect.
Although well into his 90s, Chief Buffalo led a delegation to Washington D.C. in 1852 in protest of U.S. efforts to remove Ojibwe in Wisconsin and Michigan to lands west of the Mississippi. The delegation carried a petition, gathering signatures along the way to Washington in support of their people remaining on their lands. He and the delegates urged then-President Milliard Fillmore to rescind the U.S. removal order. Fillmore agreed and overturned the order signed by his predecessor President Zachary Taylor in 1850.
At that time, the tribe was recovering from the deadly Sandy Lake tragedy in which nearly 400 Ojibwe died. Now described as a U.S. conspiracy to carry out the Andrew Jackson era Indian Removal policies, tribal members were lured to faraway Sandy Lake, Minnesota in 1850 with the promise of desperately needed annuity payments. Sandy Lake was a death trap where neither food nor annuities were given; many died of hunger and exposure. After a small portion of payments were finally given in the form of food, the exhausted Ojibwe returned home, losing many along the way in what is now described by historians as the Wisconsin Death March.
After returning from Washington D.C. and the visit with the Great White Father, he helped negotiate the La Pointe Treaty of 1854 in which the U.S. officially guaranteed reservation land for Wisconsin Ojibwe including Red Cliff, Bad River and the 200 acres of fishing grounds on Madeline Island that is still part of Bad River today.
In the book “Chippewa Treaty Rights,” author Ronald N. Satz, notes that U.S. negotiators referred to Chief Buffalo as obstinate and insistent that Wisconsin Ojibwe be guaranteed the “privilege of remaining in the country where they reside and next the appropriation of land for their future homes. Without yielding these points, it is idle for us (U.S.) to continue talk about a treaty.”
When the U.S. interpreter began to translate the remarks of the American negotiators, Chief Buffalo interrupted him and insisted that the Indians appoint their own interpreter according to historical reports by Benjamin Armstrong, an American interpreter. Chief Buffalo said, “We do not want to be deceived anymore as we have in the past.”
I reflect on the obstinacy of the aging Chief as I later walk along the beach at Amnicon Point. Were it not for the strength and sacrifice of this man and others like him, I might not be able to freely gaze out at Gichigami at this spot and know my beginnings in such a deep and personal way. Although I am alone and there is no “doings” as we say hereabouts or lodge, standing here does indeed feel like ceremony.
Much to my dismay, however, my teenager remains in the car, pouting.
I’ve come to Amnicon to see the cabins owned by those who rent land here from the Bad River Band. Amy and Harry Funk invite me to sit down on the porch of their cabin. Although not lavish, the home is nicely appointed, a perfect vacation home for moneyed urban professionals looking to escape the city.
I’m surprised to hear that they bought the home only seven years ago so close to the possible end date of the lease in 2017. “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,” Harry Funk said.
“My heart feels like its overflowing as soon as I get a glimpse of the Island during our drives here,” Amy said.
“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, ” she added.
She and other cabin owners expressed gratitude and acceptance, albeit reluctantly, about the land and the possibility of it returning to the tribe.
I’m a little surprised to hear non-Native homeowners being so philosophical about a big financial investment and I am pensive as we leave the lease land. We head to nearby Big Bay State Park where my teenager continues to pout. Without warning, however, she unplugs the headphones from her ears and joins me.
Rosa and I are suspended in the waters of Big Bay Lake at the point where they flow into Gichigami. The current holds us aloft, sweeping our hair back like mermaids as we are gently pulled along the shallow sand bottom into the lake. I say, “This is our land, my girl.” We open our mouths to laugh but no sound emerges, it is swallowed by Gitigami, our sweet gift to the great sea.
Obstinate Chief Buffalo’s lessons of land stewardship for future generations and genuine love and connection with the land are alive. They are handed down as they have always been, by modeling behavior and immersion in experience. Somehow the Chief knew that this simple Ojibwe pedagogy would transcend not only non-Native mindsets but also those of angsty city-raised Ojibwe teenagers, brilliant.