The Ojibwe of the broad Lake Superior region don’t need a federal designation to verify to them the cultural, spiritual and historical importance of the Lake Superior island called Mooningwanekaaning, the Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.
Several Ojibwe bands, with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though, hope that gaining nomination, and perhaps ultimately a listing, on the National Register of Historic Places will help protect Madeline Island. Support has come from the bands that live throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and into Canada.
“It’s an affirmation that Madeline Island has the importance to it, tied back into the migration story and based on the teachings,” said Jim Pete, Red Cliff Ojibwe, who worked on the most recent draft of the nomination application.
Pete has spent the past year making presentations at gatherings and listening to elders and others about ties to and stories of the island.
“It’s close to 900 to 1,000 years ago that we’ve been connected and associated with Madeline Island,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network recently. “This is still significant and important to us. We do have that connection, it’s inbred in the Anishinaabe people.”
Mooningwanekaaning became the last stopping place for the western migration of the Ojibwe people that began hundreds of years ago, following a prophetic vision to find a homeland where food grew on water. The land of manoomin, wild rice, is where the people settled.
Once home to a thriving Ojibwe community, Madeline Island now has a year-round population of less than 300 mainly non-Native residents and is the only Lake Superior island supporting full-time residency. The Bad River Ojibwe still own about 200 acres on the island, currently on long-term leases given in the 1960s through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and scheduled to expire in 2017. The band has said it will not renew the leases of those who built seasonal homes known under the Amnicon Bay Association.
The island has more recent as well as ancient cultural significance. It is the site of the historic Treaty of 1854, which retained hunting, fishing, gathering and other rights on ceded lands for the Ojibwe people while opening some Lake Superior regions to non-Native settlement. The treaty stemmed from an 1852 voyage to Washington D.C., launched in canoe from Madeline Island by the 92-year-old Chief Buffalo and a small delegation of Ojibwe men to stop efforts to move the Anishinaabe from Lake Superior’s shores. Uninvited but through fortunate circumstance, the delegation got a meeting with President Millard Fillmore and persuaded him to rescind President Zachary Taylor’s order to remove the Ojibwe people. Chief Buffalo’s grave and those of perhaps 100 other Ojibwe people are near a marina on the island, the original creation of which likely disturbed some human remains, Winona LaDuke wrote in a story about the island for Lake Superior Magazine last year.
“This shows, in part, the complexity of building on top of a still living culture,” she wrote.
In recent years, the Ojibwe heritage of the island has been increasingly acknowledged in special gatherings and, this summer, with installment of bilingual English-Ojibwe signage approved by the board of La Pointe, the island’s only town.
Vanessa Hamer of the U.S. Army Corps office in St. Paul said that funding has been secured to complete a National Register nomination application for Madeline Island as a traditional cultural property. The National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the National Park Service, “traditional cultural property” designations include “a location associated with the traditional beliefs of a Native American group about its origins, its cultural history, or the nature of the world.” There are two sites on the island already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, neither of which are Ojibwe related – the 1915 Coole Park Manor and an unidentified sloop shipwrecked in the waters off Big Bay State Park.
From the nomination application, it will be determined whether the island is eligible for the register. Supporters then could proceed to apply for a full listing, Hamer said. This may be the first full island submitted.
Before the nomination application goes forward, though, Hamer said, there will be meetings with island residents. The Corps is involved with this process because it regulates land use on the island since it may affect Lake Superior. Any recognition through the National Register would not necessarily prevent development, but would ensure that the historic significance of sites were considered.
“It’s not to make anybody’s life hard to get a project done,” she said, “but out of respect to what the culture was there and still is there.”