An injustice marked Superior’s history more than a century ago and upset the tradition of its Indigenous people who had lived on Wisconsin Point seasonally as long ago as the 1600s.
According to documents from the National Register of Historic Places, about 198 Ojibwe graves were exhumed from Wisconsin Point in 1918 by the U.S. Steel Company to make way for a new dock while ownership of the land occupied by Indigenous people was still in dispute. The graves were moved to about 29 plots adjacent to St. Francis Cemetery along the northern bank of the Nemadji River.
Now Councilor Jenny Van Sickle hopes to make things right by returning lands still held sacred by the Ojibwe to stewardship of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
“I am in the unique position of representing the Wisconsin Point burial ground and the site at the Nemadji,” said Van Sickle, an Alaskan Native of Tlingit and Athabaskan descent. “It’s extraordinary, and it’s not right. So, this has become maybe the most ambitious and complex work I have ever set out to complete. But as a priority, I feel like we are going to get this done.”
Van Sickle said she’s been working on the plan for most of this year and hopes to garner support from fellow councilors Tuesday, July 20, when they consider a resolution to turn over the Wisconsin Point burial grounds and Ojibwe Reburial Site to federal trust for the stewardship of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
There are multiple steps involved for transferring the land and the council’s decision is just one among them, Van Sickle said. The lengthy process will include the Superior City Council, the Fond du Lac Lake Superior Band of Chippewa, St. Francis Xavier Church, the Wisconsin Historical Society, U.S. senators in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the U.S. Department of Interior, Van Sickle said.
The proposal has already gained the support of the St. Francis Xavier Church community, which owns the adjacent cemetery near the Nemadji River.
“St. Francis is very supportive of any transfer of land in trust to the Chippewa Band for their burial site,” said the Rev. James Tobolski, St. Francis Xavier Church pastor, who wrote a letter of support.
On July 8, Van Sickle said she was out with Kevin DuPuis, the Band's tribal chairman, and a surveyor working on “ground truthing." As part of the process, officials used historical documents to determine the most accurate boundaries of the two cemeteries near the Nemadji River. DuPuis couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mayor Jim Paine shared his support for returning the lands to Fond du Lac’s care in a letter to the Wisconsin Burial Sites Preservation Board.
“The city of Superior enjoys a rich history worthy of both celebration and respect,” Paine wrote. “Like most Wisconsin communities however, our history is also stained by unforgettable crimes against the Indigenous peoples that lived on this land before the arrival of Europeans.”
The Ojibwe Reburial Area and the Wisconsin Point site are both considered sacred by the Ojibwe, but state archeologists visiting the reburial site in 2009 noted fragments of bone that appeared human in the slope of the eroding bank, according to state historical documents. Paine said the site was "poorly chosen and suffered a lack of care in the intervening decades, leading to erosion and the exposure of several of the remains."
The city's history with the Fond du Lac Band goes back to its founding. Superior was incorporated in September of 1854, the same month and year the Treaty of 1854 was signed, said Chantal Norrgard, associate professor for First Nation Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
“This is important really because we’re sitting at a moment where it’s really the responsibility of settlers to reflect on this history and address it on Ojibwe terms,” she said. “To say that the city of Superior was built on Ojibwe lands is vast understatement. The city of Superior is here because of the dispossession of those Ojibwe lands. It’s really the cession of Ojibwe lands that made it possible for the city to grow.”
This is a small, but important step for the city to right a wrong, Norrgard said.
“It’s those of us who are non-Indigenous, (with) settler backgrounds who have forgotten this history,” Norrgard said. “I know this all too well because so few of my students know what happened at Wisconsin Point.”
The council will consider the resolution at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 20, in Room 201 of the Government Center.