Fond du Lac Band recovers sacred lands in Superior
Superior officials turned over deeds to the Wisconsin Point burial ground and a mass grave near the Nemadji River during a reclamation celebration at Black Bear Casino Resort.
CARLTON — The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa now controls the burial sites in Superior where the tribe's ancestors were once exhumed and moved to a mass grave.
The Band celebrated the reclamation of the sacred lands in Superior with city officials; U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; governors Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Tim Walz of Minnesota; descendants of Chief Joseph Osaugie; and many others Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort's Otter Creek Event Center.
The Band was deeded the burial grounds on Wisconsin Point by Superior officials and the site of mass graves near the Nemadji River by the St. Francis board of trustees.
“A century ago, a true injustice was carried out against your people when your ancestors, as you’ve explained, were dug up and moved into a mass grave to make way for commercial development,” said Brian Newland, assistant secretary of the Office of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior. “A commercial development, that by the way, was never carried out. Now we’re here to witness the restoration, the reclamation, of a part of your homelands that have been taken from you long ago.”
In 1918, U.S. Steel Company exhumed 198 graves on Wisconsin Point and reburied them in 29 plots on the northern bank of the Nemadji River after the city of Superior appealed a court decision that would have protected the burial site. It was only after the exhumation that U.S. Steel learned Wisconsin Point’s sandy shore wasn’t a suitable site for an ore dock.
“Not only did they dig up our ancestors and put them in a mass grave; they used a trust fund with the United States government that was supposed to be for our benefit to pay for the exhumation and transport of those bodies,” said Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac’s natural resources manager and emcee for the celebration. “… We actually had to pay for that.”
Newland said the reclamation is an important step to healing.
Superior City Council President Jenny Van Sickle, an Alaska Native, started the process to return the burial grounds on Wisconsin Point when she garnered council approval to work toward the reclamation last year. On Thursday, she remembered the words that compelled her to do the work when she was invited to attend on a meeting with the Band in March 2021.
“‘You politicians come and go. I’ve heard it all before. We want that burial ground back,’” she said. “Being the solidly stubborn Native woman that my mother raised me to be, 13 months later, here we are.”
The work took months of research, survey work and collaboration with the Band. It also involved many staff members in the city administration.
Van Sickle said Mayor Jim Paine worked with the St. Francis community to turn over the land near the Nemadji River and St. Francis Cemetery where the mass graves are located.
“I want to thank the St. Francis community …” Paine said. “They were deeply committed to getting this done. They’ve recognized the injustice that these places represented for a very long time. And they wanted to make it as right as they possibly could.”
Paine was also responsible for signing the deed to return the Wisconsin Point burial ground.
“My role here is very brief … in a few minutes, I’m going to sign my name to a single document,” Paine said. “It’s a very short and simple bureaucratic procedure. It’s a very small thing, and I think it’s the most important thing I have ever done.”
For the family whose ancestors once inhabited Wisconsin Point, it was a meaningful act.
“I really can’t put into words what I am feeling at this moment,” said Bob Miller, a descendant of Chief Osaugie. Osaugie signed the Treaty of 1854 on behalf of the Ojibwe people. “I feel pride. I feel happiness. I feel a oneness with everyone here who knows what this means.”
Miller said he grew up with the “amazing stories” his grandmother and uncle told about growing up on Wisconsin Point until his grandmother was age 8.
“I cannot tell you how thankful I am for this moment,” Miller said. “I wish my grandmother was here. She told me that if we ever got part of the point back, she would be the first one to move out there, to go back out where she used to live as a child.”