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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.

Superior Mayor Jim Paine hands the signed land deed to the sacred site on Wisconsin Point over to Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, right, hands the signed land deed to the sacred site on Wisconsin Point over to Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday morning, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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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.

Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, center, is overcome with emotion as she is wrapped in a shawl by Kevin Dupuis, left, the Chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac Natural Resources Manager, during the Reclamation Ceremony
Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, center, is overcome with emotion as she is wrapped in a shawl by Kevin Dupuis, left, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac Natural Resources manager, during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday morning, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“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.

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Sacred land on Wisconsin Point was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe during a ceremony Thursday
Sacred land on Wisconsin Point was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa during a ceremony Thursday, Aug. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“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.”

U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, speaks to the crowd during the Reclamation Ceremony
Bryan Newland, U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, speaks to the crowd during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday morning, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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.”

Chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Kevin Dupuis, speaks to the crowd during the Reclamation Ceremony
Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, speaks to the crowd during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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.

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“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.

Bob Miller, a descendant of Chief Joseph Osaugie, talks about hearing stories from his grandmother about her time living on Wisconsin Point during the Reclamation Ceremony
Bob Miller, a descendant of Chief Joseph Osaugie, talks about hearing stories from his grandmother about her time living on Wisconsin Point during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“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.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, left, talks about trying to right a wrong while Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, center, and Bryan Newland, U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, listen during the Reclamation Ceremony
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, left, talks about trying to right a wrong while Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, center, and Bryan Newland, U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, listen during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers thanks a number of people for their hard work as he speaks during the Reclamation Ceremony
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers thanks a number of people for their hard work as he speaks during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin receives a standing ovation during her speech at the Reclamation Ceremony
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin receives a standing ovation during her speech at the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle addresses the crowd at the Reclamation Ceremony
Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle addresses the crowd at the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, right, presents Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, with paperwork to the burial site on Wisconsin Point during the Reclamation Ceremony
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, right, presents Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, with paperwork to the burial site on Wisconsin Point during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino Resort in Carlton.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, left, is overcome with emotion after being wrapped in a shawl by Thomas Howes, center, Fond du Lac Natural Resources Manager, and Kevin Dupuis, the Chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, during the Reclamation Ceremony
Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, left, is overcome with emotion after being wrapped in a shawl by Thomas Howes, center, Fond du Lac Natural Resources manager, and Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18, at Black Bear Casino.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, right, hugs Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, after signing the land deed to the sacred site on Wisconsin Point over to the band during the Reclamation Ceremony
Superior Mayor Jim Paine, right, hugs Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, after signing the land deed to the sacred site on Wisconsin Point over to the band during the Reclamation Ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
A marker notes sacred land on Wisconsin Point that was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe
A marker notes sacred land on Wisconsin Point that was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa during a ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
A path leads to sacred land on Wisconsin Point that was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe during a ceremony Thursday
A path leads to sacred land on Wisconsin Point that was signed back over to the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa during a ceremony Thursday, Aug. 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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