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Bad River Ojibwe Tribe Reclaims Amnicon Bay

A group of 18 non-Native people leasing land from the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe of Wisconsin, could see the lease come to an end in 2017.

“If the land has so much cultural significance for the tribe, why would they have leased it in the first place?” Harry Funk wondered. He and his wife Amy lease a half-acre plot on the scenic, exclusive northernmost point of Madeline Island. The Funks began leasing their property seven years ago as part of the Amnicon Bay Association, a group of about 18 non-Native people who lease a 17-acre tract of land called Amnicon Bay from the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe of Wisconsin. The 50-year lease, which began in 1967, ends in August 2017. Tribal leaders and members have declared they will not renew the lucrative lease that has brought in a dependable income from the land located over 30 miles and a ferry ride from the main reservation.

“We’ve paid out more than two million dollars to the tribe over the years,” according to Peggy Swartz, 81, the last remaining lease-holder from among the original seven members who comprised the association. She thinks it would not make good fiscal sense for the tribe to take the land back.

Swartz’s focus on money and Funk’s question lay bare the gap of race, class and culture that has long existed between Native and non-Native folks here on the Island, now home to upper-crust tourists. Their attitudes betray, albeit innocently, the entitlement and ignorance of history so often displayed by non-Native people who occupy Native land.

“It makes me uncomfortable to know that the tribe doesn’t want us here. It is their land, after all,” said Amy Fund, an attorney from Minneapolis who frequently represents disenfranchised clients on a pro-bono basis.

As specified in the lease, the Funks and other Bay members have maintained the land and kept up their homes. All that time and effort has created a tie to the area that is difficult to surrender. The Funks speak of leaving with a resigned acceptance tinged with frustration.

Like most of her fellow association members, however, she has never spoken directly to tribal members. “Please tell them that we are nice people,” she asked earnestly.

In many ways, the barriers between Native and non-Native communication aren’t difficult to identify. They are typical of the racial, class and economic divisions among many Americans. For instance, according to a study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the average tourist visiting the Apostle Islands area is overwhelming white, well-educated, with an income over $100,000. Most folks from Odanah, however, get along near the federal poverty line; most people don’t go on to college.

The land and the cabin owners on Amnicon Bay, however, represent a challenge to Native people that is difficult to express. The story of Amnicon Bay is one of great beauty, cultural pride and resistance to U.S. domination for the people of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe. It is also a story tinged with pain and regret over the need to sacrifice a powerful emblem of this pride for economic survival. Less than three years from now, however, the tribe has a chance for redemption.

Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The Bay, about 17 acres, is included in a 200-acre parcel on the island owned by the tribe, guaranteed to them by the LaPointe Treaty of 1854. Remote and pristine, the land on Amnicon Bay offers a seemingly endless view of Gitchee Gummee, or great sea, a view incomparable to any other location on the Island. Highlighting the exclusive nature of the beachfront property, a local realtor advertises the area as the Caribbean of the north.

“That view is like looking out at an ocean, and reminds us of our migration story, of our journey from the Atlantic Ocean; that is part of why our elders insisted on maintaining ownership of this land,” said Edith Leoso, Bad River Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.

Leoso refers to the Ojibwe migration story that tells of the tribes journey to the Great Lakes from the eastern area of the St. Lawrence Seaway hundreds of years before European contact. The story tells of a long journey guided by the vision of a megis shell leading to the place where food grows on the water. This food is wild rice or manoomin, a traditional Ojibwe food that grows in the Great Lakes region.

According to Leoso and others in the tribe, the Bay and Madeline Island in general are potent spiritual and cultural symbols not only for Bad River but for all Ojibwe.

Although the 1854 treaty refers to Amnicon Bay as fishing grounds, it represents far more than that. “It is a place for some of our most important ceremonies; it’s where we had our first Midewiwin ceremony when our people arrived in this area from the East, way before Europeans first came here,” according to Myron Burns, Bad River tribal council member.

So why lease such important land? It’s an old story in Indian country, physical survival required the tribe to sacrifice one of their dearest possessions. “Back in 1968, we were broke—even a thousand dollars coming in was a lot of money back then,” said Leoso.

According to Schwarz, the land leased for $5,000 annually in the first years and was the sole source of income for the tribe. Leoso notes that the decision to lease the land predates the 1978 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act when much of the tribe’s functioning was overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Before the Act, tribes had limited say in the administration and planning of tribal programs and services. The tribe did specify, however, that the leaseholders exercise good stewardship and make improvements to the land.

“People weren’t happy about having to lease the land back then but we knew that it was temporary; we would take it back one day,” she notes.

It seems safe to assume that the leaseholders at Amnicon Bay thought that day would never really come. After all, their Ojibwe landlords seldom visited the Bay or even the Island for that matter. Madeline Island is accessible only by water usually via public ferry from the town of Bayfield, located about 35 miles from the main Bad River Reservation. The round trip fee for the ferry is $37. For Bad River residents whose average annual income falls below the federal poverty level, such a trip represents a real financial decision. In many ways, Amnicon Bay members have historically counted on this barrier to keep their landlords at a distance as well as ensure the continuation of the lease.

“It’s not as though our paths normally cross. We’re not friends; they are our landlords, that’s just the way it is,” said Virginia Campbell. Campbell and her family began leasing land in the early years of the lease.

Bay Association members interviewed for this article state they have always known about the limitations of the lease including the ending date and the requirement to leave their lovingly built vacation homes behind if the lease is not renewed. Several homeowners, however, noted the vagaries of tribal politics and leadership as well as the tribes need for dependable income as important factors in the decision to renew the lease.

Mary Annette Pember

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View of Lake Superior Gichigami: “That view is like looking out at an ocean, and reminds us of our migration story, of our journey from the Atlantic Ocean.”

“I’m sure we’ll have a hard time leaving if it comes to that. We all love the land but as I’ve always told new members, ‘Remember, you are really only buying memories when you have a home here,’” Schwarz notes.

She opines that the subject of renewal will depend primarily upon the politics of tribal leadership in 2017.

Currently the Association and the tribe are involved in legal discussions regarding the amount of annual rent according to Burns. Neither Bad River tribal counsel nor the Amnicon Bay Association members would comment on this or the status of lease renewal negotiations.

John Tillotson, Bay Association treasurer, however, said, “It’s not meaningful to have renewal discussions until we are closer to the end of the lease.’

A lot can happen in three years according to Schwarz. “We are all holding out hope,” she said.

Schwarz’ hope, however, seems to be based on a status quo that is changing. “In many ways, we segregated ourselves from the Island,” notes Mike Wiggins, Bad River tribal chairman.

Wiggins opines that the Island enclave of mostly wealthy vacation homeowners presents a racial and class exclusivity that may not have felt welcoming to the tribal members. “I imagine they don’t feel at home here. They live in Odanah; this is a resort area,” Schwarz said.

Indeed, several Association members made reference to what they describe as unfortunate incidents in the past between Natives and non-Natives on the Amnicon Beach. In one incident, a belligerent Amnicon Bay resident ordered several Bad River people engaged in a sweat lodge off the lease land. And there have been other more minor occasions of residents confronting tribal members and asking them to leave.

“It’s only recently that we’ve begun to form a relationship with people on the island, there was too much friction between Native and non-Natives in the past, so few of our people went,” notes Leoso.

“We can sit down now and talk to each other without Native people feeling intimidated. It has to do with education and the non-Natives learning more about us and seeing that we are still alive; we are still here on the land,” she said.

“There is a shift occurring in that relationship,” according to Leoso.

Some of that change can be attributed to the tribe’s strong show of their treaty rights and sovereignty in recent years especially relating to protection and stewardship of the environment. In 2011, the tribe won the right from the Environmental Protection Agency to set their own standards for water quality on their lands.

"As a sovereign nation, the Bad River Tribal Government is committed to preserving and enhancing its natural resources for future generations and believes clean water should not be sacrificed for short-term speculative economics," Chairman Wiggins said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal.

Tribal leaders are proudly expressing the validity of traditional Ojibwe values in their relationships and negotiations with the non-Native communities and governments. Notably, Bad River is fighting the creation of a giant open pit iron ore mine immediately adjacent to the reservation that they maintain will pollute their land and water. In addition to utilizing their legal rights in the courts, the tribe has employed savvy coalition building methods among non-Native communities who share concerns over the health of the environment. This sophisticated ability to translate tribal values into a basic message of responsibility to family and community has attracted many supporters.

Regarding the tribes fight to keep Gogebic Taconite from building the mine, Chairman Wiggins said, This is a real and tangible example of our value system that involves responsible stewardship of our land and water,” Wiggins says.

RELATED: Wisconsin Endangers a Sacred Tradition

For Wiggins and most tribal members, taking the Amnicon Land back is a potent expression of not only of tribal sovereignty but also of Ojibwe tradition and values.

Schwarz, however, questioned the assertion that the Bay has strong traditional and ceremonial associations. She maintains that there has been very little activity by Bad River tribal members on the leased land.

“They can call it spiritual ground if they want and that’s fine, but that land was given to them as a fishing grounds because the fishing at Bad River wasn’t good,” she said.

Regarding cultural differences over the tribe’s connection to the land, Wiggins said in an ICTMN interview in 2011, “We are home and have been home for a thousand years, where the prophecies directed us to be. It may be difficult for others to understand, but this is our ancestral homeland.”