SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – For hundreds of years, an ancient Anishinaabek (Ojibwe) burial ground along the St. Marys River, Wadjiwong, went undisturbed and forgotten by many. The burial ground, just east of the Soo Locks, became a local park where families picnicked and watched fireworks on the Fourth of July.
In 1999, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills Indian Community were notified through the National Historic Preservation Act about a proposed project at Brady Park by the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Soo Lock).
The tribes were opposed to any disturbance of the ancient burial site and in 2004 negotiations began between the city of Sault Ste. Marie, the Sault Tribe, Bay Mills Indian Community and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a plan to protect the site.
To the delight of all parties involved, the USACE Area Engineer Stan Jacek donated 1,200 feet of steel picket fencing left over from a previous project and it was agreed to fence the burial ground.
In June 2005, with the 150th anniversary of the Soo Locks only two weeks away, the tribes were determined to have the fencing completed, and to host a memorial dedication of the site to correspond with the celebrations. The USACE donated time, men and equipment, all valued at $250,000, and had the job completed within two weeks.
“It all fell into place like it was meant to be,” said Sault Tribe Cultural Repatriation Specialist Cecil Pavlat. “The property where the burial site is located belongs to the USACE with the tribe holding a renewable 25 year lease on the fenced burial site. The city was involved in the original negotiations because they held a lease for Brady Park where the burial ground is located.”
About the same time they had been notified of the proposed project at Brady Park, the Sault Tribe and BMIC were notified by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that some remains from the park were in their possession and the repatriation process began to bring them home.
Eight human skulls and some bones which had been unearthed during the expansion of the old Fort Brady were returned to the tribes by the museum. The ancestral remains were eventually re-buried in June of 2007 and a large boulder was placed over them to be sure they would never again be disturbed. The large boulder, or grandfather, placed over the remains symbolized one which had been destroyed when the local courthouse was built. The original boulder was covered in pictographs and considered sacred by the local Native population.
The burial ground now has four spirit houses, each facing a cardinal direction, representing our mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Spirit houses were traditionally made of birch bark and placed on the graves at the time of burial. An opening was made in the western direction and offerings were made to aid loved ones on their journey.
Wadjiwong, the name given to the ancient burial site, means hill in the Ojibwe language. Chief of the Crane Clan, Shingabawossin, who died in 1828, referred to the burial ground as ancient.
In addition to the spirit houses, traditional burial markers bore the person’s clan symbol but were turned upside down to show they had passed to the spirit world.
Also on this hill overlooking the river was Adjimag, or the sacred Mountain Ash tree. It was said that on calm cloudless days the tree gave forth a sound like distant rolling drums, and so it was believed that a spirit resided there. Offerings and prayers were placed at the base of the tree. During the anniversary celebrations at Soo Locks, a Mountain Ash tree was planted in honor of the original one near the spirit houses and boulder.
In honor of the fencing of the burial ground a local blacksmith, Bill Morrison, was hired to make a gate and with help from Pavlat, hand-hammered the gate and archway in the old blacksmith style and pieced it together. There is an upside down ornately fashioned crane on the arch above the gate signifying the site as a burial ground.
“This is a place that has a lot of meaning and history to the first people of the rapids, or Bahweting area, on the St. Marys River,” Pavlat said. “This area is very sacred to us; we honor and respect our ancestors. We are not stagnant or extinct as a people, we are still here. I think it is important if people want to know our story to come and ask us. This area has always been a gathering place for the Anishinaabek from the Great Lakes Basin, which includes Canada. The border didn’t exist and our relationship with surrounding tribes has always been strong. We are all related by blood and our culture and beliefs. History didn’t start in 1668 when Sault Ste. Marie became incorporated or in 1641 when the first Jesuit missionary came here.
“There were a lot of tribes that were very advanced in terms of agriculture, their beliefs and understanding their place in creation and recognizing and respecting that. There has been a lot that has happened to us as American Indians but we are very resilient and forgiving. I was asked by a student once, ‘Don’t you forgive and forget?’ It was an interesting question. Yes, we do forgive but why would we ever forget? Why would we forget the sacrifices of our ancestors for the rights and things we enjoy today?”
The fence protects the old burial ground against foot traffic and unauthorized digs by amateur archeologists, but is not intended to keep the community out. The majority of Brady Park remains open to the public. Even though the shoreline of the river has changed over the years, the perimeter of the burial ground has been established as near as possible to the original boundaries of the site. There are two sets of keys to the hand-hammered gate, one for each of the two tribes whose ancestors are buried there.
Today, tourists visiting the area have many activities to choose from; explore lighthouses and waterfalls or take a tour along scenic byways. Try a canoe or kayak trip on one of the many scenic rivers or dive on one of the Great Lakes shipwrecks.
Here you are surrounded by some of the largest freshwater lakes in the world – Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron – with 1,700 miles of shoreline around the region.
With several state parks, miles of beaches and more than 4,000 inland lakes, there is a host of outdoor pursuits. Whether hiking, fishing, exploring the Soo Locks, shopping or relaxing on the beach, the area is full of adventure.
In addition to recreation, a rich history of mining, logging and fishing is waiting to be discovered at local museums, including the Valley Camp Museum and Tower of History Museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette Maritime Museum in Marquette and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise.
Don’t forget to visit the Sault Tribe Kewadin Casinos or the Bay Mills Indian Community for some gaming fun, or to catch one of their many concerts by today’s contemporary artists. They also offer buffet-style restaurants, gift shops and a relaxing place to stay. One more thing you won’t want to miss, traditional American Indian pow wows offered throughout the summer months in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula.