Strawberry Island celebration commemorates its return to tribal ownership
It was a day of ceremony and thanks for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa last Thursday, when a celebration was held to commemorate the return of the “heart of Lac du Flambeau” also known as Strawberry island, to the tribe.
The 26-acre island sits just off-shore in Flambeau Lake and has significant and sacred meaning to the Ojibwe people. It is the location of a great battle fought there in 1745 between the Dakota Sioux and the Ojibwe (Chippewa). For these people, the area provided plenty of fish, game and an important food staple, wild rice. The Chippewa won that battle and the Sioux moved further West ceding the territory to the Ojibwe where they have resided ever since.
While the island has always held cultural significance for area Native Americans, it was sold in 1910 under the Dawes Act that allotted tribal lands to individual tribal members as a way to assimilate natives to more European practices.
Disputes about purchasing the island began in 1995 when Walter Mills, whose ancestral family bought the property from a five-year-old Native American boy in the early 1900s, decided to develop it. Lengthy and persistent legal battles ensued for nearly 20 years as the tribe tried to regain ownership of the island.
Accusations of greed on one side and extortion on the other thwarted any efforts to settle the dispute until Dec. 2013 when the tribe was finally able to purchase it for $250,000 from Bonnie Mills-Rush, a descendant of Walter.
There was definitely a feeling of relief and victory in the air during the ceremony which was marked by a perfect Northwoods day, the Tomahawk Circle drummers, speakers, a band, a feast and boat rides around the island. Off in the distance Strawberry Island could be seen through a grove of pine trees.
“People are really excited and feeling victorious that we have the island back,” said Melinda Young, tribal historic preservation officer. “Now we have come full circle.”
Tom Maulson, tribal president was also feeling excited that the island was back in tribal ownership. “We want people to know that we honor our sacred sites,” he said. “Non-Indian people don’t understand the significance of the first people and that there are more than one nation under the flag. We are an Indian nation, the first people here. It is a good day.”
One of the tribes spiritual leaders, Leon “Boycee” Valliere also addressed the crowd explaining the sacred significance of the island.
“Our ancestors fought there,” he said. “Now it will never be developed and our children will know for generations how an important part of our history was made there.”
According to Young, the tribe has no specific plans for the island. In fact, it has always been a place so revered that tribal members leave it alone.
“It is a significant place for our tribe because of the battle that was fought there so we tell our children and grandchildren to stay away out of respect for our ancestors,” she said. “Now I’m glad my children and grandchildren will have this land preserved for the future.”
The island does contain some recorded archeological significance. In 1995 Robert Birmingham, a state archeologist, described it as “one of the most important archeological sites in Northern Wisconsin.” In fact in 1966, Strawberry Island was the site of an archeological dig by Robert Salzer, a professor at Beloit College, who claimed it had human remains and artifacts dating back to 200 BC. The island was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
“We are glad that the island is back under tribal control,” said Maulson. “Now it can be preserved for generations to come.”