Isle Royale visitors weren't always told its full Indigenous history. Now, Grand Portage Band, US flags fly together
Band leadership hopes it's the beginning of even deeper ways for them to experience their traditional cultural land.
MINONG (Isle Royale), Mich. — Standing below the newly raised Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa flag at Windigo, the visitor center on the south side of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, Grand Portage council member John Morrin said the move helped with “reviving the spirits” of generations of Indigenous people that have used the island.
“Glad we’re back,” Morrin told the crowd of band members, park staff and backpackers gathered Tuesday afternoon below the flag, which flies at the same level as the U.S. flag on a pole beside it. “We’ve been away for a long time … Miigwech (Ojibwe for "thank you") for allowing us, again, to be part of something that we’ve always been a part of. This is really a truly significant and also a sacred time.”
Tuesday’s ceremony, which brought a ferry full of Grand Portage members out to the island for the day, also recognized the ongoing and developing relationship between the park service and band. In 2019, the island and its traditional fishing waters around it were recognized as a traditional cultural property and accepted in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. While it is largely symbolic, the designation requires the park’s management to consult the tribe on any major changes or developments on the island.
For Grand Portage Band Chairman Bob Deschampe, he wants the flag to prompt discussions and help visitors know the island’s full history.
“I’m hoping when people come to the island and they see this flag, the park service gives them an accurate reason or explanation why it’s here and tell our story,” Deschampe said.
Offering the council a traditional gift of bundled tobacco, a painting of Isle Royale's Rock Harbor and an Indigenous artifact that could be from 2,500-5,000 years ago, Denice Swanke, the park’s superintendent, called the Grand Portage flag raising an “important” and “historic” moment.
Island was — and is — used by Indigenous people
Isle Royale — called Minong, “the good place” in Ojibwe — has long been used by Indigenous people along the shores of Lake Superior in what is now Minnesota and Ontario. They mined for copper on the island as far back as 4,500 years ago . The copper was then cold-hammered into knives, spear points and other ornaments and have been found as far away as New England.
When Tim Cochrane, former superintendent of Grand Portage National Monument and an Isle Royale researcher, arrived on the island as a park service employee in 1976, prehistoric mining seemed to be the only Indigenous story told by the park.
“When I came out to the island, it was curious that at that time, there was not a discussion about historic native use of the island,” Cochrane said
“That kind of bothered me. And that started it all,” Cochrane said of his research, which includes the 2009 book “Minong — The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale” and the nomination form that helped recognize the island as a traditional cultural property.
Beyond the ancient mining, Indigenous people have always used the island, namely for hunting, fishing and gathering of medicinal plants. As fur traders, U.S. surveyors, mining companies, fisheries and resorters moved in, Ojibwe people served as guides or employees.
And while they have largely been on the outside looking in on park management since it became Isle Royale National Park — authorized in 1931 and established in 1940 — the Grand Portage Reservation has been the gateway to Isle Royale for visitors leaving Minnesota. Island visitors often stay at the Grand Portage Lodge before taking an early morning ferry to the park. There’s also a marina there for private fishing boats and some members work as fishing guides.
As it has been throughout history, Isle Royale remains an economic resource for Grand Portage people.
For it to be considered a traditional cultural property, Cochrane had to prove the island is still used by Indigenous people. Virtually all Grand Portage members have a direct connection to the island, he said.
“This isn’t over,” Cochrane said. “This is what’s still going on.”
After Tuesday’s ceremony, a number of band members stayed on the island for several days scoping out areas with the park service that could be used to bring groups of young band members out to learn about the environment and cultural aspects of the island.
“The importance of it is that the younger generation know that Isle Royale was never given up by the Grand Portage people,” Deschampe said. “In all the treaties, we never signed away this and that’s where I think we’re moving forward with the park service.”
Since there was no treaty, he’d like a more formal agreement between the park service and band, one that allows for subsistence hunting.
While fishing has been a constant, and the traditional cultural property designation has allowed for gathering of medicine on the island, Deschampe wants band members to be allowed to hunt moose on the island to help control that population. But hunting remains banned in the park.
Anna Deschampe, a Grand Portage member and interpretation program manager at Grand Portage National Monument, said the relationship with the park service “could lead to all sorts of amazing things.”
“That’s what I would really like to see: a continued relationship where we have events like this and ceremonies and special things that happen,” Anna said. “But more important than the bigger, special things are the everyday relationships that continue and grow and deepen.”
Much of that Grand Portage Band-park service relationship was forged by Anna’s father, the late Norman Deschampe, who served as tribal chairman for 27 years before his death in February 2019.
"He had a vision for the Grand Portage Band to be out on this island," Bob said.
Anna and others said they could feel Norman’s presence at Tuesday’s ceremony. He had worked hard to make the traditional cultural property designation happen.
“To continue that relationship by raising the flag that we brought out here and continuing to do our ceremonies and honor the land here, honor the water, honor the spirits here — it's just really special,” Anna said. “I know he was out here with us, and you can feel it, he would have been so proud. And he would have been just walking all over, laughing and shaking hands with a big, huge smile on his face.
"And that's the image that I have in my head today is one of warmth and pride and an honor — honor the work of those who came before us.”
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