Just over a century ago, a work crew dug up the remains of nearly 200 Ojibwe people from a burial ground at the end of Wisconsin Point, a long peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior across the water from Duluth. Among the exhumed was Chief Osaugie, who signed two major treaties with the U.S. government in the mid-1800s.
The remains were reburied in 1919 in a mass grave at St. Francis Cemetery on the mainland in Superior.
The bodies were moved to clear the way for an iron ore dock and other infrastructure that U.S. Steel wanted to build. But Fond du Lac Tribal Chairman Kevin DuPuis said after the remains of his ancestors were disinterred, the company never went ahead with the project.
"I want everybody to remember that. They picked a group of people up and moved them and put them in a different area, but never even did the project that they wanted to do."
Even more than a century later, DuPuis said the sting of that injustice still hurts.
"The pain is real. And it really hurts. But this might be an opportunity that we have the ability to start our healing process.”
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At a celebration Thursday at the Band's Black Bear Casino in Carlton, Minn., to mark the land transfer, Superior Mayor Jim Paine signed over the deeds for both pieces of land: less than an acre at the site of the burial ground on Wisconsin Point, and nearly an acre and a half at the St. Francis cemetery, the site of the mass grave.
"It's a very short and simple bureaucratic procedure,” Paine said. “It's a very small thing. And I think it's the most important thing I've ever done."
For decades many Ojibwe people have been fighting to have the land returned. Bob Miller grew up hearing about life at the end of Wisconsin Point. He's a descendant of Chief Osaugie. His grandmother lived there small Ojibwe village as a young child in the early 1900s. She told him stories about running up and down the beach, mending fishing nets, taking a boat to town to go to school.
But Miller said she was forced to leave at the same time the burial ground was bulldozed.
"Deep down inside, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for this moment,” Miller said. “I wish my grandmother was still 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."
He said he can't put into words what it means to have the land returned.
Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, also attended the event. He's also former president of the Bay Mills Indian Community of Ojibwe in Michigan.
He said it’s important that Native American sacred sites are both respected and protected.
"And who best to ensure this than tribes themselves whose ancestral and spiritual connections to these places stretches back to time immemorial. The Fond du Lac people here are in the best position to care for this very special place."
The event Thursday was a celebration of the land return, attended by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin and other politicians.
But it was also a recognition of a grave injustice committed against Ojibwe people. Walz echoed the words of Superior city council president Jenny Van Sickle, herself an Alaskan Native and the person credited with spearheading the land transfer, who said, "this doesn't make it right, but it's the right thing to do."
"And for those of you in this room, who had your ancestors violated, I am deeply sorry,” Walz said. “I hope you find some comfort in the attempt today to try and move by doing something right. It will never make right what happened."
Van Sickle called it “a step in the right direction.” The next step for the Band is to apply to the federal government to have the land put into federal trust. “We’re not done yet,” Van Sickle told the crowd.
Newland said the Department of the Interior would act quickly once it receives an application. “We never want to be the obstacle standing in the way between tribes and what they need to do to protect their people and protect their lands,” he said.
In the meantime Fond du Lac chairman Kevin DuPuis said it will be up to the band's 4,200 citizens to decide what they want done with the parcels, as well as another 13 acres the federal government returned at the end of Wisconsin Point to the Band five years ago.
"Most importantly,” DuPuis said, “I think the biggest thing is just simple protection of [the land]. Just simple protection."