A legacy of preservation and resilience on the Menominee Indian Reservation influences how the tribe maintains identity and land.
Listen to the wind whistle across the deep green landscape, across the pines.
The needles whirl on the land
where the Menominee have walked for thousands of years.
The trees seem to grow thicker as you drive into the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. On a cloudy fall day, yellow, red and orange leaves fall from Aspen trees and dance in the sky as the Wolf River ripples nearby.
David Grignon, who also goes by his Indian name, Nahwahquaw, is the tribal historic preservation officer on the Menominee Reservation. He sits in a cabin in the Menominee Logging Camp Museum, where wood smoke warms the air and a flute plays serenely in the background. The cabin has no doors, only an overhead roof, blocking the rain pattering in time with music.
“You ask the Menominee, ‘What is your belief system?’ Some will say God or going to church, but I just go into the forest,” Grignon says. “That’s where I worship, that’s my church. It’s our home: the land, the trees, the water. It’s a part of us.”
Those on the reservation tell of a day long passed when the land stretched farther and wider, a time before the tribe was terminated, before environmental and cultural devastation.
However, while members of the tribe acknowledge a painful history, they are proud to be Menominee. Their thriving forest is more than a physical place to the Menominee. It is their connection to history, a tie to ancestry and a place to embrace spirituality.
The forest is their identity.
Listen to the history, whispering through the cedars,
ingrained in the soil where Menominee ancestors now lay.
A story of destruction, revival and renewal.
The hundreds of trees, bathed in fall colors, stretch toward the sky. Their roots stay planted in the land the Menominee have lived on for thousands of years.
The forest remains the Menominee’s identity even though much of their land has been taken, serving as a reminder to everything the Menominee have done to protect who they are as a people.
UW-Madison professor and member of the Bad River Band of the Ojibwe tribe Patty Loew says the Menominee were forced into ceding millions of acres of their land in the early 1800s. Then, in 1848, the government ordered the Menominee to exchange their lands for a 600,000-acre reservation in Minnesota. Chief Oshkosh, a leader at the time, refused.
“Our ancestors were buried in this land. We didn’t want to move,” Grignon says. “What was here was wilderness. People knew this area because they had lived here for thousands of years. And we had a forest. Everything around us was being cut.”
According to Loew, Chief Oshkosh went to Washington, D.C., and spoke to President Fillmore, who eventually decided to temporarily withdraw the removal order. The Menominee continued to fight against removal and, in the Treaty of 1854, they received 276,000 acres in Wisconsin as a permanent home.
Even in the midst of land loss, the Menominee found a way to preserve what they had left: the forest.
According to Grignon, Chief Oshkosh developed a sustainable forestry method that allowed the tribe to still maintain the woodland while benefiting from it economically. The method is still in use today. The tribe starts by cutting only mature trees on the east end. By the time they reach the other side of the forest, the east end is ready to be cut again to use for timber.
While using this method was a blessing to the people, it was also a curse.
“We’re considered one of the richest tribes because of our success with the forest, but we were punished for that in 1954,” Grignon says. “We were forced into what is called termination because of our success.”
Historically, American Indians have what is considered a “trust relationship” with the federal government, meaning the government must protect American Indian resources and lands while maintaining any treaty obligations. With the success of the sustainable forestry technique, the government saw the Menominee no longer needed the government’s help and terminated the trust relationship with the tribe, Grignon explains.
“That was a direct abrogation of treaties,” Grignon says. “We had to pay for termination, so we used all of our money. It was a real disaster for us. We lost federal status and we lost sovereign status through termination.”
The tribe was officially terminated by the government on May 1, 1963.
The Menominee is one of two tribes to have ever been terminated, no longer a tribe in the eyes of the government. A piece of their recognized identity was gone.
The government had no obligation to protect Menominee land. According to Grignon, the tribe lost its hospital, health care and education systems.
Before termination, the tribe had more than $10 million in cash assets, but after spending money to mitigate the effects of termination, the tribe was left with a mere $300,000 in 1964.
The terminaton’s devastating effects were evident, and the government realized termination was not the solution to tribal independence. In the early 1960s the government stopped the termination process, but it was too late for the Menominee.
According to Loew, to keep their land, the Menominee decided to form a county. However, the costs of maintaining a county sent the tribe into extreme poverty. Menominee County remains the poorest in Wisconsin today.
The tribe, however, refused to accept termination as a permanent future. In the late 1960s, Ada Deer, a tribal member, went to Washington, D.C., to ask the government to reverse the Menominee’s termination.
On Dec. 22, 1973, the tribe was officially restored, but devastation still lingered.
“The damage was done already,” Grignon says. “We had lost pretty much everything. It was like starting over.”
Remember the way the forest looks in the brittle Wisconsin winter,
on the days where the cold Midwestern sun memorizes the trees’ soaring bodies.
On days when it feels like everything is gone: Remember the forest.
Branches rustle in the early October wind and the smell of wood smoke drifts through the air. The rings in the cut logs attest to the years these trees have lived in the forest—their forest.
While the Menominee lost devastating amounts of land, they continue to ensure that their identity, tied to the forest, lives on.
Chris Caldwell, a tribal member and the director of the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation, works to do just that. The institute was created as a way for the Menominee people to explore their history with sustainable forestry and create a dialogue on sustainable development, while also studying the impacts of globalization.
Grignon says people come from around the world to look at the Menominee forest as a model of sustainable forestry.
The model at the institute is based on understanding the nativeness of the land itself—in other words, the Menominee identity in the land.
“This model is a derivative of the Menominee’s understanding of our place, of where we are at,” Caldwell says.
The Menominee could easily make great economic gains by clear-cutting their entire forest and selling the timber, yet sustainability to them is about much more than economic success.
“The forest has always provided for the Menominee,” Caldwell says. “We have always known that if we take care of the forest, the forest will take care of us.”
Remember the connection that rests in the heart of the Menominee,
in the land where they have grown and overcome.
A connection that refuses to be broken.
Golden leaves cover the grassy ground of the reservation. The mismatch of green and golden serves not only as a reminder to what has fallen but to what will be born again.
Today, the Menominee still have their land and, most importantly, their forest, a source of pride for tribal members.
“We are still bouncing back from termination, but our connection to the land is still there,” Grignon says.
Twenty-two-year-old Nicole Tomow, who also goes by her Indian name, Pah-fah-pan-nu-kiw, meaning first light of dawn woman, knows the stories of her tribal ancestors and is proud to have the land her people fought for.
“I feel blessed to be Menominee because we have our big forest and we have our Wolf River,” Tomow says. “The land we have now, and what we used to have, I guess it don’t matter how big it is. It is just being part of Menominee.”
For Tomow, her Menominee identity rests in the forest, where she began by drawing the trees and found her love of art. She hopes to return to school and pursue a degree in art.
Patricia Post, a current UW-Madison student and tribal member who grew up on the reservation, feels the land is part of her identity, even when she is far from home.
“Sometimes I would sit on Bascom Hill and think I just want to go in the woods and not see city,” Post says. “I feel grateful for the land because our ancestors fought for it and we should be happy that it is there. I feel like it is mine. It is my home.”
Eventually, a piece of the land will physically be her own, as her boyfriend and family members are building a house on the reservation where the two will live. This land in particular has spiritual significance to them; each time they go, they pray to the creator and offer tobacco as a way to feel a connection to the creator and the land.
Caldwell also celebrates his identity as a Menominee through a deep-rooted connection to the forest.
“There are so many different ways to say I am a Menominee,” Caldwell says. “Being a Menominee is stepping out into the woods and feeling the feelings that come up when you’re out there; thinking about the history, I wonder how many of my ancestors walked there and sat in this same spot, and all the things that all the people before me have done to ensure that we still have this piece of land to call our home and call our own.”
Patrick Delabrue, a reporter for the Menominee Nation News who grew up on the reservation, sits outside next to the river as the rain begins to come down more heavily, giving everything a dewy yellow glow; the trees glimmer in the mid-morning light.
Delabrue’s connection to the land surrounds him.
“It’s right here, man. All these trees you’re looking around at. It goes back to our roots really,” Delabrue says. “We are like all these trees here, man, we are rooted here, we’ve been rooted here for thousands and thousands of years and we’re not going anywhere.”
Celebrate the water, the ground, the trees,
the Menominee people who have felt the same dirt beneath their feet,
the same leaves above their head
who will stand in these woods until the last golden sun falls below the horizon.
A drum ceremony begins. The deep beat of the drum can be heard over the wind and the rain. The trees flutter, as if to the beat of the drum, a sound they have heard for years.
The Menominee are dedicated to ensuring that future generations will have the same identity to celebrate that tribal members have taken pride in for centuries.
Audrey O’Kimosh, whose Indian name is Sdasadada, which means “white cedar woman,” hopes to pass along this identity.
“I am proud to be a Menominee woman. I’m 74 years old, and I’ve walked a long time in my moccasins. I want to give back to the younger children,” O’Kimosh says. “I think that the Menominee people are really blessed with this land, the trees, the waters. What is important to us is to go and take care of the land.”
Grignon also focuses on future tribal members when explaining why sustainability is important.
“It’s important because that’s what our Chief [Oshkosh] said. This land is what we have left, we had to cede millions of acres; this is what we have. We need to preserve it for future generations,” Grignon says.
Just like the hundreds of trees covering the Menominee Reservation, the Menominee tribe is rooted in the soil, in the forest where they have been for thousands of years and where they plan to stay for centuries to come.
A Tale of Land Loss
In the 1700s American Indian populations dominated much of Wisconsin and most tribes had an expansive land base. This map works to show the severe change that occurred after contact with white settlers and illustrates the large amount of land lost by American Indian populations in Wisconsin. The map shows American Indian lands in 1768 and the land base today in 2014.