Bad River Ojibwe Tribe Reclaims Amnicon Bay
So why lease such important land? It’s an old story in Indian country, physical survival required the tribe to sacrifice one of their dearest possessions. “Back in 1968, we were broke—even a thousand dollars coming in was a lot of money back then,” said Leoso.
According to Schwarz, the land leased for $5,000 annually in the first years and was the sole source of income for the tribe. Leoso notes that the decision to lease the land predates the 1978 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act when much of the tribe’s functioning was overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Before the Act, tribes had limited say in the administration and planning of tribal programs and services. The tribe did specify, however, that the leaseholders exercise good stewardship and make improvements to the land.
“People weren’t happy about having to lease the land back then but we knew that it was temporary; we would take it back one day,” she notes.
It seems safe to assume that the leaseholders at Amnicon Bay thought that day would never really come. After all, their Ojibwe landlords seldom visited the Bay or even the Island for that matter. Madeline Island is accessible only by water usually via public ferry from the town of Bayfield, located about 35 miles from the main Bad River Reservation. The round trip fee for the ferry is $37. For Bad River residents whose average annual income falls below the federal poverty level, such a trip represents a real financial decision. In many ways, Amnicon Bay members have historically counted on this barrier to keep their landlords at a distance as well as ensure the continuation of the lease.
“It’s not as though our paths normally cross. We’re not friends; they are our landlords, that’s just the way it is,” said Virginia Campbell. Campbell and her family began leasing land in the early years of the lease.
Bay Association members interviewed for this article state they have always known about the limitations of the lease including the ending date and the requirement to leave their lovingly built vacation homes behind if the lease is not renewed. Several homeowners, however, noted the vagaries of tribal politics and leadership as well as the tribes need for dependable income as important factors in the decision to renew the lease.
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