Welcome to the Jerusalem for Ojibwe People
“This is our land, my girl,” my mother said. It was all she said during the hours we walked along the beach and gazed out into the gaping maw that is Gichigami, the great sea. We seldom spoke during these visits to the lake, but this trip to Madeline Island and the beach at Amnicon Bay was especially quiet. Her emotion was palpable and didn’t need any words. The wind and great glug-glug voice of Gichigami would have swallowed them up anyway and so we were simply there together.
This is how my mother taught me to pray. She never spoke of complex theories regarding ancestral memory or ties to place or even of the spirits that Ojibwe know are imbued in all things. She just put me where I needed to be and trusted that I would know, as she knew, that our Ojibwe hearts and souls are part of our water and land that includes Madeline Island, Moningwanekaaning, the place of the flickers (yellow breasted-woodpeckers).
All of our visits home to the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin began the same; first we “greeted the lake” in her words and then we saw relatives, friends and places. But our first and only trip to Madeline Island together was unique. Funded by my new newspaper job, we rode the ferry to the Island and rented a room for the night in the upscale tourist enclave that white people have made of La Pointe, the island’s only town. I knew immediately that I needed to return.
And so I come whenever time and money permits, and now I bring my own children. The legacy of this place is being revealed to me slowly; each visit bringing a new revelation and connection to the business of being an Ojibwe woman, whose job is to care for the water.
Last summer, I traveled to the Island again, taking along my teenage daughter, Rosa, who spent much of the time pouting in the car. Our first stop was Winona LaDuke’s self- described Ojibwe timeshare on the outskirts of the town of La Pointe. She maintains that it the first residential wigwam built on the island in over 100 years.
LaDuke, Ojibwe activist and economist from the White Earth reservation in Minnesota describes Madeline Island as the cultural and spiritual equivalent of Mecca or Jerusalem for Ojibwe people. Accordingly she has staked a claim here.
The wigwam is set back in the woods. Covered with heavy plastic sheeting and accessible by walking over sheets of plywood laid over the soggy ground, the entrance features a bright red door. The old wood door hangs awkwardly in its frame and scrapes the plywood when opened. Whimsically painted green lawn furniture sits in the entryway. The site and the structure are a sweetly defiant expression of Indian presence that has mostly been welcomed by non-Native residents.
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