©Richard Hamilton Smith/Courtesy the Nature Conservancy
Big Susie island, now finally back under ownership of the Grand Portage Ojibwe, completes the 13-isle archipelago.

Lucky 13: The Susie Islands Return in Full to the Grand Portage People

Konnie LeMay

Ending nearly two centuries of separation, the Grand Portage Ojibwe again have ownership of the 13th island in an archipelago.

Earlier this year, the Nature Conservancy gave the tribe the one island it lacked of the Susie Islands—Susie Island itself. Nicknamed Big Susie, the 145-acre islet is the largest in the archipelago that starts about a mile offshore in Lake Superior.

Grand Portage already owns the other 12, and all fall within the reservation boundaries. The band is now seeking trust status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the archipelago, which would finish the job of giving them full control over the land.

“The big thing is we can manage the whole area; we’ll be able to keep it that way,” said Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe, emphasizing that just as with the other islands, Big Susie will never be developed.

“We allow recreation out there, but we don’t allow any kind of development,” Deschampe said. “It’s preserved for the band here and the people here. Our people go out there fishing, gathering.”

Since creation of the reservation under the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe, northeastern and western portions of Grand Portage lands (marked gray on the attached map), including the archipelago, were excluded on original maps and not restored to the reservation until a 1982 proclamation by the Secretary of the Interior. Some lands, though, were privately held.

“Grand Portage leadership at the time and since then have worked very hard to have this area restored,” said April McCormick, the band’s manager of Roads and Realty, adding that the move is significant on a symbolic level as well. “This transaction itself is about restorative justice on many levels, and the Nature Conservancy recognizes and honors this relationship between the land and the band’s authority through this direct transfer.”

While Big Susie is a gift from the conservancy, which acquired the island via piecemeal purchases between 1973 and 1991, the Grand Portage Band has been working hard to regain control of all land within the reservation. The band or tribal members now own 98 percent of land on the reservation, thanks to acquisition from non-Native owners. The purchases have been made possible by proceeds from the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino.

“It’s one of the bright spots as far as the revenue from the casino, to purchase a lot of tracts that were privately owned,” Deschampe said. “We’ve been buying quite a bit of land. It’s kind of ironic that you have to buy your own land. It affects everything from business to zoning, everything. The more of the land that you really do own, the more effectively you can manage it.”

Good local management is at the heart of the negotiated transfer of Susie Island. In a letter to the Cook County Board, which has formally supported the land transfer, the conservancy pointed to Susie Island’s remote location and difficult access, stating that it “would be better managed by an entity with both a conservation emphasis and a strong local presence.”

McCormick said cooperative work on Big Susie has been longstanding.

“The Nature Conservancy and the band have excellent land management practices in regards to Susie,” she said. “Within the band’s Land Use Ordinance, Susie is zoned with the designation of ‘Preservation,’ which has a purpose to ‘sustain areas which have historical, cultural, religious, geographic or environmental significance to the people of the Grand Portage Reservation.’ ”

The islands have been logged and copper mined in the past. It was once a staging site for commercial fishing, not always appreciated by the tribe. A National Park Service website about Grand Portage history noted that “in the 1880s and 1890s, itinerant Scandinavian fishermen regularly cruised up and down the north shore, taking herring, trout and whitefish. In 1889 band members complained to the government that these fishermen, some of whom camped on Susie and the other islands just outside Wauswaugoning Bay, spread nets so large that they monopolized the fish. Around the turn of the century a more permanent fishing station started up at Grand Portage, this time on the island.”

“The human history of the islands is very interesting,” said Travis Novitsky, a local photographer who has frequented the islands. “You can still see remnants of human use in several areas, from old dock cribs just beneath the surface to the old mining equipment that still rests on Big Susie Island and even an old engine block still sitting on the shoreline of Big Susie.”

Mainly the plant life, though, caused the Nature Conservancy to work hard to purchase all of Susie Island.

“Species that disappeared from the rest of Minnesota after the glaciers receded northward still survive here. Today, many of these plants are more typically found in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions,” the Nature Conservancy noted on a fact sheet about Susie Island. “In addition the island’s sheer cliffs, rocky promontories and poor soils are inhospitable for many plants. This ‘cloud forest’ environment supports a rich variety of mosses and lichens, and a blanket bog of sphagnum mosses one to three feet thick has spread over much of the island.”

Federal government approval of trust status for Susie Island is expected later this year, a welcome return for the Grand Portage Ojibwe.

“It’s deeply embedded into our history as Grand Portage, and how we’ve lived here for generations,” said McCormick. “It solidifies long-term management with lands around these islands. It’s really exciting to see this significant parcel returned to the band.”

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