The Menominee Tribe's history is unique because our origin or creation begins at the mouth of the Menominee River, a mere 60 miles east of our present Menominee Indian Reservation. The Menominee River is where our history begins and the Menominee River, including the Sixty Islands Area near the proposed Back Forty Mine, are central to Menominee’s history and culture.
According to our creation story, the Ancestral Bear emerged from the ground at the mouth of the Menominee River and the Creator transformed the Ancestral Bear into human form as the first Menominee. Being alone, he called an Eagle flying high above to be his brother and descending, it also took the form of a human. As the two journeyed up the river they met a beaver and made her their sister. The Bear and the Eagle stood on the banks of the river and saw a stranger, the Sturgeon who was adopted by the Bear as a younger brother. The Elk was also adopted by the Eagle as a younger brother and water carrier. At another time, the Bear was going up the Wisconsin River and became fatigued and sat down to rest near a waterfall. From beneath the waterfall emerged a Wolf. While asking the Bear why he was there, the Crane came by. Bear called to him and said, “Crane, carry me to my people at the head of the river, and I will take you as my younger brother.” As Crane was taking Bear, Wolf called out to Bear saying, “Bear take me also as a younger brother, for I am alone.” From this time on, the families united into an organized body for mutual benefit known as the clan system. The clan structure of the Menominee people consists of 34 clans organized into five main phratries or subdivisions. Each phratry consists of a principal clan and a number of member clans.
Sometime around the 1600’s Menominee Dreamers foresaw the coming of a light skinned people in large boats that would come into the bay of Green Bay and change our lives forever. This prophesy came true in 1634 when the French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived at Green Bay (La Baye). Nicolet was looking for a route to the East. Soon after Nicolet's arrival, the Menominee would become involved in a fur trade and Menominee life would change forever. By the early 1800’s, the start of the treaty era, the Menominee occupied a land base estimated at 10 million acres; however, through a series of seven treaties entered into with the United States Government during the 1800’s, the Tribe witnessed its land base erode to little more than 235,000 acres today. One of those treaties, the treaty of 1836, ceded land including the area where the proposed Back Forty Mine is located today.
As a result of our undeniable ties and long occupation of the Menominee River area, we have numerous sacred sites and burial mounds up and down the Menominee River, including the area of the proposed Back Forty Mine. The Menominee people have long known our connection to the Menominee River and many in the external world also acknowledge our connection. Countless records from early missionary accounts, to early government accounts, to early newspaper accounts confirm the Menominee occupation of the Menominee River, and more specifically the Sixty Islands Area of the Menominee River. Several translations of our creation story have been recorded beginning with Dr. Walter J. Hoffman (1890, 1896). Elders related this creation narrative to Hoffman and it is published in full in his 1896 ethnological study of the Menominee Tribe conducted under the auspices of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Menominee ties to the river that carries their name are forged in tradition and heritage and are indisputable.
At various locations upstream from the confluence of the river with Green Bay traditions like the legend of Namacachure imprint the landscape. The legend tells of a beautiful but vain Menominee woman born at the mouth of the Menominee River. She possesses luxuriant, glistening ebony tresses and indulges in their care to the exclusion of other activities. As a young woman she fasts and dreams about a beautiful up-river landscape where she is called to go. She disappears, but later comes to her parents in a subsequent dream and bids them to come to live where she has been taken by a spirit who lives in the eddy at 60 Islands. At this place game would be plentiful and the young maiden would be able to visit her parents. The location indeed provided bountiful harvests of fish, agricultural crops, wild rice, and game was plentiful. The Menominee occupied this location for hundreds of years and is steeped in Menominee lore. Tribal members have paid homage to this location for many, many years with an offering of tobacco and wishes for good luck and a good smoke to the young woman who visits the terrace overlooking 60 Islands.
The “Battle of the Pierced Forehead” is another well-known Menominee tradition. It speaks to many issues, not the least of which is the importance of harvesting sturgeon both at the mouth of the Menominee River and at locations upstream. The theme of the story entails the river mouth village blocking the river with a weir and prohibiting the fish from their spring migration upstream where the villages anxiously awaited the arrival of Nama’o (sturgeon) to feed the people after a long winter when food was scarce. It was told to Indian agent C.C. Trowbridge in the 1820s while he was stationed at Green Bay but many other versions are known. Interpretations vary about the events that unfolded—sometimes placing the Menominee and the Ojibwa as adversaries, but also identifying this as a mythical event that describes divisions in the tribe. What is not open to differing interpretations, however, is that in the distant past there were Menominee settlements both at the river’s mouth and at locations upstream including 60 Islands, White Rapids and Chalk Hill.
Situated on the Wisconsin side of the Menominee River at 60 Islands is the well known 17th-19th century Menominee settlement that includes two dance rings thought to be associated with the Dream Dance, a Midewin lodge cemetery and a sturgeon weir. The late Louis Bernard Kakatosh, a life-long Menominee resident of the region and great grandson of the prestigious Menominee chief Tomah, told of the many locations along the Menominee River from its mouth to Sturgeon Falls where the Menominee buried their dead. The archaeological sites situated in the 60 Islands area, also known as the Backlund Mounds and Village/White Rapids site complex, are ancestral Menominee sites. This includes a long stretch of several miles along the Menominee River to White Rapids, north to Chalk Hill, and beyond. The landscape is littered with the remnants of raised agricultural fields that define the northern limits of corn agriculture in prehistoric times, mound groups, some excavated, others destroyed, but several remain still intact on both State of Michigan and private lands at 60 Islands within the Back Forty Mine project footprint. Recently, the University of Michigan reaffirmed Menominee’s cultural affiliation with human remains excavated from the Backlund Mound group in the 1950’s.
Many of these sites are areas of impact from the proposed Back Forty Mine development and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin is committed to protecting and preserving these sites.