Strawberry Island: The Heart of Lac du Flambeau

Jan 23, 2019

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about Strawberry Island in Lac du Flambeau.

Strawberry Island in Flambeau Lake is known as the “heart of Lac du Flambeau” and is considered a sacred space among the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  It is also known as “the place of the little people,” which is a reference to the spiritual significance of the island.  A sacred space is a particularly defined space that is set apart from everything else around it.  The rituals that people either practice at the place or direct toward it mark it as sacred and differentiate it as worthy of respect.  A sacred space can be a man-made object, such as a building, or physical geographic place.  In all cases, however, a sacred space is real when a cultural group interprets it as sacred.

Such is the case with Strawberry Island.  Strawberry Island became part of the Ojibwe Nation in 1745 when the Ojibwe fought their final battle against the Dakota Sioux and defeated them there.  Fallen warriors were said to be buried on the island.  In fact, an archaeological survey from 1966 confirmed the presence of human remains and artifacts on the island dating back not only to 1745 but as far back as 300 B.C.  The confirmed 2000 year human presence on the island makes it one of the most important historic sites in Wisconsin, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Despite being such an important religious and historic site, Strawberry Island was at the heart of a real estate development controversy for over one-hundred years.  In 1887 Congress passed what is known as the Dawes Severalty Act.  This was legislation designed to assimilate Indigenous tribes by breaking up the reservations into individual allotments.  Strawberry Island was allotted in the early twentieth century to Harold Whitefeather, a young boy who died at the age of five.  After his death in 1910 the Mills family stepped in and purchased the entire twenty-six acre island for $2,105.

Efforts to develop the island were thwarted over the years because the tribe controlled the entire surrounding shoreline of Flambeau Lake.  Nevertheless, in 1976 Walter Mills of Aspen, Colorado, received approval for a subdivision plat on the island.  The tribe fought hard against this development plan, and it all moved to court in 1994 when the tribe sued to purchase the land from Mills.  Mills threatened to carve the island into sixteen lots for exclusive vacation homes, but nothing happened so long as the land was tied up in litigation.

Negotiations between the tribe and the Mills family trust continued into the twenty-first century.  A settlement was finally reached in 2013 that ensured the sacred land would remain undeveloped and pass back to the Objibwe people.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio and the web by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.