Sixty Islands on the Menominee River
The Menominee River is permeated with spiritual, cultural, and historical significance to Menominee people. The river, at its mouth, is the site of the creation of the Menominee Tribe. It is there that the Creator transformed the bear, a supernatural being who came from below the ground, into the 1st Menominee human being. Several translations of this lengthy and complex oral tradition 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 claimed to be 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. Many of these sites appear to be areas of possible impact from the Back Forty Mine development and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin is concerned about their protection and preservation.