More than a century ago, the bodies of nearly 200 Ojibwe were exhumed and moved to make way for an ore dock on Wisconsin Point in Superior.
Indigenous peoples settled seasonally on the land around 400 years ago. The dock, planned by U.S. Steel Company, was never built on the tribe’s ancestral land, which was part of the 3-acre peninsula that stretches into Lake Superior.
The disinterred bodies dated to the 17th century; they were reburied in a mass grave on land adjacent to St. Francis Cemetery.
“At that time, it was not actually cemetery land; the Franciscan pastor noted that the burials could only occur if he had the opportunity to bless the land that was being used on the hillside for the Native graves,” said Fr. Jim Tobolski, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Superior, who also serves as judicial vicar and vicar general for the Diocese of Superior.
“I do not know why the city chose the land adjacent to the St. Francis Cemetery; perhaps it is due to the fact that our cemetery is the closest to the Point,” he added.
The church kept records of the history of the Point – particularly the frustrations of Jesuit Fr. Claude Jean Allouez, who had little success in evangelizing the Natives there and abandoned the effort around 1669 – and the diocese details the local history on its website at catholicdos.org/wisconsin-point-burial-site.
As the diocesan website notes, “Sadly though, once placed in a mass grave at St. Francis Xavier cemetery, they (the remains) were improperly cared for over the years. For example, when the slope of land on which they were reburied had been undercut by construction of a road, bones and decayed clothing could be seen spilling toward the river.”
For decades, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe have fought for the rights to their ancestral land, which is sacred to them. Last month, the city of Superior corrected the injustice – the disinterment as well as the forced eviction of a Native village – when it deeded over the site of the original burial ground at the Point, less than an acre, and the almost 1.5-acre parcel near St. Francis Cemetery, which the parish and diocese had elected to give to the tribe.
“The parish of St. Francis Xavier began discussions with the city of Superior to gift the land to the tribe when plans were completed for the return of Wisconsin Point burial site land to the tribe,” Fr. Tobolski explained. “The councils of the parish, the trustees and the cemetery committee were all in favor of the transfer of this land. Sadly, much of the original land has been changed by erosion. It will be left to the tribe to see what actually remains of the Native graves.”
The Ojibwe celebrated the return of their land with a ceremony and banquet in late August. No information has been released on their intentions for the sites.
“I believe that the tribe plans eventually to make a move back to Wisconsin Point, but it will be left to their timeline to make such a decision. I cannot speak for the tribe on this,” Fr. Tobolski said.
“Hopefully the recent gift of the cemetery land will add to the sense of peace for the native tribe. We pray and hope so.”