Fr. Karun Madanu Karunakar blesses the snow-covered graves at the cemetery near St. Ignatius Church in New Post as LCO tribal members and other Hayward-area Catholics process behind him in remembrance of the challenges endured by local Indigenous upon the installation of the Chippewa Flowage in 1923. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
Catholic Herald staff
March 15, marked the centennial since the Winter dam was closed, creating the Chippewa Flowage.
For the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe gathered at St. Ignatius Church in New Post that morning, it was a somber affair, one of grieving the loss of their ancestors’ settlement and desecration of graves flooded in the cemetery.
Rick St. Germaine, Lac Courte Oreilles historian and former tribal leader, wrote an article to explain the significance of the commemoration, which was posted at lcotribe.com on March 4.
He called the 1923 destruction of the Old Post settlement a “political conspiracy engineered by American capitalists and land speculators in their quest for Indian resources.” It was the culmination, he wrote, of four decades of selling reservation lands to logging companies at minimal prices, with part of their goal being the relocation of LCO Indians to the White Earth Reservation in western Minnesota.
Tribal members, students of St. Francis Solanus School in Reserve, representatives for the Hayward Catholic cluster of churches and others gathered for Mass celebrated by Fr. Karun Madanu Karunakar. Sr. Felissa Zander, SSSF, who has worked with the school and mission for 60 years, played the organ and led the liturgy’s music.
The gathering, called “A Tribute to the Ojibwe Tribal Members: 100 Years Ago” commemorated “their challenges endured upon the installation of the Chippewa Flowage,” and included the Mass, a procession to the cemetery with blessing of all graves and a time of fellowship.
In his homily, Fr. Karun acknowledged the faith given by their First Nations ancestors because of their hardship and sacrifices – a legacy left of perseverance, hope against all odds and passing on the spirits of respect, sharing and love.
Respect, the priest said, guides morals and manners and is lived in listening, presence and sharing stories of survival. Sharing that invites all to make a living and a life through abundance, which Fr. Karun said, “Isn’t measured by what you have, but what you share.” Love, as a virtue, gives, bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.
The best tribute we can offer those who have come before us, Fr. Karun said, “is by practicing what they have practiced.”
Fr. Karun, who spent over a year with First Nations peoples in the Northwest Territory of Canada before coming to the Diocese of Superior, recognized many people at the Mass. He also mentioned the role played by the Franciscan missionary priests and sisters to the local Ojibwe people, dating back to the 19th century.
After the Mass, a police escort led the group in procession, walking under the clear blue sky to the cemetery. Barking dogs and cawing chickens accompanied the group; St. Francis students carried purple banners. Arriving at the cemetery, Fr. Karun proceeded to bless with holy water all the graves buried deep in snow.
Of the 1923 events, Tribal Councilwoman Michelle Beaudin, who attended the memorial event, remembers “Elders saying some of the people didn’t want to leave their homes because they had family members buried nearby.”
Some had horses to help them haul stuff out, but as the flood waters rose, “the horses were drowning and screaming. They said they’d never heard anything so horrible as the horses were being dragged under the water. It was just horrific.”
Prior to the March 1923 occurrence, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made multiple attempts to relocate the LCO from the Pahquahwong settlement to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Efforts included luring tribal members westwards by tying their annuities to a site near Sand Lake, Minnesota, saying they had to travel to collect the funds. Payments were then delayed twice, forcing the people to stay away from their homes in Sawyer County.
Along what Beaudin called “our Trail of Tears,” in late winter, without enough food or proper seasonal clothing – they went west in the summer, expecting a short stay – the LCO finally tried getting back to Wisconsin.
“The whole trail back was just people that died, because they froze and starved to death,” she recounted.
For those who had not left, the creation of the flowage resulted in total loss of their community, graves and sacred sites.
It is believed that the area southeast of Hayward – comprised of 11 lakes close to the Chief River and west fork of the Chippewa River – became home to the Ojibwe in the late 1700s. A group wanting to establish a settlement nearby Lac Coutereille Village chose a spot near the big bend of the Chippewa River to establish Pahquahwong, the name meaning “where the river bends.” The area held promise for its abundant water and wild rice.
Once a post-Civil War trading post was established, the settlement grew. With the logging boom after World War I, many people of European heritage moved into the area, bringing with them a need for housing and electrical power.
According to St. Germaine’s article, in 1887 there were 150 dams along the upper Chippewa River owned by logging companies to regulate log jams. One of those included a small dam “just above the village of Old Post [Pahquahwong] that created Pokegama Lake. “A 1908 geological report identified the Pahquahwong site as ideal for a dam to control spring water run-off and power generation for down-river towns and cities.”
With purchases of land near the Chippewa River facilitated by the BIA, the village’s fate was sealed when, in 1914, the Wisconsin Minnesota Light & Power Company purchased “the rights to build a dam and flood the Reservation,” St. Germaine stated.
In August 2013, a remembrance ceremony was held to honor the last two survivors of the March 1923 flood. The Sawyer County Record’s Terry Boettcher covered the Aug. 1 event in an Aug. 7, 2013, article.
Then-tribal board member Rusty Barber acknowledged 92-year-old Sam Jockey and 93-year-old Phyllis DeBrot, who were toddlers at the time of the Chippewa Flowage’s filling. He asked “The Creator to look down on the descendants here in a good way and that we pass on our oral history to our youth.”
On March 15, 1923, similar prayers were prayed and efforts made to keep the stories alive as well as the faith and fortitude from one generation to the next. At the end of the Mass, Fr. Karun stated, “We are here today because of those who came before us. Their sacrifice has become our joy.”
After a fervent round of applause from the overflowing church, he then pointed to the St. Francis School students, saying, “These children are the future of the tribe and culture.”
In addition to the services at the New Post Catholic Church, the LCO tribe hosted an evening event at the Sevenwinds Convention Center organized by St. Germaine.