Mark Thayer, member of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe of Ojibwe, who has direct lineage to the founders of the Old Post at the Indian settlement, led the historical narration on a pontoon pilgrimage organized by Sr. Felissa Zander, SSSF, and Fr. Karun Madanu. Thayer, assisted by Fr. Karun holding the speaker box, is seen with two of the seven gathered boats speaking in front of Pagan Island on the Chippewa Flowage. Named for the tribal members buried there, just a “valley” over from the site of the original Catholic church and cemetery, the mounds date back about 4,000 years. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Mid-morning on June 21, seven pontoon boats set out from The Landing resort on the Chippewa Flowage under a clear blue sky. Led by Fr. Karun Madanu and Mark Thayer, the group gathered to make a commemorative pilgrimage to sacred sites for the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe.

Thayer’s grandfather was the brother of Thaddeus Thayer, who established the first trading post among the Ojibwe at the Pahquahwong settlement, then married into the tribe. He works for the LCO Conservation Department and has researched tribal history in addition to the oral history passed down through his family.

Fr. Karun led an initial prayer asking God to be with the group, comprised primarily of Hayward and Stone Lake parishioners and LCO tribal members. He thanked him for those who took the initiative to plan the event and asked that all return with refreshed minds.

Thayer introduced the route and narrated at multiple stops on the Flowage, the boats adeptly captained to keep the group closer enough to hear through the handheld speaker but not endangering any of the watercraft.

It was explained how what are now islands were actually hilltops a little more than 100 years ago, before the Winter dam was opened and the manmade Flowage created. Thayer pointed out where the river’s channel was and spoke of the resource-rich fishing grounds and wild rice beds. These had brought many tribes into the region for centuries, with the Ojibwe consistently defending their homeland going back 4,000 years, the age of the oldest burial mounds.

In early spring, Thayer said, when the water is still lower, foundations and chimneys from the homes can be seen, along with chairs and desks from the school site. He pointed out multiple former home sites on the land still above water level.

Signaling a pair of small islands, the Sister Islands, named after two Native nuns who lived among the people they served, Thayer also pointed out the floating bogs, originally rice beds and homestead grounds, that gradually rise to the surface, making the Chippewa Flowage dangerous. In warm weather, the gasses bubble and can hasten the bogs’ appearance.

Noticing two eagles, Thayer said it was a “good sign.” He later pointed out an eagle in the tree as the boats pulled up to the shore of Church Island. Eagles are one of the most revered creatures for the Ojibwe. For their ability and strength to fly higher than other animals and their care for their offspring, they represent a particular link to the Creator and the people’s connection to the spiritual realm.

He shared other anecdotes and historical information – how the erosion around each “island,” actually hilltops, gradually reveals before undiscovered burial sites and homestead artifacts. One example from last year was a jawbone discovered on Jailhouse Island and turned over to the tribe’s conservation association. Upon further investigation, officials recovered beadwork and found other bones dating back 400 years.

Arriving at Church Island, the pontoon Thayer, Fr. Karun and Sr. Felissa were on pulled up to the shore. Yellow signs posted on trees indicate a Federal Boundary Line for the Ojibwe Indian Reservation and warning non-authorized persons not to trespass. Fr. Karun stepped onto the island with the prepared Prayer of the Four Directions.

Integrating the Native sense of God’s presence in nature, the prayer directed those present starting with the east, from where the sun rises asking for light on the paths of life walked. Turning to the south and giving thanks for warm breezes and God’s comfort; to the west recalling when the sun goes down and life ends with the hope of meeting his glory. Lastly, turning to the north, a petition was made for courage and endurance to face the harsh cold winds.

“Great Spirit, giver of all life… Bless us with eyes to live and teach us how to use well your gifts,” the prayer ended.

Fr. Karun acknowledged the “faith and footsteps” offered to God. He asked for the intercession of the souls who had prayed at the island’s church generations ago, “May those who led us in faith, now intercede for us to God.” He asked Mother Mary to teach us respect and sacrifice and ended with, “St. Anthony of Padua, pray for us,” repeating it three times.

He then moved further inland to bless the land with holy water and reconsecrate the graves. He and Sr. Felissa, led by one of the tribal members, then followed an overgrown path to the site of where St. Anthony of Padua Church had stood and where the foundation remains.

In his explanation, Thayer noted that after a log church used for only a few years, St. Anthony’s Church had been built in 1878, positioned just across the small valley near the Ojibwe burial mounds that dated back 4,000 years. The two areas are now separated by water but still in close proximity.

He said that Native Americans had traveled from miles around the area to attend Mass at the church following trails and known paths. Once the decision was being made to create the Flowage, many bodies and buildings were relocated from Old Post to what is now New Post. For those who had resisted, once the floodwaters began to rise, it came so fast that they did not have time to gather their things or loved ones.

Thayer recounted stories told by his grandfather and great-uncle – how, when the water was at about 3 ft. of depth, men with carts had to force women to leave, even tying them with ropes because they were so distraught at having to leave their buried children and family members.

As the boats pulled away, two women on one of the pontoons sang “Amazing Grace,” ending on that powerful line, “When we’ve been here 10,000 years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

There was a second stop made for prayer, at Loon Cove, before the priest gave words of thanksgiving and the group returned to the resort and headed to New Post for refreshments.

Without disembarking, Fr. Karun prayed in thanksgiving for ancestors and calling on the Creator to carry away sadness on the stars, fill hearts with beauty of the flowers and in silence to be made strong. “Help us live without pretending, love without depending, listen without defending and speak without offending,” the prayer ended.