Isle Royale gets historic designation

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Minong – or Isle Royale as it’s best known – is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The newly designated Minong Traditional Cultural Property covers Isle Royale and its entire archipelago of 450-plus northern Lake Superior islands and surrounding waters. It reflects many legacies, especially the cultural history of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, or Ojibwe.

The listing “recognizes and celebrates the lasting relationship” between Native Americans and Isle Royale and other nearby islands, said Seth DePasqual, the cultural resource manager at Isle Royale National Park. The Grand Portage Ojibwe have used the islands for many centuries.

Isle Royale has been a national park since 1945. In 1976, Congress set aside 99 percent of the main island as wilderness.

The National Register is a  list of historic places worthy of preservation, according to the National Park Service which administers it. It supports “public and private efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

The designation highlights the island’s  historical significance since 1790, including commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing, outdoor recreation, copper mining, timbering, trapping and hunting. The first written documentation of the Ojibwes’ use of Minong for fishing, gathering plants and hunting  appeared in a 1794 book.

However, the island’s  history of human engagement dates back more than 4,500 years, starting with prehistoric mining and other Indigenous uses. Ancient people dug hundreds of pits to reach pure copper that they could hammer into spear points.

After the mid-1800s, commercial copper mining  and commercial fishing took over the island, according to the nomination.

For a while, times were flush for copper mining near the Minong Ridge. The island also had  a dock for lake steamers in the McCargoe Cove area, a stamp mill and railroad, according to the park’s cultural resource interactive mapping project.

“Prosperity and a demand for self-government let to the establishment of Isle Royale County, with the county seat at Island Mine and the Minong settlement of Cove as a separate township,” it said.

But flush times faded. Timbering operations closed, as did the then-unprofitable mines. Commercial fishing suffered from the Civil War, the economic Panic of 1857 and the difficulty in getting fish to markets. Isle Royale reverted to Keweenaw County in 1897.

Even so, many members of the Grand Portage Band continued working on Minong. Many became guides and cooks at the resorts and others captained fishing boats, the nomination says.

The Minong Mine Historic District was added to the National Register in 1977.

Grand Portage Band members still fish in the island’s waters and go to Minong to gather berries and “reconnect with the past,” the nomination says.

During a visit  to fish and camp, Tony Swader, the band’s land trust administrator,  said he watched an adult moose and calf near the water for 30- 45 minutes.

The band and Park Service collaborated on the nomination to make sure the resources are protected, Swader said.

The designation may help the band secure resources for cultural activities there, he said.

DePasqual said, “The designation enhances our relationship with the Grand Portage Band, with whom we consult frequently. It provides ethnographic information that will inform resource management island-wide and then also our interpretive programming.”   

Isle Royale remains an important ceremonial site for Ojibwe vision quests and prayer as a “traditional cultural property where they connect and practice their traditional heritage that has including hunting and trapping, maple sugaring, plant gathering and spiritual practice,” the nomination says.

The nomination encompasses environmental history, describing how the sea lamprey invasion of Lake Superior in the 1950s led to the collapse of the lake trout population “with lingering effects still seen through greatly altered native fish compositions.

“However, Isle Royale is one of a few places where lake trout are naturally reproducing, and it has become a genetic reservoir of native lake trout for the U.S. side of the Great Lakes,” it says.  

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