This comprehensive history delves into the origins, struggle, and current status of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Starting from their ancient Anishinaabeg roots in the Great Lakes region, it chronicles their interactions with European settlers, loss of traditional ways, and efforts for federal recognition. The article also recounts the tribe’s transformation from a community with meager resources into a significant economic entity, spanning across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is a testament to the tribe’s resilience, highlighting their continued growth and importance in today’s socio-economic landscape.
The Early Years of the Sault Tribe
The Anishinaabeg, also known as “Original People” or “Spontaneous Beings,” have been inhabitants of the Great Lakes region for thousands of years. Ancient narratives recall the thawing of the ice on Lake Nipissing and archeological findings suggest the presence of Anishinaabeg communities as early as 3000 B.C. Migration in and out of the Great Lakes area is also an integral part of their rich history.
The Sault Tribe can trace its lineage back to the Anishinaabeg fishing tribes, who were spread across the upper Great Lakes around Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron, and throughout the St. Marys River system and the Straits of Mackinac. The tribes assembled in places like Bahweting (now known as Sault Ste. Marie) for the summer and dispersed into family groups for the winter months.
Their way of life, which was characterized by hunting, fishing, gathering, and preserving food, was deeply rooted in respect for elders, love for children, and the conduct of various ceremonies. However, the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s began to erode the traditional Anishinaabeg way of life, as the tribes were forcibly moved onto reservations and assimilated into American society.
European Settlement and Subsequent Events
Fast forward to the 1940s, the foundations of the modern Sault Tribe were laid by a group of Sugar Island residents. These residents were descendants of Anishinaabeg who had established trade relations with French settlers arriving from Montreal for the fur trade. When French sovereignty ended in 1763, the English took control of the lucrative fur trade. By 1820, American settlers replaced the British.
Following the 1820 Treaty of Sault Ste. Marie, the Anishinaabeg at Sault Ste. Marie ceded 16 square miles of land along the St. Marys River for the construction of Fort Brady. The 1836 Treaty of Washington saw them ceding more territory but receiving cash payments and land ownership in return. Over the next 20 years, however, they witnessed the violation of the treaty’s terms by white settlers, leading to the signing of a new treaty in 1855.
The Journey to Federal Recognition
Sugar Island residents realized that despite ceding large swathes of land to the federal government, their sovereignty and ancestral rights to hunt and fish remained intact. They officially became known as the “Original Bands of Chippewa Indians and Their Heirs” on December 24, 1953. Despite their official recognition, they didn’t identify with the Bay Mills Indian Community as it was distant both physically and in representing their needs.
Motivated by the conditions of poverty within their community, they sought federal recognition as a distinct tribe. This move was not easy; they faced a lack of financial resources, political support, and knowledge on how to make their case to the federal government. Fortunately, the Indian Reorganization Act was a beacon of hope, marking a shift in policy towards encouraging tribes to regain their traditional economies and communities.
Viewing the Act as a lifeline, they undertook the challenging task of proving their case, which took over 20 years. Their diligent search through archives, historical documents, and records, culminated in successful recognition of their tribal status by the Secretary of the Interior in 1972.
The Rebirth of the Sault Tribe
Once recognized, they became known as the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In March 1974, land was transferred into their trust, and by fall 1975, the tribe’s Constitution was adopted. At the onset of its constitutional era, the tribe was modest, having less than 10 employees, minimal external funding, and no self-generated revenue. It gradually initiated member service programs in health, housing, and education funded by the federal government and the state of Michigan. However, the financial resources were insufficient to meet the needs of the tribe members.
To bridge this financial gap, the tribal leaders embarked on the establishment of a business-centric economy. This initiative aimed at generating additional revenue and creating job opportunities for the tribal members. Over the last quarter-century, the tribe has been dedicated to building an economy that not only benefits its people but also significantly contributes to the economic well-being of the neighboring communities.
The Modern Sault Tribe
Presently, the Sault Tribe boasts a membership of 44,000 strong. While its headquarters are situated in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, its economic footprint stretches hundreds of miles. The tribe owns lands, businesses, housing, and service centers all over Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The service area of the tribe spans seven counties, comprising the easternmost seven counties of Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. This region essentially covers the area east of Marquette to Escanaba. Today, the Sault Tribe stands as a testament to the perseverance and resilience of its ancestors, contributing significantly to the socio-economic fabric of the region.