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What Do You Know About Walpole Island?

What Do You Know About Walpole Island?
1906–Walpole Island is an island and First Nation reserve in southwestern Ontario, Canada, on the border between Ontario and Michigan in the United States. It is located in the mouth of the St. Clair River on Lake St. Clair, about 121 kilometres (75 mi) by road from Windsor, Ontario and 124 kilometres (77 mi) from Detroit, Michigan.
It is unceded territory and is inhabited by the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa peoples of the Walpole Island First Nation, who call it Bkejwanong, meaning “where the waters divide” in Anishinaabemowin In addition to Walpole Island, the reserve includes Squirrel Island, St. Anne Island, Seaway Island (except a small U.S. portion), Bassett Island, and Potawatomi Island. The river or creeks that separate these islands provide the area with its other commonly used name, Swejwanong or “many forks of a river.”


Standing ankle-deep in weeds by the side of the rutted road, looking across fields bordered by trees, it takes only a little imagination from young Duff Williams to see that rivers ran here, once. This ancient river bed lush, now, with soybeans and corn winds out of sight between two islands of trees. If. you look at it in a certain way you can visualize canoes coming around that distant bend and nosing up against one of those ‘islands’ which 7,000 or so years ago was merely a river bank. One of those riverbanks was the summer home of some of Duff Williams’s ancestors; “There’s a site right there,” says the 28-year-old Williams, his arm extended. Working the summer for the Walpole Island band’s research group, he has been palming away surface soil and finding the signatures arrowheads, spear points, bits of earthenware crockery of the people who came here each summer to fish and to hunt, to tell stories around campfires before following the elk and the deer on their annual autumn migration.

Though vast change has occurred since those distant days, one thing remains constant. Wander the fields of Walpole Island; spend some time at the edge of a marsh; listen to the heron’s grumpy call; watch the ducks burst out of the reeds; look at the ripples from a muskrat, ducking for safety into the marsh; see the little boy, spear in hand, hovering over a stream, looking for fish and “there’s always life here,” says Williams. It was this abundance of wildlife which attracted the migrating native hunters about 10,000 years ago. According to the book Walpole Island, The Soul of Indian Territory, published by Nin.Da.Waab.Jig, the community-based research arm of the Walpole Island Band Council, the Ojibwa, Pota-watomi, Chippewa and Huron hunters did not establish permanent settlements until 1,100 or 1,200 years ago.

It was the descendents of these people members of tribes joined in the Wendat, or Wyandot, confederacy whom the Europeans encountered when they ‘discovered’ what is now Ontario. It was only a matter of time before the “settlers and traders, eager for the acquisition of new lands or fortune,” poured into the Indian country, where they used “every low trick and artifice to overreach and cheat” the Indians who lived there, according to the book. The landgrabbers and Indians had widely differing concepts of the land under their feet. Europeans regarded the land as something they could buy and sell. Indians, believing the land “belonged” to no one, saw themselves as custodians, with a clear responsibility to pass the land on, undamaged and fruitful, to future generations.

The white man he says A ‘who owns this land?’ ” says Cecil Isaac, a specialist in his people’s traditional ways. “And they said ‘I don’t own it. My brother doesn’t own it.’ And the white man says ‘all right, if you guys don’t own it, I’ll own it.’ ” ‘? . Between 1790 and 1827 sometimes paying as little as a fifth of a ; penny per acre the Crown acquired more than four million acres in what is -now southwestern Ontario. By 1838, . the 11,000 Indians in Upper Canada found themselves surrounded by 400,-000 whites. It . was with astonishment and increasing despair the Indians watched the new ‘owners’ lay waste to their ‘motherland.’ “We are a people of the earth,” says Isaac, who teaches both Indians and non-Indians about native ways. “We lived with nature in harmony. We could see that everything out there exists in a logical sequence. We could see that trees provide food for animals. They provide housing for animals and birds. They provide shade to keep us cool and sticks to keep us warm. They provide bark and sticks for housing. But the white man, he looks at the same tree and he says ‘I wonder how old it is?’ and he cut it down and counted the rings. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘it’s a hundred years old’ and he left it there and walked away.’ ”

The invaders were not content to merely take the Indians’ land. As historian Robert J. Surtees wrote in his book The Original People: “To white observers, the Indians simply did not fit in. Whites created a benevolent, paternalistic reserve system to ‘civilize and Christianize’ the Indian so these native peoples would be ‘useful’ citizens.” The reserve system also eased the white man’s guilt: “Whites now saw themselves as giving the Indians the benefit of civilization. “Unfortunately, the new proteges were expected to give up their past and their traditions. They were also expected to grasp gratefully and quickly at this opportunity.” They didn’t always do so. In the middle of the 19th century, the Jesuits blundered in, hoping to convert Walpole Islanders. “They built a church, house and a school.

Unfortunately, without consulting the Indians, they placed their buildings on sacred ground at Highbanks which contained an ancient burial mound as well as a more recent cemetery. They also cut down a century-old oak grove for timber.” Not surprisingly, few Indians converted to Catholicism. Deciding it would be easier to import Christians than create them, the priests settled 40 Roman Catholic Potawatomi on land around the mission. Fearing priests intended to give their land to the ‘faithful,’ Walpole Indians torched the priests’ church on March 22, 1849. “The story is told that the Chief set to it himself.” Over the next half century, the Indians did their best, despite an oppressive Indian agent system, to out a living. They turned increasingly to agriculture and by 1884 were farming 2,297 acres. “However, other changes were coming about which subverted progress towards self-sufficiency. 1900 it was discovered that the soil of Walpole Island was exactly right for sugar beets and for the first time a large area was planted with this crop. In this business the farmers were less independent. They were supplied with seed by those in the sugar beet industry who even helped them prepare the ground and then bought the mature crop. Some Indians took employment in the sugar beet fields instead farming on their own.”

Many of the island’s young people sought work the sugar factories in Wallaceburg. “As with the non-Indian population in many parts of Ontario, wage labor was replacing farming. In 1907, the agent reported that the majority of the Indians work in the sugar beet fields in the summer and in the woods in winter, cutting wood and making axe handles. There are a small number that farm.” It is one of those curious island ironies that the Indians first lost a measure of independence because of contract farming, and later regained it for exactly the same reason. Because the land was so good, mainland farmers were anxious to lease it and Indian agents negotiated long-term leases for large parcels. Angered by the leases over which they had no control the Indians could do little but complain among themselves. But in 1960 the first year Indians were permitted to vote in federal elections the Indian agent again negotiated,a long-term lease. Chief Burton Jacobs and the council went to Ottawa to try to have the lease overturned but federal officials refused to do so. The refusal coupled with a general anger at the high-handed activities and attitudes of the Indian agents fueled unprecedented activisim on the island.

Jacobs managedto surround himself with like-minded councillors in the election of 1964 and the new council promptly hired a band manager who soon came into conflict with the agent who felt his power was being eroded. It was more than eroded. Later that year, he was suspended. The band was given a year to try self-government and at the end of the experiment, the Indian Department gave permission for continuing self-government the first time an Indian band in Ontario was allowed, in effect, to become its own Indian agent. It was the first step on the return trip to independence. The band council has made concerted efforts to capitalize on its natural resources. The band leases marshland to half a dozen hunting lodges most of them frequented by Americans and last year earned $228,000. Every fisherman and hunter who comes to the island must buy an island licence, in addition to provincial licences, bringing in $289,140 last year. The band-owned farm 4,400 acres devoted to corn and soybeans employs four permanent admi nistrative staff and as many as a dozen workers in the peak seasons. Sales of its corn and soybeans brought the band $2.2 million last year.

While many steps have been taken, there are many more to go before the island is on both feet financially. Although as many as 300 of the band’s 1,700 members work as trappers and guides making up to $500 a week or hire on at the hunting lodges, the work is seasonal. And though the farm requires up to 12 workers in peak planting and harvesting times, for most of the year there are only four or five people on payroll. At the best of times during the peak hunting and .fishing seasons 60 per cent of the band’s employable members are at work. At the worst of times in the dead of winter especially unemployment reaches 75 to 80 per cent. It is time the band council undertook a major “economic and employment development strategy” says Charles Samson, the band’s economic development officer. But even in the absence of such a strategy, which Samson hopes will be in place within five years, there are certain fairly obvious needs. Most of the dollars generated on the island soon leave it.

There is no grocery store on the island, no hardware, no automobile repair shop. Apart from a couple of variety stores and gas bars, the money which arrives on the island finds its way to Wallaceburg or elsewhere and there it stays. The band council is attempting to encourage enterprises which create what Samson describes as ‘the multiplier effect’ where dollars are spent two or three times before leaving the island.

There is some ‘discussion about a small-scale mall which would house a native credit union, a grocery, a hardware and perhaps a building supplies store. The council is also looking at improvements in its zoning and bylaws to encourage off-island firms to migrate to Walpole, bringing jobs along with them. “We want light industrial development which would provide a significant number of jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. We want a clean type of development, mould-making, assembly operations. No chemicals. No air pollution.” In order to encourage such development, Samson said the band would “put up buildings and lease land and space.” The band particularly would like to encourage developments which would “create a lot of employment opportunities for women.” Though a small mall and light industry would do much to buoy the economy, the island’s livelihood has long been sustained on agriculture and tourism. “We’d be foolish to undertake development in other areas and ignore agriculture and tourism,” says Samson.

“Those are two factors we’ll be keen on.” Developments in tourism, particularly, seem to hold obvious promise and these range in size from the multi-million to the mom-and-pop. Development of Seaway Island would fit into the former; bait and tackle shops into the latter. Seaway Island is one of a number of islands which make up the reserve. This one about three km long is at the southeastern, or Lake St. Clair, end of the reserve. Undeveloped, it is a haven for boaters from the United States. “There are hundreds” of yachts there every weekend,” says Samson, ‘but, the island reaps not a penny from the visitors. Samson and others see great potential for a marina-restaurant complex which would provide boaters with dockage and the island with much-needed revenues. But you have to spend money to make it and even the most ‘ modest of marina developments would cost ttye band up to $3 million.

Not everyone on the island thinks it’s a wise investment, including former chief Bob Williams, He and others recently formed the Walpole Island Conservation Club “and we’re trying to get council to keep Seaway Island like it is.” The club’s members want to see the island preserved, as much as is possible “in a natural state, not too commercialized, like factories. Tourism would be good, using what you have. It’s invaluable to have what we have, like it is now.”. Development of Seaway Island, however, is not much more than a dream. Closer to reality are a couple of local initiatives which will be completed within the next year. Earl Pinnance hopes to open his 10-unit Chematogan Motel the island’s first later this year or next spring at the latest. Located on River Road South near the Squirrel Island bridge, it will have four housekeeping units and six double occupancy rooms. Pinnance hopes to attract hunters, fishermen and tourists.

Lee White hopes to cater to the same crowd with his White’s Water Sports and Bass Charter Service which will open next year. Located on River Road North, near the Canada Customs office, the business will sell “bait, tackle and hunting supplies as well as- rent surfboards, canoes and paddle-boats. White also will have a charter-fishing rig which either he or hired guides will operate. White’s business is being funded, in large part, by federal government loans, and grants and the need for this -funding underlies a crucial problem facing would-be native businessmen. Commercial banks ,won’.t finance Indian projects because the Indian Act stipulates an Indian’s land may not be seized in the event of mortgage default. This leaves natives to either scrape up savings or turn to their bands for help.

The Walpole band, like others, receives federal funds and then makes loans to its members, serving as a kind of private bank. But the band is not in a position to fund major developments. One of the solutions would be the creation of a native credit union, which Samson hopes could be created on the reserve. While it would be nice’ to lure a large industry to Walpole, the band’s new chief Daniel Miskokomon is harboring no illusions that it will be easy. There are difficulties in transferring land to outside investors because of stringent controls laid’ out in the Indian Act. And Miskokomon knows that most other communities in the country are trying to lure industries as well. HE THINKS THE island can solve its own economic problems. “I’d really like to encourage our membership to get involved in private business. The more the marrier.” He does not think the island council should get involved in any more projects like the communal farm or Walpole Industries. “They tie council’s hands.”

The chief and council recently changed banks, finding “a manager who was willing to be a little more flexible” in trying to find ways to encourage and fund native businesses. , The lack’of economic -jdevetoftnjent and the resultant sluggish economy and .high unemployment, have combined to produce the obvious results. As former Chief Williams bluntly puts it: “Alcohol and drugs are a problem.” ( While many of the island’s residents young and old have found gainful employment in Wallaceburg or elsewhere, and personal fulfilment in sports and hobbles, many others – particularly younger people have reached what seems a dead end. .. While buoying the island’s economy would help alleviate its social problems, no one is under any illusions it will happen overnight.

The Windsor Star

Windsor, Ontario, Canada22 Oct 1988, Sat  •  Page 66

The Windsor Star
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
04 Jan 1960, Mon  •  Page 8

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