The Origins of Sault Tribe

The Anishinaabeg (which can mean “Original People” or “Spontaneous Beings”) have lived in the Great Lakes area for millenia. Some of the oldest legends recall the ice packs breaking on Lake Nipissing and archeologists have found Anishinaabeg sites from 3000 B.C. Legends speak of immigrations to and from the Great Lakes over the centuries.

Sault Tribe’s ancestors were Anishinaabeg fishing tribes whose settlements dotted the upper Great Lakes around Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, throughout the St. Marys River system and the Straits of Mackinac. Anishinaabeg gathered for the summers in places like Bahweting (Sault Ste. Marie) and broke up into family units for the winter.

They hunted, fished and gathered and preserved food for the winter. They were respectful to their elders and treasured their children. They conducted ceremonies for good health, thanksgiving, war, funerals and other things and strove to conduct their lives in a good way.

Anishinaabeg lived this way for hundreds of years until the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s. The Anishinaabeg had dealings with first the French, then the English, then the United States. The Anishinaabeg lifeway began to deteriorate as the people were placed on reservations, sent to boarding schools, along with other attempts to matriculate them into American mainstream society.

European Settlement

The roots of today’s Sault Tribe go back to the 1940s, when a group of Sugar Island residents gathered to talk about their common history. Discussions turned into action plans and meetings grew larger and more formal. These Sugar Island residents were descendants of Anishinaabeg who greeted the French from Montreal to the Sault to obtain beaver pelts for the emerging fur trade.

When French sovereignty ended in 1763, the English took over the wealthy fur trade. By 1820, the British had been replaced by Americans. In the 1820 Treaty of Sault Ste. Marie, the Anishinaabeg at Sault Ste. Marie ceded 16 square miles of land along the St. Marys River to the United States to build Fort Brady.

A second treaty, the 1836 Treaty of Washington ceded northern lower Michigan and the eastern portion of the Upper Peninsula to the United States. In return, the Anishinaabeg of the Sault received cash payments and ownership to about 250,000 acres of land. But over the next 20 years, they watched as white settlers moving into northern Michigan violated terms of the treaty. So in 1855, the chiefs signed another treaty, 1855 Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa with the Americans that allotted lands to Michigan Indian families.

The Struggle for Federal Recognition

The Sugar Island residents came to understand that while the treaties granted large tracks of land to the federal government, the documents did not end their sovereignty, or terminate their ancestral right to hunt and fish on the ceded lands and waters of the Ojibwe.

On Dec. 24, 1953, the residents became the “Original Bands of Chippewa Indians and Their Heirs.” At that time, Sault Ste. Marie and Sugar Island contained no lands for their people and the federal government considered them members of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

The descendants did not feel part of the Bay Mills Indian Community, located 30 miles south of Sugar Island. Bay Mills had not extended services to the Sugar Island residents and had not represented their needs at tribal council meetings. As a result, the Sugar Island group pushed for recognition as a separate tribe. The impoverished community in which they lived motivated their actions. Many of their friends and family members lacked employment or adequate housing and lived along unlit, unpaved streets.

Federal recognition would let the tribe contract with the federal government for basic services. Gaining recognition was not easy. The descendants had no financial resources, no political support and little information on how to present their claims to the federal government. Fortunately, the federal government had recently changed its policy toward Indian tribes with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act. The Act ended an era of Indian removal and assimilation policies by creating laws to encourage tribes to reorganize their traditional economies and communities into self-governing nations.

The descendants saw the Act as a way to improve their community. Federal recognition would restore their sovereignty as a separate nation within the United States, give focus to their land claims, open the door to elect a government able to take land into trust and lead to the recognition of their treaty rights to hunt and fish.

Federal recognition took more than 20 years to complete. The descendants built their case by searching archives, gathering historical documents and culling census rolls, church records and military records. In the mid-1960s, the group included members from six historical Ojibwe bands: Sugar Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Drummond Island, Garden River, Grand Island and Point Iroquois.

In the early 1970s, the leaders of the Original Bands of Chippewa Indians traveled to Washington and successfully submitted their historical findings and legal argument to the Secretary of the Interior, who granted the tribe federal status in 1972.

Once recognized, the Original Bands became the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Land was taken into trust in March 1974 and Sault Tribe members adopted the tribe’s Constitution in fall 1975.

When the tribe adopted its Constitution, it had fewer than 10 employees, almost no outside funding and no revenues of its own. It gradually opened member service programs such as health, housing and education that were funded by the federal government and the state of Michigan. But member needs far outstripped those meager funding sources.

To close the gap, tribal leaders created a business-based economy. Businesses could provide added revenues and jobs for tribal members. The tribe has spent the past 25 years building a tribal economy providing employment and revenues to its people while making a positive impact on surrounding communities’ economic welfare.

Sault Tribe Today

Today the Sault Tribe is 44,000 strong. While the tribe headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., its economic impact extends for hundreds of miles. The tribe has landholdings, businesses, housing and other service centers throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The tribe’s seven-county service area is made up of the easternmost seven counties of Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula — roughly the area east of Marquette to Escanaba.

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Photo by Ken Bosma / CC BY