When We Say Home

After nearly two hours of early morning travel, our Menominee Tribal Transit school bus full of students, mentors, mothers, and infants rolls across a bridge into the upper peninsula of Michigan. Instinctively, we collectively raise our heads to get a better look at the glittering waters of the Menominee River and the giant, ceremonially dressed bear raising its hand to the sky in tribute. Our teacher for the day, Dawn Wilber, looks back at us with a slight smile and says, “Welcome home.”

This is how many of us met our ancestral homeland for the first time on a day trip with the Sustainability Leadership Cohort, their mentors, and a small collection of Sustainable Development Institute interns. On the Wisconsin side of the river, this place is known on English maps as Marinette, named after a woman of Menominee and French ancestry: Marie Antoinette Chevalier. The story goes that her Menominee family struggled with that name, and in time she became known as “Queen Marinette.” On the Michigan side, this place is known as Menominee, Michigan. But before that, it had another name: Menikani, because this had been our village. Many people do not know this but Menominee is not our given autonym—rather, it is a derivation of what we were called by the other tribes in the region, because everywhere we went wild rice was soon to follow (Menominee is an Ojibwe word meaning “wild rice people”).

Our teacher gestures to the other side of the channel where wild rice has been re-seeded for the first time since our people left. It’s a small gesture—one I doubt most people would even notice—but really and truly it feels like a homecoming. While we have an immeasurable amount of love for all waters, and for the Wolf River that flows like an artery through our current reservation, it is here, 60 miles to the east on the Menominee River, that our people were born. The great bear marks this spot, a replica of one that we have on our reservation that was carved out with great love and care from a beautiful old tree whose time in the forest had ended.

Throughout the day, my heart overflowed with love. Dawn asked us periodically, “Do you feel Menominee? Raise your hand if you feel Menominee.” Every Menominee in the group who could do so raised their hand. There is no feeling quite like standing on the ground where your oldest ancestors stood, to walk in the circle where your great-great-great-grandmothers danced and sang, to eat your lunch sitting in the grass where your ancestors might have sat and ate with their families after a long hard day in the gardens. Some of the women waded into the water in their ribbon skirts. We saw the Oxbow, where the first Menominee general council was held. I watched the youth play in the river and happily wave to a sturgeon, which was probably older than they were, that had come up to see and greet us. Along the sandy shore, beautiful blue forget-me-not flowers bloomed beneath an ancient cedar. Fresh springs bubbled up from the riverbed and purple irises filled my dreams with color I did not think could exist without photo-editing software.

But like many kinds of love that are older than your lifetime, there was a tinge of sadness to it. This beautiful place, where my people laughed and lived and celebrated, where my people were created, is in danger. Like so many beautiful places, this one sits on top of a mountain of precious metals, the extraction of which will change this place forever. I had thought that we would spend a lot of the day talking about that and, as youth had always been our most fervent advocates, I anticipated lengthy conversations with the teenagers nearest me about the ins and outs of sulfuric acid. But the truth is, I didn’t want to talk about any of that. I didn’t want to think about that. At the first informational session I had attended about the Back 40, an elder sitting beside me (whom I barely knew) had clasped my hand tight for strength, and we cried quietly together, thinking about what was to come. That was not what I wanted to bring into that space with those youth, and I don’t think anyone else did either. I just wanted to be there, to be as Menominee as I could be, to be home, if only for a day.

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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