The Chi-Nations Youth Council’s trip from the American Indian Center of Chicago to Red Lake, MN was the second to Ojibwe Country in as many years. Working in the Sugar Bush to produce maple syrup was our main objective on this trip. But along the way, there was a long list of educational moments and life changing experiences on this trip that would last for the entirety of our spring break from April 12th to the 19th.
Just beginning this expedition was a feat. Everything from fundraising to packing the van was a group effort. We barely had room for everyone with the 12 passengers and luggage. “We want to thank Allen Turner for packing the van and helping to send us on our way,” said CNYC member Anthony Pochel.
From Chicago to Red Lake, CNYC, made every attempt to visit friends and family whenever possible. Our first stop was in Green Bay, WI where we had lunch with the Pochel-Saldana family that recently moved to Green Bay with their three little ones.
Justine and Justin hooked us up with some blanket dogs and tea. Then we had some time to stretch our legs, talk, take pictures, and hug the babies before we were back on the road. It turns out that we left our camera and Justine recorded a message for us: “you guys came over and ate us out of house and home, we were happy to have you. We’re waiting for you guys to come back to pick up your video camera, so you guys can make it to Bad River. Have fun, be safe, you got mad love and support all over.”
Now we were back on the road, driving down Highway 51 to Odanah, Wisconsin where my cousin Jill was waiting on our arrival. The plan was to spend the night in Odanah and either sleep on their gymnasium floor or possibly sleep at their casino lodge but first my cousin was busy making us some indian tacos.
Before we could make it, Raven and Lexi noticed we were to pass her niece whom she hadn’t seen in years. So of course we made another stop. By now, we were into the North Woods in Ho-chunk country and we noticed snow piles and lots of mud.
Raven and Lexi met their relatives, shed tears of joy, had some laughs, and took some pictures. By now we were a little behind schedule but that’s okay because Indian time is family time or as some say – creator’s time.
By now, Jill was in Odanah getting ready to make fry bread as we made our way through the Northwoods of Wisconsin, listening to powwow music.
Nightfall came as we pulled into Odanah, Wisconsin, home of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe. Adrien Pochel couldn’t believe how cold it was, wearing just a pair of shorts and a shirt. It had to be near freezing in Odanah yet it was kind of warm in Chicago. Cousin Jill had made quite the spread of Indian tacos with the help of her kids.
By now we were relaxin’ and maxin’ Indian tacos, smiling and relieved that we made it this far without losing anyone and the kids had been pretty well behaved. Most of the CNYC was in agreement that Jill’s tacos were some of the best we ever had – no lie.
Meanwhile, Naomi (CNYC) was busy tallying up receipts. We decided before we left that she would be helping keep track of the money. This would help us determine if we had enough money, otherwise we would be sleeping on the floor at local gym. The CNYC put it to a vote and we decided we would sleep at the Bad River Casino Lodge, because it has a pool. The pool was the deciding factor for the kids and the beds were the deciding factor for the adults.
The next day we met Jill back at the youth center for breakfast where Christine Red Cloud and Mikayla were making breakfast. We had eggs, bacon, and sausage. Winfield and James were playing with the camera. My cousin was on her way to meet us but was held up due to the passing of an elder in the community. We were saddened by the news.
The plan was to have Jill brief us on the tribes struggle to protect the Bad River watershed from a mining company that was planning on devastating the land, proposing to turn the Penokee Hills into a pit mine for iron ore. This proposed mine would be the largest in the world at twenty-two miles wide!
We finished breakfast and cleaned up. By this time, Jill was ready to give us the rundown. She passed around a map to show us where the Penokee Hills were located – 30 miles south of Odanah. She explained how the Penokees were the highest point in Northern Wisconsin, therefore all water flows north through the Bad River Watershed and into Lake Superior.
We asked about the life that relied on the watershed and she said they had minks, martens, deer, bears, wolves, beavers, muskrat, and all kinds of birds and fish. She talked about how much the people love their land where they harvest wild rice, catch walleye, and tap maples. She also said that the tribal economy depends on harvesting but also tourism to generate funding for the tribes family programs. Over the winter Bad River took a heavy hit as tourism was down due to the polar vortex.
Jill had been working diligently for the past few years, along with many others to raise awareness speaking for the land and ecosystem as it is unable to speak for itself. We spoke a little more about the activities for kids and she said we should come back over the summer to see what its like fishing and ricing.
Now we had to see the Penokee Hills for ourselves. Our destination was 30 miles south of our location. The plan was to meet our friend Fawn Young Bear – Tibbets, who works with Bad River as an arts and sciences coordinator. She had been supporting the Penokee Hills Harvest Education and Learning Project (HELP) while living in Bad River for the past several months. The HELP camp was about to reach their one year anniversary and we heard there had been over 5,000 visitors in this time.
When we arrived at our destination, Fawn was there to greet us. We parked our van because the ground was so muddy, we didn’t want to ruin the dirt road for other travelers or get stuck. So we walked to the camp and when we arrived we found the small encampment.
Living in the encampment was a married couple, Larry and Jennifer Ackley. They have been living in a wigwam since October, throughout one of the coldest winters we’ve ever experienced. This came as a big surprise and us city Indians were shocked. While we were complaining about the cold in our apartments, freezing on our walk to school and work, they were there living in a wigwam like our ancestors.
Larry said, “It’s not as cold as you think. All throughout the winter our friends were saying how they felt sorry for us but when they came to visit they seen that it was warmer in our wigwam, with our wood burning stove than it was for them living in a house.” We were truly amazed by this feat and if they can make it through that winter we can make it through anything. Hearing that raised our spirits really high.
By now we were eating some really good stew. They even had an option of either with meat or without. Both were really tasty and wholesome. The stew was made with a wild rice flour base, mushrooms, and vegetables. The other had several kinds of meat.
Fawn Young-Bear began her lesson pulling out a large map. “Right now, we’re sitting on the highest point in the area. The water flows north and there are several sacred sites around, lakes where mothers would give birth, where life is sustained by this wetland. There’s an aquifer the largest in Wisconsin that this proposed mines rests on. Inevitably a pit mine like that would turn that water orange and into acid. What happens when iron sulfides and water come into contact is that it becomes sulfuric acid.” To make matters worse, “when they begin cutting into the Earth, there’s rocks that have been here for millions of years. These rocks contain heavy metals and asbestos.”
The kids were enthralled by Fawn’s presentation. We couldn’t believe it. How can this be happening? “You kids need to know about this struggle, because it’s your generation that is going to have to continue the fight. Whether we stop the mine or not, there will be other attacks on the land and water, and Lake Superior is going to be threatened. The Great Lakes being the largest fresh water system in the world is drinking water for millions of people. Right now, oil companies are trying to find a way to put tar sands oil tankers on the water. So it’s up to us to learn all we can and help.” said Fawn.
The Chi-Nations Youth Council gifted the camp with a jar of maple syrup that we harvested from maple trees in Chicago. We promised to tell our story and share our experiences with as many people as possible in solidarity with the Penokee Hills. We do plan on returning to the Penokees later this year and we hope to see other youth groups like ours make the trip to the Penokees to see what’s happening. Chii-miigwetch!
We call ourselves Chi nations because “chi” means big in Ojibwe but also it’s short for Chicago and we come from many nations – so we are Chi-nations. Our mission is to build a safe environment for young urban natives to come together to be native and discuss issues affecting our people. We want to empower and represent our people in the best way we know how, which is promoting healthy lifestyle through arts, activism, and education.