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6/13/2008 8:49:00 AM
Local descendant stakes claim to Strawberry Island
Mills-Rush hands over control of sacred ground after attempts by LdF tribe fall short

Douglas Etten
Outdoors Writer

What some members term as the "heart of the Lac du Flambeau" is also one of the most sacred pieces of Ojibwe ground within the boundaries of the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation.

That sacred piece of land known as Strawberry Island is now in the hands of Bill Poupart, a local member of the Ojibwe who says the island now rests with those who care about it the most deeply.

"Today I am proud to say that one of the most meaningful and spiritual lands that has stood at the fingertips of the people of the Ojibwe nation for years is now in the hands of the people," Poupart said.

Though the 26-acre island is still owned by a private company, Poupart is now the sole controller of the land, which has been at the center of controversy. Numerous attempts to purchase the island from Bonnie Mills-Rush have broken down.

Strawberry Island sits on Flambeau Lake on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation. Beginning in 1995, control about what development can occur on the island, as well as a battle over ownership, has been the center of a lengthy and at times heated battle between the tribe and the current owners, the Mills family, who reside in Colorado.

The disputes began in 1995 when Walter Mills applied for a building permit to construct a retirement home on the island.

After years of complicated negotiations, accusations of greed on one side and extortion on the other foiled deals between the Lac du Flambeau tribe and Mills-Rush.

The tribe last approached the owners just over a year-and-a half ago according to Mills-Rush, but she has not been in contact since.

"The last offer I got from the tribe was for $250,000," Mills-Rush said. "That is nowhere near the value of the island and we have no interest in that amount."

The stalemate halted the negotiations between the tribe and Mills-Rush numerous times. The most recent denial occurred along the same time period of when Poupart first came into contact with Mills-Rush, the manager of the LLC that owns the island.

"Bonnie and I have always had a great working relationship and an even greater friendship between us," Poupart said.

Mills-Rush personally couldn't be happier the sacred island is now in the hands of someone she has known to trust and believes has the best intentions of the tribe in his mind.

"I believe Bill to be the type of person that has a lot of integrity," she said. "He is a person who has a lot of respect of the island and a lot of respect for the people of the Lac du Flambeau tribe."

The lease gives Poupart full control of the island, which has long been sought after by the tribe. Terms of the lease, although mainly undisclosed, do not allow the island to be sold from underneath Poupart regardless of the price offered, according to Mills-Rush. Although it could be purchased while being leased by Poupart, he would have to approve the sale.

Historical meaning

Strawberry Island carries with it a very deep, clouded, but yet colorful history.

Numerous members of the Lac du Flambeau tribe see it as a place with deep spiritual and cultural significance.

Poupart is one of those.

According to Poupart, his intentions for the island, though not completely drawn out in black and white, will always, in his words, have the best intentions of the people in mind.

"We have the island," Poupart said. "It's a great day and I am proud to say that."

Ownership of the island last changed hands in 1910 when Mills-Rush' great-grandfather purchased the land for $2,105 from the parents of Harold Whitefeather, an Ojibwe boy who died at the age of five.

Whitefeather had received the island from the federal government as part of the Dawes Allotment Act, which assigned private property to American Indians.

Elders of the tribe have for decades urged others, mainly the younger members of the tribe, to leave the island alone in respect for their ancestors.

The island is said to be the location of the last major battle between the Chippewa and Sioux which took place in 1745. It is also believed to be a tribal burial ground for elders as stated in the book, "Memories of Lac du Flambeau Elders."

Because of its historical and archaeological heritage, it has never been developed and remains heavily forested.

Strawberry Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because it is one of the most important archaeological sites in northern Wisconsin, according to state archaeologist Robert Birmingham of the state historical society of Wisconsin

"It is the site of camps and village areas, occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years," Birmingham said. "Unlike most such sites, these remains are largely undisturbed by modern activities and therefore are of great scientific value."

Poupart has been in contact with Robert Salzar, former professor of anthropology at Beloit College, in regard to protecting the archaeological significance of the island and materials on it. With Poupart now is control, patrol of the island will also be increased.

Attempts by tribe fell short

In August 2007, negotiations between Mills-Rush, her attorney and the tribe halted completely after a $750,000 difference in negotiations. The 2007 attempt to negotiate was one of many by the tribe to secure rights to the island.

The tribe and Mills-Rush had reached an agreement in 1999 for the tribe to purchase the island for $1.5 million, however a tribal referendum, which would have given the final stamp of approval, failed and the two sides were forced back to the drawing board.

In 2001, mediation between the two sides resumed as the tribe came to the table with an initial opening offer of $800,000. That amount, according to Mills-Rush, was not close enough to the assessed value, which at the time was nearly $1.5 million.

Discrepancies in the assessed value were also fueling the debate on price.

According to tribal attorney Carol Brown, the island is completely surrounded by tribal land, therefore lowering the assessed value for any outside entity wishing to purchase it.

Poupart says with numerous private landings available on Flambeau Lake, access to the island for anyone is a very real possibility.

The tribe also felt it had a say in what, if anything, could be constructed on the island. No ruling in regard to whether a structure would be allowable on the island has yet to be handed down.

Doug Etten can be reached via email at detten@lakelandtimes.com.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, September 1, 2012
Article comment by: Linda Eastman

Very interesting article, as was the one in 2003 on the island. Glad to see it is being preserved.

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