Tribal stewards: From wasteland to wetland

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) primary land base is the L'Anse Indian Reservation along the Keweenaw Bay in the Upper Peninsula, consisting of approximately 59,000 acres and approximately 23 miles of Lake Superior shoreline.

For decorative purposes.
Photo 1: Sand Point, on the L'Anse Reservation, after planting and restoration activities. Photo Credit: KBIC Natural Resources Department.

As of 2022, Michigan has 12 federally recognized Native American tribes. These tribes vary in their sizes, histories, and cultures, but a common element surrounds all indigenous people in North America: a connection to the natural world. Despite centuries of colonization and forced assimilation, many tribes still work hard today to ensure this natural world is stewarded and managed properly for the benefit of all.

Today, all of the tribes of Michigan have their own departments or employees devoted to conservation and natural resource management. Each tribe has a different organizational structure that may include conservation, fisheries, or wildlife departments, depending on the needs of their communities. Such tribal departments are engaged in a variety of projects, often exercised through their treaty rights, aimed at stewarding, protecting, and restoring the natural resources of Michigan. Below is one such project that showcases the breadth and impact of tribal nations in Michigan on the beloved natural resources all Michiganders enjoy.

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) is a Lake Superior Band of Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians and a federally recognized tribe with its primary land base as the L'Anse Indian Reservation along the Keweenaw Bay in the Upper Peninsula.

The L'Anse Indian Reservation consists of approximately 59,000 acres and is water-rich, with approximately 23 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. This area contains a healthy population of fish, wildlife, and plant species. Included within the L’Anse Reservation is Sand Point, an area several hundred acres in size located between Highway 41 to the west and bound by almost 2.5 miles of Lake Superior shoreline to the east.

A portion of Sand Point along the shoreline is the result of a once booming copper-mining industry, which has left its mark on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in more than one way. From 1902 to 1919 an estimated six billion pounds of stamp sands were deposited into Keweenaw Bay from a stamp mill located just north of the L’Anse Reservation. Stamp sands are the by-product of ‘stamping’ or crushing rock into smaller fragments to easily remove valuable copper ore. After being deposited into the Bay, these sands migrated south by currents, and a portion now covers the natural sand beaches and created a new beach at Sand Point (see Photo 2, pictured below).

For decorative purposes.
Photo 2: The dark, coarse stamp sands created a beach at Sand Point on the L’Anse Reservation. This photo is before restoration activities began in 2006. Photo Credit: KBIC Natural Resources Department.

The stamp sands at Sand Point present a variety of challenges for the community. To begin, during extreme weather events, stamp sands can move from the shoreline into the water. This remobilization promotes the dissipation of sands and they can rapidly cover new sections of shoreline. They also do not support vegetation growth, due to the low nutrient content, high heavy metal content, and the coarse texture and dark color of the stamp sand. This lack of vegetation has reduced the potential biodiversity which has lasting ecosystem impacts. The sands remaining within Lake Superior are also an issue, blanketing natural reefs and harming aquatic species who use rocky reefs for shelter and reproduction. In particular this disrupts spawning of important fish like Lake Whitefish and Lake Trout. 

Culturally, Sand Point is an important area for the KBIC. Sand Point also contains a Tribal campground, a historic lighthouse, a Tribal marina, and the KBIC Powwow grounds. It is a site of a historic Ojibwa village and continues to be an important area for cultural plant collection for a Traditional Healing Center also located on site. The stamp sands are also starting to infiltrate the unique coastal fen that runs parallel to the Sand Point shoreline, potentially impacting the many medicinal plants that call this area home.

Work begins

Fortunately, KBIC decided to do something about the stamp sands at Sand Point. In the early 2000’s the Sand Point property was listed as a brownfield site, a property contaminated with a known pollutant or hazardous substance. Assessments and cleanup work were conducted with assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies from 2002 to 2006. Shortly after, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service conducted studies which determined that adding a soil cap was the best method to remediate Sand Point. In 2006, a 6-10 inch cap of soil was distributed over approximately 36 acres of stamp sands and seeded with a grass mixture to protect vulnerable coastal wetlands that border the brownfield property. The initial cleanup solution was successful in stabilizing the existing stamp sands and preventing the sands from spreading and negatively impacting more native ecosystems.

In 2010, with the establishment of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding program, KBIC began a rigorous planting program to restore habitat to Sand Point. This work continues today. Establishing a healthy vegetative cover was crucial in preventing erosion of the stamp sands, promoting a biodiverse ecosystem, and alleviating the wastescape of the stamp sands. Species planted at Sand Point include bee balm, tobacco, yellow coneflower, smooth astern, black-eyed susan, purple coneflower, lance-leaf coreopsis, milkweed species, little bluestem, and blazing star, just to name a few! Over 140 species have been observed within the seed plots at Sand Point, over double the original 56 species that were planted (see Photo 1). Sand Point is also home to a diverse assemblage of wildlife and insects monitored through annual surveys. A walking trail through the restoration site offers fitness stations and more recently a storybook trail sharing information about nibi (water).

Erin Johnston, the Wildlife Biologist for the KBIC Natural Resources Department, is proud of the work the tribe has been able to complete at Sand Point. “At its core, this restoration is about honoring our responsibility to the land, the other beings, and to the community,” Johnston shared. 

Johnston also stressed how sites such as Sand Point can have direct effects on human health, especially when the community is so reliant on the environment: “It is about understanding how all the components are connected.” Johnston also restated the appreciation to the many staff and partners who helped make this project possible, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has provided majority of the funding for continued restoration effort.

Today, KBIC continues to work on a number of special projects at Sand Point in addition to seed planting. Annual monitoring activities include frog and toad surveys, waterfowl surveys, waterfowl nest box checks, wild rice monitoring and restoration, and wetland vegetation surveys. Monitoring of water quality, sediments, macroinvertebrates, aquatic vegetation, and wildlife have also taken place over the years. These monitoring efforts ensure the project was successful and provide valuable insights on how to improve future restoration projects. Sand Point has also been a destination for many research and educational focused tours, including youth programs.

Learn more

Michigan State University Extension highlights that projects just like this one are occurring all over Michigan every day. Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes remain active stewards of our natural resources and are working diligently to ensure these resources for the coming generations. If you want to learn about another tribal project, check out the article, “A River Restoration for the Record Books,” or consider using this map to find the tribe nearest you that may be working on managing the natural resources in your county or township.

Avery Tilley graduated with dual degrees in Fisheries and Wildlife, and Genomics and Molecular Genetics from Michigan State University in 2023. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a Texan. Tilley is pursuing a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia with hopes to further a career in tribal wildlife medicine.

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