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W-File: gh_strawberryisland.html

Type: Ghost
Location: Strawberry Island, Wisconsin

Source: The book Northern Frights by Dennis Boyer (published 1998) pages 41-44.

The Sioux Warriors of Strawberry Island

Dennis Boyer's Introduction

Wisconsin is blessed with a number of places that have overlapping layers of legend and lore. Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, and Madeline Island spring immediately to mind. The layers are usually connected to successive waves of settlement or to shifting political control (...Indian, French, British, American). Thus, the long-settled fort and trading post sites have the most evidence of these layers.

Rural and isolated sites are less likely to exhibit this story-stacking phenomena. In these less-traveled places story continuity is often broken. Neglect is also compounded where the stories are American Indian and the setting is a reservation.

The Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation offers a site that is rich in its antiquity and its legends. There, on Strawberry Island, we find a location with a thousand years of ghosts to account for. Sorting them out is the problem.

Wendell, a Lac du Flambeau construction worker, offered to help sift through the stories on his lunch break at a Bolton Lake construction site. He excavated these comments in a straightforward backhoe style.

The Story From Wendell

We were always told that Strawberry Island was home to a lot of ghosts. Sometimes we called it "ghost island." Some called it "bone island." It was even called "poison ivy island," although the poison ivy was blamed on spirits too.

Now I can tell you stories from out there on the island. But if you want to know the meaning of things out there you must ask a medicine man. I approach these things respectfully even though I don't understand them all. All my generation can do is try to remember what the grandfathers, grandmothers, and old Canadian relatives said.

The main story is about the battle with the Sioux and the tremendous slaughter there. But there are much older stories that are hazy on details. In our old stories there are the four famous sons of Winona, fathered by the Great Spirit. Three of the sons are remembered for the gifts they brought to the Ojibwe. But the second son, Pukawiss, is almost forgotten.

Pukawiss was viewed by some as a no-account and vagabond. He traveled and entertained and danced. So you might say he was the original powwow bum. Pukawiss never had a permanent home. And when he died his spirit could not be confined to one place. But in life he had used Strawberry Island as a resting place and that is where his ghost now goes in between haunting today's pow-wows.

Some stories connect Strawberry Island to the great epic story of the Ojibwe. How the Anishinabe people were told by a prophet to leave their home on the Atlantic Ocean and travel west to look for food that grows on water. In other words, wild rice. Lac du Flambeau was in this area where food grew on water. But the area was already occupied by the Sioux. And Strawberry Island was important to them.

The island was an important place for visions. They and the Winnebago had used the place for thousands of years for burials. Misunderstandings about use of the island and the rice in surrounding waters set off conflict. Soon it was a full-scale war for control of the wild rice country.

This war raged from the Upper Peninsula to the St. Croix area. But it all came to a head with the battle on Strawberry Island about three hundred years ago. It was a battle in which thousands fought and hundreds died. In the end the Sioux were defeated and driven from wild rice country. Their dead warriors and the bones of their ancestors were abandoned.

Some say this abandonment led to the severe haunting of Strawberry Island. That there are hundreds of lonely and angry ghosts out there. I've only ever met one person who saw ghosts out there - it's not a place we go a lot. He saw a group with painted faces and bloody war clubs.

But I and many others have often heard the ghosts. During late summer the shouts, whoops, and screams can be heard toward evening. The Sioux warriors. Some say it is the noise and pain of the Sioux casualties. But others say that it is the dead of both sides reenacting the battle.

All in all, it is a place to be avoided or at least approached carefully because of the unsettled spirits of the Sioux warriors. Yet there is even more reason to be cautious. When the French came, the missionaries took note of the island as a sacred place. They tried to plant a cross out there. A bear killed a missionary. So there's a priest ghost out there too.

Then the U.S. Indian agents got the idea that there were graves and treasures to rob out there. They sent some flunkies out to dig the stuff up. They never came back. That meant some more ghosts on the island.

Later, during Prohibition, we often had the gangsters come up here. They hid Canadian whiskey on the reservation. They took a squealer out to the island to kill him. A fight broke out and three or four killed each other. More ghosts.

Finally, we have the development stuff. You know that we lost ownership of the island through that corrupt Dawes Allotment Act? That law should have been called the "shove-a-deed-in-front-of-an-Indian-and-make-him-sign-it-quick-act."

But we now have the battle over whether white developers will put a resort on top oftwo-thousand-year-old burial sites. Then there's the question about what the tribal government will do. What will the medicine men do? What will the Sioux do? What will the State Historical Society do?

In a normal place the answers would be easy. But with Vilas County in the picture and the boatlanding riots and look-the-other-way law enforcement in mind, it should prove very interesting.

This may become the first haunted site ever that gets written up by political reporters. Before it's done we could have the American Indian Movement, the skinheads, the environmentalists, and those corporate land rapers up here. Who knows, maybe a new battle and some new ghosts?

All I know is that I would not want to operate a piece of heavy equipment on Strawberry Island. I wouldn't want to use a chainsaw out there. I have a hunch that it will be an accident-prone place. If something were ever to be built out there, well, nothing good would come from it. Let's just say you wouldn't want your family staying there.

I wouldn't want to be responsible for the falls, drownings, stabbings, and shootings that will occur out there once those Sioux warriors can take over a live body. But that's nothing to some Chicago suit out to make a buck.

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