The 13 small Lake Superior islands off the northeast tip of Minnesota aren’t even on most maps, let alone most Minnesotans’ radar.
But the Susie Islands archipelago, less than a quarter-mile off the North Shore, has deep roots in the history of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. So band leaders were happy recently to officially welcome the largest of the islands back into their fold.
The band and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy announced that, with approval from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the big island, Susie Island, has been returned to the tribe.
The Nature Conservancy had most recently acquired the 142-acre island from various landowners in several parcels between 1973 and 1991. The conservancy raised money to protect the island’s unusual native plants and wildlife and keep it free of development.
“It was at risk. … There were some plans to either develop the site or use it for commercial boat excursions,” said Peggy Ladner, director of the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. “We wanted to protect it in its entirety.”
Evidence of the island’s history of mining, logging and commercial fishing isn’t easily visible now.
The archipelago is located entirely within the boundaries of the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. When the reservation was established in 1854, a whole portion of the northeastern point, including the islands, was left out, said April McCormick, the band’s roads and realty manager. But the islands and surrounding area were reincorporated into the reservation boundaries in the early 1980s, though a few parcels were still under private ownership.
The band made a long-term goal to reacquire the islands where ancestors had gathered blueberries and fished. It succeeded in getting most of them, but the large island was among the last to be returned.
In January 2016, the tribal council voted to initiate the process to get it back. The federal Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed to the band’s request that Susie Island be placed into trust status on the band’s behalf.
“Susie Island is deeply embedded in our history and how we’ve lived here for generations,” McCormick said. “It’s really significant to see this large of a parcel returned.”
As part of the transaction, the band ensures the island will be preserved and protected.
“We started to look to the future and it became pretty clear to us that it would be the best thing to do, and really the right thing to do, to restore Susie Island to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa,” Ladner said. “They have a very well-deserved, well-earned reputation for being very good natural resource managers.”
The islands of jagged rocks are significant because of the unusual plant life they contain. Subject to cooler and wetter weather than the mainland, many of the plants, mosses and lichens growing there are more typically found in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. With a “cloud forest” type of environment, a blanket bog of sphagnum mosses 1- to 3-feet thick has spread over much of the island, according to the conservancy and the band.
The island is difficult to reach, with rocky shores and sheer cliffs lining much of its coastline. For the island’s protection and the safety of boaters, visitors must get permission from the band to set foot on it.
The archipelago rises near a spot where the Pigeon River empties into the lake, near the Canadian border. Tourists can see the islands from two overlooks off Hwy. 61, between Mount Josephine and the customs station at the U.S. border with Canada.