Lighting the Way: Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College Serves as a Beacon Light for Tribal Members

Volume 27, No. 1 - Fall 2015
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Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

On the shores of Lake Superior, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), a small cluster of Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa), keep their fires alive in the face of daunting pressures to let go of their ways. After the ravages of war, colonization, and territorial loss, KBIC continues to make a stand for their people and future generations. Their cultural identity and native language were nearly extinguished along with the forest and iron, copper, and other natural deposits that colonists took from their land. Now, through their Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC), they have hope for revitalizing the Ojibwa language and culture while offering educational services to their community.

Debra Parrish, president of KBOCC, says the college was founded to provide a place for people to learn the Ojibwa language and culture, and pursue higher education. “KBOCC is more relevant for our students to learn about their cultural identity,” she explains. “Most of them have no knowledge about their culture. We have very few speakers even at the low level of the Ojibwa language. Many of them can understand the Ojibwa language, but they can’t speak it.”

All together, the Chippewa are one of the largest tribes in North America. U.S. Census data for 2010 show the Chippewa people as the fourth largest tribe in North America, with an estimated population of 115,859. However, Chippewa reservations along the Great Lakes and in the Midwest have much smaller populations.

In upper Michigan, a few bands of Chippewa around Lake Superior collectively signed treaties with the U.S. government in 1836, 1837, 1842, and 1854. In those treaties they ceded land in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but retained the rights to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded territories.

KBIC has the oldest and largest reservation in the state of Michigan. Their land base, the L’Anse Indian Reservation, currently has 18,000 acres on both sides of Keweenaw Bay in Baraga County. They also have an additional 233 acres near the city of Marquette. Their reservation is home to the L’Anse and Ontonagon Bands of the Chippewa, with about 3,672 enrolled tribal members.

In 1975, the KBIC tribal government established KBOCC with the mission of supporting life-long learning and providing post-secondary education rich in Ojibwa culture, tradition, and beliefs. Academic services at KBOCC include remedial education to prepare students to be successful in college with an emphasis on Ojibwa culture and language.

KBOCC is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and recently became a land-grant college. The institution offers four degree programs: two Associate of Science degrees, one liberal studies Associate of Arts degree, and one Associate of Applied Science degree. KBOCC works with Finlandia University, Michigan Technological University, and Northern Michigan University for transfer credit arrangements.

The original KBOCC campus building, west of Keweenaw Bay, is currently a gathering place for youth outreach programs like the S.T.E.M., Youth Academy for middle school children, and the Program for the Enhancement of Academic Readiness for middle and high school students. Since KBOCC purchased the old Baraga County Hospital in 2013, it has undergone extensive renovations and will serve as the new college campus. The hospital was renamed the KBOCC Wabanung (east) Campus. This past spring, some administrative offices were moved from the west campus to the east campus when the college opened its doors to the public.

Meanwhile, the faculty at KBOCC reaches out to the community to provide meaningful cultural and educational programming for students and the general public alike. The college works with the tribe and offers job-skills training at the Senior Citizen Center and other community sites, according to Parrish. And presentations on environmental issues, philosophy, and culture held on the east campus are open to the public.

Guest speakers have included Jon Magnuson of the Cedar Tree Institute, who gave a talk entitled “The Living Fire: Religion, Politics, and the Environmental Crisis.” Hosted by the KBOCC Environmental Science Department, the presentation explored relationships between human spirituality, social institutions, and the environment. Donnie Dowd, a member of a traditional Ojibwa medicine society, delivered a presentation entitled “Way-Way-Na-Boo-Zhoo O’de Ah-Say-Ma: Anishinaabe Tobacco Stories, Teachings, and Planting.” Dowd discussed how and when to use ah-say-ma, or indigenous tobacco, noting that it has always been an important value and central to Ojibwa cultural knowledge. A small amount of natural tobacco is offered to the Great Spirit for blessings and gratitude, to other human beings for guidance, and to outsiders in an effort to foster international relationships and seal agreements. Such programming illustrates how KBOCC acts both as a host for public gatherings and as an agent of change, informing people about important issues and how they impact their communities.

Learning how historical roots affect the present and future generations is another important value for cultural identity and understanding one’s place in the world. KBOCC sponsored a community-wide oral history project entitled, “Weaving Our History: Voices of Wisdom and Memory,” which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project provided interview training to community members so they could participate in collecting and documenting the contemporary oral history of KBIC tribal members.

According to Jessica Koski, a tribal member and KBOCC alumnus who works in the KBIC Natural Resources Department, the training empowers tribal people to engage in community-based participatory research and eliminates any reliance on outside academics who conduct studies on the reservation. “This is an important process of decolonization and building the capacity of our own community to conduct research on issues of importance that are defined within our community, conducted by community members, and used for the benefit of the community,” Koski states. “In particular, the KBIC Natural Resources Department will be utilizing this training and the support of community members to conduct a fish consumption survey within the community.”


The Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa sugar bush brings community members and students together to make maple syrup, a traditional tribal practice.

Many Indigenous people think of the natural environment as a forest garden. They know where to find edible foods, when they’re ripe, and the time to harvest them. Ojibwa ancestors collected birch bark and black ash for baskets; nuts, wild rice, and berries as staple foods; and they preserved their fish and hunting kills for the long winter months. Maple syrup- and sugar-making in particular is an important cultural tradition for the Ojibwa. Historically, they produced great amounts of these commodities. It was a thriving business for many tribes in the region before logging and mining had a detrimental impact on their land.

Gerald Jondreau, a former student at KBOCC who also holds a B.S. degree from Michigan Technological University, currently serves as the tribal forester for KBIC. One of his annual work projects is managing the community sugar bush for the tribe. “Everybody is interested in making maple syrup and sugar,” he observes. “Students and staff came from Northern Michigan University, KBOCC, and the local community. We had babies, kids, and 75-year-old elders in the camp.”


Jolene De Cota and Mike Krusensterna plant wild rice, another traditional practice that brings community members together at KBOCC. Photo by Debbie Parrish

The KBIC sugar bush had 240 taps this past season. After boiling about 900 gallons of maple sap to the final stages of maple syrup, the sugar bush crew went to the kitchen at KBOCC to finish and bottle the product. Overall, they produced 40 gallons of syrup and 15 pounds of maple sugar. “Everybody helps in the sugar bush,” Jondreau explains. “We come together as a community for a common purpose. People share the workload and enjoy each other’s company and laughter. While we are enjoying ourselves, we are also revitalizing some cultural knowledge and a sense of community so dear to our Ojibwa ancestors.”

Although the region is still recovering from the damage of past logging, mining, and other commercial operations, the maple sugar trees are coming back. Jondreau says the tribal community set aside divisive politics and came together in the sugar bush camp. They stayed in the camp for hours and even days. Nobody went hungry, and at the end nobody wanted to leave. “For me, this is a way to build our community,” he says. “I know other people got hit hard, but KBIC got hit especially hard from being overrun by settlers, mining, and lumber interests. We are working to bring back our culture and language and identity.” By working together to make sugar, harvest wild rice, or hold communal activities, they bring back their cultural knowledge.

The success of a forest garden depends upon clean water, intact and heathy soils, and a strong natural environment. Colonization, industrialization, and excessive resource extraction are counter to the traditional cultural values of the Ojibwa. Through her position in the KBIC Natural Resources Department, Koski helps build the capacity of her community to address mining in the Lake Superior basin. “We have a strong ancestral, cultural, and spiritual connection to the lands and waters of the Upper Great Lakes region; and a traditional value system as stewards of the resources upon which our health and lifeways depend, which puts tribes in an important leadership role for restoring and protecting area ecosystems from mining impacts,” she says.

KBIC is focused currently on the Eagle, Humboldt, White Pine, and Copperwood mines along with other renewed Keweenaw prospects. Koski and her department also work collaboratively with many different stakeholders in the Keweenaw Bay region to address the legacy of mining and its impact. The region was designated as one of the major Great Lakes Areas of Concern, as defined by the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. KBOCC serves as an important educational center and gathering space for the community and the public. “I’m grateful to have been able to use the tribal college’s facilities to host meetings and large gatherings that bring people together on important issues,” Koski says. KBOCC is like a beacon light and gathering place for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community to revive its culture and language. The long battle for their lands and resources has taken so much that they were nearly extinguished. But one by one, the light leads them back home.

Sherrole Benton (Oneida/Ojibwa) is an award-winning journalist and past contributor of Tribal College Journal.

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