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Cornell holds mineral rights across 12 northern Wisconsin counties.

April 7, 2024

Cornell’s Mineral Interest on Indigenous Wisconsin Land Harms Pipe-Making Tradition, Ojibwe Knowledge-Keeper Says

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When Rick St. Germaine was a young boy growing up in the Lac Courte Oreilles Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) community of Northern Wisconsin, he saw bundles of pipe-making tools decorating the walls of the homes of his family and friends.  

The hand-making of pipes from pipestone is an essential component of the Midewiwin religion, which St. Germaine describes as “a healing system and way of belief and connection to the Earth.” Pipes are used in ceremonies to deliver prayers to spirit beings, and the gifting of handmade pipes represents a critical sign of initiation into the Midewiwin.

But Cornell’s mineral ownership rights in the sacred 160-acre Ozhaawashiko-Bimadinaa “Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry” harms the pipe-making practice, according to St. Germaine, a career educator and knowledge-keeper for the Ojibwe community, at a March 25 lecture

St. Germaine addressed over 170 attendees in his lecture entitled, “Cornell University and the Blue Hills (WI) Pipestone Quarry: A Perspective from Anishinaabewaki,” organized by the Department of History and its Public History Initiative, the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, the American Studies Program and the Department of Anthropology.

Cornell University was the largest beneficiary of the Morrill Act, obtaining over 990,000 acres from over 230 Indigenous peoples in 15 states. All land parcels were sold by 1938, but some mineral rights to the land were retained, according to the Cornell University and Indigenous Dispossession Project.

According to Prof. Jon Parmenter, history, who introduced St. Germaine at the event, the University currently owns a severed 50 percent mineral interest on 155,340 total acres of land across 12 northern Wisconsin counties, including the Blue Hills Pipestone Quarry, where pipe making stone was traditionally mined

St. Germaine spoke about the historic relationship of the North Wisconsin Anishinaabeg communities to the quarry, how it has been disrupted by non-Indigenous ownership of the quarry and what improved access to the quarry would mean to members of Indigenous communities.

“Were [the quarry] to be transferred to our tribe, we would be able to return to that very important sacred site,” St. Germaine said. “[It] was much more than a pipestone quarry to us, it was a healing place as well.”

The Quarry’s Importance

According to St. Germaine, the Midewiwin belief system is essential to the Ojibwe people, providing a means of connecting to the creator and the world around them, including with the quarry.

“Our people are ones that believe that spirits inhabit everything — the trees and the animals and the lakes and the waters — and they sometimes are our ancestors who come back and visit us,” St. Germaine said. “We have this reverence for the environment, a close relationship. [The quarry] is one of those places.”

The quarry is particularly significant to the Ojibwe community because it lies within a geologically granite-embedded range. The pipestone from this area is softer and malleable, making it ideal for hand carving into a pipe which is used for Midewiwin ceremonies.

In the absence of access to the quarry under its current ownership by Barron County, Wisconsin, St. Germaine’s brother has attempted to hand make pipes from hard pipestone. However, for a majority of Ojibwe, the practice is no longer accessible given the difficult and time-consuming nature of carving hard stone.

The hand making of these sacred pipes has significantly declined, impacting the capacity of Ojibwe communities to access religious practices and customs, such as the gifting of pipes.

“I own three pipes. All three of them were gifted to me in a customary manner,” St. Germaine said. “That custom that we had of gifting pipes to one another is really essential to us, and that just doesn’t happen anymore.”

St. Germaine currently shares his childhood memories of pipes with children on the reservation who will not grow up with the same exposure to pipe making due to the loss of Indigenous access to the pipestone quarry. 

“In the old days, everyone’s home used to have their little bundle of pipestone-making tools,” St. Germaine said. “Rasps, some sandpaper and things they hand fashioned, pieces of metal with things they shaped [like] animals.”

Decline in Indigenous Access to the Quarry

Parmenter said that Cornell’s mineral interest in the land impacts the decreased indigenous access to the quarry.

“The University put this kind of clause in where they would sell the land, so the surface owner owned the property, but the University retained a 50 percent [mineral] share,” Parmenter said.

Parmenter described that private buyers bought the land in 1938, and the government of Barron County — where the quarry is located — bought the property in 1975. Throughout these transactions, Parmenter said, Cornell continued to maintain its mineral interests in Wisconsin.

Since the 1970s, around the time that Barron County obtained the property rights to the quarry, the access of the Ojibwe community to the quarry has declined.

“We’ve stopped going because somewhere along the way somebody was turned back,” St. Germaine said. “Our people were told to stay out, that we were trespassing. We got turned back, and that word got around the reservation.”

Looking to the Future

Cornell does not currently own the quarry land or have the power to transfer it back to the Ojibwe community. However, Parmenter and St. Germaine hope that transferring Cornell’s 50 percent mineral interest in the quarry to the Ojibwe would give them legal standing to negotiate with the current owners, Barron County, over access to the quarry.

Both St. Germaine and Parmenter said that the lecture constituted a “joyous day” by becoming one step closer to this goal.

“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that we’ve had a representative of a community that Cornell has directly impacted through the Morrill Act on campus to talk about it,” Parmenter said. “We’re hoping to do more events like this. This is just the very beginning.”

St. Germaine explained that his visit to Cornell gave him hope for the future of the quarry.

“Our last medicine man always said to us that maybe someday, we will be able to reconnect [at the quarry] and return to do these things that we often did years ago,” St. Germaine said. “I just feel a sense of opportunity to return to this place of importance. To think that we’re this close is really a sense of hope.”

Yanenowi Logan ’24, a member of the Seneca Nation, found learning about the importance of the quarry to the Ojibwe community to be one of the most critical parts of the event.

“It was important to hear why Rick St. Germaine’s community wants to retain these rights and what it means for them,” Logan said. “Yeah you can read all of the treaties — you know what’s quote unquote right from wrong — but you don’t know why it’s meaningful unless you bring [members of Indigenous communities] here and talk to them. It was not only what we as students needed to hear, but administration, [too].”

Skylar Kleinman is a Sun Contributor and can be reached at [email protected].