A 1.85-acre parcel of Lake Superior shoreline on the eastern edge of Grand Marais may come full circle. Once part of an Indigenous community known as Chippewa City, the land with a Lake Superior beach is now a former gravel pit owned by the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation. The Grand Portage Band has asked MNDOT to reconvey the property to them to be placed in tribal trust status. The Cook County Board, Grand Marais City Council and Cook County Historical Society have voiced unanimous support for Grand Portage’s request.
Colloquially known as the Passion Pit, the beach has long been used by the local community as a place to get close to the lake, walk the beach and perhaps have an evening campfire with friends. Since MNDOT no longer needs or uses the land, and was prompted in part by complaints in recent years of poor behavior at the beach, the agency began the process of disposing of the property. MNDOT district engineer Duane Hill said the first step of the procedure was to find out if other state agencies were interested in acquiring the land. The DNR, which owns land nearby, wasn’t interested in MNDOT’s parcel. Hill had been approached by neighbors interested in purchasing the property, so he began the next step in the disposal process: putting it up for bid for private sale. At that point, Cook County indicated its interest in the property and established a task force to address concerns about the poor behavior and chart a path forward. The task force led to the creation of a more formal committee to look at long-term plans for the property. Then Grand Portage tossed its hat into the acquisition ring.
Grand Portage tribal chairman Bob Deschampe said the Band recognized the moment as a one-time opportunity to acquire land in a place of great importance to the Ojibwe community. Currently, all that remains of Chippewa City, where at least 100 families lived at the turn of the 20th Century, is the St. Francis Xavier Church, built in 1895, and the nearby cemetery. If Grand Portage successfully acquires the land, it will mark the first time MNDOT, and possibly any state agency, has transferred land outside of a reservation boundary to a tribe. Deschampe emphasized the Band has no intention of developing the land.
“Our plan is to get the land put into the trust of the Grand Portage Band,” Deschampe said. “It is not our purpose to create a park or cut off anyone else from going to the beach. We will work with the city and the county moving forward.”
Deschampe said the Band has reached out to the North House Folk School about constructing a small, timber-framed pavilion at the site with informational panels about local Ojibwe history.
“We’d like to tell our story and give the people a chance to get near the lake,” he said.
Although the land is outside of the present-day Grand Portage Reservation, it is within the ancestral lands of the North Shore Ojibwe. In 1854, the Grand Portage, Bois Fort and Fond du Lac Ojibwe bands signed a treaty with the United States that ceded their lands in what is now northeastern Minnesota to the government. In the treaty, the Ojibwe retained certain rights, such as fishing, hunting and gathering, which they exercise today. The treaty opened the door to European settlers and the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed them to claim 160 acres as private property. The European approach to land ownership was far different than the communal perspective of the Ojibwe, who moved with the seasons to take advantage of food resources.
Author Staci Drouillard, a Grand Portage descendent who chronicled the history of Chippewa City in her 2019 book, Walking the Old Road, is excited by the possibility of the land being returned to the Ojibwe. In the early 1900s, Chippewa City had more population than adjacent Grand Marais, but its Ojibwe inhabitants were disadvantaged by poverty, a lack of understanding of legal issues and racism. Drouillard said that when the county tightened its tax policy in 1930, many properties in Chippewa City became tax delinquent. A local land speculator offered to pay the taxes for the financially impoverished Ojibwe and later convinced them to sign documents, with an X, saying he was the rightful owner because he paid the taxes. Other land was lost to eminent domain for the construction of Highway 61. By the late 1930s, most of the families at Chippewa City moved away.
“It’s contentious to say that the land was stolen, Drouillard says, “but it was. Then it was turned into a gravel pit and kind of abused and forgotten. It is time to let that beach rest. It is time for it to be honored as a significant place for a lot of people and just be left alone.”
There is a process, guided by state statute, for reconveying the land to Grand Portage, but it will take time to complete. In the interim, Cook County land services director Tim Nelson says the county, which owns a 37-foot-wide strip of land that provides access to the beach, will mitigate issues related to public use by providing waste receptacles and signage on the county property. If Grand Portage is unsuccessful in acquiring the land, the county is next in line to acquire it. Nelson, who participated in the county task force and advisory committee, said the county’s perspective regarding the use of the beach parallels that of Grand Portage.
“Everyone agreed the site should be kept as natural as possible,” he said. “And everyone felt the neighbors should not have to deal with any negative issues associated with public use.”
Everyone interviewed for this story agreed as well that returning this remnant of what was once an Ojibwe community is a pretty big deal. Now, over 165 years after the Treaty of 1854 was signed, the local community is acknowledging history and the people to whom the land once belonged. The beach will remain a place where everyone can find solace beside Lake Superior.
“It’s not just ancient history,” Drouillard said. “The kids from Great Expectations (a Grand Marais charter school) have a picnic every year on the beach. This is an ancient and modern legacy.”