The Menominee name means "good seed" or "wild rice people". For at least five thousand years they subsided on hunting, fishing and gathering, particularly wild rice, and occupied large portions of what is now Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Part of the indigenous Eastern Woodland Culture, they closely resembled the neighboring Ojibwa.
The Menominee were introduced to fur trading and a new way of life in 1634 when French explorer Jean Nicolet arrived in Green Bay. They adapted well to hunting for profit and shortly afterwards their numbers and range grew as other tribes were destroyed by war and epidemic. The same fate almost wiped out the Menominee and by 1650 only 400 remained. For generations they clung on but settlements and logging further reduced their land base during the 1800's. In 1850 the US Government tried to relocate the Menominee to eastern Minnesota. Chief Oshkosh, however, refused to allow his people to be moved. A series of treaties and land cessions confined them to a 235,000 acre reservation in northeast Wisconsin.
In 1872 the US Government and tribe began operation of a sawmill and in 1908 began a program of sustained harvest to ensure income for future generations. Despite US Government fraud and mismanagement, the sawmill was a success. In 1959 the tribe was awarded a $8.5 million judgment related to government theft of money generated by the enterprise. A federal program signed by President Eisenhower in the 1950's allowed termination of US jurisdiction over Indians and, in what some interpreted as a retaliatory move, the US Government terminated Menominee tribal status.
In 1961 the tribe was stripped of tribal rights and Menominee became the 72nd county of Wisconsin. The result was a devastating combination of new property taxes and loss of federal support. Within a few years Menominee became the most impoverished county in Wisconsin. The hospital and BIA schools were closed and valuable parcels of the reservation were sold in an effort to raise funds. In 1964 the tribe submitted a petition to President Johnson to reverse the termination. It was ignored. A group of tribal elders re-energized the effort to regain control of their reservation and Federal recognition was finally restored by President Nixon in 1973. A new tribal legislature assumed governance in 1979. Since then, a casino and tourism have helped stabilize the local economy.
As far back as the 1970's, lands immediately north of Menominee (including large portions of the Wolf River watershed) have been an on-again/off-again target of various mining interests. In 1994 Exxon, along with Rio Algom, Ltd. tried to pull a permit to mine 5,500 tons of ore per day for 28 years. The bootie: zinc-, copper-, and lead-bearing minerals with minor amounts of gold and silver. The cost: 14,850,000 tons of tailings slurry; over $1 billion; and unknown effects on one small river. The project failed ironically in 2003 when the Potawatomi and Mole Lake Sokaogon-Chippewa joined forces and blocked the permit by taking control of nearby critical lands.
Anybody who has been to land of the Menominee knows how beautiful it is. The wolf River, flowing through old granite, is surrounded by sections of forest which appear as they have for thousands of years. The Neopit sawmill continues to rip wood and Menominee tradition lives on. If a visitor has time to listen, their stories are unique and genuine. A trip to this area should include a peek at ancient Big Smokey. Here, in the heart of their nation, proud Menominee operate the best rafting outfitter in the area: Big Smokey Falls Rafting.