On Hat Point along the northwest shore of Lake Superior stands a gnarled elder of the Grand Portage Band of Minnesota’s Ojibwe people: Manido Gee-zhi gance, Spirit Little Cedar Tree. To reach it, one must pass through a grove shrouded by old man’s beard, an ethereal, light-green lichen. The lichen is “very sensitive to air pollution, so we’re happy that it grows so well here,” says Seth Moore, wildlife biologist for the Grand Portage Band.
At the bottom of a steep trail waits the tribe’s sentinel, a northern white cedar, or arborvitae, in which a spirit is said to dwell. The species, Thuja occidentalis, grows slowly on cliff faces and in northern swamp forests. The earliest written record of this aged specimen is from the French Canadian explorer Sieur de la Vérendrye in 1731, who called it a mature cedar at the time.
The Witch Tree, as it was later named, likely began life in a fissure in the granite rock that lines the lake. There it survived gales, ice floes, and blizzards—for a time. Then an unknown event, perhaps a lightning strike, damaged the tree’s crown but left its main root alive. A root sprout arose, entwining the original trunk.
As the rock fissure in which the cedar grew slowly weathered, a deep path cracked open. The tree’s roots followed, extending into the lake. Manido Gee-zhi-gance became halfland, half-water. Beneath the surface, fish dart among the roots. Above the waves, the tree’s branches offer a safe haven to the eagle and the raven.
“When you go to the Witch Tree,” says Don Hoaglund, a Grand Portage Band member, “you’re stepping into a different world.” The tree was the sacred ground for prayers for a safe crossing of Lake Superior and for fishing success, writes Timothy Cochrane in Minong—The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale. Offerings of tobacco and ribbon—and earlier, vermilion—were placed in its tortuous branches. The gifts, it was hoped, would appease Mishipizheu, the Underwater Lynx. Mishipizheu, the Ojibwe whispered, dwelled in a lair in the lake’s depths. The tradition continues today. Visitors—who must be accompanied by a member of the Grand Portage Band—leave tokens in the tree’s arms.
For all its powers, the Witch Tree nearly met its end some thirty years ago: its rocky promontory, which was in private hands, came up for sale. “The guy who owned the land had a little shack where he used to sell souvenirs of the tree,” says Hoaglund. "People were taking pieces of it, destroying the Spirit Tree little by little.”
Hoaglund and fellow band member Bill Corcoran teamed up with Rick Novitsky, then-director of the Grand Portage Band’s natural resources department, to rescue the tree. Forming the “Friends of the Witch Tree,” they raised $85,000 to purchase the land. The last payment was made in May 1990. “We had to save it,” says Novitsky. “It embodies the determination and resilience of the Ojibwe people.”
Where there is life, however wizened, there remains spirit.