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Alexian Brothers Novitiate

On January 1st, 1975, members of the Menominee Warrior Society invaded and attacked the Alexian Brothers Novitiate, a mansion donated to the Alexian Brothers in 1950. The attack of about 30-40 men with shotguns and deer rifles (Tronnes), was led by Michael Sturdevant, a news reporter and tax commissioner for the Menominee Indian Tribe. This attack was one of many protest actions taken by the Menominee Indian Tribe, gaining national attention and recognition for their movement. 

One of the most popular reasons given by of the Menominee Warrior Society for this action was land dispute. They claimed that the land where the novitiate was located had not been used for religious purposes (the stated reason that the Menominee Tribe could not claim ownership of the land) and had been vacated for ten years. For these reasons they demanded that ownership of the land be reverted back to the tribe (Lavendar). The overall reason for the nature of the attack was due to the recent “termination” of the tribe by the federal government. However, there are several reasons that have been given by those involved for the attack itself, and it seems as though the ideals behind the actual attack are somewhat ambiguous. Another popular reasoning was that it was due to disputes in the tribal government (a result of the termination). This excuse is connected to Apesanahkwat, the Menominee Nation’s former Tribal Chairman and actor (Wire). He held the ideals that women should have no place in government. Female members of a restoration committee for the Menominee Tribe at the time, Silvia Wilbur, Shirley Daly, and Ada Deer time felt the attack was personally directed at them. Apesanahkwat was quoted at the time saying of the three women that they were “intoxicated with liberation” and saying of Silvia Wilbur that she was and “antagonist, tyrant and racist” (Jaeger, 1990). Clearly the causes of this attack were not even clear to the people who carried it out. Silvia Wilbur said the attack was “Stupid and a mistake that set the Menominee people back many years” (Wilbur, 1980). 

Apesanahkwat Appearing at a 1999 Senate Committee [C-SPAN]

It is widely accepted that the main overall reason for many of the protests during this time was the “termination” of the Menominee Tribe. From 1953-1958, a series of events unfolded between the Menominee Tribe and the federal government, in which members of the federal government convinced the tribe to accept termination (voiding their sovereignty and any treaties formerly signed with the United States). Members of the senate took advantage of the tribal leaders’ lack of knowledge of the situation, and convinced them to vote in favor of this, promising more freedom and independence to the tribe. The effects of termination were disastrous. The Menominee Tribe had lost all treaty rights and were now forced to provide for themselves all the services formerly provided by the federal government. This forced them to sell off much of the land in their already small Wisconsin county. The long-term effects of termination were even more severe. The tribe sank into crippling poverty, with education suffering heavily. The inability of the tribe to now care for the needs of its people forced the Menominee people to different cities outside the reservation and into a culture that they did not want to be a part of. Tensions rose in public schools as Menominee students started enrolling in schools outside the reservation. Fights were not uncommon, and there was a serious divide between Menominee and non-Native American students. By agreeing to termination, the Menominee Tribe had unknowingly signed away anything that legally protected their culture. In the span of only 5 years, all of this had been lost to the tribe. Not surprisingly, this led not only to turmoil between Menominee and non-Native Americans, but also to turmoil within the tribe. Out of this angst and turmoil in the tribe came the birth of resounding protests from the Menominee Tribe.

The Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders (D.R.U.M.S.) was one of the first main protest campaigns to spawn during this time. At the time of its founding, D.R.U.M.S. was considered a “grass roots tactic” (taking direct action) which was one of two types of protests used by the tribe in this time period. The grass roots tactic involved direct action and frankly not much long-term vision. Although D.R.U.M.S started as a grass roots movement, under the leadership of Ada Deer the movement became more focused on changes through political legislation. (Lavendar). The attack on the Novitiate provided evidence of the conflict between these two types of protest. Furthermore, it provided evidence of the rift in the Menominee Tribal Government. The aforementioned Ada Deer was a strong proponent of protest through political revolution. She and her colleagues wanted to fix issues such as this with long term political strategy and legislation change and rejected change through acts such as the attack on the novitiate. 

Ada Deer’s use of long-term vision and political revolution proved to be very efficient. Through lobbying in Washington and years of fighting to gain traction and support, Deer was able to get the tribal status of the Menominee restored in 1975. Unfortunately, this did not fix the effects of termination, and there was still much social unrest among the tribe.  The effects of extreme poverty had many Menominee growing impatient for change. Many thought political action would not be enough to demand the change needed and did not trust Washington to come to their aid. Several of the men in the tribe did not want to wait for a strategic and peaceful method of change, and thus militant grass roots ideals started to become popular, leading to the formation of the Menominee Warrior Society.

Ada Deer in December, 1952
[UW Madison Library]

One of the biggest causes of the division between the grass roots movements and the political action movements was gender. Old-fashioned men like Apesanahkwat did not like the power that women like Ada Deer, Silvia Wilbur, and Shirley Daly had in Tribal Government, and decided to enact change in their own way through direct action. The Menominee Warrior Society, as well as other members of the tribe thought the warriors were completely justified in their actions. Many tribe members thought of them as “idealistic thinkers who weren’t being heard by tribal leaders” (Wire).Although the roots of the problems leading to the attack could be traced to the termination of tribal status, the direct intentions of the attackers are still pretty vague. Most of them said they wanted the building turned into a hospital or some type of school. Whatever the reason for the attack, it is pretty safe to say that the incident speaks in support of the political activism method over the grass roots method of protest.

The entire standoff lasted 34 days. There were multiple shootouts between the Menominee Warriors and local law enforcement, and eventually Governor Patrick Lucey called in the National Guard, led by Col. Hugh Simonson (Simonson). The motto of the Menominee Warrior Society was “Deed or Death”. Members such as Michael Sturdevant were willing to die for this cause, while members like Apesanahkwat saw the attack mainly as a statement and worried greatly about Menominee casualties (farther illustrating the conflicting ideals behind the attack itself) (Wire). The attack certainly made a statement, gaining the attention of national news and even celebrities such as Marlon Brando, who entered the compound at one point during the standoff.

The only two reported casualties were two snowmobilers. Locals from the city of Shawano would drive into the compound on snowmobiles and try to shoot the Menominee Warriors inside. In order to diffuse the situation without violence, Col. Simonson focused on waiting the warriors out, using strategies of exhaustion on a small scale. He knew that he could not solve 300 years of conflict and problems, and he did not want Menominee deaths (especially martyrs for their cause) on his hands. The perimeter created by the guard was fairly relaxed, with some of the warriors moving in and out of the building. They limited the Warriors’ food supply until eventually Michael Sturdenvant gave himself up and accepted legal charges. He and 38 other members of the Menominee Warrior Society were arrested. In the end, only 3 members of the attack (one being Sturdevant) were sentenced to serve prison time. The others were charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct (1976).

Col. Simonson’s strategy may not have been the most popular part of this series of events, but it was one of the most important. In situations like this, it is easy from the present perspective to agree with the leader’s decisions when things go well and to critique them when they don’t. Simonson actually had a tough decision. He could have easily grown frustrated or impatient and taken the building by force. The Menominee Warriors inside were only armed with deer rifles and shotguns, which would have been no match for automatic weapons, grenades, flashbangs, and whatever else the National Guard had at its disposal. Instead, Simonson thought of the bigger picture. Rather than falling into the very trap that the Menominee Warriors had fallen into, he decided to weigh the long-term effects of his decisions. Although this insight is expected from someone at the rank of colonel, it cannot be taken for granted. By choosing a longer but more peaceful method, Simonson was able to accomplish multiple things. He was able to dissolve the situation without allowing the Menominee Warriors to gain public sympathy. He was also able to accomplish his mission with only two casualties (that were out of his control). Finally, Simonson managed to get the Menominee Warriors to surrender. He did this without killing anyone and without destroying anything. With the extraordinary power of the United States Military being the norm to its citizens, it may not have been too jaw dropping to people if this situation ended in violence. But through patience and good planning, Col. Simonson was able to stop the Menominee Warriors peacefully before they could do any serious damage.

  The impact of the attack is still questioned today. Ada Deer claimed that the attack was performed without the Menominee Tribe’s blessing and that she didn’t think it had any lasting impact on the tribe (other than bad press). Other tribal politicians noted that there were already plans for a new health care center on the reservation. This demonstrates the short-sightedness of the grass roots tactics used by the Menominee Warrior Society. There are some that say that the event may have sped up the process for things like a new health care center as well as other developments, but the means of obtaining that goal are still questioned. The attack on the Alexian Novitiate should bring to mind the fact that the struggles of Native Americans were still very much present even in the late 20th century. Just because they were living in the modern era does not mean there were not still active threats to their culture. The Menominee were taken advantage of by the U.S. government, particularly through the Menominee Termination Act, which President Eisenhower himself signed. Although the attack on the novitiate was considered heinous, ineffective, and unnecessarily violent by many, there can be an argument made for the motives behind it. The oppression by the government led to the series of events that turned into a full-blown attack, and in the end a government entity was sent to deal with the attack. Ironically, the U.S. Government had to answer for their actions, in a sense, by trying to deal with the attack.

Alexian Brothers Novitiate – Gresham, WI [American Urbex]

To this day, the Novitiate still stands on the 238-acre plot of land in Gresham. It was sold to the Menominee for $1 by the Alexian Brothers, who wanted no more violence to come from the mansion. Over the years it has been bought and sold with good intentions each time, but it appears unfixable at this point. Some wanted to see it turned into a luxury resort, others a retreat house, but every person or company that has purchased the once beautiful building has not been able to restore it for one reason or another. It resides as a popular tourist attraction and as a physical reminder to those in the area of the struggles of the Menominee Indian Tribe.

Primary Sources

  1. Jaeger, Richard, “From ‘Thug’ to Tribal Leader”, Wisconsin State Journal, n.d. 1990, p. 50.
  2. Simonson Gives Views on Novitiate Takeover”, The Shawano Leader, Feb. 11, 1975.

Secondary Sources

  1. Wire (2000). “Twenty-five Years Later, Complex Taken Over by Menominee Indians”, The Journal Times.
  2. (1976). “INDIAN CONVICTED IN ‘76 TAKEOVER”, The New York Times.
  3. Tronnes, Libby (2002). “Where Is John Wayne?”: The Menominee Warriors Society, Indian Militancy, and Social Unrest during the Alexian Brothers Novitiate Takeover“. American Indian Quarterly
  4. Lavendar, Rachel (2017). “Libby R. Tronnes. (2002). “Where Is John Wayne?”: The Menominee Warriors Society, Indian Militancy, and Social Unrest during the Alexian Brothers Novitiate TakeoverAmerican Indian Quarterly”
  5. Jaeger, Richard (2005). “Leader of Menominee Indian Takeover…Indian Rights”,