To Be the Main Leaders of Our People: A History of Minnesota Ojibwe Politics, 1825-1898

To Be the Main Leaders of Our People: A History of Minnesota Ojibwe Politics, 1825-1898

by Rebecca Kugel

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In the spring of 1868, people from several Ojibwe villages located along the upper Mississippi River were relocated to a new reservation at White Earth, more than 100 miles to the west. In many public declarations that accompanied their forced migration, these people appeared to embrace the move, as well as their conversion to Christianity and the new agrarian lifestyle imposed on them. Beneath this surface piety and apparent acceptance of change, however, lay deep and bitter political divisions that were to define fundamental struggles that shaped Ojibwe society for several generations.

In order to reveal the nature and extent of this struggle for legitimacy and authority, To Be The Main Leaders of Our People reconstructs the political and social history of these Minnesota Ojibwe communities between the years 1825 and 1898. Ojibwe political concerns, the thoughts and actions of Ojibwe political leaders, and the operation of the Ojibwe political system define the work's focus. Kugel examines this particular period of time because of its significance to contemporary Ojibwe history. The year 1825, for instance, marked the beginning of a formal alliance with the United States; 1898 represented not an end, but a striking point of continuity, defying the easy categorizations of Native peoples made by non-Indians, especially in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

In this volume, the Ojibwe "speak for themselves", as their words were recorded by government officials, Christian missionaries, fur traders, soldiers, lumbermen, homesteaders, and journalists. While they were nearly always recorded in English translation, Ojibwe thoughts, perceptions, concerns, and even humor, clearlyemerge. To Be The Main Leaders of Our People expands the parameters of how oral traditions can be used in historical writing and sheds new light on a complex, but critical, series of events in ongoing relations between Native and non-Native people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870139321
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Series: American Indian Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,072,949
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Rebecca Kugel is Associate Professor of History, University of California, Riverside.

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To Be The Main Leaders of Our People

A History of Minnesota Ojibwe Politics, 1825-1898

By Rebecca Kugel

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1998 Rebecca Kugel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87013-932-1


"You Don't Do Us Any Good at All by Being Here": The Uncertain Beginnings of the Ojibive-American Alliance, 1825-1837

The bitter political divisions that erupted in Minnesota Ojibwe communities in the 1850s and 1860s had long roots. The angry young warriors who threatened missionaries and torched traders' warehouses only appeared to arise spontaneously, motivated by concerns of the moment. Ojibwe dissatisfaction with their political relationship with the United States, an alliance commenced in the 1820s, had in fact been building for close to thirty years. By the 1850s that alliance had dramatically failed the Ojibwe. It had been unable to prevent massive land loss, consequent impoverishment, and several interconnected social problems indicative of severe social crisis, most noticeably alcohol abuse and familial and intravillage violence. The upheavals of the 1850s and 1860s, and the competing strategies of armed resistance and creative accommodation that developed in Ojibwe communities during the second half of the nineteenth century, thus had their origins in the events of the previous twenty-five years. Of particular concern, then, is the ambiguous creation and uncertain operation of the Ojibwe-American alliance, especially in its formative years, from 1825, when the Ojibwe first established formal ties with the Americans, to 1837, when they ceded their first land to their allies.

The Ojibwe conceptualized political relationships with outsiders in one of two ways: outsiders could be allies or enemies. Alliances were initially created and then maintained as organic processes through specific ceremonies, ritualized language, and highly symbolic acts by the allying peoples. The most significant of these acts involved the reciprocal exchanges of gifts. Gift giving, both as a philosophical concept and as a physical act, was considered central to every human interaction by all of the Native peoples of the Great Lakes area. As such, it was the obvious event to symbolize the mutuality of interests that existed between allies. Alliances were created by independent political entities, and the relationship between allies remained egalitarian. Common interests united allies; most frequently issues of trade combined with diplomatic and military considerations to create the common ground that made an alliance attractive.

The Ojibwe had a long history of beneficial alliances with European-descended peoples, commencing with the French in the 1660s and, after the French defeat in the Seven Years War in 1763, with the British. These alliances helped to create (and were products of the creation of) what historian Richard White has termed a "middle ground," a series of shared cultural forms, procedures, and perceptions by which Native and European interacted with one another. Reflecting the political and military strength of Native peoples in the colonial centuries, many of the rituals of the "middle ground," including those respecting the creation and maintenance of alliances, were conducted within a framework largely derived from Native understandings. Nowhere is this better seen than in the significance accorded reciprocal gift giving in the creation of alliances between Native peoples and the different European powers. The United States appeared to understand the proper alliance protocol; in its earliest political contacts with Minnesota Ojibwe communities, the United States had conformed to the expected rituals and ceremonies. By the early 1830s, however, only a few years after the creation of an alliance with the United States, the Ojibwe observed with concern a substantial change in American attitudes toward them.

As alliances with European-descended peoples went, the Ojibwe-American alliance was not a long one. By the 1830s the Ojibwe had had diplomatic and political dealings with the United States for only about thirty years. Their alliance with the French, by contrast, had endured for close to one hundred years. The Minnesota Ojibwe attended their first formal political conference with American representatives in 1805, when the Zebulon M. Pike expedition invited Ojibwe leaders to a series of meetings. The Pike expedition was the first of several polite delegations of Americans who traveled to Minnesota Ojibwe country in the first third of the nineteenth century, eager to establish amicable ties in accord with the expected alliance protocol. In the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the participation of Tecumseh's formidable multitribal confederacy on the British side (an effort supported by many eastern Ojibwe), the United States redoubled its efforts to establish friendly relations with the Native peoples of the Great Lakes-Mississippi area. The Ojibwe dated the start of an actual alliance (as opposed to sporadic, if friendly, encounters with the United States) to these postwar years. In 1820 Governor Lewis Cass of the Michigan Territory, an expanse that initially included much of present-day Minnesota, headed an exploration of Lake Superior and the upper Mississippi. In 1823, a military expedition led by Major Stephen H. Long traversed the northern Ojibwe territories. In 1825 the Ojibwe were invited to a council of peace held at the fur trade entrepôt of Prairie du Chien between the United States and numerous Native peoples, including the Dakota, Sac, Fox, Iowa, Menominee, and Winnebago. In 1826 Federal Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas L. McKenney convened a follow-up meeting at Fond du Lac, a "composite community" at the western tip of Lake Superior which encompassed a sizable Ojibwe village of about three hundred fifty persons and a fur trade post employing some fifty men. The purpose of this meeting was to acquaint Ojibwe unable or unwilling to attend the Prairie du Chien council of its results.

Problems seemed to begin with the Treaty of 1825. Convened at American request, the Treaty of 19 August 1825 involved no land cessions. The United States sought only to make peace between various Native peoples—including the Ojibwe and their long-time foes, the eastern Dakota—as well as to formalize the alliance of these peoples with the United States. Yet in the aftermath of the Treaty of 1825, the first that the Minnesota Ojibwe signed, the United States began to act as though it possessed an ultimate authority over Ojibwe people, and this the Ojibwe knew they had never conceded. Ojibwe leaders identified a disturbing shift in the language American representatives used when they spoke with Ojibwe in council. The Americans departed from the egalitarian kin term of "brother" and began to address the Ojibwe as "children," a highly charged term that implied subordination and dependence.

In a meeting held with Henry R. Schoolcraft's Lake Itasca party in 1832, the influential Leech Lake leader Flat Mouth voiced the adamant Ojibwe rejection of this subtle but significant shift in political metaphor. "You call us children," he observed. "We are not children, but men." Flat Mouth also made it clear that the recent behavior of the United States was compelling the Ojibwe to question their commitment to the alliance. When he had learned that Schoolcraft planned to visit, Flat Mouth "hoped the day would dawn," but after hearing the agent's patronizing words, he "felt that the cloud still hung over" the alliance. He was so discouraged with the Americans, Flat Mouth confessed ingenuously, that "he thought of going ... to the British government, for that aid which the [United States] Government had so often promised." Four years later, Flat Mouth complained to the visiting French-born scientist, Joseph N. Nicollet: "I am not an animal. I am not like those in the East whom they call their children and whom they treat like three- or six-year-olds, a rod in their hand." The Americans were quick to inflict severe penalties "for the slightest folly we commit," another leader, Solid Ground, added; "they drive us under the ground (put us in prison) [sic], whip us with rope, tie cords around our neck and hang us." "I am ashamed for you, you deceive us so often," a third leader scolded the Americans, but increasingly the Ojibwe felt that the situation was hopeless. Neither attempts to shame the Americans into respecting their allies nor threats to break off the alliance seemed to make much of an impression.

Other difficulties could be traced to the Americans. In particular, the fur trade was unsatisfactory. The American Fur Company, reorganized in 1834 upon the retirement of John Jacob Astor, had negotiated a lucrative agreement with the Hudson's Bay Company the preceding year. Each firm was to stay on their respective side of the international border. This arrangement guaranteed the American Fur Company a virtual monopoly in Minnesota Ojibwe country, a monopoly that it maintained for nearly ten years. Although the stranglehold was broken in the 1840s and trade opportunities widened, land sales, the encroachment of Euro-American settlements, and extractive industries such as lumbering threatened game habitat and continuing to create problems for Ojibwe trappers. The Ojibwe quickly grasped the situation. They could neither hunt enough to feed and clothe their families nor, alternatively, could they trap enough furs to purchase goods for their support. Not only did the traders take advantage of this situation, gouging the Ojibwe with high prices and shoddy, poor-quality goods, but the United States permitted this state of affairs to continue. "They abandon us to the mercy of merchants," the Ojibwe complained.

The economic agreement was not the only change the fur trade companies underwent. "When John Jacob Astor entered into arrangements with the British Fur Companies for the monopoly..., a new era may be said to have occurred in the fur trade," observed mixed-blooded Ojibwe historian William Whipple Warren. "The old French Canadian traders so congenial to the Indians... had nearly died away," he explained, "and a new class of men, of far different temperaments, whose chief object was to amass fortunes, now made their appearance among the Ojibways." Not without some ambivalence, Warren, himself a descendant of both French and Anglo-American traders, described the newcomers as men "of the Anglo-Saxon race, "who" hailed from the land of the progressive and money-making 'Yankee'. To some degree," he added," the Indian ceased to find that true kindness, sympathy, charity, and respect for his sacred beliefs and rites, which he had always experienced from his French traders."

From the Ojibwe perspective, not only the trade but also the traders had worsened, and the United States was at fault. The new traders were Americans. The Ojibwe expected to find them committed to the alliance the two peoples had established, and it was evident they were not. "They do not come to see how we are in our homes, to find out about us, to help us as the French ... [and] the English used to do," the Ojibwe complained. In other words, the new traders had no sense of the social and reciprocal nature of alliance. Their only interest was to "trade at a price three times above that ever asked by the French and the English." The American government "threatened with rods and ropes" any Ojibwe who disobeyed the provisions of treaties. And yet, the Ojibwe noticed, the same government that talked so ferociously of "death, ropes, rods, and prisons" proved itself "not capable of either helping or protecting us" against the rapacity of its own citizens.

The growing economic presence of Euro-Americans had destabilizing effects on Ojibwe politics as well. Political rivalry, especially between civil and war leaders, had existed long before the 1830s. In the past, ambitious men had whenever possible enlisted the aid of influential outsiders, such as fur traders, to bolster their leadership positions. By the 1830s and increasingly thereafter, the resourceful would-be leader could seek the support of an ever-growing population of influential non-Ojibwe. The activities of the aging Leech Lake war leader Big Cloud over the course of two decades demonstrated how increased contact with Americans provided such opportunities and, to the dismay of other Ojibwe, kept village politics in turmoil.

Big Cloud had befriended the Italian explorer and adventurer Giacomo C. Beltrami, and acted as guide on the latter's journey from Leech Lake to Sandy Lake in the 1820s. In the next decade, Big Cloud happily established ties with a young Métis, William Johnston, who set up a short-lived rival trading post in competition with the American Fur Company at Leech Lake in 1833. Johnston soon learned that "considerable party feeling pervades the village" and observed that people who supported Big Cloud's prestigious rival, Flat Mouth, traded with his prestigious rival, the American Fur Company. In the mid-1830s Big Cloud tried to enlist missionary William T. Boutwell's support, but the war leader's polygamous marriage and his permissive attitude toward his wives' extramarital relationships effectively alienated the youthful clergyman. Big Cloud's maneuverings enabled him to maintain a powerful opposition to Flat Mouth and other Leech Lake leaders, and because he relied so heavily on outside aid, his actions could not easily be controlled by the villagers. This situation distressed Ojibwe people, who found themselves led by men who did not need to consider themselves accountable to the people for whom they claimed to speak.

The political tensions were further exacerbated by American ignorance of Ojibwe political processes. Ojibwe leaders generally employed a spokesman called a pipe-bearer (oshkabewis in Ojibwe) to present their views in council. On occasion, American officials mistakenly recognized a leader's oshkabewis as the "chief." If a spokesman chose to act on the new status accorded him, Ojibwe villagers might find themselves with leaders whom they did not acknowledge as legitimate but with whom United States officials insisted on dealing, and whose actions those officials insisted were valid and binding. When Edmund F Ely established his mission at their village, the Fond du Lac people demonstrated their support for Nindindibens as the premier civil leader, or ogima. To their consternation, they learned that Ely was determined to support Mang'osid, a man of considerable influence who had carefully cultivated good relations with American officials, as the "Chief, appointed by government." Relations between villagers and missionary were skewed by such misunderstandings over who the proper authorities were. Puzzled Fond du Lac people learned that what appeared to be a trifling matter of mistaken identity at a treaty council could turn into a major dispute that divided the village and sowed bad feelings that were slow to dissipate. The situation became even more troubling when Mang'osid seemed prepared to cede land to the United States against the wishes of most of the Fond du Lac community The Ojibwe came to realize that the American-backed leadership claims of ambitious men could entail serious dangers.

Another social problem that was becoming noticeably worse also involved Euro-Americans. Alcohol, while still relatively difficult to obtain at inland Minnesota villages, could be purchased from obliging traders and shopkeepers in Euro-American frontier settlements. More disturbing than the growing availability of alcohol was the disintegration of the social safeguards the Ojibwe had erected around its use. In the past, Ojibwe communities had appointed groups of guardians to remain sober during general village revels. These guardians—sometimes women, sometimes men—hid all weapons and policed the village "to keep peace among them & guard them from fire or from injuring each other." Jedediah D. Stevens of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, touring Ojibwe country in 1829-30 to determine the feasibility of establishing missions, described the activities of the village guardians: "When a man gets very quarrelsome & mad & reckless two of the police lay hold of him & throw him upon the ground & bind his feet & arms fast & leave him raging & foaming."

Increasingly, however, these village monitors began joining in the festivities with "dreadful consequences," according to the Italian traveler Giacomo C. Beltrami. He recounted a harrowing night he spent at Leech Lake in the 1820s "with my cutlass in my girdle, my gun in my hand, and my sword half unsheathed at my side" while the villagers reveled. "The hell of Virgil, and of Dante ... are only faint sketches in comparison with that full display of terror and death," the shaken traveler concluded. Beltrami noted that in the 1820s it was still "the usual practice" of the Leech Lake women to act as village monitors while the men drank. But by the 1830s and certainly by the 1840s, this practice had become far from usual.

While hardships brought about by trade monopoly, smoldering political disputes, and an increase in alcohol consumption were all serious problems for Ojibwe people in the 1830s, concerns regarding their land overshadowed all other issues. And of course the Americans were central to the land questions. Ojibwe leaders evidently met regularly to discuss the issue of land sales. Flat Mouth, who apparently traveled to Fond du Lac on Lake Superior each summer for such meetings, observed to Joseph N. Nicollet in 1836, "All the Missinabes in the East, do they not tell me that which takes place every summer? Have I not beheld ... the Americans for the past ten years?" Flat Mouth made his own position clear: "When they talk to me of buying our soil, I know what I have to say."

Yet the Ojibwe were not simply concerned over land sales, real though that apprehension was. They were also struggling to understand Euro-American philosophical and legal conceptions of land—its nature and its abilities. It was quite evident to the Ojibwe that their allies held ideas completely unlike their own. They did not accept Euro-American ideas on land ownership and land alienation, and frequently affirmed the correctness of their own understanding. "[T]he soil belongs to those He placed upon it," they asserted. At the same time, they sought to devise strategies that would enable them to neutralize or deflect American land demands.


Excerpted from To Be The Main Leaders of Our People by Rebecca Kugel. Copyright © 1998 Rebecca Kugel. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
CHAPTER 1 - "You Don't Do Us Any Good at All by Being Here": The Uncertain ...,
CHAPTER 2 - "We Did Not Understand It So": Political Division Becomes a ...,
CHAPTER 3 - "In Religion and Other Things I Ought to Be the Main Leader of My ...,
CHAPTER 4 - "[W]e Can Get Along Better Than You Think": The Ojibwe Adapt to ...,
CHAPTER 5 - "They Show Their Disposition Pretty Plain": Civil and War ...,
Selected Bibliography,

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