An Ojibwe Trail of Tears

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Most Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Ojibwe bands which negotiated the 1837 and 1842 Treaties received their annuities by early autumn at La Pointe on Madeline Island–a cultural and spiritual center for Ojibwe people. Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Minnesota, Alexander Ramsey, worked with other officials to remove the Ojibwe from their homes in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to Sandy Lake. The flow of annuity money and government aid to build Indian schools, agencies, and farms would create wealth for Ramsey and his supporters in Minnesota. President Zachary Taylor issued an executive order in February 1850 that sought to move Ojibwe Indians living east of the Mississippi River to their unceded lands. Initially stunned by the breach of the 1837 and 1842 Treaty terms, Ojibwe leaders recognized that the removal order clearly violated their agreement with the US. A broad coalition of supporters–missionary groups, newspapers, businessmen, and Wisconsin state legislators–rallied to oppose the removal effort, and band members refused to abandon their homes.

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An Ojibwe Trail of Tears

In the 90’s, my friends, Bea Swanson and Larry Cloud-Morgan, participated in the assertion of the Minnesota Chippewa that they had a right to continue to exercise their treaty rights to spring spear-fishing throughout their ceded territory. It raised a self-righteous uproar among fisherman and outdoorsmen through out Minnesota. The white population could not understand that it was the Chippewa’s right that had been reserved, not a right that had been granted. Nascent racism reared an ugly head and even Bud Grant, the coach of the Minnesota Vikings NFL football team, lent his considerable support to the protests of white Minnesotans. The verbal battle raged in the media and at the shores of Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes. I admired the courage and discipline of the native people in the face of the furious onslaught of uninformed white folk who could not understand the nature of a treaty entered into by the US government and the Minnesota Ojibwe. In 1999, the Federal Appeals Court of the United States had decided to uphold the off-reservation hunting and fishing treaty rights of the Mille Lacs band of Chippewa.

The State of Minnesota had based its case and subsequent rebuttals on a belief that 1.) the original treaty signed in 1837 on which the Mille Lacs band based their assertion of reserved rights to hunt and fish on ceded land had been overridden by the treaty of 1855, 2.) that an Executive Order issued by President Zachary Taylor in 1850 which required the removal of the Chippewa to an area further west into Minnesota Territory had unilaterally abrogated those rights, and, 3.) that the 1858 statehood of Minnesota had established state sovereignty that wiped out any treaty rights. The Supreme Court ruled against the State of Minnesota on all counts.

In the historical summary at the beginning of the decision, the Court referred to a letter, referenced only by the notation: (letter from Warren to Ramsey Jan. 21, 1851). William Whipple Warren, was a Representative in the Territorial Legislature at the time. His father of Mayflower stock and his mother Ojibwe, William W. Warren was quite fluent in both English and Ojibwe languages, and in demand from a very young age as an interpreter at treaty signings and other meetings. Alexander Ramsey was the Governor of Minnesota Territory. The topic of the letter was an incident that had happened because of the Removal Order issued by President Taylor. Governor Ramsey had asserted that the Chippewa needed to be removed because the white settlers in the Sauk Rapids and Swan River area were complaining about the privileges given to the Ojibwe Indians and desired their lands. The US Government tried to coerce the Ojibwe to remove west of the Mississippi River by changing the location where the annuity payments were to be made…annual payments for the lands they had ceded. The Chippewa were told that no longer would payments be made in the heart of their lands at La Pointe, Wisconsin, but over 200 miles to the southwest in Minnesota Territory.

The policy of removal begun under President Andrew Jackson had led to many atrocities and tragedies such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears in which the Cherokee were forcibly uprooted and removed to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Many Cherokee died along the way. There was little interest in removing the Lake Superior Ojibwe until 1850.

There was much discussion among the bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, even delaying the spring planting of their gardens. But they refused to be removed. President Taylor's removal order had failed. Nevertheless, Governor Ramsey and Indian Sub-agent John Watrous had a scheme to lure these Ojibwe into Minnesota and trap them there over the winter. They informed band members that the treaty annuity distribution site had changed from La Pointe to Sandy Lake, some 285 to 500 canoe miles to the southwest. If the Ojibwe hoped to receive anything that year, they were instructed to be at Sandy Lake by October 25, 1850

While band members from Michigan and some eastern reaches of Wisconsin refused to travel with winter fast approaching, up to 5,500 Ojibwe journeyed by canoe to Sandy Lake that autumn. They arrived fatigued and hungry after the arduous journey only to find no one there to distribute supplies. Wild game was scarce, fishing was poor, and high water had wiped out the local wild rice crop for the second year in a row and spoiled flour and salt-pork in the crude storage shelters. Living conditions rapidly worsened. Over six-weeks of waiting harsh winter conditions set in and still band members waited. Deprived of promised supplies and weakened by hunger and exposure, an outbreak of measles and dysentery killed at least 150. Rev. John H. Pitezel, a Methodist Episcopal missionary reported that:

Frequently seven or eight died in a day. Coffins could not be procured, and often the body of the deceased was wrapped up in a piece of bark and buried slightly under ground. All over the cleared land graves were to be seen in every direction, for miles distant, from Sandy Lake."

A partial annuity payment was finally completed on December 2, providing a meager three-day food supply and little cash to buy desperately needed provisions even at prices inflated 3-6 times over St. Paul prices. While a few people stayed behind to care for those too ill to travel, the following day most of the Ojibwe broke camp. With the canoe routes frozen and over a foot of snow on the ground, families walked hundreds of miles to get back home. Another 250 died on that bitter trail, many of them the hunters and providers, many canoes were lost and the Ojibwe vowed never to abandon their villages in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan for Sandy Lake. Never again would the Ojibwe by tricked or cajoled into another Trail of Tears.

Even the white citizens of Michigan and Wisconsin were shocked and dismayed at the horrors that had been inflicted on the peaceful Ojibwe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and President Zachary Taylor. In the face of this righteous opposition, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea wrote to the Secretary of the Interior recommending that President Taylor's order be changed to allow the Ojibwe "to remain for the present in the country they now occupy." (letter from Lea to Stuart, June 3, 1851). Commissioner Lea declared that the removal of the Wisconsin Bands "is not required by the interests of the citizens or Government of the United States and would in its consequences in all probability be disastrous to the Indians."

Three months later, the Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote to the Secretary to inform him that 1,000 Ojibwe were assembled at La Pointe, but that they could not be removed from the area unless force was used. He sought the Secretary's approval "to suspend the removal of these Indians until the determination of the President upon the recommendation of the commissioner is made known to this office." Two days later, the Secretary of the Interior issued the requested authorization, instructing the Commissioner "to suspend the removal of the Chippeway Indians until the final determination of the President." (letter from Abraham to Lea, Aug. 25, 1851). Commissioner Lea immediately telegraphed the local officials with instructions: "Suspend action with reference to the removal of Lake Superior Chippewas for further orders." The State's own expert historian testified: "Federal efforts to remove the Lake Superior Chippewa to the Mississippi River effectively ended in the summer of 1851."

Regardless, Agent John Watrous continued his corrupt  machinations and power plays, albeit with less and less effect.

William W. Warren's letter entreating the Commissioner and the Governor to give approval to "A delegation of these principal Chiefs, speakers and warriors and four of their most influential half breeds," (probably including himself) were to travel to Washington, D.C. He said,

"After the order for their removal had been signed by the President, and promulgated among the different bands this past summer, I received pressing invitations from certain of their chiefs in Wisconsin, in which they intimated that they had determined not to obey the order of removal till they had seen the Great Father face to face and he had explained the promise he made to them through his commissioners at the Treaty of La Pointe in 1842."

Further on in the letter he said,

" I found to prevail great dissatisfaction at the prospects of removal, and the change of their payground from La Pointe to Sandy Lake. Not only in their councils, but throughout the whole length of my journey, I heard in every lodge and from the mouth of every man and woman a determination expressed not to remove. "

This description of the Ojibwe understanding of the meaning of the treaty served the US Supreme Court nearly 150 years later to come to their decision on the Mille Lacs case: Indian Law, Treaties, (which are called in the U.S. Constitution the Supreme law of the land) must be interpreted the way that the Indians understood them at the time. William W. Warren's letter made quite clear that the Ojibwe understood the Treaty of La Pointe in 1842 to mean that they would not be removed from their homeland. They would not accept anything else unless and until they had a personal audience with the President himself and he was made to explain himself.

In the spring of 1852, a delegation of Ojibwe chiefs and headmen traveled to Washington, D.C.  to protest Ramsey's removal efforts and the needless suffering
that occurred at Sandy Lake. Led by Chief Buffalo of La Pointe, who was well into his 90s, the Ojibwe requested an official end to removal efforts. After meeting with
tribal leaders, President Millard Fillmore agreed to rescind the removal order and pledged that overdue and future annuities would be made at La Pointe. Two years later when the United States sought Ojibwe land in Minnesota's Arrowhead region, the Ojibwe of the Lake Superior region agreed to cede more territory in exchange for permanent reservations in Upper Michigan and Wisconsin through the Treaty of
1854. Driven by the events at Sandy Lake and a love for the homeland and graves of their forefathers, these Ojibwe were resolved to stay in their traditional villages.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Library holds a birch bark pictograph representing a petition to be presented to the Great Father in Washington, D. C.



According to Lac Courte Oreilles oral tradition this petition, originally on birch bark, reflects the plea of the Bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa, today called the Lac Courte Oreilles, St. Croix, Fond du Lac, Red Cliff and Bad River. It tells the story of what happened at the Sandy Lake Tragedy of the winter of 1850-1851.  The four lakes on the lower left represent the path to Sandy Lake. The double set of lines to the right of the lake mean that they travel over land to the first body of water (St. Louis River). On the way back, the headmen of the Bands/Clans met at Fond du Lac and there this petition was conceived. The line from this point to the Crane's eye reflects that this is what Chief Buffalo saw. The lines from the hearts and eyes of the Catfish, Man-fish, Bear, and the three Martens to the heart and eye of the Crane, mean that all the headmen see and feel the same way. They all stand along a wide blue line that represents Lake Superior. The last line going out from the Crane's eye, indicates that the entire group has authorized Chief Buffalo (Crane Clan) to speak to President Fillmore and plead their case.

Few Native American Indian tribes successfully reserved hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on land they ceded. Only those Ojibwe tribes who participated in the 1837, 1842, and 1854 treaties retain those rights to harvest natural resources in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota as recognized by federal courts. Ojibwe Indians continue to hunt, fish, and harvest wild plants within the ceded territory boundaries. With the assistance of intertribal agencies like the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, Ojibwe tribes co-manage these natural resources with state and federal government agencies.

This is a testimony to the courage and tenacity of the Native American people as demonstrated among the Ojibwe. Larry Cloud-Morgan and Bea Swanson stand as beacons showing this power and resilience in their lives and actions. Both of them were victims of the boarding school experience but yet they served their people well. Bea Swanson served on the board of Hunger Action Coalition and co-ordinated the church groups who served hundreds of thousands of meals at churches around the Twin Cities metropolitan area through Loaves and Fishes Two. She was a support for the Honeywell Project which carried out a steady program of non-violent protest against the participation of the Honeywell Corporation in the making of cluster bombs and other weapons of war. Larry was convicted in federal court for his participation in the Plowshares Four protest against embedding nuclear missiles in the breast of Mother Earth. He spent over two years in Terre Haute Federal Prison. There he counseled young Indian men who had lost their way because they had lost their culture. He used sweat lodge and sacred ceremony to help them reconnect to their roots. When he was released on parole, he was called by the Lumbee of Georgia to help them in their protest of the Trident submarines. When his parole officer would not release him to go to the Lumbees, Larry rejected federal jurisdiction and broke parole. It cost him another several months in the Rochester Federal Prison, but he had made his statement. Besides, it gave him the opportunity to counsel still more inmates, build a sweat lodge on the prison grounds and bring them back to their heritage of power and wisdom. Both Larry and Bea walked their talk as authentic people, with gentleness and humor. Both of them were on the shore as the spear-fishermen of the tribe exercised their treaty rights.

For more detail on the Sandy Lake tragedy, see the Wisconsin Trail of Tears

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