Post-treaty Wisconsin Ojibwe History

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Post-treaty Wisconsin Ojibwe History

    The Death of Waabizheshi: Removal, Logging, Rice Beds, and Violence

    in Northwest Wisconsin, 1855-1877

    Erik Redix


    In 1877, violence struck the Rice Lake community. Waabizheshi had been leading the community since the 1855 death of his father, Nena‟aangabi. In the interim, the Ojibwe of Rice Lake faced the pressure of widespread Euro-American settlement of the city of Rice Lake, the destruction of extensive rice beds at Rice Lake and Prairie Rice Lake, and federal pressure to remove the community, first to the Bad River Reservation and then to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation. Tensions grew in the community that fall leading to a disagreement between one member of the community, Bidad, and Waabizheshi. The historical record does not show whether the tensions were political or personal in nature, but the pressures from American colonialism to remove and destruction of important rice beds created tension in the community.

    Historical accounts claim that Bidad had been consuming alcohol when he stabbed and killed Waabizheshi at Long Lake. However, Ojibwe behavior has been oversimplified in the historical record. Surviving accounts written by non-Natives tend to simplify Ojibwe political institutions, and cast complexities within the Ojibwe

    1communities as mere “drunken quarrels.” What is more clear is that violence

    increasingly shaped the life in the community during Waabizheshi‟s time as leader of the

    community. Violence within in the community was inextricably linked to activities of American colonialism such as logging, the flooding of rice beds, and pressure to remove

     1 Accounts of Waabizheshi‟s death appear in the Barron County Chronotype, June 27, 1878, 3 and William

    W. Bartlett, History, Tradition, and Adventure in The Chippewa Valley, (Chippewa Falls: The Chippewa

    Printery, 1929). There is a discrepancy in the dates of Waabizheshi‟s death. Bartlett, based on the account of Chronotype editor August Ender, lists it as happening in 1879. I utilize the date from the actual 1878 newspaper describing the event, as more accurate.

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    to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation increasing in the 1870‟s. Waabizheshi‟s

    leadership, for over two decades, directly shaped how Ojibwe people responded to colonial pressures.

    The Rice Lake Community Under Waabizheshi

    At the same time, to reconstruct Waabizheshi‟s leadership is a difficult task. In

    marked contrast to his father, there is no historical record of Waabizheshi‟s words. Waabizeshi‟s thoughts and ideas remain a historical mystery, and we are left to infer his leadership style by his actions. The absence of language may tell us something about the leader‟s motives. Waabizheshi, unlike his father, did not seek direct engagement with American policymakers or attempt to influence the broader arena of Ojibwe politics. Waabizeshi‟s political focus is supported by the few remaining historical references to

    Waabizheshi‟s leadership. Rice Lake Chronotype editor August Ender noted that

    Waabizheshi, “…while not so popular with the whites as was his father, seemed to get

    2along quite well with his own people….” Ender‟s characterization of Waabizheshi‟s

    leadership is supported by annuity records.

    Waabizheshi‟s leadership style was markedly different from that of his father, whose vision of Ojibwe sovereignty invoked complaints from American officials who hoped to get him to bend to their will, and yet inspired respect when he refused. For Nena‟aangabi, interaction with American officials often involved performance. This

    dynamic was apparent in 1831 when Henry Schoolcraft visited Nena‟aangabi and asked

    him to accept an American flag as a show of alliance and acceptance of the President‟s wishes to end Ojibwe-Dakota warfare. The next day Nena‟aangabi made a dramatic

    appearance. Schoolcraft recalled: “He had thrown the flag over one arm, and held the

     2 Bartlett, History, Tradition, and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley, 65.

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    war club perpendicular in the other hand. He said, that although he accepted the one, he

    3did not drop the other; he held fast to both.” Nena‟aangabi asserted his influence even

    more broadly among American officials and within Wisconsin Ojibwe politics when he refused to sign the 1837 Treaty that ceded Ojibwe land in northern Wisconsin and

    4included Rice Lake. In 1847, he joined other Ojibwe leaders in protesting the Treaty ceding Ojibwe lands in central Minnesota due to the treaty giving an unequal share of annuity payment to the Lake Superior Ojibwe and its provision allowing mixed-bloods to

    5be authorized to sell Ojibwe land. By 1855, Nena‟aangabi was described as “…the

    6favorite orator and chief” of the Lake Superior Ojibwe.

    While Waabizheshi maintained a high degree of popularity in his own community, he did not seek the broader influence in Ojibwe politics or among American officials that characterized his father‟s leadership. Bartlett‟s assessment of Waabizheshi‟s leadership is helpful in thinking about changes in Ojibwe leadership at mid-century. From this point on, the focus of Waabizheshi and most other Ojibwe leaders throughout Wisconsin increasingly turned inward. While Waabizheshi is not mentioned by name in the effort to secure the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation at Prairie Rice Lake in 1858, his community was the closest to the area and his community no doubt utilized the area more than other communities of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band. After the failure to secure the Reservation at Prairie Rice Lake, Waabizheshi spent the next 18 years leading his community in a

     3 Henry Schoolcraft, Schoolcraft’s Expedition to Lake Itasca: The Discovery of the Source of the

    Mississippi, Philip P. Mason, ed., (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993), 125. Schoolcraft spelled Nena‟aangabi‟s name Neenaba. 4 Treaty With the Chippewa, July 29, 1837, 7 Stat., 536. 5 Letter of Remonstrance of Nine Chippeway Chiefs to Treaty Aug 2, 1847, August 21, 1847, National Archives and Records Administration, Records Group 75, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, La Pointe Agency, M-234, Roll 389. Nena‟aangabi‟s name is spelled “Nenangabe.” 6 Richard F. Morse, “The Chippewas of Lake Superior,” Collections of the State Historical Society of

    Wisconsin Vol. III, Lyman Copland Draper, ed., Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1904, 341.

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    vacuum, successfully resisting efforts to remove his own community to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, but making little to no effort to assert his influence in Ojibwe politics in Wisconsin or even within the Lac Courte Oreilles Band. It appears that Waabizheshi refused to participate in the selection of reservation lands at Lac Courte Oreilles in 1859. Furthermore, Waabizheshi did not join Akiwenzii (leader of the community at Lac Courte Oreilles) and other Wisconsin Ojibwe leaders when they visited Washington in 1864 to present the president with a bi-lingual petition detailing

    7grievances against the federal government. No evidence exists that shows Waabizheshi

    leading any effort to resist or accommodate American colonialism beyond what impacted his own community.

    In 1862, American colonialism impacted the Ojibwe community of Rice Lake in a positive way when Dakota people were expelled from Minnesota and contained on reservations in the Dakotas and Nebraska following the Dakota War. Suddenly, the violence that had accompanied Ojibwe expansion in Wisconsin for almost two centuries was gone. Despite repeated attempts by American officials to end the conflict in the early nineteenth century it was only the complete expulsion of Dakota from Minnesota that finally ended Ojibwe-Dakota warfare. Ojibwe could now participate in hunting and other traditional labor activities down the Red Cedar River without fear of Dakota attack. These areas were richer in game than the heavily wooded areas around Rice Lake and points north, as the open prairie lands provided much more food sources near the ground for deer. In the heavily wooded areas further north, deer struggled to find food sources, as old growth forest canopy choked out sunlight that would enable food sources close to

     7 John D. Nichols, ed., Statement Made By The Indians: A Bilingual Petition of the Chippewas of Lake Superior, 1864, (London: University of Western Ontario, 1988).

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    the ground to grow. In addition, these areas received less pressure from Ojibwe and Dakota hunters, as it was dangerous for both groups to venture into the area for fear of attack. However, this boon for Ojibwe quality of life was quickly offset by Euro-American settlement in this area. The lack of Native people in this “buffer zone” facilitated the movement of Euro-Americans into the area in the 1860‟s and 1870‟s.

    The Creation of the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, 1858-1873

    Leaders of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band were anxious to have the boundaries of the reservation set. The treaty of 1854 called for the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation to consist of three townships in an unspecified location. In 1858, Lac Courte Oreilles leaders selected three townships adjacent to rice-heavy Prairie Rice Lake, about 30 miles south of the Rice Lake community. In his seminal work History of the Ojibway People,

    8William Warren noted that Prairie Rice Lake could feed 2000 people per season. The

    9Lac Courte Oreilles Band had a population of 858 people in 1857. The selection of the

    reservation at this location illustrates the central role wild rice played for Ojibwe survival in Wisconsin. When considering where to located their permanent home, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band selected Prairie Rice Lake, deeming it the most vital of all places utilized by the Band in order to ensure survival into the future. While the document containing the selection of the reservation at Prairie Rice Lake did not contain any information about the deliberations of the leaders of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band, it is likely that Waabizheshi played a central role in the selection as his community was the closest to

     8 William W. Warren, History of the Ojibwe People, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984:

    originally published 1885), 309. Archeological evidence shows a number of pits for threshing rice on the east side of Prairie Rice Lake, known as Prairie Lake after a dam obliterated the rice on the lake. See Charles E. Brown and Robert H. Becker, “The Chetek and Rice Lakes,” The Wisconsin Archeologist 16:3

    (October 1917), 102. 9 Lake Superior Chippewa Annuity, 1857, Minnesota History Center, U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Chippewa Annuity Rolls, 1841-1907, M-390, Roll 1.

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    this area and his community probably utilized the area more t