Ojibwe History

The Ojibwe are an Algonkian-speaking tribe and constitute the largest Indian group north of Mexico.

The Ojibwe stretch from present-day Ontario in eastern Canada all the way into Montana. Oral traditions of the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi assert that at one time all three tribes were one people who lived at the Straits of Mackinac. From there, they split off into three different groups. Linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence suggests that the three tribes do indeed descend from a common ethnic origin. The three languages are almost identical. The Ojibwe call themselves "Anishinaabeg," which means the "True People" or the "Original People." Other Indians and Europeans called them "Ojibwe" or "Chippewa," which meant "puckered up," probably because the Ojibwe traditionally wore moccasins with a puckered seam across the top.

The Ojibwe are believed to have made contact with Europeans in 1615 when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived at Lake Huron, where some Ojibwe lived. In 1622, one of Champlain's men, Etienne Brule, explored Lake Superior and made contact with Ojibwe groups farther to the west. Many Ojibwe lived near the rapids of the St. Mary's River, and the French began to refer to the Ojibwe there as "Saulteaux," derived from the French word sault, or rapids. In 1641, French Jesuits first visited the area of Sault Ste. Marie (as they called the rapids of the St. Mary's River), and by 1667 had established a Christian mission there. Like other Indian groups, the Ojibwe were forced westward beginning in the 1640s when the League of the Iroquois began to attack other tribes in the Great Lakes region to monopolize the fur trade. The Ojibwe did not suffer as much as other tribes, however, and by the 1690s they had won some impressive victories against the Iroquois. Because of this the League of the Iroquois sued for peace with the French and their Indian allies in 1701.

Contact with Europeans

Like other Indian tribes, the Ojibwe allied themselves to the French militarily and economically. They traded with the French who entered the Great Lakes in the 1660s, and their desire to obtain European trade goods drove the Ojibwe to expand westward into Lake Superior to find richer fur-bearing lands. Soon, they came into contact with the Eastern, or Santee, Dakota (commonly known as the Sioux). During the 1730s, the Ojibwe and Dakota began to fight over the region around the western point of Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota and this war lasted until the 1850's. The Ojibwe were generally successful, and they managed to push the Dakota farther west into Minnesota and North and South Dakota. The main Ojibwe settlement in Wisconsin at this time was on Madeline Island in Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior. In 1745, the Ojibwe of Lake Superior began to move inland into Wisconsin, with their first permanent village at Lac Courte Oreilles at the headwaters of the Chippewa River. Later, the Ojibwe expanded into other parts of northern Wisconsin, particularly Lac du Flambeau. The name of this village in French means "Lake of the Flames" because the Ojibwe speared fish at night using torches attached to the end of their birchbark canoes.

The Ojibwe sided with the French during the wars that France and Britain fought between 1689 and 1763. The Ojibwe were particularly active during the final conflict, the French and Indian War, or Seven Years' War, from 1754 to 1763. When France lost Canada and the Midwest to the British between 1761 and 1763, the Ojibwe did not trust their new colonial overlords. Unlike the French, the British treated the Indians with contempt and disdain, causing an Ottawa chief at Detroit named Pontiac to lead a pan-Indian rebellion against the British in 1763. The Ojibwe at the Straits of Mackinac participated along with some Sauk by massacring the entire British army garrison there. However, the Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin and the southern shore of Lake Superior did not join the uprising; Jean Baptiste Cadotte -- a trader of French-Canadian and Ojibwe descent -- urged them not to fight the British. Their participation would probably not have done much good anyway, since the British suppressed the revolt by 1765. Afterward, the British took a more conciliatory approach to the Indians and established better relations with the tribes. Like most Midwestern Indian groups, the Ojibwe became staunch allies of the British afterward.

Distrust of the United States

The fur trade prospered in the Lake Superior region during Britain's tenure of control. The United States gained all lands south of the Great Lakes after the American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. However, British fur trading companies in Canada, particularly the mighty North West Company, continued to operated trading posts in the Ojibwe lands of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota until 1815. The United States became concerned with the growing British influence in the region. An 1805-1806 expedition led by American army officer Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike attempted to undermine British influence and end the Ojibwe-Dakota wars, but it had little effect. British and French-Canadian traders continued to operate in the Lake Superior country, and the Ojibwe-Dakota war continued. Like other Indians in the Midwest, the Ojibwe sided with the British because they believed that the United States would take their lands. Many Ojibwe became adherents of Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet (or Tenskwatawa), Shawnee brothers in Ohio who preached a doctrine of resisting American expansion. Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet formed a pan-Indian confederacy that fought alongside the British during the War of 1812. Many Ojibwe from the region around Detroit fought against the U.S., but Ojibwe bands in northern Wisconsin generally stayed out of the fighting despite being pro-British.

After the war ended in 1814, the Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin continued to distrust the Americans and often traded with British traders across the border in Canada. They also continued to harbor a hatred for the Dakota, and the war between the two tribes intensified in the early 1800s. The United States tried twice to make peace treaties between the Ojibwe and Dakota. The first was at Prairie du Chien in 1825, and a second treaty was held at Fond du Lac, Minnesota in 1826. Neither resulted in a lasting peace. Once the lands that separated the Ojibwe and the Dakota were purchased and settled by the Americans, warfare between the two tribes ceased.

Land Cessions and Reservations

The federal government made two major land cession treaties with the Wisconsin Ojibwe. The first was in 1837, when the Ojibwe sold most of their land in north-central Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The next was finalized in 1842, and the Ojibwe ceded their remaining lands in Wisconsin and Michigan's upper peninsula. Soon, American lumberjacks fell upon the rich pine stands, and miners began to exploit the copper mines along the southern shore of Lake Superior.

The United States hoped to remove the Ojibwe from northern Wisconsin in the 1840s, but the Indians did not want to leave their homes. Many Ojibwe chiefs went to Washington in 1849 and begged President Zachary Taylor to allow them to stay. They asserted they had signed the 1842 treaty thinking they could stay on their ceded lands. Taylor refused to listen to them. After Millard Fillmore became president on Taylor's death in 1850, another Ojibwe delegation visited Washington in 1852. Fillmore was more amenable to the Ojibwe chiefs, and he agreed to hold another treaty with them in 1854. By this treaty, the Ojibwe ceded the last of their land in Minnesota to the United States, and in return received reservations of land. The 1854 treaty created four of the modern-day Ojibwe reservations in Wisconsin: Bad River, Red Cliff, Lac du Flambeau, and Lac Courte Oreilles.

St. Croix and Mole Lake

Once the reservations were created, the Ojibwe were unable to sustain themselves by hunting and gathering, and many Ojibwe men worked as lumberjacks for White-owned companies. While lumbering brought some economic benefits to the Wisconsin Ojibwe, it also bought continued land loss. Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, designed to help Indians live more like Whites by dividing up reservation lands so they could all own individual farms. The land in northern Wisconsin was not good for farming, and many Ojibwe sold their land to lumber companies to supplement their wages. On some reservations, over 90% of the land passed into White hands.

Things began to improve for the Wisconsin Ojibwe in the 20th century. Under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ojibwe communities along the St. Croix River in northwestern Wisconsin and those at Mole Lake in northeastern Wisconsin -- which had not received reservations in the 1854 treaty -- received reservation lands. The St. Croix Ojibwe received 1,750 acres in 1938, and the Mole Lake band received 1,680 acres in 1937.

Treaty Rights Reclaimed

The Wisconsin Ojibwes' greatest victory in reclaiming their treaty-reserved rights came in 1983. When the Ojibwe signed the 1837 and 1842 treaties, they reserved the right to hunt and fish on the lands they had ceded to the United States. For many years, the state of Wisconsin convicted Ojibwes who fished and hunted off their reservations without licenses. In January 1983, the federal district court in Chicago affirmed that the two treaties guaranteed Wisconsin Ojibwes' right to hunt and fish on the land they ceded to the United States. Despite their victory, things did not go smoothly when the Ojibwe tried to assert their rights. Ojibwe fishermen were harassed at boat landings throughout northern Wisconsin and often had to withstand racial slurs and physical assaults by non-Indians. The state of Wisconsin attempted unsuccessfully to fight the federal court's decision. It even offered the Wisconsin Ojibwe millions of dollars if they would relinquish their treaty rights, but they refused to enter into any such agreement. During the 1990s, violence at boat landings has died down somewhat. The Wisconsin Ojibwe have helped ease tensions by stocking walleye in the lakes where they spearfish. Indeed, the Ojibwe put more fish into the lakes than they take out, and the number of fish they spear is very small compared to the number non-Indian sport fishermen take out every year.