We are Ojibwe people, Wisconsin’s native inhabitants. To the Ojibwe, Wisconsin’s forest was not a wilderness but our home. Over the centuries, beginning with the migration from the west coast to the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe developed a culture well adapted to this environment. Wisconsin’s woodland environment touched every aspect of Ojibwe life. It not only furnished our families with homes, food, tools, ornaments, children’s toys, and transportation, but also gave us artistic and spiritual inspiration.
For the Ojibwe people the woodlands provided all the materials needed for life. The forest provided the bark, saplings, and limbs needed to make fine shelters, such as wigwams, and winter lodges, and heated these shelters with firewood. While birch bark and similar materials were used in the preparation and storage of food and the construction of fine decorative items. These items included baskets, trays, bowls, ladles, spoons, and other utensils. In the spring, birch bark buckets were used to gather sap during Maple sugaring. The forest plants provided food, materials and medicine for the Ojibwe people. In addition, the Ojibwe made all the things needed for life and transportation from natural woodland materials. They built cradle boards to carry their babies, snowshoes, and toboggans for traveling through the woods during long harsh winters to search for game or check fur trap lines. Perhaps most well-known, are the birch bark canoes crafted to help with harvesting wild rice, fishing, hunting and transportation from camp to camp.
The great fact of Ojibwe life is the unity and oneness of all things. In our views, history is expressed in the way that life is lived each day and, in this way a harmony with all created things is achieved. The people cannot be separated from the land with its cycle of seasons or from the other mysterious cycles of living things- of birth and growth and death and new birth.
Most of the Ojibwe people live on the traditional lands our ancestors settled before the coming of the Europeans. The homeland was immense, stretching in a great curve from the northern reaches of the plains to the southeastern shores of Lake Superior. Our people regarded the land as a gift from the Great Spirit and it belonged to everyone in the tribe.
William Warren recorded through oral tradition that the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and the Ottawa were a single people. The Anishinabe, as we are known amongst ourselves, migrated from the east to the Great Lakes. During the migration, when they reached the Strait of Mackinac, the three separated. The Ottawa returned to the east, the Potawatomi traveled on to the south and west and the Ojibwe continued west along Lake Superior and north to Canada.
During the first half of the seventeenth century French explorers and missionaries entered the land of the Ojibwe and wrote down the earliest vague historical accounts of the people they met here. It was reported that a community of Indian people were living by the falls of the St. Mary’s River (Sault Ste. Marie) through which the waters of Lake Superior pour into Lake Huron. The French called them Saulteurs or “People of the Falls.”
Each of the different bands from which these falls people came had its favorite hunting and fishing spots and maple sugar groves. They moved from place to place as the seasons and activities associated with them changed. They were related to each other by kinship and marriage and all spoke the same language.
The French failed to realize that these bands formed a single people and treated them as separate nations. Later, when the French discovered the close ties among these bands, they tried to classify them into tribes. In 1670, the French trader Daniel du Luth persuaded the leaders of the Ojibwe at Sault Ste. Marie to join in council with the Dakota at the far western end of Lake Superior; at this council an alliance was made between the Ojibwe and the Dakota. The Dakota agreed to let the Ojibwe hunt on the eastern fringes of their country, and in return the Ojibwe would provide them with French trade partners and French goods. This arrangement lasted more than fifty years. During this time the Ojibwe spread westward across northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Superior. They built a large village on Madeline Island at the mouth of Chequamegon Bay, where the French also established LaPointe, a fort and trading post, in 1693.
In time, LaPointe replaced Sault Ste. Marie as a gathering place for the tribe. The Ojibwe found at Chequamegon Bay a better life than ever before. Fur was plentiful; fishing was good among the nearby islands; large patches of corn and squash were cultivated in the fields around the area and wild rice grew in the nearby lakes and streams. Trading was also good. In 1698 the French abandoned LaPointe and withdrew from all their western posts. For the next twenty years the Dakota had no way to get trade goods except through the Ojibwe, who traveled east each year for new supplies.
As the Ojibwe began moving away from Madeline Island to find food and gather furs, the Marten clan discovered one area that offered many valuable resources, located along the northern sections of the St. Croix River in what are now Burnett, Douglas and Washburn Counties. In this area, the St. Croix River touches many smaller rivers such as the Brule, Yellow, Namekagon, and Clam.
Groups of Ojibwe chose to settle where the St. Croix crossed these other rivers. The area had abundant wild rice beds, birch bark trees were readily available and game and fish frequented the rivers and shorelines.
During the early 1700s, many Ojibwe began making this area our home. By 1702, our people established a village in Rice Lake on the Yellow River. Our people were happy living in this area for quite some time. The land was beautiful and the Ojibwe or Chippewa, as we became to be called, were able to use the forest for everything we needed to survive. The fur trade business was growing and as a result, various settlements were established throughout the area.
At this time, The Lake Superior Ojibwe was the largest of the tribal groups and occupied much of Wisconsin prior to territorial status. During fierce fur trading wars between the French and the British, our original territory east of Wisconsin came under direct pressure from the Iroquois of New York, who allied themselves with British. At first the Lake Superior Ojibwe acted as middlemen between the French and the interior tribes in the fur trade.
By the early eighteenth century, the Ojibwe had expanded their hunting grounds westward into the northern woodlands of Wisconsin. There, they competed with the Fox Indians and then the Sioux or Dakota Indians, whom they eventually drove westward across the Mississippi River.
In 1831 and 1832, Indian agent Henry R. Schoolcraft found Chippewa bands living in scattered interior villages along the southern shores of Lake Superior and on the upper reaches of interior drainages. They shared common woodland culture, but did not possess a political structure that unified them. At the time Schoolcraft encountered the Ojibwe, they numbered several thousand and lived in peace with the U.S. Government, trading at many posts located around the area.
By the time Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, there were six major Native American groups in Wisconsin. They were the Chippewa/Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, the Winnebago, the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee of New York State, and the Menominee.
The years between 1838 and 1867 were a time of great change and great sorrow for most of the Ojibwe people. Pressure upon them increased from all sides, and within this third of a century, the US Government took possession of the core of Anishinabe land. This included all of the area bordering Lake Superior, most of what remained bordering Lake Huron, northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and the plains of the Red River Valley, reaching into the northeastern corner of what is now North Dakota.
In 1837, the United States agents sent out a message summoning various Ojibwe from northern Wisconsin and Minnesota to a treaty making council at Fort Snelling. The U.S. Government wished to make a treaty for the purchase of all the land in the Wisconsin, Chippewa and the St. Croix river valleys, on which grew a great forest of pine timber. The Ojibwe argued that only the bands that lived or hunted on the land to be sold should make the decision. Nonetheless, representatives from the Pillager, Red Lake, Mississippi, Fon du Lac and Chequamegon bands, who lived outside the area to be sold, were urged into signing the treaty. Representatives from the major bands in northern Wisconsin arrived late, and some of the smaller bands whose homes were sold, were never represented in the treaty council.
For more than a hundred years before, the US Government knew that the hills along Lake Superior held rich deposits of copper and iron. The United States spokesmen who bargained for this area with the Lake Superior bands talked much about mines and trees and little about settlement. Some of the Ojibwe who signed the treaty were led to believe that it was only the minerals and timber they were selling, although the agreement actually ceded the land itself. The Lake Superior bands discovered their mistake in 1850 when the government told them they must leave their land and homes along the lake and move west into Minnesota and other areas. They sent a delegation to Washington D.C. and after hearing their case, President Fillmore suspended the removal order.
During the 1837 and 1842 treaties, the St. Croix had a distinct identity. The signature page of the first treaty (1837) identifies Chiefs Bizhigke (Buffalo) and Jabenabe (the wet mouth), along with three warriors as being from “St. Croix River.” Five years later with the treaty of 1842, the same Chiefs, Bizhigiki and Kabemabe, along with Aiawbens or Yahbance’ (Little Buck) are listed as signers.