At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Minnesota area was pretty evenly divided between the Dakota and Chippewa nations. The Dakota lived on the prairies to the south and west. The Chippewa inhabited the forest and lake regions to the north. Between the two tribes stretched a broad belt of open hardwood forest that formed a kind of no-man’s land where both tribes hunted and sometimes fought. This contested region stretched from the plains of the Red River Valley in the west to the lower Chippewa Valley of Wisconsin in the east.
In the northern part of Minnesota, there were several permanent Chippewa villages. Many had close ties with one another. The names of the different groups tells where they lived: Pembina Band, Rainy Lake Band, Grand Portage Band, Red Lake Band, Bois Fort Band, Otter Tail Pillagers, Fond du Lac Band, St. Croix Bands, Leech Lake Pillagers, Lake Winnibigoshish Band. In addition to these groups there was also a large number of Chippewa living along or near the Mississippi River in north-central Minnesota. They were known as the Mississippi Bands. Their members included the Chippewa living at Mille Lacs, Rabbit, Bull, Pokegams, and Sandy Lakes.
Today no one knows how closely the Mississippi Bands were united. They held councils and fought the Dakota together. But each band seems to have been a separate political unit. They were joined together by intermarriages, friendships, trade relations, and similar cultural traditions. Widespread and numerous, the Mississippi Bands formed a powerful, regional confederation.
The Chippewa’s political relations with one another often confused strangers to their culture. So did their patterns of leadership. The Chippewa greatly valued personal freedom. They respected the dignity and equality of human beings. Tribal custom required even the most highly respected leaders to explain carefully their plans at council meetings. Then each individual made up his own mind about taking part. Any member could leave at any time if dreams, signs, or omens told him to do so. Such decisions were not criticized by others. Some Chippewa leaders inherited their position from their fathers. Others earned it by achievements in hunting, war, or religious activities. But all Chippewa leaders governed by persuasion. The band or group had the final say.
Europeans and Americans were used to a more structured political system. In their governments, leaders made rules that people obeyed. At first, they tried to force these political ideas on the Chippewa by appointing so-called “medal chiefs.” Some were traditional leaders. Others were not. As a result, some people were put into powerful roles only because they were friends with outsiders. American officials also tried to divide the Chippewa by pitting one band against another. By these tactics, they hoped to make the Chippewa give up their land.
When Minnesota became a state in 1858, the legislature adopted a state seal for all official documents. The seal showed a white settler plowing a field. In the background was a mounted Indian galloping away into the sunset. The seal’s meaning was clear: Indians were expected to give up their lands for white settlement.
For countless centuries Ojibwe people have governed themselves in a manner of which the so called “civilized” nations of today’s world would be envious. Ojibwe people had a system, where there were no jails, poorhouses, or insane asylums. People respected each other, and actions such as stealing from one another were unheard of. A person was judged not by how much he owned but by how a person treated his fellow man. The most humble man was often the most respected man. That was the way it was with the Ojibwe people. Often times the Ojibwe were noted for the large amount of their possessions they had given away.
Chieftainship was divided into two categories, civil and war. Civil chiefs held the highest authority of the tribe and received their leadership hereditarily. When a chief died, the oldest male normally assumed the chieftainship of the band. If that was not possible, the oldest male relative was given the position by the band. Consequently, many chiefs could trace their chief-line back as many as ten generations.
Traditional Ojibwe chiefs originally came from the various “Dodaims” or clans of the tribe. Some of these clans claimed many of the most prominent chiefs as their members. Two of these, the crane and loon clan were the principle chief clans, although chiefs came from many of the other clans.
A chief was most noted for his personal characteristics; anyone wishing to join his band was at liberty to do so. A band might comprise as few as thirty or forty people, or as many as three hundred. The duties of a civil chief included presiding over tribal councils of his band, the making of decisions that affected its general welfare, and the settlement of small disputes. He represented the band at the signing of treaties, the payment of annuities, and any large gathering of the tribe.
As far back as 1763, the King of England proclaimed the right of Indians to live on their land without being disturbed. He sent the Appalachian Mountains as the boundary line between British settlement and Indian country. Settlers on land not ceded to Britain by the Indians were supposed to leave. And buying Indian land was unlawful without a public meeting of British and Indian leaders.
When the United States gained freedom from England in 1783, the new country acquired all British territory in North America, except for Canada. The Indian protested this new arrangement. In 1786, the Chippewa, Huron, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wabash River tribes met at the mouth of the Detroit River. From their councils came a statement signed by the chiefs of each tribe. It said that to preserve peace the United States must keep surveyors and settlers from crossing the Ohio River. There was strong opposition in Congress. But the new government was exhausted from the Revolutionary War, and it agreed to the northwest tribes’ claims.
In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which made a solemn promise to Indian peoples. It said: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty they never shall be invaded or disturbed.” The Northwest Ordinance was supposed to guide all future dealings with the Indians. But the United States would soon want military posts, timber and military rights, and railroad rights-of-way, not to mention land for settlements. It would use treaties to get them, never fully living up to the law.
Treaties had been made between the colonies and Indians before the U.S. Constitution had been established. The right for states to enter into treaties was prohibited in the Constitution and a power limited to the President.
The European countries that colonized North America dealt with the native tribal governments as sovereign governments, that is, as governments that had independent and supreme authority over their citizens and territories. Especially in the area of the present day United States, the European powers interacted with American Indian tribal governments through official diplomatic means. Starting with England as early as 1620, and France, Spain, and Holland, the European powers negotiated with Indian tribes through official government to government council sessions and by entering treaties which recognized tribal governmental control over the territory of this “New World.” The European countries had a selfish motive for dealing with American Indian tribes in this fashion. The European governments wanted to legitimize the transactions they entered with Indian tribes to buy tribal lands. Thus, they wanted to make the transactions look official and legal by buying Indian lands through governmental treaties so that other European countries could not contest or object to these land sales.
After the war of 1812, the U.S. government took an active interest in the northwestern frontier. Inter-tribal warfare was disrupting the fur trade and the influx of miners and squatters into Indian territories was increasing tensions between the tribes and settlers. To address these problems, the U.S. government invited thousands of Indians representing all the tribes in the Upper Mississippi to gather at Prairie du Chien in August of 1825. Territorial governors William Clark of Missouri and Lewis Cass of Michigan facilitated discussions that produced a general treaty of peace among all the tribes and established boundaries between white settlers and Native Americans. The Chippewa who were remote and dispersed, did not attend. Instead they assembled at Lake Superior and signed a stipulation that was inserted in the Treaty of Prairie du Chien to give full effect to the Treaty.
The United States adopted this tradition of dealing with Indian tribes as sovereign governments from the European powers. From the very beginning of its existence, the U.S. dealt with Indian tribes on an official governmental and treaty making basis. Political involvement in Indian affairs was a very important part of governmental life in early America. Indian tribes were very powerful in the 1700s and early 1800s in America and were a serious threat to the new United States. Hence, the United States government was heavily involved in negotiating and dealing with tribes as part of its governmental policies. The United States ultimately negotiated, signed and ratified almost 390 treaties with American Indian tribes. Most of these treaties are still valid today. The United States did not give Indian tribes anything for free in these treaties. Instead, the treaties were formal government to government negotiations regarding sales of land and property rights that the tribes owned and that the United States wanted to buy.
The United States Supreme Court stated in 1905 that United States and Indian treaties are “not a grant of rights to the Indians, but a grant of rights from them — a reservation of those not granted.” Thus, while tribal governments sold some of their rights in land, animals, and resources to the United States for payments of money, goods, and promises of peace and security, the tribes held onto or reserved to themselves other lands and property rights that they did not sell in the treaties. The United States Supreme Court has likened these Indian treaties to contracts between “two sovereign nations.”
Since nearly all of the Indians signing treaties were unable to read, write or speak English, the treaty clauses and the highly organized technical language had to be interpreted for the Indians to understand. Clauses were characterized as those written by a stronger nation with a much weaker, defenseless people who were wards of the nation and dependent upon the good faith and protection of the stronger. This was the view taken in 1889 by the Supreme Court in the case of Jones vs. Meehan:
“In construing any treaty between the United States and an Indian tribe, it must always (as was pointed out by the counsel for the appellees) be borne in mind that the negotiations for the treaty are conducted, on the part of the United States, an enlightened and powerful nation, by representatives skilled in diplomacy, masters of a written language, understanding the modes and forms of creating the various technical estates known to their law, and assisted by an interpreter employed by themselves; that the treaty is drawn up by them and in their own language; that the Indians on the other hand, are a weak and dependent people, who have no written language and are wholly unfamiliar with all the forms of legal expression, and whose only knowledge of the terms in which the treaty is framed is that imparted to them by the interpreter employed by the United States; and that the treaty must therefore be construed, not according to the technical meaning of its words to learned lawyers, but in the sense in which they would naturally be understood by Indians.”
It wasn’t until after World War I (1914-1918) that Congress started to consider Indians were not citizens of the United States. They had signed treaties and agreements, but no special legislation conveyed equal rights to Indian citizens.
For more information on Treaties see: Collaborative effort funded by the MN Clean Water Land & Legacy Act: MN Humanities Center, MN Indian Affairs Council & Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 1867 treaty details:
Consolidating the Chippewa
It was feared Hole-in-the Day, a chief of the Chippewa Mississippi Bands who inherited his name from his father, was leader of a rebellion to join the Dakota in attacking settlers in southern Minnesota. Hole-in-the-Day’s rebellion made many white settlers and politicians fearful of the Chippewa. They wanted to Mississippi Bands to give up their scattered reservations and move onto a single piece of land where the government could keep an eye on them. This idea was called “consolidating” the Chippewa. In 1863 and 1864, the government tried to negotiate treaties with the Mississippi Bands putting this idea into effect. But the Indians were unhappy with the land offered them. They refused to move from their homes in central Minnesota. In 1867, the government tried again to consolidate the Chippewa. This time the offer was more attractive, and the Chippewa agreed.
The Treaty of 1867 was signed in Washington, D.C., by ten chiefs of the Mississippi Bands, including Hole-in-the-Day. The Mississippi Chippewa were allowed to keep reservations at Mille Lacs and Leech Lake. But they ceded the rest of their lands in exchange for 36 townships surrounding Rice Lake and White Earth Lake in north-central Minnesota.
According to the treaty, the new reservation was intended to make the Chippewa “self-sustaining by means of agriculture, and the adoption of the habits of civilized life.” To accomplish this, the government promised money for schools, houses, farming tools, a grist mill, a sawmill, and a doctor. The treaty also agreed to give each Indian up to 160 acres of reservation land for raising crops. The Indians could sell this land only to other Chippewas.
By 1867 great pressure was put on all bands in Minnesota to get them to relocate onto one reservation. Never the historic homeland of any Ojibwe group, it became a reservation in 1867 in a treaty with the Mississippi Band of Ojibwe. It was to become the home of all of the Ojibwe and Lakota in the state, however, not all bands wanted to move onto one reservation and give up their reservation. Mississippi Band members from Gull Lake were the first group to come and settle around the village of White Earth, lead by Wabanakwed (White Cloud) in June of 1868.
By the spring of 1868, government surveyors had officially marked off the boundaries of the new reservation. The western part was fertile, rolling prairie. The eastern part was rich timberland. Underneath the black soil were beds of white clay, this gave the reservation its name – “White Earth.”
The White Earth Indian Agency
During the first years of White Earth, the government paid an Indian agent, farmer, and blacksmith to assist the Chippewa. But there was no official Indian agency at the reservation. This changed in 1871. In that year, the government appointed E.P. Smith of Ripon, Wisconsin, to set up government headquarters at White Earth.
Smith brought with him a number of new employees, including two clerks, a doctor, a carpenter, and an engineer to fun the government sawmill. During the next few years, Smith and his successor, Charles P. Wilcox, supervised the construction of several government buildings near White Earth Lake. They hired the Chippewa to build houses for government workers, a new sawmill, a grist mill, a hospital, a school and an industrial hall where Indian women learned “civilized” methods of cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In time, the Indian agency became the village of White Earth.
The establishment of the agency encouraged more of the Mississippi Chippewa to move to White Earth. Among the new arrivals were several prominent mixed bloods from Crow Wing, including the families of Clement Beaulieu, Albert Fairbanks, William Fairbanks, and George Donald.
In 1873, the government purchased a township on the western boundary of the reservation as a home for the Pembina Chippewa Band of the Red River Valley. In addition to these newcomers, the White Earth people also agreed to allow the Otter Tail Pillager Chippewa Band to settle on their reservation. As a result of these agreements, the White Earth population increased from about 800 in 1875 to over 1,400 a year later.
In 1875, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs gave a glowing account of life at White Earth Reservation. He noted that the Chippewa had houses, farms, livestock, churches, grist mills, sawmills, and three schools. He was so pleased with the progress at White Earth that he declared, “No good reason appears why these Indians should much longer need the care of the General Government.”
But there was a darker side to the picture. The Pembina and Otter Tail Pillager Bands had been forced to move to White Earth because white settlers had wanted their lands in western Minnesota. In only a few years, white farmers and lumbermen would start closing in on White Earth lands as well.
Early Communities at White Earth
The U.S. Chippewa Commission spent more than ten years trying to persuade as many Indians as possible to move to White Earth. But of the 4,000 Chippewa eligible to go, only about 1,200 actually went. The remainder took their allotments on their home ground, defeating the government’s plan to destroy their communities.
At White Earth, the new comers tended to settle in family groups with members of their same band. Many of the Leech Lake Chippewa, for example, moved to the Pine Point area, which years before had been settled by their Otter Tail Pillager relatives. Many of the Mille Lacs Chippewa went to the Twin Lakes and Wild Rice River areas, building up the towns of Naytahwaush and Beaulieu. Like earlier White Earth residents, the newcomers made their living in a variety of ways. Many combined traditional seasonal activities with farming or working in lumber camps.
Because of the government’s consolidation efforts, the White Earth population included members from almost every Minnesota Chippewa band. This was both the reservation’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Because of its diversity, White Earth was a center of Chippewa cultural traditions. But because the various bands tended to stay by themselves, the reservation lacked unified leadership.
White Earth’s rich resources made it a prime target for timber companies in Minnesota who wanted access to the valuable timer land held communally by White Earth tribal members. The 1904 Steenerson Act was the first legislative attempt to separate the White Earth nation from its timber. This Act authorized the allotment to individual of the forest lands within the White Earth reservation. One day later the Clapp Act was introduced, almost unnoticed as a rider to the annual Indian Appropriations Act.
Washington started to send investigators out to see if the rumors were true about the conditions at White Earth over fraudulent land deals. This matter would be investigated over and over and live on for years, most currently in 1986 with the passing of the White Earth Land Settlement Act (WELSA) which extinguished the White Earth land claims by retroactively approving the illegal land transfers in exchange for financial compensation.
White Earth History
See more history
*The History of White Earth information above was compiled from the following sources:
Jill Doerfler research on her thesis: Fictions and Fractions: Reconciling Citizenship Regulations with Cultural Values Among the White Earth Anishinaabeg
History of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, 1978, William Schaaf, Charles Robertson Curriculum Developers
White Earth: A history, Marshall Brown, 1989, Jerry Rawley, Georgia Wiemer, Everett Goodwin, Kathy Roy Goodwin Curriculum Committee
Robert J. Miller, Associate Professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. He is the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and is the author of Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny.