The Chippewa Nation and People

Chippewa family and traditional lodge at the turn of the century

The Chippewa People of Cass County

Meet the Chippewa Indians of Cass County, Minnesota, a major part of one of the great Indian Nation's of North America. The Chippewa, also known as the Ojibway or Saulteaux (people of the Sault), contribute a deep and rich cultural legacy to the history of northern Minnesota, its creation, settlement and development, a history which goes back nearly 10,000 years to the retreat of the last of the great glaciers which covered much of North America.

The Chippewa Nation had its own beginnings further east in the forests along the shores of Lake Superior and other eastern Great Lakes. They are considered part of the greater Algonquian Nation which dominated the eastern part of North America for millennia before the coming of the Europeans, and which included (in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi Valley) such dominant tribes as the Winnebago, the Cree and others.

By some early historical accounts, they were part of the great "Three Fires" Indian Confederacy, along with the Ottawa and Pottawatomi Nations which controlled for many years the confluence of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron around the Straits of Mackinaw, and with their own lands extending far west into the forest areas between Canada and North Dakota.

The Chippewa were considered to be technically advanced and friendly peoples when first met by the whites, compared with the tribes further to the south and southwest. They were highly regarded for their leather and metal working, excellent canoe and lodge building, prowess with large open water navigation, food gathering and cultivation skills.

The history of the Chippewa began to change radically with the coming of the first Europeans to seriously penetrate the interior of North America, the French. The French, with their legions of fur traders and "voyageurs" that soon followed in the footsteps of their legendary explorers, Nicolet, Groseillers, Radisson, Joliet, Marquette, LaSalle, Hennepin, DuLuth, Perrot and LeSueur, used the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence, Missouri and Mississippi River valleys to quickly establish a vast inland trading empire.

This empire spanned the middle continent from the Gulf of Mexico and the Rockies to eastern Canada, starting in the mid 1600s and reaching its zenith in the mid 1700s.

A Great Open Water "Montreal" Trading Canoe used by the explorers and voyageurs, and based upon the canoes of the Great Lakes Indian Tribes. From a painting by Frances Anne Hopkins, the Public Archives of Canada.

Initially, the Chippewa were valued for their friendliness and enterprise as middlemen in the growing trade between the neighboring tribes and the French to the east. But as the French moved their own traders further into the interior establishing their own direct trading relationships, increasingly the Chippewa found themselves the "odd man out". Coupled with the demise of their traditional hunting grounds around the Great Lakes, the Chippewa used their superior knowledge of metal working and access to European firearms to successfully challenge first the Fox and Winnebago for greater land in northern Wisconsin, and then the Sioux for more land in northern Minnesota, enlisting ongoing bloody conflict with both throughout the mid to late 1700s in the process.

Not long after the American Revolution, and with the support of the new American government, the Chippewa assumed control of the northern forests of Wisconsin. By the early 1800s in northern Minnesota, the Sioux had also been vanquished by the Chippewa, after a series of battles and skirmishes all across Cass County and northern Minnesota, with the former abandoning any remaining claims as a forest people, and moving unto the northern American plains to established their legendary, horse and plains-based culture.

While the conflict for lands between the Chippewa and the Sioux reached its peak in a major battle at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers (now Crow Wing State Park) where Cass and Crow Wing Counties now meet southwest of Brainerd, conflicts between the Chippewa and in-migrating whites continued for years after. In fact the last battle ever between Americans Indians and the American military was fought 100 years ago this year on the eastern shore of Leech Lake in 1898 with the military suffering seven dead and the Chippewa eventually declaring victory after all their combatants received a Presidential pardon.

The Leech Lake Band is now developing an interpretive center on Battle Point near Federal Dam to commemorate this and other events in their past.

The 19th century was not kind to the Chippewa people in Minnesota, under constant siege by the whites to relinquish more and more of their hard won lands. After a series of treaties with the whites, their lands were eventually reduced to a number of reservations across northern Minnesota, including the Leech Lake Reservation in Cass County, and the Mille Lacs, Red Lake, White Earth and Big Sandy Lake Reservations in neighboring counties.

Despite many years of great difficulties, and physical and economic abuse by the whites and their government institutions, the Chippewa people clung to their cultural traditions, which are now going through a Renaissance, fed by renewed cultural pride and economic progress supported by their gaming and other tribal development enterprises.

The City of Cass Lake in Cass County is the epicenter for much activity by the Chippewa people of northern Minnesota, being headquarters for the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa and their many tribal institutions and services. It is also home to the 5-band Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, as well as to Minnesota's Office of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Members of the Leech Lake Band still practice ancient methods of wild ricing, fish and wild food gathering, and maple syruping along local lakes and woods. Indian crafts continue to flourish, especially related to the use of birch bark, porcupine quills, and other natural, traditional materials. And the public is welcome to respectfully view Tribal ceremonies in pow wows conducted every warm weather holiday weekend (Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day) in Cass Lake.

A number of cultural and historical sites important to Native Americans remain in and around Cass County, including:

• The Horseshoe Bay Site (southeastern shore of Onigum Peninsula); a Paleo-Indian Period settlement site with remains over 8,000 years old, along with an 1800s trading post site thought to have been established by George Bungo.

• The Battle Point Site (far eastern shore of Leech Lake); the primary site of the last military encounter, 1898, between Native Americans and the American Military in the United States.

• The Turtle Mound Site (just northeast of the Lake Winnibigoshish Dam); a rare intaglio (inverted/depression) effigy (animal likeness) site, common to ancient Native Americans cultural traditions, but considered here one of its most important examples.

• The Williams Narrow Site (eastern Cut Foot Sioux area); one of Minnesota's most important archeological sites, containing remnants from the most ancient time (over 8,000 years ago) to just before the invasion of the Europeans.

• The Gull Lake Site (at the Gull Lake Dam Recreation Area); surviving earthworks, Indian mounds and settlement remnants, dating from the most ancient to pre-European invasion.

• Crow Wing State Park (confluence of the Crow Wing and Mississippi Rivers in the far southeast corner of Cass County -park entrance accessible from Hwy 371 south of Brainerd); site of one of the fiercest battles between the Sioux and the Chippewa in the 1700s.

• Various Canoe Portage Routes Across Cass County (see the Land of Explorers and Early Native Americans).

Information taken from Minnesota and Its People by Joesph A.A.Burnquist, Minnesota: A History of the State by Theodore C. Blegen, From Dogsleds to Snowmobiles: A History of Pine River by Doug Birk, and Native American History in the Mississippi River Region, the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers.

Native American Pow Wows:

Interested in experiencing a true Native American activity? Consider attending one of the many regular areawide gatherings known as a "pow wow" that can attract members of various tribes from all across the Midwest. It is a wonderful way for the entire family to share in the rich, vibrant sights and sounds of Native American culture, now being openly and joyously celebrated after many years of difficulty.

In additional to the wonderful, hypnotic music and the beautiful, highly symbolic, and colorful native dress, pow wows often offer Native American food, craftwork, jewelry and clothing for sale. Please remember, however, that these are NOT tourist events, but deeply meaningful cultural and spiritual gathering for our Native American brothers and sisters; please show proper respect when attending. (Alcoholic beverages NOT permitted.)

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