The Anishinaabe had nothing left to give

Copper Country's past and people

Okandikan was a very old man when he traveled from his village on the Ontonagon River to La Pointe on Madeline Island, in Chequamegon Bay, in the summer of 1842. All of the chiefs on the south shore of Lake Superior, as well as Wisconsin, were summoned to La Pointe for a meeting with delegates from the United States government, headed by Commissioner Robert Stuart.

Okandikan knew well what the discussion was going to center on. He remembered back 71 years to the time the English commanded the Fur Trade, when English fur trader Alexander Henry tried to mine for red metal on the bank of the Ontonagon River in 1771. He remembered the war between the Colonists and the English. Years after the war ended, Henry Schoolcraft came to see the large copper rock sitting on the bank of the river, near the place Henry had failed in his mining attempt. Then the treaties started, agreements between the Ojibway and the United States. Every time an agent from the government showed up, it was because the Whites wanted something. It seemed the Whites always wanted something.

All the people knew Robert Stuart from his years as a fur trader, then an agent for the American Fur Company, and they knew him to be a severe and rude man, very arrogant, much like Okondikan remembered the English. It seemed that the English thought they were superior to everyone, sometimes even each other. These talks would not go well. ‘

While Okondikan could remember well the days the English claimed to own the lands on which the Ojibway lived, he was not old enough to remember very well when his people had traded with the French. The People had had fond memories of the French, but Okandikan was old enough, and had experience enough with the British and the Americans to know the troubles for the Anishinaabe had originated with the French. The Anishinaabeg (Original People), were a large grouping of peoples, which later Whites, according to William Warren, would call Algonquin-speaking people. There were many peoples of the Anishinaabeg, including the Ojibway, Odowa (Ottowa, or Trader People), Potawatomeg (Potowotamies, or Keepers of the Fire), and Minonominies (Menomonee, or Rice People), just to name a few.

Pushing out from Samuel Champlain’s settlement of Quebec, the first French traders arrived on the eastern shore of Lake Superior in 1620, when Etienne Brule first made contact with the Ojibway village at Boweting, which the French would later rename Sault Sainte Marie.

And that’s when the troubles began for the People. The French wanted to trade with the People for furs. They offered all kinds of new and wondrous things, including cooking utensils, woven cloth, guns, knives, beads, mirrors, any manner of items. The French trade goods made so many aspects of daily Ojibway life much easier. But something much darker and deeper was happening that none of the Anishinaabe were aware of in what seemed like simple trading and bartering.

Not only the Ojibway, but all the people, were being drawn into a European-based economy that made them dependent on a foreign exchange that rapidly depleted a natural resource, and began tipping the ecological balance of the forests and streams. The Iroquois Confederacy were the first to suffer.

They had depleted their forests of animals, and in order to maintain their economy, they started a violent and relentless push westward, driving other peoples west. Many wars resulted in the push, until the Anishinaabe had reached the shores of the Great Lakes. There, they would be pushed no more.

The French soon found themselves in a war of their own over furs, when the English drove them out. Both sides had manipulated various tribes into military alliances, which fostered deep animosities among them, further disrupting life from the St. Lawrence Seaway west. White historians would call this the French and Indian War, but it was the British under King William who started it. Eventually, the English defeated the French and won control of the fur trade, but there were Frenchmen in the country who did not care about politics between the French and English, so when the French army withdrew, many of the French people remained. Many would become important among the Ojibway.

Trade with the British was bad, very bad. Now dependent on a European economic system that the English were too arrogant to acknowledge or care about, all of the tribes found themselves pushed into an economic depression. Traders were no longer sent to the villages. Now, furs must be brought to British forts and traded there, for trade goods. There were other policies enacted by the British General Amherst that quickly led an Ado named Pontiac to start a rebellion against the British in 1763. Pontiac had hoped they could drive the English from the country the way the English had done to the French, but it didn’t work out that way. It did, however, result in the British modifying their policies. Then the American rose up and drove the English away — or so they thought. The English continued to control the furs in the Upper Routes until a second war in 1812 drove them out for good.

By 1835, the fur market had all but collapsed, and Ojibway economy collapsed with it. Many Ojibway men found employment working for the American Fur Company or the Cleveland and North Western Lake Company as fishermen. In 1837, a treaty was signed allowing Americans to harvest timber from Ojibway lands. Then another one allowing the U.S. government to hunt for, and remove copper. The government found it because of a little doctor named Douglass Houghton, who was a friend to all the Anishinaabeg, and gave their sick medical treatment.

Okandikan knew all this — and much, much more — as he made his way to La Pointe. The short of all of it was, the French, then the English, then the Americans had come for furs. With them, they brought war, diseases such as smallpox and influenza; they brought with them the destruction of the Anishinaabe economy, culture and the destruction of these things to every People they contacted.

From the Ojibway of Lake Superior, the Whites had taken the furs, the fishing industry, the timber, and now the copper. Okandikan knew that the Whites had taken everything of economic value from the Ojibway, and now with Stuart calling another meeting, there was only one thing left the Ojibway had — the land on which they had lived for hundreds of years.