Treaty talks began at La Pointe
It was a ridiculous time of year to demand a council.
It was the season of gathering rice, and harvesting, and food gathering in preparation for the winter. It is likely why Robert Stuart chose this time to call the Ojibway chiefs of the south shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota Territory, and those of what land in northern Wisconsin still retained by the Ojibway. Stuart wanted to impress upon them that no matter when the government called them, they were expected to go.
Of all the villages in the Lake Superior region, Okondikan’s on the west bank of the Ontonagon River was one of the very few that remained populated year round. For this aged chief, the journey would require 90 miles of travel just to get to the appointed place.
The treaty talks began on October 1, 1842, at the village of La Pointe, on Madeline Island, in Chequamigon Bay, what is known as the Apostle Islands. From the start, Stuart was underhanded, belligerent, and one-sided.
In his opening speech, Stuart told the assembled chiefs that their “Great Father in Washington” knew that the people were poor and so was their land, that game was gone, and the people were hungry. He went to claim that the Treaty of Fond du Lac of 1826 had transferred ownership of the minerals on their lands to the United States.
The chiefs knew that was a lie, but remained silent for the moment. The treaty gave agents of the United States government the permission to look for minerals, and to look for it only. Nobody transferred possession of anything to the government except the Ojibway of central Wisconsin Territory, who were forced to cede their lands in 1837, because lead was found there, and the region was flooded with Whites before the treaty was even accepted by the government. They had come to steal the lead, which is why the government wanted that treaty.
In some few instances, the Ojibway were paid by miners for the use of their land, but very seldom. Still, if there was money to be made, it shouldn’t be paid to Indians, but to the government in the form a tonnage tax, so the Ojibway were basically forced to cede their land.
Now, as Stuart went on with his speech, not only was he demanding the right to the minerals, he was also demanding the right to conduct the talks according to his benefit.
“Your Great Father will not treat with you as bands,” Stuart warned, “but as a nation. Treaties are often made when whole bands are absent, which could not be but on the principle that all your lands are common property, and the majority of the nation can sell or not as they please.”
Not quite. If that was the case, the Ojibway owned the lands on both sides of the Canadian/American border surrounding Lake Superior, and those living on the north shore had better be summoned to the council, too. Stuart was as uninformed as he was greedy. The Ojibway did not consider geo-political boundaries and territorial ownership in the same way Americans and Canadians did.
The Ojibway of Lake Superior, Okondikan included, told Stuart they had no interest in selling their lands, or their minerals. Stuart had long before anticipated that, which is why he had invited the Ojibway west of the Mississippi to the talks. The Ojibway on the west side of the Mississippi had no more business at this treaty than those from the north shore.
Still, the Ojibway of the Mississippi were there, which showed the shrewdness of Stuart, because he knew they would happily sign the treaty. They would be happy to sell the lands they did not inhabit; they stood to profit in cash, goods, and annuities. So, it had come down to that.
Ojibway had learned to think like Americans.
The Lake Superior Ojibway would not be swayed so easily. They sat in dead silence. Again Stuart showed his ignorance of the culture of the nation he was dealing with. He misinterpreted the silence. It was their way of telling him they had had enough of his ridiculousness.
Stuart felt himself losing what fear and authority he believed he had over the People slipping away, so he tried to hurry the talks along. He said that many tribes had already been sent to lands west of the Mississippi River to make room for the whites, who were as numerous as pigeons.
Still they sat silent. Stuart, feeling pressed, said it was the mineral and not the land the whites wanted.
“But as these lands at some future day may be required,” Stuart told the chiefs, “you Great Father does not wish you without a home. When the land is required, Stuart went on, the president hoped to find a common home for all the “Chippewas” west of the Mississippi (what is now Minnesota).
The Lake Superior Ojibway remained silent, and with Stuart’s last comment, now the Wisconsin Ojibway too sat silent. Stuart simply did not get it. While he was telling them he was taking their land and moving them to a place none of them knew, they were telling him, in their silence, that they didn’t particularly care what he wanted.
Stuart told the chiefs it died not really make a difference if they signed the treaty or not, because if they didn’t, the government would take the land. Now, the Ojibway were more apprehensive than they had been before. Now, it was their turn to speak. Next week, we will see what they said in return.