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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Elderly Chief's Journey to Protect Treaty Rights

On April 5th, 1852, four Ojibwe warriors pushed off from Madeline Island bound for Washington, D.C. They carried in their canoe a white interpreter, Benjamin Armstrong, and their two principal chiefs, Ke-Che-Waish-Ke (better known as Chief Buffalo) and O-Sho-Ga. Although Chief Buffalo was in his nineties, he undertook the 1,500-mile journey in order to lay his nation's case before the Great Father in Washington.

Broken Treaties

Unlike other tribes, the Ojibwe had never ceded their land to the U.S. government. At treaty councils in 1837 and 1842 they had agreed to give miners and loggers access to northern forests, but did not give up any land. So they were astonished in 1849 when they were told to cross west of the Mississippi. They investigated, found they had done nothing to negate the earlier treaties, and refused to go.

The following year their Indian agent required them to go to Sandy Lake, Minn., to pick up their annual treaty payments. About 3,000 people made the 500-mile, late-autumn trip only to find there were no payments and no provisions at Sandy Lake -- government officials had lied to them, hoping to strand the tribe west of the Mississippi. They returned home without supplies as winter set in. About 400 men, women and children -- 12% of the nation -- died en route. Young Ojibwe warriors demanded retaliation but Chief Buffalo calmed them. He agreed to lead a delegation to Washington to insist that the treaties be obeyed.

President Smokes Peace Pipe

The group's journey was widely covered in Eastern newspapers before it arrived in Washington on June 22, 1852. Armstrong immediately approached the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior, but they both refused to meet with him. Not knowing where to turn, he and Chief Buffalo were lunching in the hotel dining room when a senator and a member of President Millard Fillmore's cabinet introduced themselves. The next day they had an appointment with the President.

"When we were assembled," Armstrong recalled, "Buffalo's first request was that all be seated, as he had the pipe of peace to present and hoped that all who were present would partake of smoke from the peace pipe. The pipe, a new one brought for the purpose, was filled and lighted by Buffalo and passed to the President, who took two or three draughts from it and smiling said, 'Who is the next?' ...

"O-sha-ga began and spoke for nearly an hour. He began with the treaty of 1837 and showed plainly what the Indians understood the treaty to be. He next took up the treaty of 1842 and when O-Sha-Ga had finished his speech, I presented the petition I had brought [signed by white residents who supported the Ojibwa cause] and quickly discovered that the President did recognize some names upon it, which gave me new courage. When the reading and examination of it had been concluded, the meeting was adjourned, the President directing the Indian Commissioner to say to the landlord at the hotel that our hotel bills would be paid by the government..."

Two days later the chiefs "went to the White House soon after dinner and, meeting the President, he told the delegation in a brief speech that he would countermand the removal order and that the annuity payments would be made at LaPointe as before, and hoped that in the future there would be no further cause for complaint... The reader can imagine the great load that was then removed from my shoulders, for it was a pleasing termination of the long and tedious struggle I had made in behalf of the untutored but trustworthy savage."

Ojibwe Rights Preserved

The delegation returned by rail as far as LaCrosse, then went by steamboat up to St. Paul before returning to their homes through the forest. Messengers were sent out to all parts of the territory and "about October 15th the remainder of the Indians had congregated at LaPointe...

"Chief Buffalo explained to the convention what he had seen, how the pipe of peace had been smoked in the Great Father's wigwam, and … then went on and said that there was yet one more treaty to be made with the Great Father and he hoped in making it they would be more careful and wise than they had heretofore been."

That treaty was negotiated in 1854 with Armstrong as interpreter for the Indians. It established the reservations where the Lake Superior Ojibwe still live today, as well as reserving in perpetuity their rights to hunt and fish on their lands. During the 1980s and early 1990s, a series of U.S. court cases upheld those treaty rights.

Chief O-ShoGa did not live to sign the 1854 treaty; he died at the end of 1853. Chief Buffalo died at LaPointe, aged about 100 years, on Sept. 9, 1855; his obituary is online at Wisconsin Historical Collections. Benjamin Armstrong lived until the year 1900, and penned his memoirs of these events a few years before his death.

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 27, 2012
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