Lake Superior Chippewa Bands (Ojibwe) | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Lake Superior Chippewa Bands (Ojibwe)

A Brief Introduction to Ojibwe Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa

Lake Superior Chippewa Bands (Ojibwe) | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeThe lines from the hearts and eyes of the Catfish, Man-fish, Bear, and the three Martens to the heart and eye of the Crane signify that all the headmen shared the same views.

Symbolic Petition of the Chippewa Chiefs, 1849

Contemporary elders say that the lines from the hearts and eyes of the Catfish, Man-fish, Bear, and the three Martens to the heart and eye of the Crane signify that all the headmen shared the same views. The last line, going out from the Crane's eye, indicated that the entire group had authorized Chief Buffalo (Crane Clan) to speak to President Fillmore on their behalf. View the original source document: WHI 1871

The Anishinabe, a long standing alliance that contains the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Ottawa, started traveling from the east as early as 1500. Carrying on past eastern states, the Anishinabe explored the southern shores of Lake Superior, finding Manoomin (wild rice) or “the Food that Grows on Water.” Settling in this area and learning to subsist on seasonal resources, Ojibwe bands fished, hunted, gathered food (including wild rice) and tended gardens. The large island the Ojibwe settled on was renamed “Madeline” by 1792. Contact with french traders brought new tools, materials and weapons, which aided in conflict with the Dakota and Mesquakie. The friendly relationship with French traders sometimes included intermarriage, and the Ojibwe joined their allies to fight against the British in the 1600s. Also in the 1600s, missionaries began visiting La Pointe, leading to religious divisions among the Ojibwe. These pressures, added to an expanding population and limited resources, caused bands of Ojibwe to leave the area for other parts of the great lakes region.

The first treaty signed at Prairie Du Chien in 1825 showed that Ojibwe governance was decentralized and based on the consent of the Ojibwe people - over 40 Ojibwe signatures are on the document. After the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Ojibwe were forced to concede large amounts of land in the Treaties of 1837 and 1842, but included language that clearly reserved the right to hunt and fish on the land. In 1850, a removal order was issued for the Ojibwe bands, but a delegation was able to convince President Fillmore to rescind the removal order and begin the setup of permanent reservations. Treaty negotiations of 1854 established four reservations for the Ojibwe bands (Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac Du Flambeau and Red Cliff), and again insisted on rights to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded lands.

EnlargeA map showing the location of Indian settlements in Wisconsin.

Location of Indian Settlements in Wisconsin, 1962 ca.

A map showing the location of Indian settlements in Wisconsin, indicating the settlements of the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, at St. Croix, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Mole Lake, and settlements of the Potawatomi, Menominee, Oneida, Stockbridge, and Winnebago, or Ho-Chunk are shown. The map also shows the counties in the state. View the original source document: WHI 91434

The years following the creation of the Ojibwe reservations included many damaging policies of assimilation that affected the Ojibwe. The General Allotment Act in 1887 reduced the total Ojibwe land base by more than forty percent. The federal government divided land into 80 acre parcels for each tribal member, when land used to be owned communally, and sold the rest. Forced boarding school education, starting as early as 1856, required children to be taken away from their families and communities and placed in government schools. School teachers and administrators strictly forbade the use of Ojibwe language, religion and culture. In these boarding schools, conditions were poor, corporal punishment was widespread, illness was spread and corruption was common among superintendents. There were industrial schools in Lac Du Flambeau, Hayward, or Tomah and parochial schools like St. Mary’s in Bad River, but some children were even sent to boarding schools in other states. Children were stripped of their Ojibwe identities and given education in menial labor to enter domestic service, or become farm hands or laborers. Students were often forced to work in these types of jobs for exploitative wages over the summer instead of returning home. The boarding school era did untold damage to Native American children and communities in Wisconsin and throughout the nation. The boarding school era and allotment officially ended with the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, encouraged by Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner John Collier. Ojibwe bands were able to reorganize their tribal government structures and apply for community development funds. Following the IRA, the “lost bands” of Ojibwe that did not receive land in the 1854 La Pointe Treaty, the St. Croix and Mole Lake Sokaogan bands, were able to establish reservations and tribal governments.

In both World War I and World War II, large numbers of Ojibwe men enlisted for military service. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, following World War I, was passed partially in recognition of the thousands of Indians who served in the armed forces across the nation. In addition to many other examples of honorable service, men from Wisconsin Ojibwe bands were “code talkers” in the Thirty-Second Infantry Division in the South Pacific, using the Ojibwe language to communicate. The proud history of military service and continued dedication is valued in Ojibwe communities, with many ways to honor and care for veterans. Yet, the Lake Superior Chippewa lost many good men in the wars, veterans experienced difficulty returning home and many women moved away from their communities to work in cities. Following World War II, new policies of “relocation” and “termination” were enacted, forcing American Indian citizens out of their communities to assimilate into city life. Again, tribes in Wisconsin were deeply affected by these policies, with members often getting little more than a one-way bus ticket to the nearest city (such as Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis) with the unfulfilled promise of work. Although the Wisconsin Ojibwe communities tribal statuses were not terminated, like the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin was, the period was very challenging to all tribes.

In the 1960s, with civil rights movements building across the country, the “Red Power” movement in larger cities sought solidarity and change. The American Indian Movement (AIM), a Native American advocacy group, was founded in 1968 in Minneapolis by brothers of Ojibwe heritage, Vernon and Clyde Bellcourte. The group became active across the nation and in canada, fighting for sovereignty, cultural renewal, civil rights and human rights. A notable event in Wisconsin was the 1971 AIM-supported occupation of the Northern States Power Company dam near Hayward, Wisconsin, resulting in compensation for flooding of the La Courte Oreilles rice beds decades earlier, and tribal control of the dam. In 1974, controversy over treaty rights such as Ojibwe fishing off of reservation land began to gain momentum. A class action lawsuit was brought against the State of Wisconsin by the La Courte Oreilles band (later joined by the other five Ojibwe bands) over state officials preventing Ojibwe tribal members from exercising their treaty rights, as established in the 1837, 1842 and 1854 treaties. At first, a federal judge ruled against the bands, but in 1983 the decision was reversed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. When Ojibwe tribal members began spearfishing in off-reservation lakes, they were met with great hostility. Anti-treaty protests and demonstrations were organized by groups like Stop Treaty Abuse (STA) and Protect American Rights and Resources (PARR)         

Each Wisconsin Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribe is unique, but all have faced similar challenges including devastating loss of land, culture and language. However, their histories and current goals also show strength, resilience and dedication to cultural revitalization in their communities.

Today, there are six Lake Superior Chippewa Ojibwe communities in Wisconsin: Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac Du Flambeau, St. Croix, Sokaogan (Mole Lake) and Red Cliff. Each community strives to preserve and share Ojibwe history, culture and language through their museums, libraries and cultural centers. See individual historical essays for more information about the Lake Superior Chippewa bands in Wisconsin, and links to more information from each community by clicking the links below. 

Lake Superior Chippewa Bands in Wisconsin

Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe

EnlarEnlargeNative American at a Red Cliff Indian Reservation Powwow on the shores of Lake Superior. Wearing full regalia and beaded bandolier bag.

Red Cliff Indian Reservation, 1913 ca.

Native American man at a Red Cliff Indian Reservation Powwow on the shores of Lake Superior. View the original source document: WHI 52830

The Ojibwe who remained in the Madeline Island area became known as the La Pointe Band, which represented over a dozen bands in the south shore of Lake Superior.

In 1854, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs arranged a treaty council in an attempt to get the Chippewa Indians to give up their titles to certain pieces of land on Lake Superior. Several Ojibwe chiefs responded to the call, and they convened in the town of La Pointe on Madeline Island, one of the 22 Apostle Islands in the Chequamegon Bay of Northern Wisconsin. Chiefs from all over traveled to this council, including Chief Buffalo, a La Pointe leader who converted to Christianity. Chief Buffalo was the founder of the Red Cliff reservation, an advocate for Ojibwe people who had traveled to Washington, DC in 1852 to persuade President Fillmore to stop a removal order and laid the groundwork for permanent Ojibwe reservations. The Red Cliff reservation was 7,321 acres, negotiated in the 1854 treaty populated by Roman Catholic Ojibwe.

By the mid 1800s, many Red Cliff Ojibwe were surviving by harvesting fish for the American Fur Company but later had to work for large commercial fishing enterprises in Bayfield, WI. In the late 1800s, the logging began in Red Cliff, including the Red Cliff Lumbering Company which hired many tribal members. Unfortunately, the logging practices were unsustainable, and the timber was gone within ten years, leaving stump-covered land unfit for farming. The economy was very depressed for many decades, Red Cliff Ojibwe found work in Great Lakes shipping yards, factories, farms and shops.

In recent years, since the late 1980s, Red Cliff has seen an improvement in their economy thanks to the gaming industry, which has created jobs and helped fund public programs. Tribal programs and departments to help the Red Cliff community include language preservation, education, natural resources, health and family services.

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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chipewa Tribe

EnlargeJoe Stoddard of the Chippewa tribe harvests wild rice on the Bad River Indian Reservation.

Stoddard Harvesting Wild Rice, 1941

Joe Stoddard of the Chippewa tribe harvests wild rice on the Bad River Indian Reservation. View the original source document: WHI 34567

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was established geographically with the 1854 treaty that created their 120,000 acre reservation on the south shores of Lake Superior, in current day Ashland and Iron counties. In 1856 a small Christian boarding school was started to educate Ojibwe boys and girls, and in 1883 a larger Catholic school, St. Mary’s was constructed. In the early 1900s, Stearns Lumber Company was a large company that held a monopoly in Bad River, controlling all major businesses and and conspiring with the Indian Agent to extort tribal members and illegally gain land for logging.  

Today in Bad River, the primary clans are the Crane, Loon, Eagle, Bear, Marten, Lynx, Bullhead, Sucker and Turtle. A person's clan membership originally denoted what function in society the family and individual would fulfill, and membership was passed down through the father. The primary employer in Bad River is tribal government, in the areas of government operations, social programs and other enterprises like gaming. Their many departments include education, housing, health and natural resources - a department that is especially important in examining threats to the environment from large scale iron mining.

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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).

Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians

EnlargeA Chippewa mother with two children at Minocqua, Wisconsin. This image is part of an exhibit about Native Americans prepared by Paul Vanderbilt, the first curator of photography at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Native American Mother

A Chippewa mother with two children at Minocqua, Wisconsin. Used as part of an exhibit by Paul Vanderbilt View the original source document: WHI 23886

Lac du Flambeau, in Chippewa, is Wasswagani-Sagaigan, meaning torch lake, from "wassawagan" (a torch). French traders, witnessing the practice of spearing, called the village Lac Du Flambeau meaning "Lake of the Torches."

Lac du Flambeau has been a permanent settlement of the Chippewa Indian nation since about 1745, when Chief Keeshkemun led his band to the area. Nearby lakes furnished a setting for the tribe's life, with wild rice in season and plentiful fish which were taken at night by the light of flaming torches. The tribe was loyal to the American colonies, never taking sides with the British or French and fought with the Union forces in the Civil War. Old Abe, American Eagle mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin in the Civil War, was captured a few miles below this point by a Cheif Sky and given to Dan McCann who later presented the eagle to Union soldiers. 

The 1854 agreement negotiated Sept. 30 at LaPointe, WI, with the Ojibwe settled the ownership disputes left from the 1837 and 1842 treaties and established the Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff, and Lac du Flambeau reservations. 

In 1792 the Northwest Fur Trading Co. established the Lac du Flambeau department for the Wisconsin River area trade. Forts and posts remained on this shore for about fifty years. The federal government established a boarding school on the Lac Du Flambeau reservation in 1895. The brutal legacy of this school is still remembered today, but has been transformed into the facility for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (Mikwendaagoziwag).

Today, the Lac du Flambeau Reservation has 260 lakes, 65 miles of streams, lakes and rivers, and 24,000 acres of wetlands. The Tribal Fish Hatchery has restocked the lakes with millions of walleye. Gaming in the form of bingo and casino operations have increased economic operations and social development. Education, health, natural resources and cultural services are just a few of the departments available to the tribe. 

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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).

Mole Lake Sokaogan Chippewa Community of Wisconsin 

The Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Mole Lake, Wisconsin is located in south western Forest County, near Crandon, Wisconsin. As the Ojibwe migrated to other parts of the Great Lakes region, a group known as the “Post Lake Band” under the leadership of Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi settled on land near current-day Rhinelander. This area was rich in wild rice, waterfowl and forests and the band grew to 700 members. In 1806, the Battle of Mole Lake took place between the Ojibwe and Sioux, claiming over 500 lives. They fought over control of the plentiful rice beds in the area. Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi was succeeded by Miigiizi, who was unable to attend the signing of the 1854 La Pointe Treaty, but sent a surrogate. Much confusion surrounded the signing of the treaty, and later, both copies of a 12 mile land agreement negotiated by Miigiizi were lost. The Sokaogon became a “Lost Band” in Wisconsin, without land or resources, struggling to survive for decades. The band received federal recognition and reservation status in 1937 under the leadership of Chief Willard Ackley, gaining lands to the east of Rice Lake.  


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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).


St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin

EnlargeA dog can be seen on the right and buckets and tubs on the left. Shoes, clothes and various implements are hanging on a pole. There are trees in the background.

Chief Ma-ko-day and Family, 1916

St. Croix Ojibwa Chief Ma-Ko-day (Chief Peter Bearheart) and his wife, grandson, and another unidentified person in front of their birch hut located in the Rice Lake Encampment. View the original source document: WHI 95391

The St. Croix Band settled in the St. Croix River valley as the Ojibwe dispersed over the Wisconsin and Minnesota area. At the signing of treaties in 1837 and 1842, the St. Croix band had a “distinct identity,” providing chiefs and warriors to sign both documents. Later, on the Treaty of 1854, there are no St. Croix signatures. As a result, the St. Croix band became a “Lost Band,” similar to the Sokaogan, with no land base to call their own until the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. For eighty years, the St. Croix band faced challenges in loss of land and hunting rights, as white settlers began to increase. Resources diminished as logging increased, though the industry provided jobs for some St. Croix men.

Once the IRA was passed, the band was able to establish reservation lands. The St. Croix Reservation is made up of small areas of lands representing communities in Barron, Burnett, Polk and Douglas Counties totaling 4,689 acres and nearly 3,000 people. The five major communities are Sand Lake, Danbury, Round Lake, Maple Plain, and Gaslyn. Today, the community is governed by a Tribal Council. The largest area employers include casinos, hotels and government offices. The tribe employs many members at their Tribal Center buildings, which include a Health Department, Family Resource Center, Housing Authority, Construction Company, Historic Preservation Department, Youth Center and the other departments.

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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).

Lac Court Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa 

In about 1745, a group of Ojibwe families settled near the east shores of Lac Courte Oreilles Lakes, an area with near present-day Hayward. Despite threats from other tribes, the groups stayed in their settlement and were soon joined by more Ojibwe people. The band lived by hunting, fishing, gathering and trading with fur traders. As with other Chippewa bands, lands were ceded in treaties in the 1830s and 1840s in exchange for annuities. In the Treaty of 1854, under threat of removal from the US government, the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation was established.

Their most valued resources, water and rice beds, came under threat from the federal government and timber companies. Companies began cutting down Pine Forests near the reservation, then within the reservation after the Bureau of Indian Affairs granted contracts to lumber companies following the General Allotment Act. Dams were built on the Chippewa River after 1854, and flood control and hydroelectric power continued to be large issue in the Lac Courte Oreilles community. Beginning plans in 1912, and finally carrying them out in 1923, the Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power Company built a dam and flooded 5,600 acres of reservation land including rice beds, cemeteries, and an entire village. The tribe was unable to plant new rice beds, and the remains of hundreds of deceased Ojibwe were disturbed, despite promises by the W-MLP Company to avoid both of these results. In 1971, members of Lac Courte Oreilles band, along with American Indian Movement activists, protested the Northern States Power Company and occupied the dam. The Winter Dam Protest resulted in concessions from the NSP Company.

Today, the Lac Courte Oreilles forests and resources are recovering after a long history of abuse. The Lac Courte Oreilles reservation is comprised of several communities including Chief Lake, Little Round Lake, New Post, Northwoods Beach, and Reserve. The Tribal government includes a health center, legal department family services and more. The community values education from childhood to adulthood with the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College.

The mission statement of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is: “We, the Anishinabeg, the people of Odaawaa-Zaaga'iganiing, the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe, will sustain our heritage, preserving our past, strengthening our present, and embracing our future. We will defend our inherent sovereign rights and safeguard Mother Earth. We will provide for the educational, health, social welfare, and economic stability of the present and future generations.”


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Source: Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2001).