While the cultivation of corn was important to most bands of Ojibwe, the people of Red Lake were masters at growing beautiful fields of it along the southern shores of their vast lake. Reports from traders, Indian agents, and missionaries state that they were the most fore-handed of any band in the Ojibwe nation in terms of agriculture.
The Red Lake people cultivated corn extensively. The corn cultivated by the Red Lake people was a small, eight-rowed variety, about six inches in length. The color of the kernels was white and blue, in varying proportions in individual ears with the white and blue mixed in the ear. The ears would occasionally produce red kernels.
Cultivation was done using hoes bought from traders to break up the ground. Seeds were sprouted before planting by placing a layer of moss in a large, flat tray made of birch bark, then the seeds would be spread evenly upon the moss and covered with other layers of moss and both layers would be wet down with warm water. The trays containing the sprouting corn were kept in the wigwams during the evening, but were placed in the sun during the day. The advantage of sprouting corn was that there was no loss from imperfect germination and the corn would be advanced in growth by about a week or ten days, which was important with the short growing season of northern Minnesota.
When harvested, the corn was cured by braiding or tying in bunches and hanging it up on wood racks 10 feet high. Sometimes the corn was “smoked” when hanging on the racks. It was claimed that this would render the corn impervious to damage from moisture or insects. Once cured and shelled, the corn was put into sacks made of cedar bark, holding about a bushel each, and then stored in a hole in the ground for months without damage.
It is debatable as to the probable source of the Red Lake corn. Some suggest that it originally came from Canada (around Lake Winnipeg), but little corn was ever raised there during early times. Others suggest that it is a form of corn obtained from the Mandan, which seems likely as the Red Lake people had contact with them and were on mostly good terms.
Read more about corn in: Corn in Montana: History, Characteristics, Adaptation. By Alfred Atkinson (1915)
Soon after being routed from Mille Lacs, in 1768 the Dakota decided to strike revenge on the Ojibwe by a grand campaign of over 500 warriors.
The Sioux succeeded in reaching the upper Mississippi river by making a grand circuit by way of Gull, Leach, Cass and Winnibigosish lakes, and their campaign had good initial success. They captured thirty young women who were out picking berries, and were able to attack a number of isolated families who were unsuspecting of an attack by such a large party of warriors. The Sioux mounted an attack on a main Ojibwe village, but were driven back and they fled with their captives down the river with their war spoils. Their satisfaction, however, was of short duration.
A party of Ojibwe hunters had discovered the passage of the Sioux and, rightly guessing that it was their intention to return by way of the Mississippi, they arranged an ambush. Just below the mouth of Crow Wing River there is a sharp bend where the whole force of the channel is thrown against the east shore, which rises almost to a bank almost fifty feet in height. Canoes passing down the river at this point are drawn by the current immediately under this bank. With an eye to this fact, the Ojibwe selected the point for the ambush. They dug several holes along this bank large enough to accommodate eight or ten men each, from which they were invisible to passing enemies, while they completely commanded the view of the entire channel.
One morning after their ambush preparations were complete, one of the Ojibwe scouts who had been sent about a mile up the Mississippi to watch for the Sioux was drinking water from the river. While drinking he looked up river and saw a canoe suddenly turn a point of land above him. He threw himself flat upon the ground and gradually crawled back to a point where he could not be seen. When out of sight he looked back and saw the whole bosom of the river covered with Sioux war canoes. Seeing this, he rushed back to the ambush point and notified his comrades.
They watched the canoes approach, and were surprised to see them go to shore at a point opposite the main mouth of the Crow Wing and in plain view of their ambuscade. They watched the Sioux disembark and proceed to cook their morning meal. They saw the large group of female Ojibwe prisoners as they were roughly pushed ashore and made to build the fires and hang the kettles. Amongst them were many of their wives, daughters, and sisters. As their breakfast was cooking, the young Sioux warriors formed in a ring and danced, yelling and rejoicing over their earlier victories. The Ojibwe leader had much difficulty restraining his younger and more foolhardy warriors from rushing out and attacking their enemies immediately, but they finally did stay firm in their ambush spot.
The Sioux, having finished their morning meal and victory dance, started to return to their canoes. They floated down the current in a compact mass, holding on to the other canoes while filling and lighting their pipes and passing them from one boat to the next. After smoking they let out a great shout and some of them began to beat their hand drums and sing songs. Still moving in a compact flotilla, the river’s current soon brought them immediately under the Ojibwe ambush spot.
At the sound of their leader's war whistle the Ojibwe warriors let fly a flight of arrows directly into the closely packed canoes of the enemies, picking out for death the most prominent and fancily-dressed figures amongst them. The confusion amongst the Sioux at this sudden and unexpected attack was immense. The Ojibwe women captives, knowing that this attack was their men come to rescue them, overturned the canoes they were in and swam to shore. In other canoes, the dead and injured caused many of them to overturn as well, leaving many of the Sioux struggling in the deep current where some of them were drowned. Those who could not escape the range of the Ojibwe arrows suffered severely. Some of the Sioux dove and swam ashore on the opposite side of the river and ran down the bank and joined those of their fellows who still had their canoes. Here they regrouped.
Noticing that there was (by comparison) a relatively small number of Ojibwe, the Sioux determined to go back and fight the battle anew and revenge the death of their friends. They bravely rallied and made an attack on the Ojibwe location, but the Ojibwe were so strongly and securely entrenched that they sustained the Sioux offensive until night without losing any of their men. The Sioux, on the other hand, suffered many losses in their attack as they were forced to fight from open ground without shelter. The Sioux finally retreated.
The next morning the Sioux, still burning for vengeance, returned to the attack. Acting with greater caution and wariness, they approached the Ojibwe defenses by digging counter holes or making embankments of earth or logs before them to shield them from the Ojibwe arrows. Using these tactics, the Sioux were able to inflict some damage on the Ojibwe, including one thrown stone that found the face of noted Ojibwe chief, Le Sucre (Sweet) who received a stunning blow which broke his jaw. When possible, the Sioux rushed forward and fought hand-to-hand with clubs and knives, and the Ojibwe, lost one of their warriors this way. However, the Ojibwe fought so stubbornly that the Sioux finally retreated.
Following this battle and fearing retaliation, the M'dewakantons finally moved from the Rum River country, never again to occupy this beautiful and rich region of Minnesota.
From: A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians. By Doan Robinson. South Dakota Historical Society, 1904.
Making Friends with the memegwesi
Once, a long time ago, a young man lived with his wife and children in a remote area near a large lake. He would go hunting every day and would return with all sorts of game.
During one of his hunting trips, he saw a fat squirrel and shot it with his arrow. As he was going to pick it up, he noticed a small man about two feet tall coming from around a tree. The small man – a memegwesi – said to the hunter, “Beshwaji! I was stalking that squirrel for my prey. You stole it from me, but I do not hold a grudge for that. Nonetheless, could you give it to me so that I might feed my family?” The young hunter agreed, and he and the memegwesi decided to camp together, and they both had a great time sharing stories and boasting about their hunting prowess.
After a successful time hunting, the young man asked the memegwesi if he would like to bring his family and live with him in his lodge. They could be brothers and always hunt together. The memegwesi agreed. The memegwesi had a wife and two young children: one was no bigger than six inches high, the other about one foot high. They came to the lodge of the young hunter and took up house in a corner of it.
Every day the young man and the memegwesi would go out hunting. The young man might kill a deer or a moose, and the memegwesi would kill squirrels and rabbits. They had good luck every day, and when they would go home the memegwesi’s wife would help him bring his squirrel or rabbit inside and would cook it up for him, and the young man’s wife would cook his deer. The memegwesi’s wife would scrape the hides of his small animals and made him wonderful clothing.
This little memegwesi had powers to do certain tricks, and he would entertain his family and the family of his young friend through the long winter nights and he would bring luck to his friend. They were all very happy in their friendship.
One day during a particularly warm spring, just after they had made maple sugar together, the memegwesi told his young friend, “We are leaving now. We have had a good time living with you and thank you for always being my friend. I wish you good luck every day and to be happy all your life.” The memegwesi family gathered up their things and disappeared. Until his dying day, the young hunter and his family always had good luck thanks to his memegwesi friend’s blessings.
Why we leave a fire for the dead
Once there was a man named Mitaawan, or Sandy. He was a great leader of the Ojibwe. He was a brave man and his war deeds were the thing of legend. He fought in so many battles that there were songs praising his acts of bravery. Every youth of the village wanted to grow up to be like him and he could always count on loyal men to follow him to war.
During one war party he was leading, his band was having a heated battle. As they fought, Sandy was turning the fight into a victory for the Ojibwe. He struck down many enemies and they were retreating. As the men gave their victory cries one of the fleeing enemies turned around and shot an arrow. While he was in the middle of giving the great shout of victory, the arrow found Sandy’s breast, and he fell dead.
He called out to his friends, but they neither saw him nor heard him. He was seemingly invisible. Astonishment, disappointment, and rage filled him. He did everything he could to make them notice him. He screamed; he waved his hand before their eyes; but he could not make himself heard, seen, or felt, so he just followed on their track. Wherever they went, he went; when they walked, he walked; when they ran, he ran; when they built their fires, and sat down, his sat down with them. As the men sat around the fire, he listened to them recount their valiant deeds. But he was unable to tell them how much his own deeds had exceeded theirs that day.
After a few days, the war party reached the village and the women and children came out to welcome their return. Sandy hoped that someone would notice him, but no one seemed conscious of his presence. He heard many people ask about him. He listened as his soldiers told about his great deeds and about how he was died on the battlefield. Sandy, feeling indignant about this yelled, “It is not true! I am here! I live and I move! Why can’t any of you see me?” But nobody knew of his presence; they simply mistook his loudest screams as the whisperings of the wind. In sadness, Sandy walked to his own lodge. He saw his wife tearing at her hair and crying for him. “Wife!” he screamed. But she didn’t seem to hear him. He then placed his mouth close to her ear and shouted, “Give me food.” To this his wife simply said, “I hear a fly buzzing.” This made Sandy angry and he struck her upon the forehead. She winced slightly and placed her hand to her head and said, “Ouch! I have been bitten by a mosquito.”
Defeated, Sandy sat there and thought of any way in which he could be seen or heard, but he could not find one. He then began to think about what he had heard the elders say about how a person’s spirit can sometimes leave the body and wander. He reflected that possibly his body had remained upon the field of battle, while only his spirit had returned home. He made the decision to return to where the battle took place.
It was a four days journey. He went on for three days and on the fourth day, as it was approaching night fall, he came to the outskirts of the battlefield. There, he saw a fire in the path. He walked to one side to avoid stepping into it, but the fire moved and was still in front of him. No matter what way he turned, the fire still burned in his path. At last Sandy yelled, “Evil Manitou…why do you keep me from the field of battle where my body lies? Know you not that I am a spirit also, and seek now to again enter that body? I am a chief and a warrior! I will not be turned back by you or anyone!”
At this, Sandy made a vigorous effort and passed through the flame. The next thing he realized he was sitting on the ground, with his back to a tree, and his bow leaning against his shoulder, the same as he had been left. Looking up, he saw a large Ginew, a war-eagle, sitting upon the tree above his head. The eagle was the spirit he had seen during his vision quest as a youth. He realized that it was the guardian spirit who had been watching over his body for days. He then struggled and got to his feet, but he was weak and his limbs numb. He noticed that the blood of his wound was dried. Nonetheless, he soon found some roots and made a poultice to treat his wound and dressed it with a bandage. In a short time he found himself recovered as he started his journey home.
Along the way home he killed some birds and roasted them on a fire. He traveled the remaining days home and eventually came to the village. Everyone was surprised to see him back again and living, as they were certain he had died. He then called all the people to his lodge, and told them all what had happened. He told them that forever after they must build a fire for the people who died. He told them that the fire must burn for four days so that the spirit of the person who died might have light and warmth. The fire must burn just in case the person who died might somehow return. The fire would guide them back to their body so they could return to the land of the living.
Just in case…
A Look at Pitikwahanapiwiyin (or Poundmaker)
All of the people of the Plains hunted the buffalo.
Buffalo hunting required great organization, with a large group of men riding swiftly on their horses under the direction of their skilled leaders to drive the buffalo certain ways to cut the best animals from the herd – riding around and bunching them up – shooting the finest bulls down one-by-one.
However, during the winter months when the prairies were covered with snow, a different method needed to be used: poundmaking!
Poundmaking is a way to hunt buffalo by impounding, or driving the herd into an enclosure. Early fur traders provided accounts of the Plains-Cree and Assiniboine using this method and they claimed that they were the best at driving buffalo into these “pounds” and quite possibly were the ones who showed the other Plains tribes how to do it. The reason behind this is that the woodland Cree from the east (around Hudson Bay) use a similar method for trapping deer. It seems likely that they brought the knowledge with them as they pushed west.
Born in about 1842 near Battleford in central Saskatchewan, Pitikwahanapiwiyin (or Poundmaker) was the son of Sikakwayan, a Stoney shaman, and his Métis wife. He gained his name for his special ability to attract buffalo into pounds. It was said that Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was gifted by spirit helpers to use a special song to lure in the buffalo to the pounds. As he sang, he used a drum. The song enticed the lead buffalo cow to bring her herd into the pound so the people could harvest them.
Poundmaker grew up with his Plains Cree relatives under the influence of his maternal uncle Mistawasis (Big Child), a leading figure in the Eagle Hill (Alberta) area. In 1873 Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfoot, following a Plains Indian custom, adopted Poundmaker to replace one of his own sons who had been killed in battle.
In August 1876, Poundmaker served as the headman of one of the River People bands and was influential enough to speak at the Treaty 6 negotiations at Fort Carlton. He emerged as one of the leaders of a group critical of the treaty because it did not include a 'famine clause'. He finally agreed to sign the treaty on August 23rd only because the majority of his band favored it.
Poundmaker was chief and accepted a reserve and settled with 182 followers on 30 square miles along the Battle River about 40 miles west of Battleford. However, in the autumn of 1879, frustrated by the government's failure to fulfill their treaty promises, Poundmaker became active in resistance against the policies of the settler government. In June 1884, a Thirst Dance was held on his reserve and the men gathered to discuss the worsening situation of the Indians. By the middle of the month over 2,000 people had gathered, but the Thirst Dance celebration was disrupted by the North-West Mounted Police.
Poundmaker and his band participated in the 1885 Metis rebellions and he was imprisoned for his part in the outbreak. While in prison, the government wanted to cut his hair, but the influence of some of the other native leaders saved him from suffering that indignity. He served only seven months in prison, but his stay there devastated his health and led to his death (from a lung hemorrhage) in 1886, at the age of 44. He was buried at Blackfoot Crossing near Gleichen, Alberta, but his remains were exhumed in 1967, and reburied on the Poundmaker Reservation in Saskatchewan.
Before people or animals existed, there was nothing but fog and mist and it was very dark. Somehow, out of this fog, formed the soul that is Kisemanito. That was the beginning.
Kisemanito then made day and then night. He then created the sun and the moon and the Mother Earth. He created the four seasons. Then he gave Mother Earth the task of raising the things – the plants and the animals – that would be created.
When Mother Earth heard that she had been called upon to do this job, she went to Kisemanito and asked him what to do. “I have given part of my life to make things live. What shall I do now?”
“Help me raise my children. That is what I ask of you,” replied Kisemanito, for he referred to the animals and plants as his children.
“My father, Kisemanito, you have given me hard work to do if I am to raise your children right. I will have to call upon the Thunderbirds that you have created and ask them for help.” And so she sent for the Thunderbirds.
“What do you want us to do, Mother Earth?” asked the Thunderbirds as soon as they had landed on the earth. “I want you to help me raise these children of Kisemanito. I want you to have the power to carry the water up in the air and to release it to help make the world grow and live.” And so the Thunderbirds took to their task.
Now that it has been arranged for all things to live, Kisemanito took a stick and drew a sketch of a man on the ground. He spoke to the drawing and told it to move and to live. It did. Then he did the same and created woman. After He had done this job, He spoke to the man and woman.
“My children” he said. “I am going far away. I am going up where nobody will ever see me. However, I am leaving you certain things – things that are very important. There will be four of them: Fire, Pipestone, Pipe stem, and sweetgrass. The tobacco is already in the pipe. If, in the future, you wish to make any connection with me, these are the things to be used. And the pipe must be offered in this order: First, upward, in memory of me; next, to the spirits of the four directions; and lastly, down to Mother Earth.”
“My children,” he continued. “I do not eat. Neither do I smoke, but when you remember me, you must do these things. My children be sure, regardless of any hardship, never let any of these things go. If you do, that is the time that I will have to change the world.”
“Try to be kind to each other. Do not fight. Do not Say bad things. Do not steal. If you do good things you will be happy. Those of you who follow my rules and live as I tell you will survive.”
“For those of you who will not listen or who do not want to listen, I will leave things as punishment – disasters, sickness, and sadness. These will happen to all men who do not listen to my teachings. But those of you who live up to my rules and my teachings will find everlasting happiness and the good life. Whenever you want anything, then, you must use the pipe. Then through smoking it I will smell the beautiful aroma and I will know that you are asking help from me. If I am able I will always help you”
A bloody land bought by blood
Before the coming of the white man, the Lake of the Woods and the northern part of Minnesota was the choice hunting ground of the Anishinaabe. The woods were full of game and the lakes were full of fish. It was also valuable to the people because it was within easy striking distance of the buffalo-covered plains of the Red River valley.
The Sioux had long-coveted this area and devised a strategy to seize the Lake of the Woods from the Anishinaabe, so that they could enjoy the bounty of the lake and the rich streams of the Rainy River.
The Anishinaabe caught wind that the Sioux were planning an invasion and decided to fight the impending battle on their own ground. They selected a position on a river that flowed into the southwest portion of the Lake—directly across from the trail which the Sioux must take. When the Sioux finally arrived, a battle took place for six days. When the smoke had cleared, the Sioux were defeated and 500 scalps were taken. After this battle, the Anishinaabe were left in peace as the undisputed owners of the lake and the lands around it. The trail along the river became known as the “war road”, which later became Warroad.
It is told that one of the old men of the Anishinaabe village at Warroad would make an annual pilgrimage to the battle ground. He would fast for six days, where he would dream about the great battle that he and his brothers fought and won against the Sioux.