At the turn of the 18th century, the western-most Ojibwe bands were increasingly developing strong kinship ties with Métis, Plains Cree, and even Assiniboine bands in the region surrounding the Turtle Mountains. Between 1800-1820, the growth of the Métis population and their success at hunting saw the Ojibwe more and more frequently participating in large-scale buffalo hunts and continually camping with Métis and Cree, resulting in deeply-knit ties among the three peoples, so that nearly all the western Ojibwe had close relatives who were descended from the Red River Métis, or who were Cree in parentage. Extended families and clans became mixed, and many hunting groups were comprised so that the Ojibwe were usually a minority in numbers, but despite this they maintained hereditary leadership roles in these groups. The multi-ethnic nature of these bands help shift the traditional Woodlands culture of the Ojibwe into that of a truly Plains people. They adopted many of the traits of the Cree, Métis, and Assiniboine, such as a more “plains” style of beadwork, dress, ceremonies (e.g. sun dance), and adopted the horse as a central measure of wealth and independence.
By about 1820, there were Ojibwe/mixed-ethnic groups hunting and trading between Lake Winnipeg, Pembina, and the Turtle Mountains. These groups maintained ties to, and would often visit, their original bands at Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, and other areas in Minnesota and Ontario, but their cultural orientation was almost entirely Plains in focus.
During this part of the century, the Ojibwe/mixed-ethnic group (such as those at Turtle Mountain) would participate in the regional inter-tribal feuds of the Cree and Métis. This joint military activity helped expand the hunting and trading territory of the Plains Ojibwe well into Montana and Saskatchewan during the 1820s. By the mid-1830s, the Ojibwe-Cree-Métis bands rarely ventured east back to the Woodlands and spent almost all of their efforts hunting buffalo.
They had become the Plains Ojibwe!
Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Hickerson, Harold. 1988. “Chippewa And Their Neighbors: A Study In Ethnohistory.” Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
After filtering into the Red River region during the middle to late 1700s, the Ojibwe quickly adapted to life on the fringes of the prairies — hunting, trapping and expanding their territories westward, while enjoying new trade goods and relative wealth for their people. Unfortunately, due to several issues outside of their control, these good times didn’t last.
During the early 1800s a marked reduction in the beaver population occurred due to disease. This, coupled with the changes to the European demand for beaver, saw the regional fur trade — one of the main factors in their movement towards the plains — decline significantly. Thus, the first quarter of the 19th century saw a general decline in the fortunes of the Ojibwe. This decline in trade saw the XY Company fold in 1805, and North West Company was forced to merge with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, as the traders sought to adjust to supply deficiencies. Having grown accustomed to many of the luxuries they could obtain from the traders, the Ojibwe first tried to forestall their discomfort by moving further into Dakota Territory and west of Lake Winnipeg, where better furs could be obtained. However, beaver populations continued to decline due to an epidemic disease that reduced the number of beaver even further. In response the Ojibwe turned to other fur-bearing animals, but these were not as profitable and brought less during trade.
At the same time they were dealing with the general decline in the small game fur trade, the rapidly growing Métis population was beginning to expand its influence in the region. The Métis — related by blood to many of the Ojibwe people — had their beginning before 1800, but their numbers were relatively small and their population was scattered, mostly near fur posts and other European outposts. However, the chaos of the early decades saw many fur company men left to their own devices. A good number of these Europeans chose to remain in the west. Many took native (or mixed-blood) wives and remained active in hunting, trapping, and other independent activities. This led to a remarkable increase in the mixed-blood population. Not completely part of their mothers’ Indian communities and existing far from civilized society, these Métis ‘children’ soon formed their own separate society that seemed to flourish after the Red River settlement was established and the regional economy shifted to buffalo instead of beaver. As the Metis were rising, the Ojibwe also started to feel pressure from scattered groups of Cree moving into the region. These Cree groups operated in a manner quite similar to the Ojibwe and competed for many of the same resources. Some of the Cree groups relied on previous ties to traders and relatedness to some of the Métis to gain a decent foothold in the local trade economy. These new people created a drastic economic competition to the Ojibwe, with the Métis often getting better prices for their furs due to closer relations with the traders, and the Cree digging in their heels in places that were formerly Ojibwe hunting areas.
By around 1815-1820, the Métis were dominating the regional buffalo hunts. Their strategy of using large, tightly organized parties could bring in much more meat and hides than a small band of Ojibwe ever could. In response, the Ojibwe coped by shifting their focus to areas that still had good supplies of game, such as the Turtle Mountains and Souris River valley. Many bands began hunting and living with living with plains Cree and Métis families, sharing the special skills and advantages of those groups. With their new alliances developing, the Ojibwe began to make moves to secure the area as well. In a period between 1804 and 1821, the Ojibwe and their allies sent war parties against the Sioux with the aim of driving the Sioux from region and gaining control of resources. With the area now safer, seasonal hunting and trapping was expanded and places like the Turtle Mountains became the base-camp location of many Ojibwe people. From there, buffalo could be hunted on either the Red, Sheyenne, or Missouri Rivers, beaver could be harvested in the local streams or on the Souris River, and other subsistence items could be easily procured. In addition, the growing interrelation with the Métis allowed the Ojibwe to begin demanding higher prices for their furs, and they became an equal partner in the pemmican trade as well. The population at Turtle Mountain was increasingly ‘mixed’ with many Assiniboine and Cree joining and marrying into the band as well.
The formation of this mixed-group at Turtle Mountain was unique, and it created a complex kinship system that allowed for much broader hunting efforts that could extend into areas dominated by Ojibwe, Métis, and Assiniboine-Cree groups to whom they were related — reducing conflict and warfare over resources, as happened with the Sioux decades earlier. This was unprecedented among indigenous communities on the Great Plains.
Read More about this at
Peers, Laura L. (1994) The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Though the Plains Ojibwe often hunted with and intermarried with the Métis, their relations with the Métis were by no means always friendly or free of tension. Some of the Ojibwe leaders mistrusted the Métis, who often assumed leadership of joint efforts in opposition to traditional Ojibwe leadership systems, and others were disturbed by the often over-hunting efforts of the Métis, who had a deeper economic stake in the buffalo hunts and would kill many more animals than might be necessary at the time
One of the Ojibwe leaders, Green Setting Feather, who was a sub-chief at Turtle Mountain, made an impassioned speech regarding the Métis in 1852. He admonished the Métis for overhunting and for hunting outside of the allotted hunting territory by the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe within their territory—the area about Devils Lake and the Sheyenne River—as the Métis were starting to encroach on the Ojibwe hunting grounds near Turtle Mountain. Green Setting Feather further expressed that the Ojibwe desired to be granted a treaty and given protection by the ‘Great Father’, asking that the government take action against the Métis because they were not using all of the buffalo they killed, instead just killing them (in some cases) for their tongues and robes.
His speech, given on September 14, 1852, demonstrates the complicated relationship that was developing as resources started to become increasingly scarce in the Red River region:
“In time past, whenever I looked over my hunting-grounds, I ever found a plenty with what to fill my dish, and plenty to give my children; but of late it is not so. I find that my provision bag is fast emptying—my dish is now often empty; and what is the cause of this? Why was it not so in former times, when there were more Indians on the plains than there are now? The reason I find is this: it is none other but the children I once raised [the Métis], that first proceeded from my own loins, that were once fed from my own hands.”
“The manner of his hunt is such as not only to kill, but also to drive away the few he leaves, and waste even those he kills. I also find that same child, in the stead of being a help to me, his parent, is the very one to pillage from me the very dish out of which I fed and raised him when a little child; and now having gained strength and grown to manhood, has become master of my own dish, and leaves me with the wolves and little animals to follow his trail and pick off the bones of his leaving; and if I wish to help myself out of my own foodbag, his hand and whip is raised on me, his parent. When I look at all this, my heart is pained within me. I now see my provisions all wasted. I am led to think that it is my Creator that puts it in my heart no more to allow this waste of the animals he has given me; therefore look to him as my Father to help me to remove those that are eating up and pillaging my food from me.”
“I have no bad feeling, and do not wish to use my strength. Why should I make use of my strength? It is my food I am looking at; I only wish to be master, and do as I please with what is my own. I now say, I hold back, and love all of the Turtle Mountain. From [there] the half-breeds must keep, and stop on the place their father gave them at the Pembina. We now look at our lands and what our Great Father said to us—Keep, my children, the lands of your hunt for your own selves, and let not your half-breeds take them. Keep them for your own selves—let them dwell among the timber of the Pembina.”
“Now whatever half-breed goes against this, our law, shall pay as a fine, a horse; and a half-breed having an Indian mother full-blooded, wishing to spend the winter with us, may come; but he shall be allowed to hunt only where we shall tell him, and not to kill more animals than we shall tell him; and shall no more be master of my hunting-grounds. Also for our traders, we do not keep back those who may come; but they also must obey our law, not to kill animals or hunt furs, only as we shall tell them. The hunting-road which was first pointed out for the half-breeds was from this place straight to Devil lake and southward, and we reserved and do still reserve all north of this line for our own use; but they have of late made another road for hunting towards the Turtle Mountain without our consent, which we cannot any longer allow.”
“We now close by saying we wish it to be as our Father told us—for the half- breeds to go to get meat from the plains only once a summer, and for them to stay at Pembina to take care of the preacher, and we will take care of our own selves; for as for me, I do not ever intend to give my hand to the swine, let me see him where I will.”
“From us, your friends, the Chippewas of Turtle Mountain and elsewhere, to all the half-breeds of Pembina.”
The sentiment of Green Setting Feather was also echoes by the Assinaboine, who similarly complained about Métis encroachment into their preferred hunting lands. In speaking with some of the fur traders at Pembina that same year, the Assiniboine noted that the Métis hunters were leaving Pembina each year and ranging west to the Mouse River in extremely large hunting parties. Their huge harvests were severely harming the Assiniboine and Sioux subsistence efforts. The traders’ observations echoed this sentiment, as they noted that year that one of the Métis hunting excursions consisted of a train of 824 carts, 1,200 animals, and about 1,300 men, women and children.
Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1854) United States. Office of Indian Affairs, Washington, DC
In 1851, Charles Cavalier traveled west from Pembina towards the Turtle Mountains and Mouse River with Norman Kittson, Father George Belcourt, William Grady, James McKay, and a few others men. Cavalier and Kittson started out on the journey in the early morning in December. The party traveled using dog sled trains. After a day of travel, the party camped on the western edge of the Pembina Mountains in a deep ravine, surrounded by heavy timber and high hills.
The following morning, they started out across the plains. Not a tree could be seen, but deep snow spread all around them. After a little distance upon the open prairie, the party spotted (in Cavalier’s words) “Countless millions of buffalo, all feeding and going northwest!” They traveled the rest of the day in sight of a living sea of buffalo. As Cavelier did not have snow shoes, he was forced to remain in his sled for 16 hours until the party reached the Turtle Mountain about sundown. As the entered the hills, Cavelier noted: “As we looked back up the plain, [we] saw the moving mass of those noble fellows, it was the grandest sight I ever saw.”
They traveled into the Turtle Mountains until about 11 o'clock that night before they found a camp, which consisted of 15 or 20 lodges of half-breeds. Here they remained through the next day, enjoying the hospitalities of the hunters, while enjoying a hearty meal of buffalo. After a good night of rest, the party made an early departure to travel through the rest of the Turtle Mountains, with the hope of reaching the Mouse River later that day. As soon as the party turned down the south side of the Turtle Mountains, they saw a caravan of the half-breeds on a line headed west. Cavalier and his party joined with the procession and they journeyed on through the day, until they finally reached a winter settlement of about 40-50 half-breed families who were living in log cabins on the Mouse River (probably at Sawyer). Cavalier spent about 21 days and enjoyed his time with the half-breeds—even accompanying them on a hunt where they harvested over 400 buffalo in one hunt.
When Cavalier and his party made their homeward journey, they followed the same path east. The first day they left a bit late in the day and had to camp on Willow Creek, south of the Turtle Mountains. At their camp they enjoyed some tea and pemmican. Although it was cold, Cavelier stated that the group maintained comfort by sleeping in a group: “I kept comfortable and warm, sleeping between the two half-breed boys who were with me, with plenty of robes although the thermometer was 49° below zero at Pembina. But when we came out of our robes in the morning, with no fire, nothing to eat, and got into the [sleds], then came the tug of war.” The party traveled north and by that afternoon they had reached the half-breed camp at the Turtle Mountains again.
That evening, Cavalier and his crew were welcomed with a bush dance held in the largest of the log houses. They stayed through the following day then they started back east again, soon coming upon the same large herd of buffalo they had seen before. Just as they were reaching the Pembina hills, a blizzard swept in from the northwest, and they were forced to take refuge in a clump of poplars where they (surprisingly) found a voyageur of the Hudson Bay Company who was also seeking shelter in the woods. They spent the night in friendly conversation, eating meat and bread, and drinking hot tea. The next morning they renewed their journey, reaching Pembina safely.
Chamberlain-Holley, Frances. (1890) Once their Home: our Legacy from the Dakotahs, Historical, Biographical, and Incidental from far-off Days Down to the Present. Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry