Behind the bars of the jail of Ramsey County, ND, located at Devil's Lake, is imprisoned one of the leaders of the recent uprising among the Indians of Turtle Mountains – Red Thunder, saswain, or orator, of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewas.
Red Thunder is a type of the Simon-pure aborigine. He has never submitted with good grace to the encroachments made by the pale-faces upon the vast territories once held by the Indians in undisputed sway. Though orator of a tribe of Chippewas he is a Cree, a member of a race of Indians now nearly extinct. Born in the Pembina mountains in 1807, he has passed his life in the region lying between there and the Turtle mountains. Descended from a long line of chiefs' councilors, or petty chiefs, he is possessed of a proud and warlike spirit, and looks upon the white man as a trespasser whose only right is that of might.
The tribe in which Red Thunder is now an influential factor was once part of a large band of Indians, the majority of whom are now located on the Red Lake and White Earth reservations in this state [MN]. By the treaties under the terms of which the Red Lake and White Earth reservations were set aside for the Indians, the government intended to finally dispose of all claims of these Indians to any lands. The originators of the Turtle Mountain band as distinct branch of the tribe however refused to locate at White Earth after the treaty of 1863 was ratified, and went west to the Turtle mountains. They were few in numbers then, including only about 15 families, but since that time their band has grown through intermarriage with Canadian Indians and whites, until now they number nearly 2,000 souls, of whom only about 300 are full bloods.
When, in 1881, the interior department determined to open for settlement the large tract lying west of the Red River valley, Including the Devil's lake and Turtle mountain regions, ,these Indians set up a formal claim to the entire tract, amounting to about 9,000,000 acres. In treating with them at that time the Indian commissioners offered them a reservation, it is said, of 20 townships, including the present town sites of Rolla and St. John, lying along the Canadian boundary and taking in the eastern half of the Turtle mountains. Two years, later, however, this reservation was cut flown to two townships, its present size, and the claim now made by the band is for a restoration of their reserve to its original size and for the payment of a bounty of $1,000,000 in annual payments extending though 20 years, for the reimbursement of the larger tract. Though a party of three commissioners sent to make an Investigation three years ago reported favorably to the claims of these Indians, men who are well acquainted with the origin and history of, this particular band maintain that they have no valid claim. This view is held on the ground that had these Indians settled on the White Earth reservation when it was set aside for them, they would now be as well provided for and as prosperous as any of the White Earth Indians.
The Indians have been uphill in their position chiefly through John Bottineau, a half breed, who is their attorney, and who spends most of his time at Washington urging their claims before the interior department. His home is In Minneapolis. Whatever may be the merits of the claim he represents, it is certain that the Indians place great confidence in him, being guided by his advice in every move. White settlers in that region therefore accuse Bottineau of being responsible for the constant agitation of the trouble with the Indians and breeds, by which they are harassed and frequently driven from the claims upon which they have made tillings. The Indians themselves refuse to take out naturalization papers and make filings on the lands they inhabit, as they are advised by their lawyer that such action would jeopardize their claims pending before the Interior department, as it would be, radically an acknowledgment that the land belonged to the government and not to them. The white settlers now hope that the government, owing to the late troubles which were reported in the Tribune, will give attention to the matter and make final disposition of it.
But Irrespective of the merits of the case, the lot of Red Thunder is a sadly pathetic one. When the deputies finally negotiated the surrender of the belligerent band that was resisting the arrest of several of their number, Red Thunder alone refused to capitulate. After all the rest had been taken he left his tent, in which he had "sat sullenly apart," and stalking past the deputies indicated his intention of making his escape. When three deputies who followed him attempted to disarm him and put handcuffs on his wrists, his resistance was sufficient to tax their strength to the utmost. When finally overpowered and robbed of his long sheath knife, his only weapon, he lapsed into sullen and dispirited inaction, and allowed himself to be removed to the village. He was later taken by rail to Devils Lake, there to be confined In the Jail until the July session of the United States circuit court.
When seen at the Jail by the Tribune, the old orator was very willing to talk of the Incidents of his long and eventful career, and through the medium of an Interpreter he told an Interesting story. He said he had a wife 45 years old, just 43 years younger than himself, and five children: three daughters and two sons. Three times he has made Journeys to the home of the "Great Father," or president, at Washington, where he with others of his tribe negotiated the terms of various treaties. He exhibited scars received in many battles, both with Indians and whites, and stated that he was entitled to eight notches on the handle of his tomahawk, having killed seven Indians and one white man. His Main victims, four Sioux, two Gros Ventres and one Assiniboine were slain in inter-tribal wars in which possession of various choice hunting grounds was contested. The white man was shot by him near Ft. Chapel, and was one of a hand of horse thieves. The whites, so Red Thunder claimed, opened fire on him first, he being alone when he fell into their midst. With graphic gestures he related in the sign language, familiar to all the Indians of the plains, how he had retreated from cover to cover under a fire of bullets. Hoping to escape without being compelled to shoot in self-defense; how the shower of lead became too thick for comfort, and how the whites ceased firing as soon as he had dropped one of their number, showing them that he was armed and ready to defend himself.
The old man's eyes blazed as he told his story. He was once a man of magnificent proportions, standing nearly six feet tall, and of massive frame. He is now bent with years, scarred and wrinkled, and his head is crowned with the snows of his life's winter. He finds his confinement distasteful, and is suffering from pleurisy, complaining of pains in his chest. Physicians who have examined him fear that his trouble will develop into pleura-pneumonia, in which event his days would be short, and the officials have offered him the privilege of going out for air and exercise. This offer the old warrior disdainfully rejects and he will not leave the jail, though he longs for the freedom of the woods and plains. He misses most of all the kinnekinick, a smoking material made from the Inner bark of the red willow, and complains that the tobacco with which he is supplied is too strong and burns his throat.
Sheriff Barton finds him a model prisoner, as he accepts the regulations of the Jail submissively and makes no trouble, but it is feared that before he is wanted for trial In July he will have become a "good Indian," [aka a dead Indian] and have traveled the long trail which leads to the last "happy hunting grounds," where his proud spirit will find rest among the ghosts of his noble ancestors.
From: Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 20, 1895
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities