Few sightseers lived in the region when the glaciers receded. From the end of the Great Ice Age until about 5,000 b.c., the region’s human population consisted of small bands of Paleo-Indian cultures that hunted deer, elk, and caribou—and likely some leftover oversized mammals—with stone projectile points. Those hunters gave way to Eastern Archaic peoples, who thrived in the Great Lakes area until about 1,000 b.c. This group developed into a variety of cultures, including the Old Copper peoples who mined for copper on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale and refined the stone-working methods of their predecessors.
The Eastern Archaic peoples gave way to the Woodland cultures, who made pottery and buried their dead in mounds and populated the area until roughly a.d. 1600. While these folks still hunted for bison and the like, they also found stable food sources such as wild rice, which allowed them to form permanent villages. As the Woodland cultures died out, the area became populated with the Dakota, meaning “friend” or “alliance of friends.” French explorer Jean Nicollet called the Dakota Naudowasewug, “the snake,” which pluralized in French is Nadouessioux, from which the term “Sioux” derives. (Descendants of these people today pref er Dakota.) It is unknown if the Dakota migrated to the area or descended from the Woodland Indians or even tribes from the Old Copper culture, but by the time folks like Nicollet showed up, they populated Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. The image above is a painting by Seth Eastman made in 1856 of Dakota playing takapsicapi (lacrosse).
The Dakota made tools of stone, bone, antler, and wood; hunted bear, buffalo, elk, and deer; fished with spears and hooks; and gathered roots, berries, and wild rice. Historian Theodore Blegen describes the Dakota as “gregarious lovers of feasts and councils and games and jokes and betting. Eloquence among them was an art and its exercise by men of wisdom singled them out for leadership in their pipe-smoking councils.” Blegen also points out that the Dakota had a “pervading sense of the supernatural.” Indeed, mysteries of nature were, to the Dakota, a spirit or wakan. They most often directed their worship to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit that created earth and man. The Dakota eventually found life at the western edge of Lake Superior too crowded for comfort, as the eastern migration of the Ojibwe brought competition and conflict.
The Ojibwe, the largest tribe of the Algonkian peoples (a language group that includes the Potawatomi, Cheyenne, Fox, and Cree), stood fifty thousand strong when Columbus stumbled upon the islands of the Caribbean and opened the door for the coming of Europeans to the Americas. Europeans often called the Ojibwe “Chippewa,” which may have occurred from a misunderstanding or mispronunciation. (Ojibwe today also call themselves“Anishanabe,” the “real” or “genuine people,” which derives from Anishinaubag.) A particularly spiritual people, the Ojibwe practiced Medawe or Midewiwin (“Grand Medicine”) religion.
According to legend recorded by William W. Warren in the 1850s, the Ojibwe once lived “on the shores of the Great Salt Water in the east.” At one point, as they experienced a period of great suffering, sickness, and death, the Great Spirit sent word through Manaosho, a hero figure in Ojibwe culture, to tear down the Medawe lodge and head west and north. This set off a migration that lasted centuries, but they had guidance along the way—guidance that came in the form of a sea shell. Ojibwe oral history recorded by Warren explains that a prophecy told Ojibwe leaders to keep following images of the mengis shell, sacred to their Medawe beliefs, until they reached their final destination, a place where“food grows on water.” So they would travel until an elder had a vision of the mengis shell, at which point they would stop and rebuild the Medawe lodge. Eventually a vision of Manaosho would tell them to move on, and they’d tear down the lodge again and head west. They first journeyed to Moneuang, today’s Montreal, and eventually headed for Lake Huron, then to Boweting (Sault Ste. Marie), where Huron meets Lake Superior. After a time they pulled up stakes once more and finally gave the Medawe a permanent home on Moningwunakauning or “home of the golden-breasted woodpecker,” known to Europeans as the island of La Pointe. From their base on Moningwunakauning the Ojibwe ventured out and indeed found food growing on the water: manomin, better known today as wild rice. (Moningwunakauning became Madeline Island after Equaysayway, daughter of Chief White Crane, married Michel Cadotte, a Frenchman, who in 1793 established a trading post at La Pointe; she was baptized a Christian and adopted the name Madeleine, and her father renamed the island in her honor—it is unclear how the spelling changed.) The Ojibwe separated into four major groups midway through the seventeenth century and began expanding further west. The northern Ojibwe migrated to Lake Superior’s north shore; the southwestern Ojibwe populated Moningwunakauning and the south shore and, later, Fond du Lac (French for “bottom of the lake”) and the interiors of what would become Minnesota and Wisconsin. This westward movement encroached on Dakota territory, and the two great peoples soon found themselves uncomfortable neighbors and, eventually, bitter enemies.
The Ojibwe would later replace the Dakota on Lake Superior’s western shores and most of Minnesota. While some say the Dakota happily began moving west to the plains, “where the buffalo was plenty,” others claim they were pushed west by the superior fighting power of the Ojibwe, who had the advantage of steel-bladed knives, muskets, and gun powder. Why did the Ojibwe have access to European weaponry? Because of the beaver, of course.
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