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Ojibwe Nation Honors Chief Buffalo, Treaty of 1854

Kim Swisher Communications


In the middle of the 19th century, when Chief Buffalo signed a treaty with the United States government, it set the course for the Ojibwe Nation's future. This past weekend, 165 years later, more than a dozen bands of Chippewas gathered on Madeline Island to celebrate and commemorate that Treaty of 1854.

To be sure, the Treaty wasn't the best deal for Indigenous Americans, who had given up most of their land to the federal government. But this Treaty was acceptable, better than war, and allowed the Chippewa of the Lake Superior and Mississippi region to retain their hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

The Treaty of 1854 also established the Bad River, Red Cliff, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, L'Anse with Lac Vieux Desert and Ontonagon reservations. But the U.S. government did take a huge land grab along with timber and mineral rights.

"The Treaty of 1854 established reservations for the Lake Superior Ojibwe, in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. And it meant that we weren't going to be forcibly removed to the lands further west," said Joe Rose, 84, a revered Bad River Tribal Elder, who established the Native American Studies program at Northland College in Ashland and taught at the school for 38 years.

"And there was good news and bad news. The good news was that we remained on postage-stamp sizes of our ancestral lands, on reservations. But the bad news was that the Minnesota Ojibwe gave up millions of acres of their land, so it was still another land-cession treaty."

However, the Treaty brought Ojibwe people together in 1854 and did so again last weekend for a four-day commemoration, celebration and family reunion at La Pointe on Madeline Island, where Chief Buffalo had signed the Treaty so long ago.

"I hope today is the first Anishinaabe fun day of hundreds to happen in the future," said Michael Wiggins, Jr., Chairman of the Bad River Tribe.

Sunday, beneath dark skies and a day-long rain that ranged from a light drizzle to downpour, these hearty, undaunted Anishinaabe people ignored the weather under a rainbow of smiles.

One of the most positive people was Gloria DeCorah-Toyebo, Mole Lake Tribal Elder and Tribal Enrollment Director. She said the Tribal Constitution for Mole Lake wasn't adopted until 1934, making it one of the baby Bands of the Ojibwe Nation.

"We're joining together to help each other more," Gloria said, "I was happy to come here. It's a good place to come. It's almost like a teamwork effort. We're finally getting together to help each other more. We're learning what teamwork is. That's what's important. We have to strategize and figure out a plan. And we're going to work our plan."

The weekend, especially Sunday, was more fun than work. Included on the day's agenda, between the rain drops, was a sunrise ceremony, kayaking, youth lacrosse, Ojibwe arts and crafts booths, island tours, wild rice processing, a powwow, filming an episode of the Mad Dog and Miller Grilling Challenge and, of course, plenty of food, drumming, singing and dancing.


The focal point of the event was Chief Buffalo and his pen on the Treaty of 1854. Paula Maday, who works in public information for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, pointed to the importance of the Treaty and Tribal history.

"Our main business is to help people understand more about treaties and our history and how we continue to exercise those rights today, So, for me it's significant that all these people are coming together to recognize those agreements and how we're continuing to live and exercise those rights today," Paula said.


Of the weekend event, John Johnson, 55, a Tribal Elder and newly elected Tribal Council Member in Lac du Flambeau, said, "I would say it's a family reunion."

John also serves as Chairman of the Voigt Inter-Tribal Task Force of the 11 signatory Tribes.

"When we were all put on these reservations, we didn't make boundaries or anything. Each one of the statehoods are the ones who made the boundaries. But us Indians were made to roam and hunt, fish and gather in any way we could. You know, that Treaty gave us the rights to do that," John continued.

"Right now, it's important to take care of our land and what our ancestors fought for so we can bring our children up in this world knowing that they have those rights."

Richard Lafernier, of Red Cliff, pointed out that treaty rights mean little when they are not recognized and respected by Non-Native Americans. He recalled a time in about 1984 when he and his friends were spearfishing on Nelson Lake near Hayward, only to have rocks thrown at them.

"A lot of the picket signs said, 'Save a fish. Kill an Indian,' " Richard recalled. "We still live through some of those things today. So, when we talk about historical trauma, those are the things we look at and how we're discriminated against."

Eric Chapman, a Lac du Flambeau Tribal Council Member, said the Treaty of 1854 commemoration weekend was an important time to learn and remember.


"It's to remember that migration story. The Anishinaabe people came from the East Coast together. We came here together! Even though we live on separate reservations now, part of the Treaty Day event is coming together again as one great Nation," Eric said.

Garland McGeshick, Chairman of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, said "We're all together here. It's a celebration."


"Our Tribal Council and I attended the Chippewa Federation on Monday. The meeting was in honor of the Treaty that was signed 165 years ago - 1854!" Vickie Ackley, Sokaogon Tribal Treasurer said. "The historical events that took place to have this Treaty were incredible.

After listening to our Elders last weekend about how the Treaty signing took place and what Madeline Island means to our people, I feel enriched and honored to be a descendant. I hope to do my part in the best and most respectful way to keep our traditions, culture and beliefs alive and known for my children, my grandchildren and great children. The story that was told by our Elders, Moningwanakaaning (the people will know me), was incredibly spiritually powerful and is such a beautiful story."


Cassandra Graikowski, Sokaogon's Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, shared, "I am very grateful to everyone who helped make this event happen. I went to Madeline Island a few weeks ago for the final planning meeting, and Edith Leoso (Bad River) and Marvin DeFoe (Red Cliff) took their time to share their knowledge and gave me a personal tour. I appreciate how hard they work to keep our history alive. I look up to them not only as Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, but as Elders."


Photos Courtesy of Cassandra Graikowski

The spirit of Chief Buffalo was there, as well. Believed to have been born in 1759 in La Pointe, the great Chippewa leader was 95 when he met with U.S. government representatives on September 30, 1854 and signed the Treaty in front of the headquarters of the American Fur Company. That building was destroyed by fire in 1923 and only a small plaque, placed in 1926, marks the historic spot, which is difficult to find today.


Chief Buffalo died at 96 on September 7, 1855. He is buried alone in La Pointe, surrounded by a tight grove to trees. His grave, like the plaque, is difficult to locate. But his legacy and the gifts to his people can forever be clearly seen.