Monday, June 1, 2009

June 1: Flatmouth and the Headwaters Lakes

by Molly MacGregor

From Bemidji to Grand Rapids, the Mississippi rolls through three large lakes, Bemidji, Cass, and Winnibigoshish; and picks up a tributary from a fourth, Leech - four of Minnesota’s most beautiful lakes. They lie in a bed of sand, which Henry Schoolcraft called “the great marine district”. This white sand is visible at the river’s outlet from Winnibigoshish. It was laid down by wind during the altithermal, a period of dry temperatures more than 4,000 years ago that turned northern Minnesota into a vast prairie. The sands can always be seen in the sand dunes that remain west of the river south of Brainerd.

Bands of Ojibwe people lived in villages around these lakes, on Star Island in Cass Lake, at several locations on Winnie, on Leech’s Ottertail point and Bear Island. Flatmouth was a leader of the people living at Ottertail Point. All the explorers met him: Zebulon Pike in January 1806; then Schoolcraft, Beltrami and Nicollet. Schoolcraft described him as “both a warrior and a counsellor, and these distinctions he holds, not from any hereditary right, for he is a self-made man, but from the force of his own character.”

Flatmouth, or the French, Guelle Plat, was a nickname. His Ojibwe name was Esh-ke-bug-e-coshe, which means “without fear” according to a White Earth elder. He lived that name, as a charismatic leader devoted to his people’s well-being in a time of huge changes and conflict for them. If history had been written from another point of view, we’d all have memorized his speeches and seek to live up to his lessons.

When Pike met him in 1806, he persuaded Flatmouth to give his allegiance to the Americans, important economically for the young nation, not too long after the Indian wars before the revolution and the war with Britain that erupted in 1812. It was the U.S. Department of War that funded Schoolcraft’s journey to the Mississippi’s headwaters in 1832. He promised to help resolve the conflicts between the Ojibwe and Dakota. Twenty years after the last war, the British retained an economic presence in the region, and the American government needed Indian support to make the American fur trade and trading posts successful.

On July 17, 1832, Flatmouth invited Schoolcraft and his party to breakfast and to make his case for American support in the Ojibwe war against the Sioux. Reverend Boutwell spoke Ojibway and he recorded the speeches: “He had before heard the Americans say peace, peace! But he thought their advice resembled a rushing wind. It was strong and went soon. It did not abide long enough to choke up the road… He then lifted up four silver medals, attached by a string of wampum, and smeared with vermilion. Take notice, he said, they are bloody. I wish you to wipe off the blood. I am unable to do it. I find myself irretrievably involved in a war with the Sioux.”

Schoolcraft was funded by the U.S. government, but, unlike Flatmouth, had no authority. Perhaps, like Beltrami, he was frightened by the emotional power of Flatmouth’s appeal. In any case, there’s no record of his response. He did strike camp early and left Ottertail Point at night – a choice which suggests the desire to get away.

Flatmouth attended their late departure. Reverend Boutwell wrote that Flatmouth changed from his “native costume…to a uniform of blue military frock coat, with red collar and cuffs, with white underclothes, a linen ruffled shirt, shoes and stockings, and a neat citizen’s hat.” Boutwell recorded Flatmouth’s gesture as one of respect. But I think it was one of alliance: offering renewed allegiance to the Americans that needed his support for its own economic success. If so, then Flatmouth recognized that aligning similar objectives builds strength. Unfortunately, Schoolcraft paddled away, and we are left with the power of the moment, and the anguish of an opportunity squandered

Molly MacGregor was the Director of the Mississippi Headwaters Board for 12 years. She's the author of "The Mississppi Headwaters Guidebook", and will be our guide as we go down the River.

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