by Molly MacGregor
Cass and Winnie lie in a plain of sand, created when glaciers dropped ice blocks, and then melted around the blocks. The shape is uniform and the lakes are shallow. It’s a wide open space, paralleling the big wide sky.
People have lived around the lakes for thousands of years. The lakes provided a living, and the living sustained a culture. The parts of the living – land for homes, gardens and cemeteries, wild rice, fish, fowl, animals – can be priced, but today’s lesson is that the value of place in culture can’t be priced like a commodity.
Since the Civil War the American government had been working to gather Native Americans in a single location. In Minnesota, the Ojbiwe had been moved closer and closer to the headwaters lakes. Many advocated a single large reservation, but the Ojibwe resisted, recognizing that doing so would disrupt their lifestyle and their culture. “Every year what supports us grows on this place. If this dam is built we will all be scattered, we will have nothing to live on,” said Sturgeon Man at a council at Leech Lake on the matter.
The headwaters lakes had been awarded to the Ojibwe through treaties in 1855 and 1863; in order to build the dams, the U.S. Government had to find a way to take the land back. The Ojibwe understood their rights under the treaties and objected – consistently and through a long, hard campaign.
The Mississippi often ran dry in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The lumberman at St. Anthony wanted a steady flow for their mills. In order to take back the land from the Ojibwe, the Congress had to find a public purpose for building dams. Navigation below Minneapolis was the chosen public purpose. Construction of the Winnie dam was approved in 1880, but the U.S. Attorney General ruled it could not proceed, since doing so would have dispossessed the Ojibwe unfairly. The remedy was to compensate the Ojibwe, but the 1881 Congress limited the award to 10 percent of the cost of the dam. A commission was appointed to make a formal recommendation, and they recommended even less - $15,000 – be awarded as compensated.
The Ojibwe, led by the Pillagers at Leech Lake, were furious. They refused to accept the offer, having already determined that any award would have to be at least $250,000. The anger was so intense that the Minnesota politicians and churchmen asked the U.S. Government to hold a commission with the Ojibwe.
“The Chippewas hold their present lands under the guarantee of the Government. They are poor, have always been our friends..A visit to Washington of the chiefs…will settle this whole question…Highly as I do esteem some of the gentlemen who were connected with the commission last fall, I believe they failed to place before you the Indian side of the question, and the Indians did not accept their offers,” Bishop Benjamin Whipple wrote to the head of the Indian Claims Commission.
White Cloud was a leader from White Earth who had first counseled patience, but demanded action as construction of the dams proceeded without addressing the Indian claims, “In Washington is an understanding, a strong one…that a white man should take nothing from those reservations…We could not and did not give assent to the damming of the river.”
The Pillagers insisted that the representatives of the claims commission swear, with hands upheld, to resolve the matter, and placed on honor guard on them to keep them attentive to the business at hand. But, the settlement of the claims dragged on, and the dams were built and operations began. In this angry climate, the government then added the condition of removal of the Indians from the headwaters lakes to the settlement of the claim for compensation.
Within 10 years, there was an uprising at Leech Lake: the Battle of Sugar Point. The historical record tends to trivialize the cause of the battle, focusing on the steamboat of soldiers putting across Leech Lake. But, taken in context of the relationships with the Ojibwe and the American government, the deep lines of resentment that boiled over in October 1898, were hardened as the dams were built at Winnie and Leech. And, the irony is that the dams probably don’t serve their stated purpose. About two-thirds of the water entering the river from the headwaters lakes evaporates before it hits the Twin Cities.
Read more about "Dams and Damages" and the "Rhetoric of Reservoirs"...
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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