The Red Lake River is wide and slow where it passes by the site of the Old Crossing Treaty Park near Huot, Minnesota. The park, established in 1933 on just under nine acres on the west bank of the river, is beautiful, with manicured grass and an abundance of trees. I’m terrible at identification in my own landscape and this part of Minnesota, with so many deciduous varieties, reminds me of my ignorance everywhere else. I recognize cottonwoods and some gigantic oaks. There are also some ash, I think, and possibly beech trees as well. I’m probably wrong. But it is October, and the leaves are changing, and all the competing shades of green and red and gold and yellow are a buffet for my eyes. There are bulky gray clouds and a few spits of rain after a night of downpour, but then the sun breaks through and the day is gorgeous.
The slope down to the river is heavy with willows but there is a decent span of muddy sand along the banks of the flow. There are mushrooms pressing up through the broken soil. It’s quiet; there aren’t any busy highways close by, or don’t seem to be anyway. I can hear the low gurgle of the river. If I squint and ignore the poles and sagging power lines, I can almost imagine the place looking not so different from what it did 158 years ago, even though it is. One thing that more than a century of area farming by white people hasn’t changed though is the small hill that rises above the landscape just opposite this side of the river. It is there that Alexander Ramsey, a former Governor of both Territory and State of Minnesota, arranged his forces. It was late September of 1863 and he arrived with the intention to negotiate with the Indians, a gatling gun—one of the most ferocious military weapons of its day—ominously in place to cover the entire site below.
It is October 2, 2021, and I am part of a delegation of Little Shell Tribe members who made the trip all the way from Montana. A few months of organizational meetings over Zoom have led to this: we Little Shell are dignitaries from our “lost” tribe invited to participate in this commemoration of 158 years since the signing of the 1863 Treaty of Old Crossing. It is an honor and my excitement to be here is overflowing. It is a first for us, to be invited, and though our delegation is small we are hopeful that in coming years our participation will be much larger. The roots of our tribal connection to this event are deep; more than 94% of our present membership can be traced back to signers of this treaty.
What exactly is the 1863 Treaty of Old Crossing? The brilliant David Treuer, an Ojibwe author from Leech Lake who likely had relatives here same as me, in his magnificent book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, writes, “In 1863, the Red Lake Band and Pembina Band of Ojibwe were induced by Alexander Ramsey, governor of Minnesota, to sign a treaty ceding roughly eleven million acres of prime woodlands and prairie on either side of the Red River. The Treaty of Old Crossing promised them [the Indians] considerable annuities and the right to hunt, fish, and travel in the ceded area in exchange for what Ramsey described as the ‘right of passage’ for oxcarts and wagon trains headed west.”
The gotcha here is this idea of “right of passage.” This is what the assembled chiefs thought they were negotiating, what they were led to believe they were negotiating. But it wasn’t that. It was another land grab. Treuer again:
“The wording of the treaty—misrepresented by Ramsey and not adequately translated to the chiefs—was clear enough, as was the intent. The government was after nothing less than extinguishing Ojibwe claim to the whole region, as the next thirty years would prove. The chiefs who signed the treaty saw that their good faith had been misplaced, and they grew deeply suspicious of the government thereafter.”
This is why, while many people refer to the McCumber Agreement of 1892 as the blow that left the Little Shell people landless, I set it thirty years earlier to this treaty, Old Crossing, in 1863. Because Esens, or Ase-anse—Little Shell—was one of two leaders representing the Pembina Chippewa from Turtle Mountain, and after the shenanigans that ensued he determined he would never negotiate with the Americans for land again.
Alexander Ramsey coveted this land. He’d negotiated an earlier treaty in 1851 but it was never ratified. So he had to go back to the drawing board. His intention was to meet with the Pembina tribes in 1862 but the meeting never happened. Instead, a conflict erupted that has come to be known by many names: the Dakota Uprising, the Dakota War of 1862, or Little Crow’s War. It began in August and raged all through the summer. The Minnesota Dakota people, remnants from the tribes who had been pushed farther out onto the plains and led by the chief Little Crow, had finally had enough of having the series of treaties they signed in good faith (including the 1825 treaty, with subsequent treaties in 1837, 1851 and 1858) ignored and broken by the Americans before the ink was even dry.
Negotiations over changing how annuities—food, payments, and other treaty-promised assistance—would be delivered (because they were late or never arrived at all) broke down. Treuer writes, “Sensing weakness—with the federal government in the midst of fighting the Confederacy, many troops had been pulled back east—the Dakota (and some Ojibwe allies to the north) rose up.”
The Dakota wanted nothing less than to drive all the encroaching settlers out of their lands. Homes were burned and prisoners were taken. Alexander Ramsey, then still governor, wanted the Dakota eradicated, going so far as to offer a $25 bounty on any Dakota scalp.
Since we are talking about scalp bounties—hypothetically here, of course (cough)—let's talk about Utah Senator Mike Lee. Little Shell people will recognize the guy as the ingrate who blocked our 2018 bid for federal recognition—after otherwise unanimous votes in both the House and Senate—simply because he could. Now he's throwing a fit because of this event just this past Friday, October 8th:
President Joe Biden, as he promised during his campaign, restored Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to their original boundaries in a White House ceremony Friday flanked by supporters, including Native American tribal leaders of the Bears Ears coalition and some Utah Democrats.
We all know how 45 and his cowardly sycophants—like Mike Lee—were all-to-eager to roll back those protections, originally instituted by President Barack Obama when he established the area as a national monument, and they did so in 2017. It seems now their feelings have been hurt.
Lee says that, "Biden’s proclamation perpetuates a cycle of abuse under the Antiquities Act, which ignores the rights and the will of Utahns, to the detriment of the lands and those whose lives are most intertwined with them."
Here's news for you, Mike: The only opinions that matter in this issue are those of the Indigenous people united to protect Bears Ears. It's not your land to have any say in it. It's their land.
It sounds that simple because it is.
I'm pleased that President Biden has restored Bears Ears. It is a necessary step in a direction the United States rarely considers. Even if this bit — "Right before he signed the order, Biden talked of a little girl who implored him to protect Bears Ears and on Friday he said he was fulfilling that promise." — makes me puke in my mouth a little bit. Politicians are just so greasy.
Which brings us to the next big news: "President Joe Biden on Friday issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, lending the most significant boost yet to efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples."
It probably won't surprise anyone who has read this newsletter for any length of time that I'm not a fan of "Indigenous Peoples' Day." It's a re-branding of what is a second rate off-brand bullshit holiday in the first place. Or a co-branding, actually, since "White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Friday's announcement didn't entail ending Columbus Day as a federal holiday." Also quoted, from this piece by Donald Judd:
"Well, today is both Columbus Day, as of now ... as well as Indigenous Peoples' Day," Psaki said. "I'm not aware of any discussion of ending that either, ending the prior federal holiday at this point, but I know that recognizing today as Indigenous Peoples' Day is something that the President felt strongly about personally, he's happy to be the first president to celebrate and to make it, the history of moving forward."
Columbus Day? Whoever thought it was a good idea to make a holiday for that glaring false bit of history in the first place? It's almost as bad as the bullshit "Traditional Thanksgiving Story" we have to fight over every year, only this one is right smack dab in the middle of "My Culture Isn't a Costume!" season to boot.
I know a lot of folks in the Indigenous community are happy about this. Not me. Every day is someone or something’s day to the degree that who really cares anymore? This latest proclamation from the President is just more political theater by a politician pandering to Natives to get their votes because it doesn’t do anything. It’s just a photo op. For example, I'm reminded—and I'm mostly quoting from my own recently-released NEW BOOK! now, by the way—of how Maryland Matt Rosendale, currently occupying Montana's single seat in the House (except for when he's strutting around the Mexican border seemingly unaware that Montana's international border is actually with Canada) and possibly the most embarrassing example of humanity Montana has ever sent east (and there have been a ton of them), a gutless poser who thinks just because he has money that he’s actually worth the air he sucks into his cowardly lungs, who voted twice at the state level against Little Shell recognition, but had the audacity to show up at our pipe ceremony to celebrate our federal recognition in 2020 just so he could grin for photo-ops with Chairman Gerald Gray. Oof. Where do we find these fucking guys?
By the end of the Dakota War in 1862 hundreds of white people had been killed along with an unknown number of Dakota people and their allies. In a series of trials in which none of the defendants had their charges explained to them nor were allowed legal representation, over 300 Dakota taken into custody were sentenced to death. After reviewing the proceedings, President Abraham Lincoln reduced that number to 38. Then Lincoln, just three months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation that “freed the slaves,” presided over what remains the single largest mass execution in American history when all 38 Dakota were hanged at once.
It was in the wake of all this blood and smoke and sorrow that negotiations commenced that fall in 1863. The Red Lake Ojibwe contingent, under the direction of Indian agent Ashley C. Morrill, was already waiting at the site when Ramsey arrived and set up his guns. The Pembina Indians arrived the next day under agent Charles Bottineau. All told, “On September 28, as guests of the government, there were present 579 Indians and 24 half-breeds of Red Lake, and 352 Indians and 663 half-breeds of Pembina.” There were far more Indians on hand than Ramsey had anticipated, or “invited”, and this made for a shaky start.
Negotiations were chaotic and often tense. For all the people who kept detailed journals there are many gaping holes in what happened during the proceedings, what specifics were discussed. How the land being purchased was to be allotted, particularly as it related to the “half-breeds.” For example, Ramsey didn’t feel they had any claim at all, while the Pembina leaders, Red Bear (Mis-co-muk-quoh) and Little Shell (Ase-anse), represented the Métis equally as their people.
The low ball offers and arguments and grand speeches and threats went on for fourteen days until a confused agreement was reached. On October 2nd, 1863, the Pembina and Red Lake Treaty—the Old Crossing Treaty—was signed. Half-a-dozen Indian chiefs and nine warriors signed it. Pembina chiefs Red Bear and Little Shell both signed the treaty. Of the handful of Pembina warriors who signed it, Nicholas Vrooman points out that, “two of them were of mixed-descent: Joseph Gourneau and Joseph Montreuil, both ancestral men of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians."
The result? Long story. Most importantly, the Indians were of the understanding that they could stay where they were, could continue to use the territory as they always had, but would leave the settlers alone. That’s what they had agreed to. But it isn’t what the document actually says.
Of course it doesn’t end here. Once the treaty went to Washington for ratification, changes were made, some significant. This led to a revised treaty being signed in Washington on April 12, 1864. Little Shell didn’t make the trip and didn’t sign the revised treaty (Red Bear, however, did). He had had enough with the double-speak and betrayals of the United States government and determined to never negotiate again.
“The machinations of Governor Ramsey and the federal government,” Vrooman says, “in unfairly manipulating the treaty process in 1863, to gain control and exploit the resources of the Red River Valley, remain in the U.S. courts to this day.”
There is a bronze statue of an Indian man at the Old Crossing park, erected as a memorial to the treaty on June 25, 1933. During our 2021 commemoration a mobile photo booth was set up at its base, provided by the entertainment company that also supplied the tents and folding chairs for the celebration. While I took my own photos of the statue I didn’t choose to make use of the photo booth though others, especially children, were thrilled by it.
The statue Indian—tall and strong, all muscled-up and handsome with perfect braids—stands on a foundation that raises him several feet off the ground. He is resolutely stoic. A blanket is folded over one arm and a pipe is tucked-in at the elbow; the other arm is bent, hand open, as if to hold something. But the hand is empty, like the promises of Alexander Ramsey and his enablers. I’m reminded also of a yoga posture where the instruction is to hold the hand flat, as if holding coins, and practitioners are urged, “Here’s the money, don’t drop the money!”
The base of the statue has a plaque with an engraving that reads, “The Red River Valley of the North then included in the state of Minnesota and the territory of Dakota was ceded to the United States in a Treaty signed near this spot on October 2, 1863. Negotiated by commissioners Alexander Ramsey and Ashley C. Morril and the Chiefs, Headmen, and warriors of the Red Lake and Pembina bands of the Chippewa Indians. Erected by the United States 1932.”
This Old Crossing park reminds me of Council Grove outside of Missoula, just off Mullan Road only a couple miles from where I live. Like Old Crossing it is also the site of a grave injustice delivered by white bureaucrats to Indigenous people, in this case as the location for the infamous Hellgate Treaty of 1855 where Isaac Stevens cheated the Salish people out of their land in the Bitterroot Valley, ultimately forcing them to live on what most people now refer to as the Flathead Reservation. Council Grove is small and beautiful and I’ve taken great pleasure in the countless hours I’ve spent wandering its trails through the towering ponderosa pines—many old enough to have witnessed the 1855 gathering—and prowling the riverbanks watching for birds and other wildlife. There is a sign board located here too, roughly describing what happened. I regularly tell people that if one studies only a single interaction between Americans and Indigenous people, one might choose to learn about this Hellgate Treaty debacle. It’s all here: lies, forgeries, corruption and despair. An interaction that has shaped the history of the region I call home in ways that more than echo today. The overflow of bitterness is still raw and far from resolved over 160 years later.
It is the same situation at Old Crossing.
Samuel Strong was my favorite speaker at the entire commemoration event. Strong is the tribal secretary for the Red Lake Nation. A younger man than me—if he’s even 40, he’s a youthful 40—his words were fiery and I was inspired. He talked about the foolishness, as Indians, of “celebrating” this treaty because of what its goals were and what it has meant to the Ojibwe people. He went on to passionately describe all that the whites had done to try and steal everything they could from the Red Lake Ojibwe, but how the Indians had resisted and managed to hold on to land and sovereignty in ways no other tribe in America has. I wanted to get up and shout. This is the kind of leadership I want from my Indian community. This defiance, this kind of, “You took your best shot and we’re still here!” anger. Especially from younger leaders.
Meanwhile, as we danced and ate soup and hopefully created new bonds across tribes long severed from one another, young Red Lake Chippewa water protectors and their allies were holding out in camps across Ojibwe territory in opposition to Canadian corporate behemoth Enbridge and its 1000-mile plus Line 3 oil pipeline that proceeds, illegally, through traditional tribal lands. While the Red Lake Nation fights to exert its sovereignty and protect its waters and all the relatives who rely on it to live, the settler colonial politicians in Washington, D.C. are silent.
President Biden, cancel Line 3. It is the right thing to do if you truly mean all the things you say in support of Indigenous people. This is Native land, and it is clear as years roll along that, unless you back up your words with more action, then the more things change, the more they remain disgustingly the same.
Friends, thanks for hanging in there with this piece, I know it’s a long one. A bunch of it is excerpted from Becoming Little Shell, my book due out from Milkweed next year, or early the next, which is so, so close to being finished….