The Anishinaabeg (an Ojibwe/Chippewa word meaning ‘The People’) of the Fond du Lac Reservation are primarily members of the Lake Superior Band of Minnesota Chippewa. The Chippewa Nation is the second largest ethnic group of Indians in the United States. Archaeologists maintain that ancestors of the present day Chippewa have resided in the Great Lakes region since at least 800 A.D. They are members of the Algonquin linguistic family, which also includes the Ottawa, Potowatomi, Fox, Cree, Menominee, and many other smaller tribes. At one time, Algonquin territory extended from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains, and from Hudson Bay south to the Cumberland River. Control over some of this vast area passed gradually to other groups of Indians such as the Iroquois, and ultimately seized by Europeans.
Historians generally divide Chippewa history into four periods: Pre-contact, French, English, and U.S. It is most difficult to speak authoritatively about the Pre-contact period; scant archaeological evidence and the ‘oral tradition’ are the only sources of knowledge for the time up to about 1600 A.D. Early Woodland cultures, which date back to at least 500 B.C., were similar enough to Late Woodland cultures (800 A.D. to 1600 A.D.) to convince archaeologists that ancestors of the present day Chippewa have lived in the Great Lakes region for several centuries. Oral traditions speak of a westward migration from the Atlantic Seaboard, which proceeded through the Great Lakes region until it came to Sault Ste. Marie, where the migration wave split into two groups – one went along the north shore of Lake Superior into Canada, and the other went south of Lake Superior into Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The exact time of this migration is not known since the oral tradition uses phrases such as, “Many strings of lives ago,” to give historical context.
The first recorded contact with Europeans (the French) came in 1622 when Etienne Brule met with the Chippewa at Sault Ste. Marie. He found a hunter-gatherer culture that fished the lakes and rivers in the summer time, and hunted in the forests throughout the winter. Spring brought the families together in camps to collect maple sap, which was boiled down into sugar; and in autumn, families gathered to collect wild rice, which was abundant in many areas. Heavily influenced by seasonal activities, the lifestyle of the Chippewa was alternately isolated to small family groups in the wintertime, to being highly social during other times of the year. Deep family and tribal affiliations were developed through communal activities, celebrations, and religious rites; but due to lack of permanent communities, there were few formal structures to tribal organization. Rather, heads of family groups, and/or bands, were recognized as chiefs, many of whom met together to settle disputes and/or form alliances.
The clan or ‘totemic’ system once figured significantly in the culture. Each Chippewa held a specific totem animal – such as the bear, wolf, martin, loon, eagle, and crane – in reverence. Clan identity was passed through the father to his children. Members of various clans were known as a cohesive social force. Marriage within one’s own clan was forbidden, the kinship of the totem being much deeper than that of blood. Prolonged contact with European traders changed profoundly the seasonal, nomadic lifestyle of the Chippewa with the introduction of radically new technologies, which made permanent-based existence possible and desirable.
Consequently, many customs were lost during subsequent generations. Other practices such as traditional medicine, however, persisted since Europeans had nothing of value with which to replace it. In fact non-Indian people whom chose to use them used many Chippewa medicines successfully.
French traders were able to establish highly positive relationships with Chippewa people because, in exchange for animal furs, the Chippewa received guns, knives, liquor, cloth and other desired manufactured goods the acquisition of which gave them status, more power over competing Indian groups, and a more comfortable lifestyle. The French readily married Chippewa women, learned the Ojibwe language, and embraced the culture. This early positive exposure to Europeans affected Chippewa history greatly for it was to demonstrate to them how white people could be beneficial friends rather than inevitable enemies.
When the English drove the French from the Chippewa lands, the Chippewa maintained strong alliances with the French after their treaty with the English was signed in 1766. The English perceived the Chippewa in typical colonial fashion and succeeded in making them their enemies by discounting the basic integrity and wisdom of native ways and beliefs.
The Chippewa relations with Europeans continued to worsen when the United States defeated the English and opened up the frontier for westward migrations of ambitious white people in search of farmlands. As settlers poured into Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to cut timber and establish farming communities, Indians were inundated. A string of treaties were signed that kept a surprising level of peace among whites and Indians but which eroded Indian ownership of ancestral lands and made impossible the hunter-gatherer way of life. Rather than protect the rights and lifestyles of Chippewa people, treaties and legislation were enacted to force Indians to assimilate non-Indian lifestyles and cultural values.
The LaPointe Treaty of September 24, 1854 (10 Stat. 1109) was the last principal treaty between the several bands of Chippewa inhabiting Northern Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin, and the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In this treaty, the various bands of Lake Superior and Mississippi Chippewa ceded approximately 25% of the land areas of the present states of Minnesota and Wisconsin plus the balance of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the United States. The LaPointe Treaty established the Fond du Lac Reservation at 100,000 acres.