The St. Croix Chippewa Tribe A Brief History



To its native inhabitants, the Ojibwe, Wisconsin's forest was not a wilderness but our home. Over the centuries, beginning with the migration from the west coast to the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe developed a woodland culture well adapted to this environment. Wisconsin's woodland environment touched every aspect of Ojibwe life. Its not only furnished us with dwellings, food, tools, ornaments, children's toys, and transportation, but also gave us artistic and spiritual inspiration.

The Ojibwe people used bark, saplings, and limbs to make shelters, such as wigwams, and winter lodges, heating the shelters with firewood. Birch bark and similar materials were fastened to make food containers. The items included baskets, trays, bowls, ladles, spoons, and other utensils were used for food preparation, such as birch bark buckets for gathering sap during Maple sugaring.

The Ojibwe made cradle boards to carry their babies, snowshoes, and toboggans for traveling thought the woods during long harsh winters to search for game or check fur trap lines. We made birch bark canoes to help with harvesting wild rice or for fishing.

The great fact of Ojibwe life is unity- the oneness of all things. In our views, history is expressed in the way that life is lived each day and in the way that harmony with all created things has been achieved. The people cannot be separated from the land with its cycle of seasons or from the other mysterious cycles of living things- of birth and growth and death and new birth.

Most of the Ojibwe people live on land our ancestors settled before the coming of the Europeans. The homeland was immense, stretching in a great curve from the northern reaches of the plains to the southeastern shores of Lake Superior. Our people regarded the land as a gift from the Great Spirit and it belonged to everyone in the tribe.

William Warren recorded through oral tradition that the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and the Ottawa were a single people. The Anishinabe, as we are known amongst ourselves, migrated from the east to the Great Lakes. During the migration, when they reached the Strait of Mackinac, the three separated, The Ottawa returned to the east, the Potawatomi went south and west and the Ojibwe continued west along Lake Superior and north to Canada.

During the first half of the seventeenth century French explores and missionaries entered the land of the Ojibwe and wrote down the earliest vague historical accounts. It was reported that a community of Indian people were living by the falls of the St. Mary's River (Sault Ste. Marie) through which the waters of Lake Superior pour into Lake Huron. The French called them Saulteurs or "People of the Falls."

Each of the different bands from which these falls people came had its favorite hunting and fishing spots, maple sugar groves and moved from place to place as the seasons and activities associated with them changed. They were related to each other by kinship and marriage and all spoke the same language.

The French failed to realize these bands formed a single people and treated them as separate nations. Later, when the French discovered the close ties among these bands, they tried to classify then into tribes. In 1670, the French trader Daniel du Luth persuaded the leaders of the Ojibwe at Sault Ste. Marie to attend a council with the Dakota at the far western end of Lake Superior; there an alliance was made between the Ojibwe and the Dakota. The Dakota agreed to let the Ojibwe hunt on the eastern fringes of their country in return for bringing them French traders and French goods. This arrangement lasted more than fifty years. During this time the Ojibwe spread westward across northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Superior. They built a large village on Madeline Island at the mouth of Chequamegon Bay, where the French also established LaPointe, a fort and trading post, in 1693.

In time LaPointe replaced Sault Ste. Marie as a gathering place for the tribe. The Ojibwe found Chequamegon Bay a better life then ever before- fur was plentiful; fishing was good among the nearby islands, large patches of corn and squash were cultivated in the fields around the area and wild rice grew in the nearby lakes and streams. Trading was also good. In 1698 the French abandoned LaPointe and withdrew from all their western posts. For the next twenty years the Dakota had no way to get trade goods except through the Ojibwe, who traveled east each year for new supplies.

As the Ojibwe began moving away from Madeline Island to find food and gather furs, the Marten clan discovered one area that offered many valuable resources, located along the northern sections of the St. Croix River in what are now Burnett, Douglas and Washburn Counties. In this area, the St. Croix River touches many smaller rivers such as the Brule, Yellow, Namekagon, and Clam.

Groups of Ojibwe chose to settle where the St. Croix crossed these other rivers. The area had abundant wild rice beds, birch bark trees were readily available, game and fish frequented the rivers and shorelines.

During the early 1700s, many Ojibwe began making these areas our home. By 1702, our people established a village in Rice Lake on the Yellow River. Our people were happy living in this area for quite some time. The land was beautiful and the Ojibwe or Chippewa as many non-Indians learned to call us, were able to use the forest for everything we needed to survive. The fur trade business was growing and as a result, various settlements were established throughout the area.

The Lake Superior Ojibwe was the largest of the tribal groups occupying Wisconsin prior to territorial status.

During fierce fur trading wars between the French and the British, our original territory east of Wisconsin came under direct pressure from the Iroquois of New York, who allied themselves with British. At first the Lake Superior Ojibwe of Chippewa acted as middlemen between the French and the interior tribes in the fur trade.

By the early eighteenth century, the Ojibwe had expanded their hunting grounds westward into the northern woodlands of Wisconsin. There, they competed with the Fox Indians and then the Sioux or Dakota Indians, whom we eventually drove westward across the Mississippi River.

In 1831 and 1832, Indian agent Henry R. Schoolcraft found Chippewa bands living in scattered interior villages along the southern shores of Lake Superior and on the upper reaches of interior drainages. They shared common woodland culture, but did not possess a political structure to unify them. At the time Schoolcraft encountered the Ojibwe, we numbered several thousand and lived in peace with the U.S. Government, trading at posts located around the area.

By the time Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, there were six major groups in Wisconsin. They were the Chippewa/Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, the Winnebago, the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee of New York State, and the Menominee.

The years between 1838 and 1867 were a time of great change and great sorrow for most of the Ojibwe. Pressure upon them increased from all sides, and within this third of a century, the white man took possession of the core of Anishinabe land. This included all of the area bordering Lake Superior, most of what remained bordering Lake Huron, northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and the plains of the Red River Valley, reaching into the northeastern corner of what is now North Dakota.

In 1837, the United States agents sent out a message summoning various Ojibwe from northern Wisconsin and Minnesota to a treaty making council at Fort Snelling. The U.S. Government wished to make a treaty for the whole tribe for the purchase of the land in the Wisconsin, Chippewa and the St. Croix valleys, which held rich forest of pine timber. The Ojibwe argued that those bands that lived or hunted on the land to be sold should make the decision. Nonetheless, representatives from the Pillager, Red Lake, Mississippi, Fund du Lac and Chequamegon bands, which were outside the area to be sold, were urged into signing the treaty. Representatives from the major bands in northern Wisconsin arrived late, and some of the smaller bands whose homes were sold, were never heard in the treaty council.

For more than a hundred years, white man had known that the hills along Lake Superior held rich deposits of copper and iron. The United States spokesmen who bargained for this area with the Lake Superior bands talked much about mines and trees and little about settlement. Some of the Ojibwe who signed the treaty were led to believe that it was only the minerals and timber they were selling, although the agreement actually ceded the land itself. The Lake Superior bands discovered their mistake in 1850 when the government told them they must leave their land and homes along the lake and move west into Minnesota and other areas. They sent a delegation to Washington D.C. and after hearing their case, President Fillmore suspended the removal order.

During the 1837 and 1842 treaties, the St. Croix had a distinct identify. The signature page of the first treaty (1837) identifies Chiefs Bizhigke (Buffalo) and Jabenabe (the wet mouth), along with three warriors as being from "St. Croix River." Five years later with the treaty of 1842, the same Chiefs, Bizhigiki and Kabemabe, along with Aiawbens or Yahbance' (Little Buck) are listed as signers.

With the treaty of 1854 at LaPointe, there were no signatures from any St. Croix Chiefs or any recorded that St. Croix attended the negotiations so in the eyes of the federal Government, our people had creased to exist, the historical reports are controversial in regards to this treaty. One report says the Chief arrived late, thus, missing a reservation assignment, another report said Chief Aiawbens of Yanbance' of the St. Croix Ojibwe did not attend the 1854 treaty meeting. He felt the government has promised our people that we could live on the land as ling as there was no trouble and the Chief foresaw no trouble. Therefore, there was no reason to move, and he was not going to let the government to push our people from their land, another report said that since St. Croix was not represented at the treaty council, we were not given a reservation. The significance of the 1854 treaty to the St. Croix tribe was negative in the sense that it ended political influence of the St. Croix Indians as a branch of the Superior Chippewa. (See bottom)

Nearly a century would pass before our people, the St. Croix, would be given a reservation.

During the next 80 years from 1854 to 1934, our people, the St. Croix Ojibwe, saw many changes take place. More and more white settlers were living on the land once occupied only by Indians. Many loggers had moved into the pone forest along the St. Croix, logging camps and trails were seen all along the river. Many Ojibwe men became excellent loggers and got job working for lumber companies. The Ojibwe found it mire difficult to live the way they had since they moved to the area. They could no longer hunt, fish, and trap as they had before. The government set up laws to regulate these activities. Because the St. Croix had no land they could call their own, they were pushed from one place to another. Our people became known as the "lost tribe" and became squatters in scattered parcels of land in the St. Croix Valley. In 1934, with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, the St. Croix River Indians were given federal recognition as "St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin", a federally recognized tribe. The 1934 Act enabled our people to gain reservation land, which had been denied us for eight years. Ironically, the reservation tracts were small but were on or near the historical village sites our people had been occupying for over 200 years.

  • Research has shown the signatory page of the 1854 treaty included I-yaw-bance (Yabance) as a signer under the Lac Courte Oreille band. Whatever the reasons, the St. Croix did not receive reservation land.
  • The Reservation

    The St. Croix Reservation is composed of small tracts of lands representing communities made up of families who have frequently lived in the same vicinity for generations. The reservation communities are with about 50 miles being the longest distance between any two of them. The five major communities are Sand Lake, Danbury, Round Lake, Maple Plain, and Gaslyn. The occupy land in Barron, Burnett, Polk and Douglas Counties. Our Reservation size is 4,689 acres, and our population is 2,909.

    The St. Croix Today

    The St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin is a federally recognized tribe governed by a five-member council elected for two-year terms. The Tribal Council is responsible for the general welfare of tribal members and the management of day-to-day tribal business. Constitution and By-Laws approved by the secretary of the Interior on November 12, 1942 and amended to include the St. Croix Tribal Court on February 3, 1984.

    The largest area employers are the county and the St. Croix Tribal enterprises, which includes three casinos and government offices. The St. Croix Casino and Hotel in Turtle Lake employs over a 1,000 people. The Hole in the Wall Casino and Hotel in Danbury employs over 200. The tribe employs many members at their Tribal Center buildings, which include a Health Department, Family Resource Center, Housing Authority, Construction Company, Youth Center, and the various departments in the Tribal Center. A convenience store, The Little Turtle Hertel Express and Casino, combines a convenience store, gas station, and a casino and it's located in Hertel.

    Established in 2001 the St. Croix Tribe opened their new Health Facility. The new Tribal Clinic employees one Dentist, and one pharmacist on staff. In addition, there are many other full-time health professionals on duty.