The Act of 1889

In 1889 Congress passed "An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in State of Minnesota." This legislation set off the last large series of land cessions to the in northern Minnesota.

                Congress passes the Act of 1889

The act of 1889 required the appointment of three commissioners.

to negotiate with all the different bands or tribes of Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota for the complete cession and relinquishment in writing of all their title and interest in and to all reservations of said Indians in the State of Minnesota, except the White Earth and Red Lake Reservations, and to all and so much of these two reservations as in the judgment of the said commission is not required to make and fill the allotments required by this and existing acts. . . .

A number of treaties were made with different bands. All except Red Lake and White Earth were required to relinquish in writing all their title and interest in all reservation lands. Treaties had to be "made and assented to in writing by two-thirds of male adults over eighteen years of age of the band or tribe" belonging to such reservations.

The seven days of bargaining

The act was passed on January 14, 1889. On June 29, the three commissioners, Henry M. Rice, Bishop Marty Martin, and B.J.Whiting held the first of seven councils with the Red Lake and Pembina bands at Red Lake.

Early Red Lake
courtesy Beltrami County Historical Society

W.C.Hubbell was Secretary of the commission and responsible for recording the full minutes of the discussions . Mr. Hubbell may at times have misunderstood, at times have mistaken the importance the native speakers gave to their points, and may have omitted from the record matters that the chiefs and headmen considered important. But he made a record, and though it may be imperfect, it does tell something of the thinking of members of the Red Lake and Pembina bands.

The agreement carries the signatures or marks of 247 chiefs, headmen, and warriors of the Red Lake and Pembina bands.

Red Lake was the first reservation the commissioners visited. The first day's proceedings were taken up with reading and interpreting the act of 1889. It was explained how the treaty would benefit them and their children.

On the second day, July 1, head chief May-dway-gwa-no-nind, who was not present on the first day, reported that his people had not completed their deliberations and asked for further explanation of the act.

82 years old when agreement was reached in 1889
A highly respected man of uncommon abilities
with permission of the Beltrami County Historical Society

On the third day, July 3, "Chairman Rice reminded the Indians that they were promised all the time they needed for deliberations but that the Commission had fixed three different times for them to meet and the Indians had failed to appear. Several speakers said they wouldn't sign anything. They complained of the fires being set on the reservation May-dway-gwa-no-nind spoke against the allotment plan. Rice tried to keep the conference on a cordial note, but said they were listing past grievances.

On the fourth day, July 4, May-dway-gwa-no-nind made the point that the members of the band wanted to own everything in common. Rice explained that allotments could not be made at this time because the reservation had not been surveyed. The commission was mainly interested in setting boundaries. There was again a question about land the lumbermen had taken over without paying anything. Another member talked of the way pine was being stolen from the reservation. The head chief told his fellows not to be too hasty in signing the agreement.

On the fifth day, July 5, the question of the boundary running south of Thief River to include Moose Dung and his group was raised by Shaw-wun-ah-cunig-ish-kung. Also he reported cuttings were being made on the reservation by a man called T.B.Walker. Bishop Marty said everything would be reported to Washington. Bishop Marty asked for all the men, including the young ones to speak. Way-Way questioned the commission's authority since they were appointed by a President who was not now in office. At the end, Bishop Marty became very stern, objecting to the insults offered. He said those that were willing to accept should come at nine o'clock and the rest should stay away.

On the sixth day, July 6, the council was the largest held to date. Several speakers expressed their respect with seeming apologies. One asked the head chief what he had to say. Details of the boundaries and also details of the cost of pine were mentioned. There were other details of roads and boundaries that showed the members of the band were going to sign. Pus-se-naus asked that no liquor be introduced on the reservation.

May-dway-gwa-no-nind, then 82, said, . . . we make a mistake, it is for a lifetime. I will ask you to be very patient. We are willing to make an arrangement, but we must be very careful and make no mistake. He spoke, as others had, against mingling their moneys with those of other tribes or bands. I ask that you reserve the whole of the lake as ours and that of our grandchildren hereafter. Rice assured the Indians that they would part with nothing nor sell nothing until an agreement on the boundaries was reached and to the satisfaction of all."

The seventh and last council was held on July 6, 1889. Rice asked those who lived a long way away to mark out the part of the reservation they wished to retain. May-dway-gwa-no-nind, still patiently bargaining, said that he would accept the commissioners' proposition if they would also accept theirs. . . .

Then, Interpreter Beaulieu said Moose Dung had forty-two families and wanted land on Thief River. [Granting this request would lead within a few years to the next diminishment of the reservation.] Other questions of roads and boundaries and the status of some groups were raised.

Rice made some suggestions about boundaries. He said a few changes in boundaries should be made, but they would be made to the satisfaction of the Indians. Rice was mistaken when he thought the changes would be satisfactory. The attempt to detach the west shore of Lower Red Lake from the reservation was objected to and defeated, but the whole of Red Lake was not retained by the tribe. Part of Part of Upper Red Lake is still outside the reservation. Other questions about downed timber and about having an agent in their midst were raised. The commission would report to the President, but settling these matters was beyond their authority.

May-dway-gwa-no-nind was the first to sign the agreement. He was followed by the other chiefs. I-een-ge-gwon-abe, the "pagan" chief across the lake, did not sign. Two hundred and forty-seven chiefs, headmen, and warriors of the Red Lake and Pembina bands signed the agreement. Among them was later Chief Nodin, son of May-dway-gwa-no-nind.

Chief Nodin
courtesy Beltrami County Historical Society

The Red Lake Reservation was reduced.

Even considering the problems of translation and explanation, the minutes as produced by Mr. Hubbell seem rather short. Also, the insults about which Bishop Marty complained do not seem very clear.

Still, there is a discernible movement to the negotiations. The members of the band at first are opposed to the agreement. They delay, asking for more explanation and then present their complaints to the commission. On the fourth day, as May-dway-gwa-no-nind says, they will not be too hasty about signing the agreement. On the fifth day a climax in the negotiations is reached with, as Bishop Marty saw it, insults offered to the commissioners. On the sixth day, as if acting in concert, the speakers conciliate the commissioners, offering compliments without directly apologizing. May-dway-gwa-no-nind says that he will touch the pen and then makes a very moving appeal both for the Red Lake tribe to keep their land for themselves and to keep their own moneys separate from the other tribes and bands. The head chief in his remarks is addressing the men under his chieftanship as well as the commissioners. It would seem he has decided, along with the other chiefs, that there is more to be gained by cooperation than disagreement. Indeed, some of his arguments did make an impression, for they finally kept their land in common and their moneys separate.

The result of the agreement was a drastically reduced reservation. At first, the eastern shore of lower Red Lake was not included, though later the line was revised to put all of lower Red Lake into the reservation. Although the chief had asked that the whole of the lake be included, the eastern bay of Upper Red Lake was left outside the reservation and remains so today. The eleven towns (townships) that were Moose Dung's settlement were ceded in 1902 and sold by the government, with the proceeds going to the Red Lake band. Delegations to Washington made the final arrangements for the treaties.

The Last Delegation from Red Lake, sent in 1909
photo courtesy the Beltrami County Historical Society

Caption under the photograph reads as follows: Last official Red Lake Indian Delegation to Washington, D.C. 1909. R. [George Highlanding,] Everwind, John English,, Chief Nodin, Ponemah,.Top row, Joe Mason, P.H.Beaulieu, Kingbird, Basil Lawrence, Atty. John Gibbons of Bemidji, Alex Jourdain, Ba-bee-ge-shig, Eh-nee-we-qua-nobe.

Before the former Red Lake lands could be sold or settled, they had to be surveyed. The money from the sale of agricultural and of pine lands was to go into a trust fund for the benefit of the bands. The first survey was so inept and/or fraudulent, that a second survey was ordered. Finally in 1896 the survey was accepted and the former Red Lake lands were opened.

[Among the tracts opened was the northern half of the land that what was to be the town of Buena Vista. Jimmy Cyr had homesteaded the southern half of the tract, which was not on reservation land. On the first day the reservation lands were opened for homesteading (May 15, 1896), J.W.Speelman moved a prefabricated shack onto the shore of Lake Julia to claim what was to be the last part of the Buena Vista townsite that remained on reservation land.  The full townsite was established; Buena Vista was ready to grow and prosper.]

Historical Review of the Red Lake Indian Reservation contains a chapter entitled Chronological History of Red Lake and Vicinity. The section included in the appended link carries the history to 1905.

The Red Lake Railway, originally strictly a logging railroad, had carried logs from Nebish and other points to the shore of Red Lake at Redby. It was sold in 1905. The purchasers, renaming it with the ambitious title Minnesota, Red Lake, and Manitoba Railway and adding a passenger car, complete the road between Bemidji and Red Lake. Members of the Red Lake Nation for the first time had easy movement to and from their reservation.

The wisdom of May-dway-gwa-no-nind and his fellow chiefs and warriors is apparent today. Of the Ojibwe who took allotments on other reservations, many have long since sold or lost title. But the Red Lake Nation, which holds its land in common and operates communal enterprises, still has its land and its common heritage. It stands as one of only two closed reservations on land never ceded to the United States

One more chapter is still to be written in the history of theft from and deceit of the Red Lake nation. In the 1920s and 1930s the Chippewa of Minnesota brought suit against the federal government for fraud and theft in the selling of their lands and fraud in the handling of the proceeds. These claims were rejected by the first court to hear them.

Then, in 1948 and 1951, suit was again brought, this time with the Indian Claims Commission. When the Claims Commission expired, the federal courts took the responsibility. On July 26, 1997, the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) reported that five of the thirteen claims of the Red Lake Nation had been settled for $27 million. Seven other claims by Red Lake as well as claims by other Chippewa tribes remain in negotiation.

This settlement comes a century after many of the wrongs were committed and some eighty years after the first suits were filed. The Red Lake leaders who made the agreement of 1889 are gone. But, as May-dway-gwa-no-nind would have been pleased to know, some justice is being done to the generations that have followed for whom he spoke.

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