By Lynn Maria Laitala*
Until 1815, the Chippewa were the largest and most powerful Indian tribe in North America outside of Mexico. With their close relatives the Potawatomi and Ottawa they formed the Three Council Fires, which controlled the trade of the Great Lakes. To the north, they were related to and allied with the Cree.
New France first formed a trading relationship with the Ottawa in the early 1600s. Until 1760 the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi were allied with the French in a series of wars against the English and Iroquois. Between 1776 and 1815 they were allied with the English against the United States. Two hundred years of recorded history of the Chippewa lies in archives in France and England, to be found under a variety of names.
French records identify bands within the tribe, such as the "Mississaugas," "Salteaux" and "Outchibou." In 1700 the English reported, "Upon the sides of [Lake Huron]... live … the Ochipoy." Variations in pronunciation among Algonquin dialects inspired different spellings but that was not the main problem: English spelling was not standardized for English words in 1749, when Hudson’s Bay factor Isham wrote home about the "Uchepowuck." When young George Washington initiated the last of the French and Indian wars in 1754, he wrote to Governor Dinwiddie that he needed reinforcements because "600 of the Chippoways and Ottoway Indians are marching down Scioto Creek."
The first treaty between the United States and the Chippewa was made in Ohio in 1785. The last was signed more than a hundred years later in North Dakota, in 1892. The last treaty in which Chippewa ceded land was signed in 1905, which put James Bay under the control of Canada.
With their territory, the history of the Chippewa was fractured, divided among countries, states and provinces -- and further obscured by the confusion of names.
Ojibwa, Ojibwe, Odjibwa were popular variations in spelling when Hawaii was spelled Owahiee and Wisconsin was spelled Ouisconsin. Spoken aloud, "Chippewa" and "Ojibwa" sound far more similar than they appear in print. The variations in spelling were useful to Henry Schoolcraft who, in Algic Researches, referred to both the Chippewa and Odjibwa to imply that he had a wider expertise with Indians than he actually had. Schoolcraft was well aware that the recognized spelling was Chippewa. As Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Michigan he was responsible for negotiating treaties with them.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also knew that the Indians who ceded the mineral lands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the U.S in 1842 signed the treaty under the name Chippewa. Although Longfellow cited Schoolcraft as his source for "The Song of Hiawatha," he called his hero an Ojibway rather than either Chippewa or Odjibwa. Longfellow wrote the poem in 1854 when agents of the Boston elite -- of which Longfellow was a member -- were acquiring the public domain in the Upper Peninsula that the Chippewa had just ceded. The political and legal maneuvering by which the Boston capitalists appropriated the mineral resources did not lend itself to epic poetry, nor could it be reconciled with a narrative of national freedom and virtue. To direct attention away from this unpleasantness Longfellow moved the Chippewa out of history into pre-contact myth.
When the discipline of history was professionalized in the 1880s and ‘90s, academic history was made the exclusive province of male conquerors. Conquered peoples were silenced as "people without history." When Indian scholars began to reclaim Indian history in the 1970s, members of tribes like the Sioux, Winnebago, and Gros Ventres protested derogatory names imposed on them by the government. "Chippewa" was not a derogatory name but in Minnesota Indian scholars identified "Ojibwe" as the correct name for the tribe. This inadvertently added to the difficulty of recovering Chippewa history just when the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (Inc.) was becoming a political force.
As part of the same effort by Indian scholars to reject Euro-American definition, the term Anishinabeg (with various spellings) was introduced. Historically, Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Cree used this word to refer to themselves, among themselves. It is literally translated as "first people" -- and more liberally as "we, the people."
* Editor's Note: Guest author Lynn Maria Laitala is a historian of American history and the author of Down from Basswood. She is currently working on a book about Longfellow and the dispossession of the Chippewa.