Historian Knocks the Defeated Mille Lacs Agreement and the '37 Treaty Lawsuit: 'Strive for Cooperation and Friendship' he says!

by Joe Fellegy

Carl A. Zapffe's latest history book is Minnesota's Chippewa Treaty of 1837: A verbatim transcript of the proceedings of the Treaty between the United States government and the Chippewa tribe of Minnesota's and Wisconsin's lake regions, concluded at Fort Snelling on 29 July, 1837, followed by a running commentary, next an extended exposition on treaty context, finally with explanatory notes and participant biographies.

Ironically, it rolled off the presses a few days after the final testimony in the Mille Lacs treaty case dealing with the 1837 treaty, which was tried in federal court for several weeks last June and July. Had Dr. Zapffe's book been available, it would have served as a handy reference guide for attorneys, witnesses, the press, and all persons interested in the history surrounding the 1837 treaty.

The lengthy subtitle describes the new book's weighty contents. Dr. Zapffe goes far beyond the texts of treaty negotiations. His wealth of background material - earlier treaties, the Ojibwe-Sioux conflict, the fur trade, and tons of stories about the players and the places - is interspersed throughout the book and contributes a lively human dimension to the text.

This is Zapffe's book, not a "paid" project for anybody, so the author is free-wheeling with opinion and interpretation. He's one of those longtime fans and friends of the Indian people - one of many - who believes that the failed out-of-court agreement and the 1837 treaty lawsuit by the Mille Lacs Band are not based on sound history, and that the legal action is a "serious mistake." Zapffe said, "We don't need more war! This is bad for everyone."

Dr. Zapffe's affection and respect for the culture and history of the Ojibwe goes back many years - to his youth in Brainerd, Minn., where he was born on the banks of the Mississippi River 82 years ago. He left Brainerd for college pursuits out east, and then became a career scientist and an author of scientific books.

In 1968, in anticipation of the Brainerd centennial in 1971, Zapffe was asked to update his father's book on the history of Brainerd. The elder Carl Zapffe had written his Brainerd history to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the town in the mid-1940s. Carl Jr., the scientist, delved into the region's history with unusual energy.

"I was a busy man. I've been on the frontiers of science for about 50 years. And you don't stay there by living for coffee breaks and by taking Fridays and Saturdays off!" he said. He didn't think there'd be much to the task of extending his father's work to include the next 25 years of Brainerd history.

"I was writing books anyway, it was my home town, it involved my father's work, and I thought there'd be nothing to it!"

Zapffe's scientific mind went to work - close to home and in places as far off as the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and sources in Montreal, Quebec, Paris, and London. For railroad history his travels took him to such places as the state historical societies of Pennsylvania and Vermont. Zapffe found that Brainerdites were off by a whole year in celebrating their centennial ("should be 1870 instead of 1871"). And he gained new insights about the naming of the town.

These days Dr. Zapffe recalls that he "could never have rewritten a book that was wrong" and to this date he never did produce a new volume on Brainerd. But his research went deep. "I really got hooked on the history thing. I found out who did what. And I could tell you what they had for breakfast on Front Street," he chuckled.

That research a quarter century ago ignited in him a passion for historical fact-finding. And he moved on to the next logical question: "Who was here before the early Brainerd people got here?"

The answer, obviously, was the Indians. As he researched the fur trade and other topics, Zapffe became exceedingly interested in the history, language, religion, and other cultural aspects of the Ojibwe, as well as the personalities that played key roles in the history of the Minnesota lakes region and beyond. He wrote several fact-filled books, amply illustrated with an array of rare maps and photos.

An Interview with Carl Zapffe, historian and author by Joe Fellegy.

Q. Your new book is loaded with historical facts. What's the point of it all? Of all the treaties negotiated between Ojibwe and the United States, why did you settle on the Treaty of 1837 for the subject of a book?

A. Really, others chose it for me! My book is a response to last year's proposed out-of-court agreement and the Mille Lacs Band government's lawsuit over 1837 treaty claims. I'm trying to clear the air so they know what they're talking about!

Q. Obviously, you care about Indians. And you respect the historical record. What's your attitude about the Mille Lacs Band leadership's lawsuit and last year's settlement attempts?

A. When they see what the story really is, they'll see what a dead end this really is. It's not gonna get people where they think they're going. It's going to set the whole Red-White relationship back a half a century. Those citizens who are now too busy living out the great American Dream forget their own history. They're going to face the facts in my book and get sore as hell when they realize that the Mille Lacs Band's government and others are waving a dead herring! In the end, an "agreement" like that proposed last year, or a court decision favoring the claims being made, would eventually be reversed. Then we'll be right back to where we are now anyway! All that trouble is totally unnecessary.

Q. You seem to be chiding those who push the lawsuit and those who wanted an out-of-court agreement.

A. Those things should be avoided! Let's get on the right track of cooperation. Let's save this generation and the next generation a lot of trouble. Let's help Indian people realize the American dream! I'm writing these history books as a scientist. I don't care about whose skin color is what. But stray from the facts and I'll slam ya'!

Q. So you're even-handed.

A. In places, white people are knocked down in the book. So are the Indians. Anybody can have a ball taking things out of context. These days there are Indians and whites making big mistakes in this "treaty rights" area, and I'm trying to straighten them out.

Q. An important issue in the Mille Lacs treaty case is that of "understanding" - what the Indians understood about the treaty.The linguist who testified at trial on behalf of the Band government's side in the recent trial at times sounded like the Ojibwe were incapable of understanding much about the treaty. He even downplayed their ability to understand simple concepts, like a certain duration of time as expressed in the words "at the pleasure of the President." Is that how things were?

A. No. They understood the meaning of piles of blankets, guns, and traps. They understood the meaning of money, that money could get them more of what they wanted. And they also understood what selling land means, because they saw tribes all around them selling land! In the book I cite plenty of removals that were going on in the years surrounding the treaty. Go back to the treaty minutes. They understood that they were getting things that they wanted. Had they asked a higher price, the buyer might not have bought. It was a buyer-seller market. They knew all about barter.

Q. They knew what was going on?

A. Sure. Of course, they may have dreamed that things would be otherwise, that they could have their cake and eat it. The U. S. did let them remain there for 13 years, from the treaty in 1837 to the president's proclamation in 1850, which in effect said that the area was needed for settlement.

Q. Some people argue that the 1850 order was "abandoned," that the removal aspect of it never applied to the Mille Lacs Band, and that the revocation of fishing and hunting rights didn't apply either. Of course, the establishment of a reservation via the 1855 treaty, appears, for all practical purposes, to have been a "removal" from the ceded territory.

A. Even if they quibble about 1850, you've got the treaties and acts of 1855, 1863, 1864, 1886, and 1889. Then you've got the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The language is plain. What more do you need? What is it in our government that would allow me, or you, or some other citizens to have privileges that other citizens can't have? Look. Some people get into all kinds of evasive stuff, imagining what happened. But the book contains fact. When they signed the treaty, they knew they were selling the land and all the rights with it.

Q. Obviously they were permitted to stay on the land for a few years, before the creation of the 61,000-acre Mille Lacs reservation in 1855. You speak about this "interim occupancy" concept, where Indians could stay on ceded lands, or fish, hunt, and gather on ceded lands, until those lands were needed for settlement or until the Indians were told to remove. Did the Indians understand this temporary status?

A. Yes. I cite treaty after treaty with these temporary specifications. Sometimes it's spelled out with specific time limits. At other times it's something like "until needed for settlement" or, as with 1837, "at the pleasure of the President." There were 20 treaties consummated in the year 1836. That should give us some idea regarding campfire conversations of the 1837 signatories!

Back in the 18th century, the Ojibwe were allies of the French, who were soundly defeated in the French and Indian war and driven off the entire continent while the Ojibwe weren't made to go with them. That doesn't mean that the Indians didn't lose the battle. The fact that they were allowed to disappear into the woods doesn't mean they weren't on the losing side. Same thing with the 1837 Treaty. Just because the United States didn't follow it up with a bodily removal doesn't mean they retained rights in the ceded territory.

Q. Would the Mille Lacs Band have understood that? And would they have been familiar with earlier Ojibwe and other treaties?

A. Yes. There were treaties going on all over the place.

Q. Talk about interpreters. Were they at all competent? Could they convey to the Indians what a treaty was about? How about the likes of Paul and Clement Beaulieu, Stephen Bonga, Peter Roy, and others?

A. They were capable of getting the message across. They were all very intelligent. Clem and Paul were well schooled. So was William Warren. Peter Roy was a notch below their class. He was a descendent of voyageurs. They were all sophisticated enough to understand treaty language and they knew Ojibwe! They could sit on either side of the fence. Theodore Beaulieu published the newspaper at White Earth and wrote on such questions as the derivation of the word "Ojibwe."

Q. Given their lack of a written language, did the Ojibwe place strong emphasis on the spoken word?

A. They placed enormous emphasis on the spoken word. They handled their language the way an artist handled the colors on a palette. This produced terrific orators.

Q. Could one expect to find an Ojibwe band's understanding about issues affecting them by examining their oratory?

A. Their message, delivered through the orator, usually arose through a lot of them thinking and talking about the content. They'd get together, with a pipe, and discuss the subject matter until they came to a consensus. Then the speaker would get up and speak their mind! When the orator spoke, he was speaking for the whole group. There would have been deliberations before the speech.

(Editor's note: An examination of the many letters, petitions, speeches, and council minutes produced by the Mille Lacs Band chiefs and their advocates in the decades after 1855 show that they were strong and clear in voicing their grievances, political concerns, and "rights" issues. However, it is noteworthy that off-reservation fishing, hunting, and gathering via the 1837 treaty was never a cause, even during the settlement period and when competition for resources was high.)

Q. During the recent Mille Lacs trial, Hole-in-the-Day II, who at the 1855 Treaty negotiations in Washington, D. C., talked about moving towards the white man's economic system, came in for considerable discussion. While he was generally considered to be spokesman for all the Ojibwe there, some are now trying to distance him from the Mille Lacs Band. Did he speak for the Mille Lacs Ojibwe at the '55 Treaty sessions?

A. When young Hole-in-the-Day II got up before the old chiefs at the 1847 Treaty and told them he was succeeding his father, there wasn't a word spoken! Where in the minutes of the treaty negotiations does it show that they objected to Hole-in-the-Day? At the 1855 Treaty he was the spokesman for them.

Zapffe on Casinos.

"I have friends who are quite skeptical about the casinos. They think it's a matter of exploiting weaknesses of people. But I come at it differently. I see Ojibwe business people looking and learning and accomplishing things like business people all over the world. There's increasing prosperity. What's wrong with tasting the American dream? If they didn't do it, Donald Trump would do it! Forget the talk about sin and weakness. It's bringing more people into the money-earning fold. And it's being done without alcohol on the premises. How many places in Vegas or Atlantic City would you find where that's true?

"Given that success, I again urge the Ojibwe and others who support modern battles over 'treaty rights,' particularly the 1837 treaty and that agreement proposed in the legislature last year, to ease off. Fight for cooperation and friendship instead! That'll be far more beneficial in the long haul."

Book quotes:

"The initiating motive for the (1837) treaty was indeed to gain ownership of the timber; but the treaty itself was very clearly one of land cession, an outright transfer of ownership of all that was on it, beneath it, and for some distance above it!"

"Need anybody really argue that once land is ceded every conceivable right to do anything and everything with it, not just timber cutting, obviously goes to the new owner?"