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Winnebago Home Truly Delightful

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


He found the Winnebago' home truly delightful. The shores of the lake were wooded with hickory, oak, and hazel. Grapes, plums, and other fruits grew in abundance. The lake abounded in fish; and in the fall of the year with geese, ducks, and teal, the latter much better flavored than those found nearer the sea, as they "acquire their excessive fatness by feeding on the wild rice which grows so plentifully in these parts."

How can we bear to contrast the picture of this peace, plenty, and gracious hospitality among the ancient Winnebago with the picture of their descendants only two generations later hunted, driven, starved ? And how can we bear to contrast the picture of the drunken, gambling Winnebago of Minnesota with this picture which Captain Carver gives of a young Winnebago chief with whom he journeyed for a few days.

Captain Carver, after a four days' visit with the Winnebago, and "having made some presents to the good old queen, and received her blessing," went on his way. Two months later, as he was traveling to the Falls of St. Anthony, he encountered a young Winnebago chief going on an embassy to some of the bands of the "Nadouwessies" (Sioux). This young chief, finding that Captain Carver was about to visit the Falls, agreed to accompany him, "his curiosity having been often excited by the accounts he had received from some of his chiefs. He accordingly left his family (for the Indians never travel with out their households) at this place under charge of my Mohawk servant, and we proceeded together by land, attended only by my Frenchman, to this celebrated place. We could distinctly hear the noise of the water full fifty miles before we reached the Falls; and I was greatly pleased and surprised when I approached this astonishing work of nature; but I was not long at liberty to indulge these emotions, my attention being called off by the behavior of my companion. The prince had no sooner gained the point that overlooks this wonderful cascade than he began with an audible voice to address the Great Spirit, one of whose places of residence he imagined this to be. He told him that he had come a long Way to pay his adorations to him, and now would make him the best offerings in his power. He accordingly threw his Pipe into the stream; then the roll that contained his tobacco; after these the bracelets he wore on his arms and wrists; next an ornament that encircled his neck, composed of beads and Wires; and at last the ear-rings from his ears; in short, he presented to his god every part of his dress that was valuable. During this he frequently smote his breast with great violence, threw his arms about, and appeared to be much agitated. All this while he continued his adorations, and at length concluded them with fervent petitions that the Great Spirit would constantly afford us his protection on our travels, giving us a bright sun, a blue sky, and clear, untroubled waters; nor would he leave the place till we had smoked together with my pipe in honor of the Great Spirit.

"I was greatly surprised at beholding an instance of such elevated devotion in so young an Indian. Indeed, the whole conduct of this young prince at once charmed and amazed me. During the few days we were together his attention seemed to be totally employed in yielding me every assistance in his power, and even in so short a time he gave me innumerable proofs of the most generous and disinterested friendship, so that on our return I parted from him with the greatest reluctance."

In 1866 the report from the Winnebago is that they are "improving;" manifest "a good degree of industry;" that the health of the tribe is generally poor, but "as good as can be expected when we remember their exposures and sufferings during the last three years." The tribe has "diminished some four or five hundred since they left Minnesota." One hundred soldiers have returned, "who have served with credit to themselves and to their tribe in the defense of their country." No school has yet been established on the agency, and this is said to be " their greatest want."

The superintendent writes: "The appropriations under the late treaty have all been made, and the work of fitting up the reservation is progressing. It affords me the highest personal satisfaction to assure the Department that this deeply wronged and much-abused tribe will soon be in all respects comfortable and self-sustaining. They entered upon their new reservation late last May, and during the present year they have raised at least twenty thousand bushels of corn."

In 1867 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs says: "The Winnebago have a just claim against the Government on account of their removal from Minnesota, the expenses of which were borne out of their own tribal funds. The Government is clearly bound in all honor to refund to them moneys thus expended."

It would seem that there could have been no question in the beginning as to who should pay the costs of such a removal as that. It should not even have been a tax on the general Government, but on the State of Minnesota, which demanded it-especially as there was no shadow of doubt that the demand was made-not because the citizens of Minnesota had any real fear of the peaceable and kindly Winnebago (who were as much in terror of the Sioux as they were themselves), but because they "coveted the splendid country the Winnebago were occupying, and the Sioux difficulties furnished the pretext to get rid of them with the aid of Congressional legislation."

Some members of the tribe who remained in Minnesota still claimed their "allotted" lands; "their share of all moneys payable to the Winnebago under treaty stipulations, and that their share of the funds of the tribe be capitalized and paid to them in bulk; their peculiar relations as Indians be dissolved, and they left to merge themselves in the community where they have cast their lot." The commissioner urges upon the Government compliance with these requests.

In 1868 a school was opened on the Winnebago Agency, and had a daily attendance of one hundred and fifty scholars. The tribe adopted a code of laws for their government, and the year was one of peace and quietness, with the exception of some dissatisfaction on the part of the Indians in regard to three hundred cows, which, having been sent to the agency in fulfillment of one of the provisions of the treaty, were nevertheless ordered by the Indian Bureau to be "kept as Department stock." The Indians very naturally held that they had a right to these cows; nevertheless, they continued peaceable and contented, in the feeling that they had "at last found a home," where they might "hope to remain and cultivate the soil with the feeling that it is theirs, and that their children will not in a few days be driven from their well-tilled and productive lands." They are, however, "growing exceedingly anxious for the allotment of their lands in severalty."

In 1869 "preparations" were "being made for allotting the lands to heads of families."

In 1870 "the allotment of land in severalty to the Indians has been nearly completed, each head of a family receiving eighty acres. The Indians anxiously look for the patents to these, as many have already commenced making improvements. At least thirty have broken four acres of prairie apiece, and several have built houses. Three schools are in operation, and four hundred acres of ground under cultivation."

In this year comes also an interesting report from the stray Winnebago left behind in Wisconsin. They and the stray Pottawatomie who are in the same neighborhood are "remarkably quiet and inoffensive, giving no cause of complaint; on the contrary, the towns and villages where they trade their berries, maple-sugar, etc., are deriving considerable benefit from them: a number have been employed in lumbering, harvesting, and hop-picking. A number of mill-owners and lumbermen have informed MC that the Indians they have employed in their business have been steady, good hands. There are nearly one thousand of these Winnebago. Some of them have bought land ; others are renting it; and all express an anxiety that the Great Father' should give them a reservation in this region, and allow them to remain."

In 1871 the Nebraska Winnebago deposed their old chiefs, and elected twelve new ones, to serve one year ; these were mainly from the younger members of the tribe who were in favor of civilization and progress. This was an important step toward breaking up the old style of tribal relations.

In 1872 we hear again from the "strays" in Wisconsin. The whites having complained of them, Congress has appropriated funds to move them to their respective tribes "west of the Mississippi;" but the removal has not been undertaken "for various reasons," and the commissioner doubts "whether it can be accomplished without additional and severe legislation on the part of Congress, as the Indians are attached to the country, and express great repugnance to their contemplated removal from it."

The poor creatures are not wanted anywhere. Spite of their being "steady, good hands" for hired labor, and useful to towns and villages in furnishing fruits and fish, the Wisconsin people do not want them in their State. And the agent of the Winnebago Reservation writes, earnestly protesting against their being brought there. He thinks they are in moral tone far below the Indians under his charge. Moreover, he says "the prejudice in the surrounding country is such" that he believes it would be bad policy to remove any "more Indians" there. Nebraska does not like Indians any better than Wisconsin does, or Minnesota did. He adds also that his Indians "would be greatly stimulated to improve their claims if they could secure the titles for them. They have waited three years since the first allotments were made. It is difficult to make them believe that it requires so long a time to prepare the patents, and they are beginning to fear that they are not coming."

In 1873 the Winnebago are cited as a " striking example of what can be accomplished in a comparatively short time in the way of civilizing and Christianizing Indians. Their beautiful tract of country is dotted over with substantially-built cottages; the farmers own their wagons, horses, harness, furniture of their houses- dress in civilized costume, raise crops and several hundred Winnebago men assisted the farmers in adjoining counties during the late harvest in gathering their grain crop, and proved themselves efficient and satisfactory workmen."

In the winter of 1874 the Wisconsin "strays" were moved down to the Nebraska Reservation. They were discontented, fomented dissatisfaction in the tribe, and in less than a year more than half of them had wandered back to Wisconsin again; a striking instance of the differences in the Government's methods of handling different bands of Indians. The thirty Ponca who ran away from Indian Territory were pursued and arrested, as if they had been thieves escaping with stolen property; but more than five hundred Winnebago, in less than one year, stroll away from their reserve, make their way back to Wisconsin, and nothing is done about it.

In 1875 there are only two hundred and four of the Wisconsin "strays" left on the Nebraska Reservation. All the others are "back in their old haunts, where a few seem to be making a sincere effort to take care of themselves by taking land under the Homestead Act."

The Nebraska Winnebago are reported as being "nearly civilized;" all are engaged in civilized pursuits, "the men working with their own hands, and digging out of the ground three-fourths of their subsistence." They have raised in this year 20,000 bushels of corn, 5800 bushels of wheat, and 6000 bushels of oats and vegetables. They have broken 800 acres of new land, and have built 3000 rods of fencing. Nearly one-sixth of the entire tribe is in attendance at schools. The system of electing chiefs annually works well ; the chiefs, in their turn, select twelve Indians to serve for the year as policemen, and they prove efficient in maintaining order.

What an advance in six years! Six years ago there were but twenty-three homes and only 300 acres of land under cultivation on the whole reservation; the people were huddled together in ravines and bottom-lands, and were dying of disease and exposure.

In 1876 the Winnebago are reported again as " fast emerging from a condition of dependence upon their annual appropriations. Each head of a family has a patent for eighty acres of land. Many have fine farms, and are wholly supporting themselves and families by their own industry. The issue of rations has been discontinued, except to the Wisconsin branch of the tribe and to the sick-list."

In what does this report differ from the report which would be rendered from any small farming village in the United States? The large majority " wholly supporting themselves and their families by their own industry;" a small minority of worthless or disabled people being fed by charity-i. e., being fed on food bought, at least in part, by interest money due on capital made by sales of land in which they had a certain reckonable share of ownership. Every one of the United States has in nearly every county an almshouse, in which just such a class of worthless and disabled persons will be found; and so crowded are these almshouses, and so appreciable a burden is their support on the tax-payers of State and county, that there are perpetual disputes going on between the authorities of neighboring districts as to the ownership and responsibility of individual paupers: for the paupers in civilized almshouses are never persons who have had proceeds of land sales " invested " for their benefit, the interest to be paid to them "annually forever." It is for nobody's interest to keep them paupers, or to take care of them as such.

We now find the Winnebago once more quietly established in comfortable homes-as they were, in their own primitive fashion, in 1822, when Dr. Morse visited them on the shores of their beautiful lake; as they were, after our civilized fashion, in 1862, on the healthful and fertile up-lands of Minnesota. In their present home they seem to have reason, at last, to feel secure, to anticipate permanence, safety, and success. Their lands have been allotted to them in severalty: each head of a family has his patent for eighty acres. They are, in the main, self-supporting.

How does the United States Government welcome this success, this heroic triumph of a patient people over disheartening obstacles and sufferings?

In the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior for 1876 the Secretary says: "As a matter of economy, the greatest saving could be made by uniting all the Indians upon a few reservations; the fewer, the better." He says that there is land enough in the Indian Territory to give every Indian-man, woman, and child-in the country seventy-five acres apiece. He says, "The arguments are all in favor of the consolidation." He then goes on to enumerate those arguments: "Expensive agencies would be abolished; the Indians themselves can be more easily watched over and controlled; evil-designing men be the better kept away from them, and illicit trade and barter in arms and ammunition and whiskey prevented. Goods could be supplied at a greater saving ; the military service relieved ; the Indians better taught, and friendly rivalry established among them-those most civilized hastening the progress of those below them; and most of the land now occupied as reserves reverting to the General Government, would be open to entry and sale."

Here are nine reasons given for removing all Indians to Indian Territory. Five of these reasons ostensibly point to benefits likely to accrue from this removal to the Indians. The other four point to benefits likely to accrue to the Government; the first three of these last are, simply, " saving;" the fourth is the significant one, "gain" "most of the land reverting to the General Government would be open to entry and sale."

It was before this necessity of opening Indian lands "to entry and sale" that the Winnebago had been fleeing, from 1815 to 1863. It seems they are no safer now. There is evidently as much reason for moving them out of Nebraska as there was for moving them out of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Secretary goes on to say: "As soon as the Indian is taught to toil for his daily bread, and realize the sense of proprietorship in the results of his labor, it cannot but be further to his advantage to be able to appreciate that his labor is expended upon his individual possessions and for his personal benefit. The Indian must be made to see the practical advantage to himself of his work, and feel that he reaps the full benefit of it. Everything should teach him that he has a home; a hearth-stone of his own, around which he can gather his family, and in its possession be entirely secure and independent."

The logical relation of these paragraphs to the preceding one is striking, and the bearing of the two together on the case of the Winnebago is still more striking.

In the same report the Commissioner for Indian Affairs says: "If legislation were secured giving the President authority to remove any tribe or band, or any portion of a tribe or band, whenever in his judgment it was practicable, to any one of the reservations named, and if Congress would appropriate from year to year a suns sufficient to enable him to take advantage of every favorable opportunity to make such removals, I am confident that a few years' trial would conclusively demonstrate the entire feasibility of the plan. I believe that all the Indians in Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota, and a part at least of those in Wyoming and Montana, could be induced to remove to the Indian Territory."

He adds "that the Indian sentiment is opposed to such removal is true," but he thinks that, "with a fair degree of persistence," the removal "can be secured." No doubt it can. Later in the same report, under the head of " Allotments in Severalty," he says: "It is doubtful whether any high degree of civilization is possible without individual ownership of land. The records of the past, and the experience of the present, testify that the soil should be made secure to the individual by all the guarantees which law can devise, and that nothing less will induce men to put forth their best exertions. It is essential that each individual should feel that his home is his own; that he has a direct personal interest in the soil on which he lives, and that that interest will be faithfully protected for him and for his children by the Government."

The commissioner and the secretary who wrote these clear statements of evident truths, and these eloquent pleas for the Indians' rights, both knew perfectly well that hundreds of Indians had had lands "allotted to them" in precisely this way, and had gone to work on the lands so allotted, trusting "that that interest would be faithfully protected by the Government;" and that these "allotments," and the "certificates" of them, had proved to be good for nothing as soon as the citizens of a State united in a "demand" that the Indians should be moved. The commissioner and the secretary knew perfectly well, at the time they wrote these paragraphs, that in this one Winnebago tribe in Nebraska, for instance, " every head of a family owned eighty acres of land," and was hard at work on it-industrious, self-supporting, trying to establish that "hearthstone" around which, as the secretary says, he must "gather his family, and in its possession be entirely secure and independent." And yet the secretary and the commissioner advise the moving of this Winnebago tribe to Indian Territory with the rest: "all the Indians in Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota, could probably be "induced to move," they say.

These quotations from this report of the Interior Department are but a fair specimen of the velvet glove of high-sounding phrase of philanthropic and humane care for the Indian, by which has been most effectually hid from the sight of the American people the iron hand of injustice and cruelty which has held him for a hundred years helpless in its grasp.

In this same year an agent on one of the Nebraska agencies writes feelingly and sensibly:

"Nothing has tended to retard the progress of this tribe in the line of opening farms for themselves so much as the unsettlement occasioned by a continued agitation of the subject of selling their reservation and the removal of the tribe. The improvement that has been made at this agency during the past three years in the direction of developing among the Indians the means of self-support, seems to have caused an uneasiness that has been prolific of a great deal of annoyance, inasmuch as it has alarmed this speculative element around us with the fear that the same (continued) will eventually plant the Indians on their present fertile land so firmly that they cannot be removed, and thus they be deprived of the benefits of manipulating the sale of their reservation."

Nevertheless, the Winnebago keep on in their work building houses, school buildings, many of them of brick made on the ground.

In this year (1876) they experienced a great injustice in the passing of an Act of Congress fixing the total amount to be expended for pay of employees at any one agency at not more than $10,000. This necessitated the closing of the fine building they had built at a cost of $20,000 for the purpose of an industrial boarding school.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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