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A Compendium Of History And Biography

Of The Aboriginies Of The Red River Valley


Janine Rustad

Senior High Division


"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and the most misunderstood Americans of us all." (1) They defy any single definition, share no common language and few common customs. They were far to individualistic. Yet, even though we don't understand Indian culture, their history is our history and it should be part of our heritage.

Like a bird watcher would single out one species, a person interested in our Indian heritage should start with one tribe. The Ojibwa history and biography is an interesting story for the people of our area.

All Indians belong to the Mongoloid stock. However, as birds have different plumages, there were tribes which naturally tended to have different characteristics. There were those who were tall and spare; those who were short and stocky; and those who tended to be fat. Generally, they have straight black hair and high cheekbones, with little hair on their bodies. Their skin colors differ just as whites do. There are many stories of Indians who were red in color. This is not true. Some were dark to the point of being brown; others were as light as an Italian, but unless they were freshly sunburned or painted, they were never red. Indians do not have the mongoloid slanted appearance of the eyes, so scientists place them in a special group called the American Mongoloid.

At the height of the American Indian population, there were a great many Indians living in the Red River Valley. Occupation of Indians in this area stretches back 20,000 years. Modern dating methods have recorded Indian artifacts to be two to twelve thousand years old.

According to tradition, the Ojibwa (a branch of the Chippewa) of northern Minnesota originally came from the East, but in the mid-seventeenth century they settled in the land of the upper Mississippi. They supplemented hunting and fishing by tapping maple trees in the spring, picking berries through the summer, gathering rice each fall, and the making of Pemmican, which is dried meat, marrow, and berries pounded in suet.

The Chippewa became the region's first tribe to receive from the white traders and after 1670, they began driving their bitter enemies, the Sioux, from the land. Pushed from their homes, the bands of Sioux formed new tribes and they withdrew south of the Minnesota River. In 1815, after thirty years of nonacceptance of the sovereignty of the United States, they signed the Treaty of Prairie Du chien, thus settling their age old differences, even if only temporarily, with the Chippewas.

The Ojibwa had many significant languages for their people. Examples coming from the biography of Indians of the Pembina band and Red River Tribe are as follows:

Deb-we-wi-dum-ok: Sounding voice woman

En-i-wi-ga-bow: The great prophet to the Pembina band

Ke-me-wum-nis-kung: A warrior

Ma-me-ne-gnaw-sink: A hunter

Ne-te-wa-cum-ig-in: Expert walker

O-ke-may-we-nine-ne: Great hunter son of Wah-ka-zhe who killed nineteen moose, one bear, and one beaver all in one winter

Sha-gwaw-koo-gink: Introduced the cultivation of corn to the valley

Sha-dee-wish: Bad Pelican (Son of the earliest known Ojibwa chief)

Ta-bush-ish: Warrior who bit off nose of Wa-me-gon-a-buun in a brawl

Indian language involved much more than the "Ughs and Howes" heard in motion pictures. Indians lump a number of ideas into one word, so it becomes almost a whole sentence. Several words mentioned above have one meaning for a long word. Indian grammar is very complicated. The words have two plurals, one meaning "Things Bunched Together" and the other meaning "Things Scattered Around."

The most interesting and perhaps the most significant factor in the Ojibwa nation is their beliefs in folk lore, magic, and omens.

There were many signs for the Indians in determining when the cold weather was to hit. The sky was an important study, for their beliefs included that if a certain three stars stayed close together to keep warm, or if the sun went down a brilliant red, then the weather would turn much colder. After months of winter weather, it was a welcome to see a strong March wind as a harbinger of spring.

Storms figured prominently in the weather lore of the Indian. There was a concern if the sun went down in a cloud or if the moon appeared in the sky like a powder horn. A wolf howling around the wigwam, heat lightning in the southeast, a dream about a thunderbird all foretold an oncoming storm.

The Ojibwa were well acquainted with the roots, herbs, and barks that could be used for teas, poultices, or charms in curing a disease. Their medicine men affected cures by means of practicing psychology and slight of hand performances. A common method was the swallowing and regurgitation of small bones. In this manner, the evil spirits causing the sickness were driven out.

There were many different types of charms the Indians believed in. Examples of these are the protective charms of infants, love charms, charms for good fortune, evil magic charms, and omens. Omens were a very peculiar belief. If an Indian felt a touch on his shoulder, it meant that someone was coming to visit him or that his pack would be billed with game. If his mouth shook, he was going to cry, or hear bad news. If his leg jerked, it meant that he would be killed. We also hear such omens as this: a person who sees a place where a mole has burrowed under ground will meet a misfortune. (2)

Not long ago, there was an archeological find along Highway 11 between Belan and Greenbush. The find indicates that people were in this area as early as 6,000 B.C. These people were believed to be Paleo Indians. Geologists working with the State Highway have found 4,371 pieces of chert, 55 tools of crude knives, projectiles and chips.

These findings are what we know to be called Indian artifacts. Indian artifacts are anything that prehistoric people have made that has survived to the present. This rules out many items of perishable material, such as, bone, wood, and fabrics. Indian artifacts come under three classifications. They are weapons, tools, and ceremonial objects called problematicals.

Ceremonial objects can be very beautiful and symbolic. Historians guess that the actual use of these articles is anything that serves no other known useful purpose. Stone or pipestone articles were made into turtles, birds, animals, or pipes. Many of the ceremonial pipes on display were actually made by the Hudson Bay Company and sold to the Indians.

Tools were a very important part of the Indians survival. They were used in daily activities, such as, the grinding of corn, skinning animals, or chopping a tree. Pestles or mullers are an example of a cylindrical shaped stone used for pounding and powdering vegetable matter into meat in the making of Pemmican. Grooved stones were used for fish nets and hammers. Hobble stones were used for hobbling horses and scrapers were for the cutting of meat away from the hide of an animal.

A commonly used artifact important to the Indians was the arrowhead. Prehistoric man fashioned arrowheads of stone or bone for the use in hunting and warfare. The Indians used flint, jasper, chert, basalt, agate, gabbro, obsidian, and slate for the making of these instruments.

To make an arrowhead, the Indian would first split off places on a large stone using a heavy rock or boulder as a hammer. He then selected a piece of the stone of suitable size and thickness. Grasping it tightly between the palm and finger tips of one hand, he pressed the upper side of the stone near one edge with an ivory or bone tool. This process removed a small chip from the underside of the arrowhead, and he repeated the process until the stone took shape.

Indian arrowheads differ in size, shape, thickness, and surface finish. They vary in length from one half to two inches, usually notched for tying on the shaft of an arrow. Archeologists recognize the different types of arrowheads made by Indians of different regions. They also noted that iron was used instead of stone when white traders furnished it.

A type of arrowhead which ranges from two feet to two inches is called the spear points. Celts or small axes are another artifact that can be classified both as a tool and as a weapon. They were very light, making it possible for the Indians to carry them while hunting. A larger axe was used for chopping trees or chopping holes in the ground.

A basic step for the making of any artifact is, of course, the finding of the right materials. Mentioned below are five of the main stones for making arrowheads.

Chert: Chert is an opaque, fine grained, siliceous stone which has varying proportions of lime, magnesia, and iron oxide in it. An essential quality in which it is characteristic of, is its opacity, and its next to exceeding fineness of grain.

Jasper: Jasper is a mixture of quartz and iron oxide, and is formed in colors of white, yellow, red, brown, and black. It is harder than a knife, and scratches glass. A jasper-like stone called flint is also used in making arrowheads.

Quartz: Large amounts of arrow points in Minnesota are of vitreous quartzyte evidently derived from the veins in archean rocks. This quartz, being transparent and pure, usually has its structure broken by many seams causing it to vary from opaque white to grayish.

Obsidian: Obsidian is a natural glass formed when hot lava from a volcano or an earth fissure cools quickly. It contains the same chemicals as granite, the chemicals being melted together. Most obsidian is black, or black with red streaks.

Gabbros: This is the crystalline rock often called granite. Its essential ingredient is labradonite feldspar. It is of igneous origin.

Our family has hunted Indian artifacts for many years. My father started all of us when we were three or four years old. We'd go out on a Sunday afternoon and walk for hours at a time on freshly cultivated land. Of course, at the age of four, an hour of walking was like three hours, so we usually had to be carried to the car, where we waited for the rest of the afternoon giving the rest of the family time to collect as many arrowheads as they could.

Indian arrowhead hunting is a very satisfying hobby. It takes patience and a lot of energy to walk for hours just to find two or three arrowheads. But when one is found, every member of the family knows about it. The usual phrase yelled across the field would be, "Look what I found," or "I found one" and everyone would come to see what your "Find" was.

Our family has found almost 1,000 arrowheads. When my father was about twelve years old, he found his first arrowhead, rabbit hunting. He soon learned more about what he found and became very interested in all Indian artifacts. The interest carried from father to children making our family very aware of Indian culture in Kittson County.

To study the history of an Indian or even a tribe of Indians would be a very complex process. But it is essential. A statement John F. Kennedy once made serves to be helpful in getting people to see the importance of the history of the Indians.

"Before we can set out on the road to success, we have to know where we are going, and before we can know that, we must determine where we have been in the past. It seems a requirement to study the history of our Indian people. Only through this study we as a nation can do what must be done if our treatment of the American Indian is not to be marked down for all time as a national disgrace." (3)

(1) Kennedy, John F., American Heritage of Indians, p. 7

(2) Coleman, Bernard; Fregner, Ellen; Lich, Estelle; Ojibwa Myths and Legends, p. 112

(3) Kennedy, John F., "Introduction", American Heritage of Indians, P. 7


Aboriginies of Minnesota, p. 126, 127

Rustad, Alfred; Interview, February 23, 1975

Tunis, Edwin; Indians, p. 23, 24

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indians of the Dakotas, p. 5

World Book Encyclopedia, volume 1, p. 126, 127