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Chippewa, Lac Courte Oreilles Band History

A brief history of time, treaties, and traditions

The Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation was established by the treaty of 1854 securing an amount of land the "size of three townships" (69,000 acres) for the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Chippewa (a.k.a.Ojibwa) Indians. The treaty was the result of a near uprising by the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa when the US government reneged on an earlier agreement and wanted them to move west. The Chippewa, along with the Potowatomi and Menominee tribes, simply refused to be pushed out of Wisconsin.

The Lac Courte Oreilles band was perhaps more fortunate than other displaced Indian tribes during the times of advancing white settlement in the US. The shores of Lac Courte Oreilles and other villages established in the vicinity had, after all, been their home for more than a century by the time they signed the treaty securing it as theirs forever.
Indeed, this area had been inhabited by various tribes for more than 700 years! It had been a center of habitation for centuries with good reason: fish, game, furs, wild rice, blueberries, and maple syrup all were in abundant supply here.

Lac Courte Oreilles, meaning "Lake Short Ears," was once known as Ottawa Lake before the French fur traders renamed it. The French name apparently refers to some difference in the ears of the Ojibwa Indians who occupied its shores - not for the shape of the lake. The Chippewa who eventually settled around Lac Courte Oreilles had migrated from the Atlantic Coast where population pressure had caused increasing battles and confrontations with the Iroiquois Indians of that area.

Pushing steadily westward by way of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, the Chippewa band first arrived at the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior just off the coast of present-day Bayfield, WI. Here they established a permanent settlement on Madeline Island, the largest of the 22 islands. Following their nomadic instincts they pressed on to the mainland then south in exploration. Chippewa hunters encountered and battled the indigenous Dakota Sioux for domination of the rich hunting grounds they found in northern Wisconsin.

In 1745 the founded a village on the east shore of Lac Courte Oreilles. In time they drove the defending Sioux across the Mississippi into what is now Minnesota.
Now the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Chippewa had the bountiful fish, game, and furs to themselves and, for the most part, did not mind the French traders who came soon after to barter goods for beaver pelts the Indians supplied.

If the French influence among the Lac Courte Oreilles band introduced the idea of Catholicism, it was the missionaries of St. Francis Solanus who reinforced it with a mission church and school built on the reservation in the 1880's. From 1918 to 1925 this mission was run by the very first Indian priest in America, Father Philip Gordon. It was he who oversaw the building of the beautiful pipestone church that is still in use there today.

With the logging operations in full swing here between 1880 and 1900, and white settlers pushing into the North woods wilderness for cheap land even before that, intermarriage between white men and Ojibwa women was common. European surnames, particularly French ones, abound on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation to this day -- a reminder of the fur traders, lumberjacks, and farmers who made their homes near and among the Ojibwa people.

Except for the Mission cemetery, though, today's Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation offers few structural reminders of its past. In the imposing shadows cast by the LCO Casino & Convention Center, the LCO College, WOJB Public Radio -- and in the rumbling progress being forged by LCO Development trucks - its hard to imagine the Ojibwa wigwams that dotted the eastern shore of Lac Courte Oreilles more than 200 years ago. But the age-old cultural influences-the traditional Chippewa dances, costumes, songs, and lore - these are still very much alive.