The rich culture of the Ojibwe is alive today in the Bois Forte people of
Minnesota. It continues to nurture and enrich the lives of a proud people.
The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa have made the leap into the contemporary
business world, yet never forget who they are and where they came from.
A short visit with the Bois Forte (pronounced boys fort) members and
leaders gives proof that the culture is very much alive. There is a thread
that runs through the band members that connects them - it's pride.
Community pride permeates the tribe.
A conversation with any Bois Forte member always includes a deliberate
mention of some program, event or person: "You should see our school, we
are really proud of that," is common to hear. New housing, the Fortune Bay
Resort and Casino, the new fire station, new water and sewer, a new
community center and other improvements to the infrastructure that make
life more pleasant for the band members do not go unnoticed.
The culture is not always referred to as the old days or the old ways. The
language is still alive and the third, fourth and fifth graders sometimes
speak it better than their parents, said J. Kay Davis, tribal historian.
The center of the Bois Forte universe is Nett Lake; it's in the wild rice
beds, spirit island and in the water itself. Nett Lake has a spirit that
nurtures the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.
The Bois Forte, like all Ojibwe, are of the Algonquin language group. Other
people inhabited the region long before the arrival of the Ojibwe, which
according to the Bois Forte history was in the 17th century. The Cree and
Assiniboine have a long history in the region.
The village of Nett Lake is located at the end of County Road 23 and is
located 18 miles from the nearest shopping area, the town of Orr. A state
highway also goes through the reservation. But Nett Lake is where life
begins for the some 500 people who reside there. Past assimilation tactics
have failed for the most part on this small reservation, the language is
alive and the culture is very central to the character of the people.
Kevin Leecy, chairman of the reservation tribal council, said it well when
he proclaimed that the culture lives within the people even though they may
be working in a business climate on or off the reservation, or have
completed high levels of education; and he should know.
Leecy worked in the gaming business, acquired a business education, then
returned to the reservation, much the way he would like other young people
to do. He was elected chairman of the band, his first foray into politics
this year and took over in July.
"I am proud to be Indian," said J. Kay Davis, historian for the Bois Forte.
Davis returned to Minnesota and Nett Lake after many years away. The draw
to know her heritage was strong. She brought her knowledge of history and
genealogy back and became an integral part of the community.
"The tribe doesn't know its history. We lost three generations of story
telling. There were 16 chiefs at one time with one band," Davis said.
Some people don't know what band they belong to, so Davis has made it her
job to complete a genealogical study that connects people with the
ancestors, bands and chiefs.
Bois Forte means people of the thick fur woods or people of the hard woods,
or hard people of the woods; not to mean the people are hard, but meaning
hardy and strong willed and determined in order to live in the dense
forests, lakes and sub-zero temperatures of northern Minnesota.
Davis said the band members who lived off the reservation would walk to
Nett Lake because they knew that was where they belonged. They would walk
for two days, meet family members and hold a feast. The same was for the
Lake Vermillion reservation and Deer Lake.
The Chippewa or Ojibwe or Anishanabe of Minnesota came from the
northeastern part of the country more than 400 years ago. They followed a
leader's vision. The vision said the people were to stop migration at a
place where food came from the water. It was unclear at the time of the
migration as to what that meant.
When the tall grass-like plant emerged on Nett Lake and the people
discovered its nutrition and richness they knew it was a sacred plant on a
spiritual lake. Manomin as the Ojibwe named the wild rice, became the
center of Ojibwe life and Nett Lake is one of the most prolific producers
of manomin of any lake in northern Minnesota.
The area was also once referred to as the blueberry capital of North
Albert Regan, the first superintendent, wrote that Nett Lake, with its
7,400 acres looked like a wheat field with manomin growing from shore to
Nett Lake, glacially formed, has a spiritual quality that has become the
life blood of the culture for the Bois Forte people. It supplies sustenance
with the manomin, and an abundance of water fowl frequents the lake. Moose,
bear, beaver, ducks, geese, fish, berries and maple sugar are food sources
for the Bois Forte.
Davis said many band members could not remember the chiefs, who were so
important to the people's survival. She said the chiefs would point to
where the manomin was to be harvested and some held a strong will that led
to return of some of the reservation after treaties ceded most of their
In 1854 the northeastern corner of Minnesota, called the arrowhead, was
taken from the Ojibwe by treaty. They retained the hunting, fishing and
gathering rights to the land. It is said the chiefs of the Bois Forte band
did not sign the treaty, but their names were affixed to it anyway.
Davis said if the chief of Grand Portage and the chief of Nett Lake - who
were brothers - had signed the treaty they would have been killed upon
return to their villages. "Justice was taken care of in the traditional
way. They would have been killed," Davis said.
The 1866 treaty established the Nett Lake Reservation. But chiefs who lived
within the ceded lands refused to move. In 1881 by executive order two more
reservations were established for the Bois Forte Band, one at Lake
Vermillion, another at Deer Creek for a total of 132,000 acres. There are
some 150 residents who live at Lake Vermillion and none at Deer Creek.
The reservations are located next to the Voyager's National Park and the
Boundary Waters canoe area of Minnesota. Off-reservation allotments were
possible and some of the band families lived in what is now the Voyagers
National Park on islands. They lived there until 1924. One such island was
named Wooden Frog for the chief of the same name. John Wooden Frog, who is
alive today, lived on that island through young adulthood. His sister also
survives and they have become valuable assets in telling the story of the
island and life in that region.
For hundreds of years families of the Boise Forte Band gathered at
different times of the year to work, celebrate and visit with family
members. The gatherings were dictated by the seasons. In the fall the
manomin ripens, in spring the maple syrup runs and the sugar camps are
established. In the summer, fish camps dotted many lakes of the region and
when the berries were ripe, the blueberry camps were set up.
The Bois Forte people continued that tradition with many who lived in
different parts of the country returned to Nett Lake for the manomin
harvest. This brought the community together and the connection of families
moved the culture, the language and the spirituality into the future.
Today fewer people return, according to the elders, and even fewer families
harvest the wild rice. The lake is in need of conservation to maintain the
wild rice, and that is under way.
The Ojibwe were nomadic, following the food with the seasons, but by 1920
that nomadic way of life was over and most of the people were ordered to
live on the Nett Lake Reservation. By that time lumber companies, miners in
search of iron ore and others were given rights to reservation land and the
land available to the Bois Forte members was not large enough to maintain
the ancient, nomadic lifestyle. The way of life of the Bois Forte Band
seemed to be at an end.
Boarding schools took many of the children away, far enough so the parents
could not visit. Language was forbidden at the schools, and yet the Bois
Forte people refused to give up. They did assimilate to an extent, but
inside they kept the spirit of their ancestors alive. The Bois Forte people
are survivors who practice contemporary business procedures, utilize modern
science to save their special lake while incorporating technology to
educate and make progress. All of this is accomplished with a solid
emphasis on the culture.
As the chiefs of old directed the harvesting of the wild rice to ensure its
preservation, the Bois Forte leaders use the same wisdom, which is intended
only for the good of the people.