In Minnesota, Ojibwe recall horror of ancestors' death march

James William III and his father, Jim Williams
James Williams III (red shirt) and his father, Jim Williams (gray shirt), canoe to the northwest landing of Big Sandy Lake Wednesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Ojibwe stories passed down over generations say the west side of Big Sandy Lake appeared white from a distance in the summer of 1851, like it was covered in snow. But it wasn't snow.

"It was as if the snow was still there because you had bodies wrapped in birch bark and the hill was still white," said Jim Zorn as he and others paddled Wednesday across the lake to a memorial site commemorating one of the darkest times in Ojibwe history.

More than 400 Native Americans died in the winter of 1850 after the government failed to deliver promised food and treaty payments at Big Sandy Lake. Tribal members now gather every summer to remember what some call the Wisconsin death march.

Before that year, Ojibwe gathered in the summer at Madeline Island in Wisconsin to collect treaty payments, said Zorn, executive administrator of the 11-band Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. But in 1850, as part of an effort to remove the Ojibwe to Minnesota, the Native Americans were ordered to come to Big Sandy Lake at the end of October to get their payments.

Lac Courte Oreilles chairman Mick Isham Jr.
Lac Courte Oreilles chairman Michael "Mick" J. Isham Jr. speaks during a ceremony near the shore of Big Sandy Lake Wednesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

More than 5,000 Indians made the trek from parts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But there was nothing waiting.

"No provisions, no annuity payments," said Gerald DePerry, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

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"People waited for it to come in. People getting sick, people dying; 150 people died. Still no annuity payments," he said. "Late fall, early winter, people said, we're heading back home; 250 more people died on the way home. That's tragic."

Some historians blame Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota's territorial governor at the time. He lobbied the federal government to bring the Native American tribes to Minnesota, hoping to capture the economic benefits of the federal treaty payments for the state, Zorn said.

But failure to deliver promised food left the Native Americans starving and susceptible to disease as winter set in.

Ojibwe Indians join in song, dance at Big Sandy
Ojibwe from multiple bands join in song and dance during a ceremony near the shore of Big Sandy Lake.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The Big Sandy story was mostly forgotten for more than a century. It got new life when historians wrote about it as part of the Mille Lacs Band treaty lawsuit against Minnesota in the 1990s.

Few people know about the Big Sandy Lake tragedy, because it's rarely a part of the historical narrative for Minnesota, said Sean Fahrlander, a Mille Lacs Band member who lives in Wisconsin.

Fahrlander says the suffering of the Ojibwe who died here in 1850 led to political change and treaty rights that still benefit Ojibwe today.

"The Minnesota-Wisconsin border isn't a dividing line for me. Ojibwe land is wherever I'm standing at, that's Ojibwe land," he said.

The story of Big Sandy is spreading among Ojibwe bands and helping fuel a growing desire to exercise the treaty rights promised more than a century ago, Fahrlander added.

A memorial was built at Big Sandy 150 years after the tragedy. Since then, Ojibwe gather each year to canoe across the lake and hold a ceremony. By early afternoon Wednesday about 150 people gather for a feast, prayers and songs amid sporadic rain showers.

"It's somewhat bittersweet because you're here to remember folks in circumstances that were just horrendous," said Zorn. "But you come away with a sense of affirmation, of community, of rebirth. We use this to get strength to face difficulties in the future."

Remembering the tragedy can help deal with collective cultural trauma that afflicts Native American people, said Mick Isham, chair of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band in northern Wisconsin, told the crowd.

"As we pass on the stories so that we remember, we also have to pass on the fact that hey, we survived," he said. "Those were some tough, tough times. And we're actually pretty darn strong."

Correction (July 28, 2016): In an earlier version of this story, Richard Lafernier was misidentified in a caption. The story has been updated.