Chief Buffalo’s Fight for His People
The Map of History, by Bruce Johanson
By Bruce Johanson
Just offshore near Bayfield, Wisconsin, is Madeline Island. On the northwestern point of it, the community of La Pointe is located.
La Pointe was the location of the lodge of Chief Buffalo, the recognized head chief of the Ojibwa nation.
The grave of Buffalo is located near the marina at La Pointe and even today, it is highly decorated by the local Native Americans. One can visit Madeline Island by taking the ferry boat over from Bayfield and then either drive or ride a bicycle around the island. There is also a nice historical museum in La Pointe as well as restaurants, shops, and a school.
With our R.V. club, the Northern Lights Sams, we visited the Legendary Waters RV Park and Casino at Red Cliff several years ago. In the casino lounge, I had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with Mr. Buffalo, a great-great-great grandson of the famous Chief. There are several families in Red Cliff who have the last name of Buffalo. It was explained to me that the Red Cliff band was separated from the Bad River band near Ashland over religion. The Red Cliff band converted to Christianity, while the Bad River band remained with the medicine men and the original spiritual beliefs of the Ojibwa. This is, of course, no longer the case. Red Cliff is mostly Roman Catholic, while Bad River was Christianized through the work of a Methodist missionary, a Rev. Wheeler. Today, both bands are still separate, but operate the same basic businesses—fishing and casino/resorts.
In 1993, my wife and I chaperoned a trip of Ontonagon school children to Washington. In that more enlightened age, the Capitol building was more open to tourists. When we got to the hall behind the Senate Chamber, I asked the tour guide about the statue of Chief Buffalo of the Ojibwa. The guide looked at me somewhat puzzled. She consulted her manual and found no mention of a Chief Buffalo. I knew, from my own research, that such a statue existed somewhere in the capitol. As we stood in the hall behind the Senate chamber, I saw a bronze bust on a pedestal down the hall, but there was a rope across the hall denying access. Being the way, I am, I lifted the rope and walked down the hall a few paces and there was Chief Buffalo, tucked away in a dark hall looking down at me! The tour guide nearly had a heart attack at my indiscretion, but thanked me for pointing it out to her. Today, one can view this bronze bust online by calling up the bust of Chief Buffalo.
Editor’s note: I did not include a photo of Chief Buffalo. After some searching, I found there to be some confusion as to what photos there are, if any, of the Chief Buffalo that is the subject of this column. For example, I offer this well-written article on the subject.
Now, why was Buffalo (Ke-che-waish-ke) so all-fired important? First off, Buffalo was recognized by the US government as the principal chief of the Lake Superior Ojibwa; a voice who spoke for a united Ojibwa people. Believed to have been born at La Pointe in 1759, he led his people for over half a century until his death in 1855.
La Pointe was not only a major trading center for the French before and during the French & Indian War, but it was considered by the Ojibwa as their spiritual center of tribal government; their capital, so to speak. It was Buffalo who kept the Ojibwa on good terms with the U.S. Government through several treaties…in 1825, 1826, 1837, 1842, 1847and 1854. It is the Treaty of 1854 that has the most far-reaching effect on us today.
President Andrew Jackson instituted the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which resulted in the infamous “Trail of Tears”, involving the forced removal of the Cherokee and the Creek from their tribal lands in Georgia to a point west of the Mississippi. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the Native American nations were subjected to much pressure to abandon their homes and cede their areas to white settlers. In the Treaty of 1842, copper prospectors were allowed to move on Ojibwa lands in search of the red metal, under permits issued by the US War Department. The Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan was militarily occupied with the establishment of Ft. Wilkins at Copper Harbor in 1844. It was under the authority of the Treaty of 1842 that the Copper Boulder was seized by the Federal Government. Chief Buffalo kept in contact with all of his numerous bands to be assured that the treaties he was a party to were being honored by his people.
There was no real reason for removal, but President Zachary Taylor, on the questionable grounds of “protecting” the Ojibwa, signed an order on Feb. 6, 1850, to remove the Indians west to Minnesota Territory. To “encourage” compliance, the annuities to be paid in accordance with previous treaties to the tribes would be awarded at Sandy Lake, Minnesota (roughly 50 miles west of present-day Duluth) instead of at La Pointe. Hundreds of Ojibwa journeyed to Minnesota from the Lake Superior region to await their payments, which came late, along with spoiled food supplies. This, coupled with the severe winter, resulted in the deaths of countless Ojibwa and known as the Sandy Lake disaster.
Buffalo sent appeals to the U.S. government about the matter and managed to gather much sympathy for the mistreatment of his people. Finally, after the spring thaw in 1852, Buffalo, along with a delegation of white supporters, set off for Washington to see the Great White Father. Buffalo and his delegation made the journey to the Soo, then continued by steamer to Detroit and on to Washington via the Erie Canal and New York. A remarkable feat for a man in his 9th decade.
By the time Buffalo reached Washington to see the Great White Father, President Zachery Taylor died suddenly that summer of 1850 and a new President, Millard Fillmore, was in charge.
Fillmore agreed to meet with Buffalo, smoked a ceremonial pipe, and heard the case of the broken treaty promises. President Fillmore cancelled the removal order; had the payment of annuities returned to La Pointe, and sent negotiators to set up permanent reservations for the Native people, guaranteeing specified hunting and fishing rights. As Fillmore promised, the treaty negotiators arrived at La Pointe in 1854. Buffalo was too ill to participate in the ceremonies of receiving the annuity payments at La Pointe in 1855 and died on Sep. 7. He lies near the marina at La Pointe.
Most students of American History in our schools are never informed about the role of President Millard Fillmore who interceded on behalf of the Ojibwa, nor are they taught the story of Chief Kehewaishke (Buffalo) the last leader of the united Ojibwa. Too often, our school history classes concentrate on the western frontier and ignore the fact that there was a northern frontier.
While in Washington, the old Chief was asked to allow that an impression of his face be made in order to fashion the mold that was cast into bronze. Until recently, Buffalo of the Lake Superior Ojibwa was the only Native American honored with his image on display at the U. S. Capitol.