Tales of Konteka and Buffalo
The Map of History, by Bruce Johanson
Stories and legends about O-Kun-De-Kun (Konteka) have floated about the local area for years, and we will present what we have gathered here, though we make no promises of accuracy or historical authenticity.
Con-de-Con (alternative spelling) was the village chief of the Ontonagon/Iron River band of Ojibwa. In his later years, Konteka recalled actually traveling to the Straits when the great Ottawa War Chief Pontiac (Pondiak) had called for war on the British. Konteka remembered the men of the Ontonagon band taking part in the massacre at Fort Michilimackinac that happened on June 2, of 1763. Given the year of Konteka’s death in 1859, it is entirely possible that the aged chief could recall the trip to the straits as a young child. Please keep in mind that to the Native Americans, there were 13 moons, or 13 months to a year, so the manner of reckoning years is somewhat different from what is used today. Konteka also claimed to remember the mining attempts by Alexander Henry near the Ontonagon Boulder site in 1772.
It is reported that in his younger days, Konteka had a serious altercation with a black bear near the Ojibwa Village’s landing on the river. When he was discovered, he was nearly dead, his flesh having been torn from his back and sides so that his rib bones were exposed. The dead bear was found nearby, having been stabbed several times. Jesuit Monks found Konteka and brought him to his wigwam and tended to his severe wounds. The old chief, whose totem was said to be the bear, continued to lead the local band of Ojibwa well into advanced age. He reportedly visited with William W. Spalding at the Union Mine location in the Porkies, and continued to oversee the hunting grounds of the local Ojibwa which were bounded by 14 Mile Point on the east, the Porcupine Mountains on the west, and at least as far as the Baltimore River to the south. Beyond those limits, other bands claimed the hunting and fishing rights.
Among the individual Ojibwas who collaborated with the white man was a young warrior called Wabish-ke-pe-nace (White Bird). White Bird, according to the tale, helped Territorial Governor Lewis Cass find his way to the rest of his party when he became lost in the woods on his way to visit the Ontonagon Boulder. White Bird was presented a medal for his assistance and having shown the way to the sacred rock to the whites, he was thereafter ostracized by the others, and he lived a lonely life.
Konteka, as already stated, died in 1859 and was succeeded by his son, of the same name. Unfortunately, Alexander Condeacon (his white name) died near Rockland at the National Mine site in 1881, a victim of acute alcoholism. The burying ground of the local band was on both sides of the mouth of the Ontonagon River, and actually in several places within the present-day village of Ontonagon.
A cache of Native American bones was discovered years ago at a high point in the village. The remains were sent to Michigan Tech for analysis, and it was determined that there were no fewer than four individuals in the same grave, the largest clan burial ever found west of Sault Ste. Marie. The remains were returned to the Ontonagon County Historical Society and attempts to have them claimed by the Bad River Band failed. The bones were turned over to the Keweenaw Bay Band (KBIC) who arranged the ceremonial interment.
The Bad River band was first approached about the matter, as a goodly number of the local Ojibwa band has moved on to Wisconsin. Dr. Joseph Rose, Professor of Native American Studies at Northland College, stated to this reporter that he is a blood descendant of Chief Konteka of the Ontonagon Band.
The Ontonagon/Iron River band was only one of many bands of Ojibway who lived at or near the lakes region. Konteka was a sub-chief to the great Chief Ke-Che-Waish-Ke, more commonly known as Buffalo. The fame and fortunes of Chief Buffalo deserve telling in our next installment.