History of the Ojibwa People and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Tribe

KBIC & Ojibwe People History

Clan symbols of the Ojibwe

The history of the Ojibwe people is interwoven with the history of North America. The Ojibwe people interacted with the first white men who came to North America from the earliest days. As a result, their history is vibrant and plays itself out in a most colorful manner. There is evidence that these people met with Jacques Cartier, Fr. Marquette, and Fr. Allouez in the 1500s, when the interior of America was beginning to be explored by the Europeans. 

In the 1600s and 1700s, the French were the primary traders with the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi (all consider themselves members of the 3 Fires) and have their roots from a common background as their language is Algonquian. The Ojibwe people constitute the most prominent Indian group north of Mexico. The French made alliances with them, often engaging them within their struggles with the English and their allies - the Iroquois. The enmity between the Ojibwe and the Iroquois precedes European influence. Thus the alliances for trade and warfare was a natural alliance between two groups of people who had long struggled with each other.

France and England fight for control of Canada

Much of the fight involved the fur trade that both the Iroquois and the Ojibwe wished to dominate. As a result of French alliances and the trading of furs for goods and arms, the Ojibwe made a decisive push against the Lakota people who once lived in Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. First, driving them out of the entire Lake Superior Basin and finally out onto the Dakotas and Iowa plains. Only when the Lakota people took to horseback were they able to drive the Ojibwe from the plains. They never did regain any of their previous territory in the Lake Superior Basin. In 1825, William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition engineered a Treaty between the Lakota and the Ojibwe, establishing the general boundaries for the tribes. This treaty failed almost immediately, and the tensions between the Lakota and the Ojibwe continued until 1862.  When the Americans finally pushed the Lakota out of Minnesota during the Minnesota Valley Uprising.

The American Revolutionary War had little impact on the Ojibwe people, but the aftermath of the war did. After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolutionary War, the Treaty of 1785, or the Ft. McIntosh Treaty, became the first treaty between the US Government and the Ojibwe. It established American authority in Ohio and set a boundary between white and native lands. However, after this failed to affect the encroachment of whites into the Ohio and battles broke out between the new settlers and the Ojibwe, the treaty of 1789 or the Ft. Hamor Treaty pushed the boundaries further back. 

Many alliances continued to exist between different Native American tribes. Some were in concert with the British, who wished to retain control of Ohio. Others lived to fight the Americans who continued to move Westward, and others existed to fight their tribal enemies. When the Jay Treaty of 1794 was made between the US and Britain, Britain abandoned all alliances with the different tribes and pulled back into Canada. From this point, the US government saw Native Americans as an enemy to be defeated. Therefore, whenever possible, the government would relocate Native people further and further West. The Ojibwe narrowly escaped this fate in the mid-1800s and was one of the rare peoples who were never relocated.

Treaty of 1854

As the story of copper in the Copper Country unfolded in the early 1800s, the Treaty of 1826 was signed.  Some leaders of specific bands of Ojibwe tribes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota gave the government the right to "search for, carry away, any metals or minerals from any part of their country. This treaty established the precedent of allowing a select minority of leaders to voice the opinions of many whom they had no right to speak for.

The local Ojibwe people of KBIC never lived in one location. They were bonded together through their relationships as intermarriage took place within their different clans.  As the Ojibwe were hunters and gatherers of food, they did not identify themselves with a specific location as they did in their identity as Anishinabeg (The People). As treaty after treaty ceded land, the Ojibwe never identified as their possession but rather a place in general where they lived.  The final Treaty of 1854 created the reservation lifestyle and finalized the ultimate defeat of a once-proud people. 

The Transition to Reservation Life

This would eventually erode all the cultural leadership of the through the clan system.  It forced centralized community and minimized the role of the hunting and gathering communal ways.  It sought to create an agrarian culture from a people that had never lived this way. Not only did the treaties mentioned above finally forced the people into centralized areas and limited their access to the land, but private ownership of land, which was always something foreign to the Ojibwe people, was forced upon the Ojibwe by the US Government. The Dawes Act of 1887 broke up the reservations into individual allotments of land. Due to inexperience with agriculture, many native people, forced by increasing debt, sold their parcels of land and went to work as laborers in the woods. Others were defrauded out of their land by greedy predators. Today the KBIC reservation looks like a checkerboard with individual allotments, Tribal land now being purchased when available, and property owned by non-native people dominating the reservation map.

Three significant communities (Zeba, L'Anse, and Baraga) dominate the KBIC reservation today. While L'Anse is the French word for "bay," Baraga derives its name from one of the most influential Christian missionaries ever to bring Christianity to the Ojibwa people.  Bishop Baraga came from Ublana, Slovenia, one of the Balkan states. He was born in 1797, and after becoming a priest and spending several years in pastoral work in Slovenia, he made his way to the United States in the early 1800s. His first missionary work was in the Lower Peninsula amongst the Ottawa people - one of 3 groups of people belonging to the Three Fires of People who consider themselves one people - the Anishinabeg. Then, after establishing several solid Christian Native American people in Grand Rapids and the Traverse City area, he traveled to Lake Superior and LaPointe, Wisconsin. He ministered there for several years and eventually found his way to L'Anse and Baraga. Thus, he came to the Ojibwa people at a critical historical time.


The US Government was interested in relocating all Ojibwa people of Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to Kansas. In 1850 President Zachary Taylor ordered their removal, but his death that year postponed the implementation. This allowed time for the opposition to organize. Baraga, along with many Ojibwa chiefs, fought politically for the Ojibwa people to remain in their lands. Taylor's successor, Millard Fillmore, rescinded the order, and the government then needed to assign reservations. Within this historical context, the Treaty of 1854 at LaPointe was signed. The Lake Superior Ojibwa gave up seven million acres in exchange for six reservations.  These reservatiosn would provide too small to support them. It took twelve years and eight additional treaties to finalize the Ojibwa reservations in Minnesota.

Bishop Baraga championed the peoples' rights, recognized that the way of life they once knew was ending, and began to help them, within the confines of their new realities, make the necessary living adjustments. His work helped the local Ojibwa maintain their dignity, moved them into decent housing, and began an education system that eventually faced significant obstacles. But, unfortunately, the US Government embarked on various programs to destroy the people as a community.