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  • Old-Time Origins of Modern Sovereignty:State-Building among the Keweenaw Bay Ojibway, 1832-1854

In June 1965 Michigan Conservation Officer Richard Beach cited William Jondreau, a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community kbic, for violating state fishing regulations. Jondreau had accidentally caught some lake trout in his herring nets and brought them ashore instead of throwing them away. Later in court, Jondreau told the judge that he did not approve of the state rules that caused him to waste fish and asserted that, in any case, he did not have to obey those laws. As a Keweenaw Bay Indian, he had treaty rights to fish that superseded state authority. Jondreau's rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court of Michigan several years later. Meanwhile, Indians from all over northern Michigan and Wisconsin began treaty right fishing. The fishermen's motives were many, but their actions raised questions about hundred-year-old social and economic relations between Ojibways and whites and allowed the Indians to redefine their political situation.1

Treaty fishing forced whites to reexamine Ojibway history and the origins of native sovereignty. Many whites dismissed Indian rights as the creation of activist liberal judges, left-leaning intellectuals, and manipulative attorneys. Even well-informed people, Indian and white, have often misunderstood the historical bases for Ojibway sovereignty and the full implications of modern treaty right claims.2

This article examines a brief period of Lake Superior Ojibway history in detail. It describes the territorial dimensions of usufructuary rights and tells how one Ojibway community at Keweenaw Bay, William Jondreau's home, reorganized itself as an Anishnabe state in the 1840s and early 1850s. It argues that this state-building grew out of Ojibway efforts to defend their rights and resources through an assertion of [End Page 165] sovereignty. State-building developed in opposition to federal removal policy. It was guided by the experience of other Indians, especially the Mississaugas and Cherokees, and shaped by the advice of Mississauga Methodist missionaries. It probably reflected a familiarity with John Marshall's Cherokee decisions. More generally, state-building drew upon the Keweenaw Indians' sense that they were, in fact, sovereign people.

In 1832 army lieutenant James Allen sailed the south shore of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie to Fond du Lac as a military attaché to Henry Schoolcraft's expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River. An experienced traveler and careful observer, Allen kept a journal in which he noted natural features, flora, and fauna and described the Indians living along the coast. He found the Indians' situation deplorable. They struggled in poverty. With game animals depleted, they relied on Lake Superior fish for food from late spring through fall. But in the winter they could not support themselves. The traders fed them. Otherwise, many would go hungry, and some might starve.3

Allen noted the difficult situation of the Keweenaw Bay Ojibways who depended on the resident American Fur Company trader, John Holiday, for food and supplies. The Indians had no means of paying Holiday for the goods he provided them. Their only abundant resource, Lake Superior fish, had no market value in the early 1830s. Holiday fed the Ojibways knowing he would not be repaid. An old-style trader who had married an Indian woman, he could not suffer to let his friends and relatives struggle through the long Lake Superior winter. By the late 1820s, the Indians relied on Holiday's continued generosity for their survival. As Anishnabe debts rose, Holiday's profits fell. He could see that animal populations had declined, but he blamed unfair competitors such as George Berthkeht for his economic woes. Berthkeht enticed the Ojibway trappers with alcohol. The Indians would seldom bring their furs to him, Holiday thought, when they could get liquor from his rival. Even worse, they kept drinking and brawling and would not trap until they drained the last drop. Holiday watched the people's degradation with dismay. No doubt, members of the Indian community spoke with him about the people's woes, and his superiors in the fur company had warned him to shore up his declining business. So, in the early 1830s...


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