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The Assassination of Hole in the Day

 by Anton Treuer, Borealis Books, St. Paul, Minn., 2010, $25.95.

 Corrupt Indian agents and traders preyed on government annuity payments to the Minnesota Ojibwes (also known as Chippewas) and exerted control on the reservation. In 1868 a cabal of white and mixed-blood traders and businessmen from the town of Crow Wing, including Charles Ruffee, Clement H. Beaulieu and Robert Fairbanks, hatched a plot to assassinate Ojibwe Chief Bagone-giizhig (“Hole in the Day”), a man who wielded significant influence and was adept at blocking the traders’ efforts to bilk his people.

The assassination, perpetrated by members of a rival band from Leech Lake who were offered $1,000 each but never paid, occurred just two miles from Bagone-giizhig’s Crow Wing home as the chief left for Washington, D.C., to treat with President Andrew Johnson and members of Congress. A year earlier Bagone-giizhig had successfully negotiated a clause in the 1867 treaty that formed the White Earth Reservation, stipulating that “no part of the annuities provided for in this or any former treaty with the Chippewas of the Mississippi Band shall be paid to any half-breed or mixed blood, except those who actually live with their people upon one of the reservations.”

The clause was a huge diplomatic victory for the shrewd leader, one that completely circumvented the more Americanized mixed-blood traders that lived in two-story houses separate from the village. These traders had been highly successful in both directly claiming annuity payments and making claims against other Ojibwes’ annuity payments for goods they purportedly supplied. Author Anton Treuer contends that the mixed-blood traders were not a monolithic group, and that the traders endeavoring to defraud the Indians identified themselves as white, not as Ojibwe or Métis. Adding a finer point to fellow Ojibwe historian Melissa Meyer’s findings in The White Earth Tragedy, Treuer argues: “It was not the government or corporate interests that carried out the evisceration of the Ojibwe people at White Earth. From the earliest phase of removal through the land-allotment period and beyond, it was the white and mixed-blood traders.”

Treuer could just as easily have titled his book The Diplomacy of Hole in the Day, for the chief’s diplomatic actions cast him as a protagonist and, Treuer argues, an example for building new leadership paradigms on the White Earth Reservation today. Hole in the Day, at the 1847 Treaty of Fond du Lac, asserted his leadership before the chiefs of the various Mississippi Ojibwe bands—Gull Lake, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and Sandy Lake— by brazenly claiming he possessed sole ownership of the land, and thus only he could sell it to the Americans. He also appealed directly to white sentiments in speeches and letters, including one speech at the Presbyterian Church in St. Paul that lambasted Governor Alexander Ramsay for his role in the 1850 allocation of rotten rations.

Removing mixed-blood traders loyal to white interests from the annuity roles proved his most successful diplomatic venture—and also his downfall. With Bagone-giizhig out of the way, conspirator Charles Ruffee became Indian agent at White Earth and put Clement Beaulieu and sons in charge of the annuity and allotment lists. For decades they made fortunes selling Indian allotments to timber and land speculators. Treuer’s tale is a tragedy to be sure, but also an invaluable study of one powerful Indian’s resistance to encroaching whites.


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here