8/09/2013

The Saga of Chief Hole in the Day

Chief Hole in the Day
As a native of Minnesota, I would frequent our vacation land every summer, camping, fishing, and golfing, etc. Along the drive from Brainerd to Nisswa, about 140 miles north of Minneapolis, I would pass a scenic highway named Chief Hole in the Day Drive and I always wondered what type of Indian chief would be called Chief Hole in the Day? Red Cloud, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Cochise are obviously the strong names for great chieftains, but who or what was Hole in the Day? Teachers never mentioned Chief Hole in the Day in elementary or high school. Of course, schools at that time taught little of the Native American point of view. For years, nothing would come up in Internet searches. But the name stuck in my mind and I recently Googled Chief Hole in the Day. Today schools and roads bearing his name abound and many pages of content have been published about his story. And quite a story it is, fodder for a good novel.
Minnesota Reservations
Chief Hole in the Day was a Ojibwa Indian of the Pillager Band residing at the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in the late 1800’s. His true Indian name was Bugonaygeshig. Translated into English, it came out as Hole in the Day. More aptly it might have been translated too Hole in the Sky, which is also used. In the native tongue, Bugonaygeshig is a reference to the constellation we call the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades, which might be visualized as a hole in the sky. He gained fame by leading the last Indian uprising and armed confrontation against US troops on record at the Battle of Sugar Point, October 5, 1898.

Sunset on Leech Lake, MN
Trouble started when the Pillager Band of Chippewa (Ojibwa) on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation contracted with lumber companies to harvest “down and dead” timber as a source of income for the reservation. Lumber companies were often slow to pay for harvested timber and cheated the tribe by under estimating the value and the amount of timber taken. Unscrupulous loggers even set fire to healthy trees so they could claim them as dead timber. Chief Hole in the Day protested these disreputable business practices and complained to the local Indian Services. They responded by marking him as a troublemaker and taking him into custody. The agents did not charge him with any offense, but took him to Duluth to testify in a trial concerning an Indian bootlegging operation. After being forced, to testify he was abandoned in Duluth, over 100 miles from home, forced to walk back to the reservation. I am guessing he was out of their hair for several many weeks.

Five months later on September 5,1898, they attempted to seize the chief again. This time he managed to escape and fled to his home at Sugar Point, a small peninsula in the northeast corner of the expansive Leech Lake. The U.S. Indian Agent, Arthur Tinker requested aid from Fort Snelling and twenty regular army troops were dispatched to the reservation. When Hole in the Day refused to surrender, seventy-seven additional troops, commanded by Brevet Major Melville C. Wilkinson were sent as reinforcements. With larger numbers, the army invaded Sugar Point, but was unable to find the chief, who apparently fled. Soldiers began searching the surrounding woods and neighboring villages to arrest any tribesmen with outstanding warrants. Finding only a few old men, women, and children, they noted it was strange there were no young, able men in the area.

Who fired the first shot is still in dispute. According in one account a soldier’s rifle accidentally discharged and was answered by gunfire from Indians hiding in the forest. Indian accounts say soldiers fired at a canoe on Leech Lake carrying several women. Regardless of how it started, gunfire from the woods surrounding Sandy Point erupted around 11:30 am. The soldiers could only hunker down and retreat to a lakeside cabin for cover. Major Wilkinson lost several men and was wounded in the leg. He took another bullet to his abdomen at the cabin and died shortly after. Gunfire slowly decreased as evening fell. By morning the Indians seemed to have dispersed, but took one more life when a soldier was killed trying to dig up potatoes from a garden.

The soldiers, devastated by a mere force of eighteen Indians, marched to Walker, Minnesota with seven dead, and fourteen wounded. Not one Pillager was killed or wounded (on record). Chief Hole in the Day was never captured. The skirmish raised fears of an uprising. Minnesota’s National Guard was mobilized in response, but the Indians dispersed into the deep forests of northern Minnesota. The day after the battle, the Cass County Pioneer newspaper published this letter received from the chiefs of the Pillager Band.

“We, the undersigned chiefs and headmen of the Pillager Band of Chippewa Indians of Minnesota …respectfully represent that our people are carrying a heavy burden, and in order that they may not be crushed by it, we humbly petition you to send a commission, consisting of men who are honest and cannot be controlled by lumbermen, to investigate the existing troubles here… We now have only the pinelands of our reservation for our future subsistence and support, but the manner in which we are being defrauded out of these has alarmed us. The lands are now, as hereto fore, being underestimated by the appraisers, the pine thereon is being destroyed by fires in order to create the class of timber known as dead or down timber, so as to enable others to cut and sell the same for their own benefit.”

Several days after the incident the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William A. Jones negotiated with the Pillager leaders at a tribal council. Afterward he criticized local officials for “frequent arrests for trivial causes, often for no cause at all, and taking them to Duluth or Minneapolis for trials, two hundred miles away from their agency.” I cannot help but think that this well-written, civilized, logical letter  sent to the Cass County Pioneer newspaper helped defuse the issue. Still, there is a note of humility and sadness in the letter that moved me.





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