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Ojibwe Peoplehood in the North American West


Margaret Huettl is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She earned her master’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma in 2010. Currently, she is a University Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where she teaches in Ethnic Studies and is finishing her dissertation, which explores Anishinaabe sovereignty in the United States and Canada during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Could you briefly describe your dissertation?

My project, “Ojibwe Peoplehood in the North American West from 1854–1954,” argues that Anishinaabeg Peoples redefined Anishinaabewaki (the Ojibwe homeland) in the face of Settler colonial programs intended to confine and ultimately eliminate Indigenous sovereignty and identity. Although scholars have usually considered the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—defined by confinement, dispossession, and marginalization—as the nadir of Indian history, I explore the persistence of Anishinaabe sovereignty. Eschewing race and nationhood, ways of thinking embedded in Western European epistemologies, I rely on “peoplehood,” a theory developed by American Indian Studies scholars, to articulate Ojibwe sovereignty. Anishinaabeg, like many of the names Native Americans use to identify themselves, means “the people.” Inherent in peoplehood is sovereignty, which can be understood as a matrix of living relationships with language, land, sacred history, ceremonial cycles, and kinship. Looking west from the center of the expansive Anishinaabewaki homeland, I use as case studies the Lac Courte Oreilles People in Wisconsin, the St. Peter’s or Peguis People in Manitoba, and the Turtle Mountain People in North Dakota. These three Anishinaabe Peoples allow me to consider Anishinaabe peoplehood in a variety of contexts that not only span colonial state borders but also reserve and reservation boundaries. My dissertation explores peoplehood through the themes of treaty making, economic continuity and change, the question of who belongs as one of the People, rights to the land and its resources, nation-building politics, and the continued importance of treaties and reserved rights. By focusing on the period between 1854 and 1954, a period that scholars generally consider dark days of degeneration and dependency, I reveal not a narrative of decline but rather one of dynamic sovereignty.

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The author’s grandfather, LeRoy Kaskisto. This photo was taken in Feb. 1957 when he was 17 shortly after he had joined the Marines.

What drew your attention to this topic?

My dissertation started with my family and the stories my grandfather, an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, told me at his kitchen table. My grandpa has this box. It’s just an old printer paper box with no lid, bent corners, and dust collecting on the bottom. Inside the box are a couple of those tan file folders overstuffed with the records he has collected about his family. He has copies of census materials, birth and death certificates, letters, photographs, comment threads, and whatever other scraps of information he could find in a physical form. He pulled out the box whenever we sat down and got to talking about his people.

On the surface, my family is a success story for settler colonial goals to erase indigeneity. My grandpa’s family left Lac Courte Oreilles by the 1940s to work in the logging industry in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The state of Wisconsin acquired his grandmother’s allotment to build a highway. They never became farmers, but my grandpa grew up speaking only English—his mother learned not to speak the Ojibwe language at the Hayward Indian School ten miles from Lac Courte Oreilles—and he joined first the Marines and then the low-paid wage labor force in Chicago. He learned that being Indian was a bad thing, a thing you kept to yourself and certainly didn’t raise your children to be. My mother, although she is enrolled, grew up with little understanding of what it meant to be Anishinaabe. My sisters and I are not eligible for enrollment. There are no new generations of Indians in our family, which is what the federal government wanted when it implemented the first reservations more than 150 years ago.

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The author’s great-grandmother, Virginia Cornelia Kaskisto. This photo was taken sometime in the 1940s in Amasa, MI.

And yet my grandpa has struggled against erasure. I grew up hearing stories my mother never heard. He brought his grandchildren home to the reservation. That box came with us to the reservation, riding between the front seats of the minivan. My grandpa added some grave rubbings to it during one visit. He made notes on a copy of census records, adding information the federal government had not asked. I added some pictures. Last summer, I found a letter in the National Archives written by my great-great-grandmother, and my grandpa filed a copy of that note in the box. When my grandpa takes the pages out and writes in their margins, when he talks about the people and places, the records document not only dispossession but also persistence. That box was my first archive. It also taught me a lesson that has shaped my research: my family and my People’s past is not a collection of government records—births and death, fractioned and flooded allotments, misplaced accounts. It’s not about the paper; it’s about the stories and relationships that give the words and names and dates meaning.

So my dissertation started in trying to piece together my own history, and that story, of course, is part of a broad network of historical contexts. Other indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Vine Deloria, Jr., Brenda Child, William Bauer, and Malinda Maynor Lowery inspired me to challenge dominant narratives, and they demonstrated methodologies to become both a historian and an Ojibwe scholar. My topic has implications for the history of the United States and for the North American West and transnational studies, but part of me will always be writing for my grandfather.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore your topic?

The first step was finding the right words. I knew I wanted to write about sovereignty, but I didn’t know how. I read a lot of secondary literature that engages Indian nationhood from scholars such as Peter Iverson, Brian Hosmer, Jeffrey Shepard, Maureen Konkle, David Chang, Noenoe Silva, and Malinda Maynor Lowery. These works challenge the dominant narrative of North American history that erases or marginalizes native peoples, demonstrating instead a long history of sovereignty and community strength. “Nation,” however, remains fraught with Western, capitalist, and print-culture connotations that alienate American Indians. I wanted to approach sovereignty from an Indigenous—and, more specifically, Ojibwe—perspective, which meant finding alternative language.

Eschewing race and nationhood, ways of thinking embedded in Western European epistemologies, I settled on “peoplehood,” a theory developed by American Indian Studies scholars including Tom Holm, J. Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis to articulate Indigenous sovereignty. Inherent in peoplehood is sovereignty, which can be understood as a matrix of living relationships with language, land, sacred history, ceremonial cycles, and kinship. Peoplehood provides an indigenous framework for understanding sovereignty that derives neither from territory nor the political centralization of the Western nation-state but from relationships. Using peoplehood as a starting point for my research led me to privilege Ojibwe language, land use, oral tradition, and ways of understanding the past in my writing to illuminate these relationships, which persisted within the context of colonialism.

What kinds of sources did you use?

One of the challenges with Indigenous history is that you’re working with an archive created and curated by non-natives who often failed to understand Indigenous systems of knowledge. The foundations of settler colonialism rest on eliminating indigenous peoples through displacement or incorporation. Archives, by organizing and constructing knowledge, provide a powerful tool in this process. As a researcher aiming to ground my narrative in Anishinaabe perspectives, archival research is often a site of conflict.

The best recent scholarship provides examples of how to combine Native American sources such as oral history with more traditional (to the Western academy) archival sources. I am fortunate that Anishinaabe men and women have been incredibly active in preserving and sharing their own stories. Despite colonial systems such as boarding schools that tried to separate them from their language and history, there are dozens of Ojibwe scholars who have published in English and Anishinaabemowin (the Anishinaaabe language). Last year, for instance, Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark published Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World through Stories, a collection of essays that contains work from nearly two dozen Anishinaabe scholars. I have used this secondary literature as a basis for approaching settler archives from an Anishinaabe perspective.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

One question that needs to be asked is how peoplehood can be useful for native communities today. Native sovereignty in North America still faces attacks at federal and local levels. I hope that my work can provide practical tools to continue to strengthen indigenous sovereignty.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

For me, the most basic message of my dissertation is that Anishinaabe men and women, and indigenous people more generally, can be the center of their own history. Anishinaabe history is interesting and important for its own sake, not only in the service of American national narratives.

By focusing on the period between 1854 and 1954, a period that scholars generally consider dark days of decline and dependency, I suggest an alternative configuration for how scholars understand the relationships between United States and Canadian policies and indigenous peoples in a period of confinement and attempted erasure. My work is part of a conversation about how to balance acknowledging the devastating realities of colonialism with recognizing native peoples as historical agents and the persistence of sovereignty. Native peoples did not merely react; they acted. Continuity coexisted with even the most traumatic change. Moreover, peoplehood redirects the focus away from the European and American imperial centers and borders to indigenous centers and borders, reconfiguring the Great Lakes not as a peripheral borderland but as an indigenous center. Considering this period from an Ojibwe perspective contributes to understandings of the development of the North American West as a center of overlapping and contested jurisdictions, and it highlights the transnational history of United States politics and nation-building more broadly.