Meskonsing: Cutting the Skin of the Drum
If the torrents of our past atrocities will wash our eyes clean so that we see a clear path toward quenching the present fires, then let those realities rain down on our heads. I think, if we are to heal, they are the tears we must cry…
We arrived with smallpox-infested blankets and alcohol. We came for a fur trade to Europe that decimated animal populations, especially the buffalo west of the Mississippi River. We promised a degraded and suffering population protection of their native rights, if they would just sell their lands to our government. The Indian culture beat on drums topped with skins, and we learned how to cut them.
Wisconsin is the anglicized form of the French misspelling, Ouisconsin, of the original Algonquin name, Meskonsing. My state was once home to the Mississippian and Oneota peoples and the heartland of Effigy Mound Culture. When Europeans arrived in the 1500’s the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo and Pottawatomie tribes were flourishing. Travel around this state today will take you through communities like Milwaukee, Pewaukee, Oshkosh, Menomonee, Oconomowoc, Sheboygan, Manetowoc and Waukesha. The influence of the original inhabitants lingers.
Talk about racism in America often overlooks the horrible treatment of the diverse and rich cultures who called these lands home.
86% (Wisconsin Water Statistics) of Wisconsin is bordered by water. With Lake Superior to the North, Lake Michigan to the East and the Mississippi River running the western border, we are nearly an island; and this almost island contains more than 15,000 lakes and 82,0000 miles of streams and rivers. Fishing is important in Wisconsin.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s many violent clashes occurred in northern Wisconsin between white people and their Ojibwe neighbors. The issue was spearfishing, a culturally significant part of the Ojibwe history and livelihood – one that some white fishermen found threatening. The clashes often involved white protesters throwing rocks and bottles and shouting obscenities at the Ojibwe spearfishers but escalated to overturned boats and shootings of fishing Ojibwe.
Under two treaties, signed in 1837 and 1842, the Ojibwe transferred their entire Meskonsing homeland to the United States federal government. The still-standing treaties were conditional, guaranteeing the Ojibwe the right to hunt, fish and gather wild rice and maple sap on the vast lands they ceded. In 1854 the last treaty with the Minnesota Ojibwe was signed, and the U.S. federal government established permanent reservations for the Ojibwe bands in northern Wisconsin.
The state of Wisconsin believed that it had the right to regulate all hunting and fishing throughout the state and began curtailing those federally granted rights after 1854. In 1901 an Ojibwe, John Blackbird, was arrested and served 30 days hard labor for fishing on a part of Lake Superior connected to reservation lands. His court challenge began a battle that reached a violent peak in 1989, leading then governor Tommy Thompson to a rare personal appeal in federal court for an injunction against spearfishing in the state in order to stop further violence. The court rightly refused to do so on the grounds that the Ojibwe were doing nothing illegal.
Education and correct information are a start down a path toward peaceful coexistence. As it turns out, the Ojibwe intentionally harvest far fewer walleye than they are allowed and only a small fraction of the walleye caught by non-Indian sports fishermen each year. They also run their own fish hatcheries, adding far more fish to the lakes annually than they harvest through spearfishing.
Real equities of spirit and mind, of hope and opportunity, of dignity and respect escape us. If you watch the video below, you will learn the definition of a “timber nigger” and hear the term put into use. They are just words, right? To my ears, those words are devastating, because they signal loudly that brotherly love or even mere tolerance are far from the hearts of people; and those are heartbeats that disparity will always follow. Do you hear the drums beating? The Indian drums? How about the African drums? If we cut the skin, the drum can no longer be beaten. The sound of a culture disappears, leaving us only the monotonous resonating of our foolish pride. Spearfishing is just one in a long line of drum skins that need protecting, and there are many more in desperate need of renewal and repair.
The picture at the top of this post is taken from a vantage point where the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers meet at my birth place of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin – a town born in the heart of the French fur trade. When I wander these lands dotted with the Effigy Mounds that testify to their rich, Indian heritage, my soul is stirred by the lingering spirit of my Indian brother in the beauty of a place whose wild waters will never allow it to be completely tamed, no matter how many drum skins the white man cuts.
Words and Photography ©2016 Tanya Cliff ~ to contact me
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For more history, see: Spearfishing Controversy in Wisconsin provided by the Milwaukee Public Museum.
A clip from the documentary Lighting the 7th Fire about the spearfishing controversy in Wisconsin:
Ojibwe drummers outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison protesting mining bill AB 426 which threatened to destroy their ancestral lands: