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

Posted in human rights & history. Bookmark the permalink.


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:

71 thoughts on “Meskonsing: Cutting the Skin of the Drum

      1. yes beautiful lovely sweet Soul ,Tanya we are doing it and see we have no expectations while doing it and this is the best way Souls do….love with nothing to get in return,care without wanting anything in return…thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I find this story fascinating on several levels. In 1847, a group of Choctaw people in the state of Oklahoma, on hearing of the plight of native Irish starving in the devastation of the potato blight and subsequent famine, raised $170 and sent to Ireland for the relief of those starving people. The issue of ‘race’ puzzles me, too. When did the Irish become a ‘race’, for example. Yet, discrimination against people based on their geographical origins, religious beliefs, culture or skin colour is, more likely than not, to be considered racism, today. There’s a monument close to where I live, it’s a sort of ‘folly’, with a statue of the Virgin Mary, the date 1929 and the inscription that it was erected by the people of the locality to mark the centenary of Emancipation. The ’emancipation’ it speaks of is the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, that allowed Catholics to pursue their religion without fear of discrimination or persecution, hitherto, for the 100 years prior to that, set in a collection of draconian laws imposed on Irish people by their British rulers, called the Penal Laws, which had variously limited, for the native Irish, ownership of property, religious and educational rights and even the speaking of their own language. The common link in all of this, is not religion, culture, geography, race or language, but greed. The dominant party wipes out the subjugated culture, for gain in land and resources. Plus ca change, c’est plus, las meme chose.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Absolutely. Greed is at the heart of an attitude that refuses to look at other people in the context of being our human brothers. If you visited northern Wisconsin and could see how vast those disputed waterways are, the idea that protesting could go on at any one of those disputed piers was ludicrous. It comes down to a form of control that centers around greed. The federal treaties with the Indian Nations are still valid. Until we start looking at people as equal and valuable human beings, all the treaties and laws in the world are never going to solve it. Looking at the past through a clean and honest lens is maybe a start. Thanks for sharing the piece of Irish history. These issues are global.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! I think we try to put thin patches over wounds without really understanding the blunt tools of our lives that cause those wounds in the first place. We have to be able to look at the past honestly, or we will never heal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely tragic. I’m ashamed that our United States government treated our NATIVE AMERICANS so horribly. The way they were treated is shameful discrimination and bigotry. THEY WERE HERE BEFORE AMERICA WAS EVEN AMERICA! Beautifully written history lesson, Tanya. I’m saddened by the stories of these beautiful people and their struggles to thrive, fish and hunt and provide for their families. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Beautiful, stunning words, Tanya–“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.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, Steven! Love is the believer’s great command, not our loose suggestion for acceptable behavior. It isn’t all that complicated, yet look at all the damage that’s been done. In the video they show a clip of a hawk catching a fish out of the water with its talons – spearfishing. If you drive along the Mississippi River, you can sometimes watch a bald eagle do the same. What God provides for a bird, who are we to deny to a man. Part of the war against global bigotry and discrimination is looking at the issues honestly. If we can do that, maybe we will start making inroads…I hope and pray.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Jennie! This one has been on my heart for a while, I just wasn’t sure how to approach it. The riots in Milwaukee shook me out of my doldrums. We simply have got to do a better job in caring about and for our human brothers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating and informative article posting, Tanya! A good bit of rich history here, both about the land and the Indian inhabitants. Of course the story is made even more interesting by the superior writing! Thank you for sharing these details on some very important issues.


    Liked by 2 people

  4. A fascinating read, Tanya. Regarding spearfishing, I recall similar disputes in the ’80’s in my old stomping grounds of southern Ontario, specifically Napanee and Deseronto. There was a lot of fuss and furor that Mohawks had an unfair advantage over licensed non-natives in that they could fish earlier than the observed season. From what I took from it, they never fished more than they needed, and were well versed in proper walleye management. Small towns, big story, and I remember wondering why there was so much intolerance. And I still wonder.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much, Steven! From my perspective, if raptors can pull fish out of the water with their talons, why would we ever complain about a few Native tribes spearfishing. It’s just ignorance. The larger issue is the disputed ceded lands that federal treaties give the tribes the right to harvest off of. A lot of that land is now private or restricted in some way. We can do better by all our minority citizens, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Amir! That means a lot to me. This is a heart issue for me, and I’m just beginning to test out my writing voice in this area that moves my soul. It was really important to me to get it right.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You have a gift of bringing history alive. And in this political season, cautionary historical reminders of the evil of racism, intolerance and corruption are badly needed. America seems to be tail-spinning into a renewed age of McCarthyism and demagoguery seduction. Feels like we are on the edge of a dystopian era, masked as greatness. While the plight of the native Americans seems so distant, the civil rights era is not so far away, and both demonstrate the depths of depravity man falls without the light of Truth as a guide.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, my friend. I agree completely. I will admit that I thought of the present political situation when I watched the video clip. The ignorance and hatred in people is sometimes astonishing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You share such valuable information that would likely remain unnoticed. It doesn’t affect people’s lives in a tangible manner and therefore loses relevance until we realize the desecration of cultures has no beginning and therefore, no ending. The customs we believe today will exist for all eternity will become the next lost customs equivalent to artifacts and residue. It is our responsibility to share and honor all life and all customs that have been part of our evolving existence. All the hard work you put into writing this article helps remind us and reinforces this important message.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Jonathan! I also hope it reminds people to treat others as brothers in all aspects. We won’t heal until we do that, I think. I know we will never get there completely, but certainly we can do better.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a moving piece, many emotions evoked in me. As one whose heritage was denied, once long bound by shame, a shame I will never understand, I recently was able to get my First Nations Status card. I am so proud of these roots. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking read.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thinking about what you went through, I can’t imagine it. Indoctrination into beliefs system is on point without a doubt, but the way I look at it, it is right there for us to see. I ask myself, but why where we all given brains? If we cannot see the obvious. I don’t think it is in our nature at all, I think our nature is just clouded by selfishness and greed that we fail to be human when we should be.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s for sure Tanya. Thanks for sharing this informative article. My dad says to us when we complain about learning things outside our interest. “No knowledge is wasted”👍👌

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting. I think there’s a danger history can be skewed or romanticised but it’s damned hard to see that particular episode any other way isn’t it. So brutal, such a vulgar clash of belief systems.
    I went on a bushcraft course where they showed us some Ojibwe animal traps. Very elegant and clever. I love the language too and those place names you listed. Beautiful phonetics and intonations. It’s easy to see why people look to the past for answers now. But alas much of it is erased. More power to those men trying to keep the song going though. They have nothing left to lose now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment. The Ojibwe traps would have been fascinating to see. I think, when we hear people complain about discrimination, it can be easy to just dismiss them. When we see it for the ugly thing it is up close and personal, maybe we look differently at it. We all bleed red.

      Liked by 1 person

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