The Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa have been an important part of Northwoods cultural history since the early eighteenth century. However, the tribe has not always been treated with the respect it has earned, and the era of allotment is a particularly painful memory. Historian Gary Entz has the story.
The Dawes General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act, was Congressional Legislation designed to break up First Nations Reservations and redistribute the land among individual tribal members. The purpose behind the Act was to speed assimilation of Native Americans into white culture by encouraging them to establish family farms. While the original intent of the Act was sincere, it was misguided and made worse by the fact that lobbyists and speculators modified the bill into a massive land grab even before it got out of committee.
While the Act passed Congress in 1887, it was implemented on a tribe-by-tribe basis thereafter. Without exception, whenever the Dawes Act was administered to an indigenous tribe, the cultural damage was severe. It stripped sovereignty from tribal governments, it enforced the specious notion of blood-quantum rules, it divided tribal peoples into factions, and by taking land it impoverished communal cultures and detribalized many people.
In 1903 the Secretary of the Interior deemed the Lake Superior Chippewa to be ready for allotment. This included the Lac de Flambeau band of Ojibwe. The Reservation was divided up into individual allotments not to exceed eighty acres of land. The land was carved up in a checkerboard fashion to hasten the demise of the Reservation. Land in-between the allotments was put up for sale to land speculators.
The impact of the Dawes Act was the same in the Northwoods as in other places. It devastated tribal communal culture and left the people of Lac de Flambeau in poverty. The Ojibwe were vulnerable to those who would take advantage of their unfamiliarity with U.S. land laws, and in this way sacred sites like Strawberry Island were lost as predatory speculators moved in to take the best lands.
Few people cared and little help was offered until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and under Collier’s guidance the Indian Reorganization Act was passed as part of the larger New Deal legislation in 1934. The Indian New Deal ended the Dawes Act, but by then the damage had already been done. A 1936 survey revealed that 25 million additional acres of land were needed throughout the country to permit Native Americans to support themselves on the same level as a poor rural white family.
Wherever allotment had taken place, Indigenous peoples were left with the most marginalized land. This was true at Lac du Flambeau as well, where many tribal members were landless and living in abject poverty. In fact, the survey singled out the Lac du Flambeau Reservation as being “the most hopelessly checkerboarded Reservation” in the entire country. The ravages of allotment had left nearly all Reservation land alienated from the tribe. Most of the desirable shore fronts had been taken over by whites and used for resort hotels or cozy summer homes. All of which was surrounded by poverty.
The Indian Reorganization Act helped Lac du Flambeau reorganize its tribal government and started the decades-long process of land re-acquisition and economic development. It is a process that is ongoing even today.