1. Chief Busticogan, an Ojibwe, lived near the Big Fork River in what is now Itasca County, some 200 miles north of the Twin Cities. The head of the Nett Lake band was a magnanimous man, who disregarded his own peril in order to save the lives of those who brought ruin to the wilderness and its indigenous inhabitants.
Around 1900, the Chief and his wife came upon a logging camp. Smallpox ravaged the whole lot of settlers. The couple buried those already dead, and they fed, cared for, and nursed the surviving sick back to wellness.
Busticogan's heroic efforts would eventually be recognized by the federal government, which gave him a grant of land as a token of gratitude. In 1910, after watching the lands surrounding his pillaged by timber companies, the elderly Busticogan traveled to Washington, D.C. to voice his disapproval.
He died in his sleep in a boarding house in the nation’s capital. The Chief had been given a kerosene lamp. At bedtime, he blew out the flame, but didn't shut off the gas. By morning, inhalation of poisonous fumes killed Busticogan.
Today, there's a cartoon-like statue built on private land in downtown Big Fork. The figure, with an angry countenance, is holding a sign in its right hand, reading: "BIGFORK HEAP GOOD TOWN."
Various websites advertise Chief Busticogan as the most photographed "Indian" in Minnesota.
2. More than 200 years ago, Ojibwe and Dakota warriors fought near present-day Battle Lake, 20 miles east of Fergus Falls. Ojibwe Chief Wenonga led about 50 warriors into battle against an enemy whose numbers were unknown. By the time the fighting ended, only a handful of Wenonga's men survived, including the chief.
Nothing celebrates human carnage like a statue and a party: Chief Wenonga Days is an annual two-day affair in July, with a parade, craft fair, and turtle races.
Wenonga's ripped fiberglass likeness stands 23 feet tall on Lake Avenue in downtown Battle Lake. The statue has a tomahawk in one hand. His right arm is raised, as if saluting. Perhaps it's an eternal homage to the turtle races.
3. Chief Nanobouzou wasn't a man. Nanobouzou is a power, a main character in Ojibwe stories that played a heavy hand in creating the earth and water. In downtown Bemidji, there's an updated spin on the legend of the native spiritual force.
The statute of Chief Nanobouzou towers above Bemidji Avenue. It's no accident that Nanobouzou was placed across from the well known statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
Nanobouzou and the lumberjack are mortal enemies, so the story goes. Nanobouzou, tired of the lumberman killing the trees and turning them into building materials, took him to task, assaulting Bunyan upside the head with a fish. As punishment, the Native American victor was sentenced to a life saluting the jerk who symbolizes the defilement of his land.
The massive bare-chested statue with ponytails salutes the asphalt and weekend visitors alike. Next to the figure, a gift shop retails modestly priced dreamcatchers and coffee mugs that say "NATIVE" with the "A" replaced with the state of Minnesota.
4. The Thief River in northwest Minnesota has earned its name. The Dakota Sioux tried to steal the area from the Ojibwe. The Dakota's plan was found out before they invaded, and the Ojibwe routed them, then aptly named the real estate the "stolen-land river" after its distinguishing feature.
Years later, the territory would be thieved. Chief Moose Dung persuaded other Native American leaders to sign the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty. The agreement ceded 11 million acres of fertile land along the Red River Valley. The government's negotiator was none other than former Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey, who the year prior, had declared "the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."
If he couldn't massacre the Ojibwe, Ramsey sure as hell was going to do all he could to send them packing.
Red Robe, Chief Moose Dung's son, assumed his father's name when the elder died in 1872. By then, the land grab was on.
In 1976, as part of the city's commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial, Thief River Falls' officials decided to commemorate how the Native Americans got screwed. They erected a statute of the younger Chief Moose Dung overlooking the site where the original Ojibwe village once sat.
It's bad enough the statue is an antiseptic rendering of a Native American, looking just as much caucasian as Ojibwe. It’s more so because of the plaque beneath the effigy, which stands in Thief River Falls' Red Robe Park. It speaks of the history more in businesslike terms than in one people's systematic extermination of another, reading how Native Americans were smart in signing the treaty because they understood "the land was too valuable to lie idle."
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