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Hole-in-the-Day, Ojibway Chief

[I wish to thank Reverend C. H. Beaulieu of Le Soeur, Minnesota, for much of the material used in this chapter.]

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Indian nations of the Northwest first experienced the pressure of civilization. At this period there were among them some brilliant leaders unknown to history, for the curious reason that they cordially received and welcomed the newcomers rather than opposed them. The only difficulties were those arising among the European nations themselves, and often involving the native tribes. Thus new environments brought new motives, and our temptations were increased many fold with the new weapons, new goods, and above all the subtly destructive "spirit water."

Gradually it became known that the new race had a definite purpose, and that purpose was to chart and possess the whole country, regardless of the rights of its earlier inhabitants. Still the old chiefs cautioned their people to be patient, for, said they, the land is vast, both races can live on it, each in their own way. Let us therefore befriend them and trust to their friendship. While they reasoned thus, the temptations of graft and self-aggrandizement overtook some of the leaders.

Hole-in-the-Day (or Bug-o-nay-ki-shig) was born in the opening days of this era. The word "ki-shig" means either "day" or "sky", and the name is perhaps more correctly translated Hole-in-the-Sky. This gifted man inherited his name and much of his ability from his father, who was a war chief among the Ojibways, a Napoleon of the common people, and who carried on a relentless warfare against the Sioux. And yet, as was our custom at the time, peaceful meetings were held every summer, at which representatives of the two tribes would recount to one another all the events that had come to pass during the preceding year.

Hole-in-the-Day the younger was a handsome man, tall and symmetrically formed, with much grace of manner and natural refinement. He was an astute student of diplomacy. The Ojibways allowed polygamy, and whether or not he approved the principle, he made political use of it by marrying the daughter of a chief in nearly every band. Through these alliances he held a controlling influence over the whole Ojibway nation. Reverend Claude H. Beaulieu says of him:

Hole-in-the-Day was a man of distinguished appearance and native courtliness of manner. His voice was musical and magnetic, and with these qualities he had a subtle brain, a logical mind, and quite a remarkable gift of oratory. In speech he was not impassioned, but clear and convincing, and held fast the attention of his hearers.

It is of interest to note that his everyday name among his tribesmen was "The Boy." What a boy he must have been! I wonder if the name had the same significance as with the Sioux, who applied it to any man who performs a difficult duty with alertness, dash, and natural courage. "The Man" applies to one who adds to these qualities wisdom and maturity of judgment.

The Sioux tell many stories of both the elder and the younger Hole-in-the-Day. Once when The Boy was still under ten years of age, he was fishing on Gull Lake in a leaky birch-bark canoe. Presently there came such a burst of frantic war whoops that his father was startled. He could not think of anything but an attack by the dreaded Sioux. Seizing his weapons, he ran to the rescue of his son, only to find that the little fellow had caught a fish so large that it was pulling his canoe all over the lake. "Ugh," exclaimed the father, "if a mere fish scares you so badly, I fear you will never make a warrior!

It is told of him that when he was very small, the father once brought home two bear cubs and gave them to him for pets. The Boy was feeding and getting acquainted with them outside his mother's birch-bark teepee, when suddenly he was heard to yell for help. The two little bears had treed The Boy and were waltzing around the tree. His mother scared them off, but again the father laughed at him for thinking that he could climb trees better than a bear.

The elder Hole-in-the-Day was a daring warrior and once attacked and scalped a Sioux who was carrying his pelts to the trading post, in full sight of his friends. Of course he was instantly pursued, and he leaped into a canoe which was lying nearby and crossed to an island in the Mississippi River near Fort Snelling. When almost surrounded by Sioux warriors, he left the canoe and swam along the shore with only his nose above water, but as they were about to head him off he landed and hid behind the falling sheet of water known as Minnehaha Falls, thus saving his life.

It often happens that one who offers his life freely will after all die a natural death. The elder Hole-in-the-Day so died when The Boy was still a youth. Like Philip of Massachusetts, Chief Joseph the younger, and the brilliant Osceola, the mantle fell gracefully upon his shoulders, and he wore it during a short but eventful term of chieftainship. It was his to see the end of the original democracy on this continent. The clouds were fast thickening on the eastern horizon. The day of individualism and equity between man and man must yield to the terrific forces of civilization, the mass play of materialism, the cupidity of commerce with its twin brother politics. Under such conditions the younger Hole-in-the-Day undertook to guide his tribesmen. At first they were inclined to doubt the wisdom of so young a leader, but he soon proved a ready student of his people's traditions, and yet, like Spotted Tail and Little Crow, he adopted too willingly the white man's politics. He maintained the territory won from the Sioux by his predecessors. He negotiated treaties with the ability of a born diplomat, with one exception, and that exception cost him his life.

Like other able Indians who foresaw the inevitable downfall of their race, he favored a gradual change of customs leading to complete adoption of the white man's ways. In order to accustom the people to a new standard, he held that the chiefs must have authority and must be given compensation for their services. This was a serious departure from the old rule but was tacitly accepted, and in every treaty he made there was provision for himself in the way of a land grant or a cash payment. He early departed from the old idea of joint ownership with the Lake Superior Ojibways, because he foresaw that it would cause no end of trouble for the Mississippi River branch of which he was then the recognized head. But there were difficulties to come with the Leech Lake and Red Lake bands, who held aloof from his policy, and the question of boundaries began to arise.

In the first treaty negotiated with the government by young Hole-in-the-Day in 1855, a "surplus" was provided for the chiefs aside from the regular per capita payment, and this surplus was to be distributed in proportion to the number of Indians under each. Hole-in-the-Day had by far the largest enrollment, therefore he got the lion's share of this fund. Furthermore he received another sum set apart for the use of the "head chief", and these things did not look right to the tribe. In the very next treaty he provided himself with an annuity of one thousand dollars for twenty years, beside a section of land near the village of Crow Wing, and the government was induced to build him a good house upon this land. In his home he had many white servants and henchmen and really lived like a lord. He dressed well in native style with a touch of civilized elegance, wearing coat and leggings of fine broadcloth, linen shirt with collar, and, topping all, a handsome black or blue blanket. His moccasins were of the finest deerskin and beautifully worked. His long beautiful hair added much to his personal appearance. He was fond of entertaining and being entertained and was a favorite both among army officers and civilians. He was especially popular with the ladies, and this fact will appear later in the story.

At about this time, the United States government took it upon itself to put an end to warfare between the Sioux and Ojibways. A peace meeting was arranged at Fort Snelling, with the United States as mediator. When the representatives of the two nations met at this grand council, Hole-in-the-Day came as the head chief of his people, and with the other chiefs appeared in considerable pomp and dignity. The wives of the government officials were eager for admission to this unusual gathering, but when they arrived there was hardly any space left except next to the Sioux chiefs, and the white ladies soon crowded this space to overflowing. One of the Sioux remarked: "I thought this was to be a council of chiefs and braves, but I see many women among us." Thereupon the Ojibway arose and spoke in his courtliest manner. "The Ojibway chiefs will feel highly honored," said he, "if the ladies will consent to sit on our side."

Another sign of his alertness to gain favor among the whites was seen in the fact that he took part in the territorial campaigns, a most unusual thing for an Indian of that day. Being a man of means and influence, he was listened to with respect by the scattered white settlers in his vicinity. He would make apolitical speech through an interpreter, but would occasionally break loose in his broken English, and wind up with an invitation to drink in the following words: "Chentimen, you Pemicans (Republicans), come out and drink!"

From 1855 to 1864 Hole-in-the-Day was a well-known figure in Minnesota, and scarcely less so in Washington, for he visited the capital quite often on tribal affairs. As I have said before, he was an unusually handsome man, and was not unresponsive to flattery and the attentions of women. At the time of this incident he was perhaps thirty-five years old, but looked younger. He had called upon the President and was on his way back to his hotel, when he happened to pass the Treasury building just as the clerks were leaving for the day. He was immediately surrounded by an inquisitive throng. Among them was a handsome young woman who asked through the interpreter if the chief would consent to an interview about his people, to aid her in a paper she had promised to prepare.

Hole-in-the-Day replied: "If the beautiful lady is willing to risk calling on the chief at his hotel, her request will be granted." The lady went, and the result was so sudden and strong an attachment that both forgot all racial biases and differences of language and custom. She followed him as far as Minneapolis, and there the chief advised her to remain, for he feared the jealousy of some of his many wives. She died there, soon after giving birth to a son, who was brought up by a family named Woodbury; and some fifteen years ago I met the young man in Washington and was taken by him to call upon certain of his mother's relatives.

The ascendancy of Hole-in-the-Day was not gained entirely through the consent of his people, but largely by government favor, therefore there was strong suppressed resentment among his associate chiefs, and the Red Lake and Leech Lake bands in fact never acknowledged him as their head, while they suspected him of making treaties which involved some of their land. He was in personal danger from this source, and his life was twice attempted, but, though wounded, in each case he recovered. His popularity with Indian agents and officers lasted till the Republicans came into power in the sixties and there was a new deal. The chief no longer received the favors and tips to which he was accustomed; in fact he was in want of luxuries, and worse still, his pride was hurt by neglect. The new party had promised Christian treatment to the Indians, but it appeared that they were greater grafters than their predecessors, and unlike them kept everything for themselves, allowing no perquisites to any Indian chief.

In his indignation at this treatment, Hole-in-the-Day began exposing the frauds on his people, and so at a late day was converted to their defense. Perhaps he had not fully understood the nature of graft until he was in a position to view it from the outside. After all, he was excusable in seeking to maintain the dignity of his office, but he had departed from one of the fundamental rules of the race, namely: "Let no material gain be the motive or reward of public duty." He had wounded the ideals of his people beyond forgiveness, and he suffered the penalty; yet his courage was not diminished by the mistakes of his past. Like the Sioux chief Little Crow, he was called "the betrayer of his people", and like him he made a desperate effort to regain lost prestige, and turned savagely against the original betrayers of his confidence, the agents and Indian traders.

When the Sioux finally broke out in 1862, the first thought of the local politicians was to humiliate Hole-in-the-Day by arresting him and proclaiming some other "head chief" in his stead. In so doing they almost forced the Ojibways to fight under his leadership. The chief had no thought of alliance with the Sioux, and was wholly unaware of the proposed action of the military on pretense of such a conspiracy on his part. He was on his way to the agency in his own carriage when a runner warned him of his danger. He thereupon jumped down and instructed the driver to proceed. His coachman was arrested by a file of soldiers, who when they discovered their mistake went to his residence in search of him, but meanwhile he had sent runners in every direction to notify his warriors, and had moved his family across the Mississippi. When the military reached the river bank he was still in sight, and the lieutenant called upon him to surrender. When he refused, the soldiers were ordered to fire upon him, but he replied with his own rifle, and with a whoop disappeared among the pine groves.

It was remarkable how the whole tribe now rallied to the call of Hole-in-the-Day. He allowed no depredations to the young men under his leadership, but camped openly near the agency and awaited an explanation. Presently Judge Cooper of St. Paul, a personal friend of the chief, appeared, and later on the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, accompanied by Mr. Nicolay, private secretary of President Lincoln. Apparently that great humanitarian President saw the whole injustice of the proceeding against a loyal nation, and the difficulty was at an end.

Through the treaties of 1864, 1867, and 1868 was accomplished the final destiny of the Mississippi River Ojibways. Hole-in-the-Day was against their removal to what is now White Earth reservation, but he was defeated in this and realized that the new turn of events meant the downfall of his race. He declared that he would never go on the new reservation, and he kept his word. He remained on one of his land grants near Crow Wing. As the other chiefs assumed more power, the old feeling of suspicion and hatred became stronger, especially among the Pillager and Red Lake bands. One day he was waylaid and shot by a party of these disaffected Indians. He uttered a whoop and fell dead from his buggy.

Thus died one of the most brilliant chiefs of the Northwest, who never defended his birthright by force of arms, although almost compelled to do so. He succeeded in diplomacy so long as he was the recognized head of his people. Since we have not passed over his weaknesses, he should be given credit for much insight in causing the article prohibiting the introduction of liquor into the Indian country to be inserted into the treaty of 1858. I think it was in 1910 that this forgotten provision was discovered and again enforced over a large expanse of territory occupied by whites, it being found that the provision had never been repealed.

Although he left many children, none seem to have made their mark, yet it may be that in one of his descendants that undaunted spirit will rise again.

by Charles A. Eastman
1918