The Bois Forte Ojibwe in Voyageurs National Park
The long-established network of trade among native Indian tribes determined the course of the fur trade. Europeans followed Indian traders west, moved along the same routes, used the same transportation, adopted the trading customs of the Indians and established forts at strategic points where tribal rendezvous were customary.
Ojibwe groups, now identified as the Bois Forte Ojibwe, were the primary, if not sole, local Native American inhabitants from the 1730s through about 1940. Most fur-trade related sites in the park are probably associated with Bois Forte occupation rather than Euroamerican inhabitants.
The Ojibwe were the primary fur producers for the Hudson Bay Company’s Lac La Pluie post at Chaudiere Falls (now International Falls/Fort Frances) in the 19th century. The Ojibwe traded furs and provisions for American-made goods.
Fur traders not only traveled the waterways but camped, fished, hunted or lived among local Indian groups. Beyond the mere swapping of furs and goods, the trade resulted in the exchange of ideas, languages, worldviews, commodities, practices, technologies, diseases, and genes.
The Ojibwe (or Chippewa) who came to occupy the vast land of northeastern Minnesota were known as the Sug-wun-dug-ah-win-in-e-wug or men who live amongst the thick fir woods. To French fur traders, they were known as the Bois Forte, or strong wood, a name by which they are still known today.
The Voyageurs region remained the heavily-used core of their territory even after they relinquished this and other huge tracts of land through treaties with the U.S. Government in 1854 and 1866 that resulted in the creation of area reservations.
Four Bois Forte bands and over 100 individuals had their primary homes within what is now the park. They participated in largely traditional settlement and subsistence activities on the park’s lakes into the 20th century.
The American side of the border remained essentially unsettled by Anglo-Americans until the discovery of gold on Rainy Lake in 1893. Permanent settlement sparked by the brief gold rush had lasting impacts on the Bois Forte.
Bois Forte families and groups—changes in the concept of land ownership--took advantage of allotment options, homestead claims, land purchase, and other opportunities to live off the reservation and maintain settlement in their traditional homeland.
Many factors combined to make it impossible for the Bois Forte to continue to occupy off-reservation settlements after the 1910s:
By the mid-1920s, large numbers of Bois Forte people continued to return seasonally to the border lakes when trading of blueberries became highly commercialized.
By the 1940s, the blueberries “dried up.” Only a handful of Bois Forte people, mainly the Woodenfrog and Rottenwood families near Gold Portage and Joe Whiteman at Moose Bay on Namakan Lake, still occupied the park area by then.
Today the Bois Forte people are organized under a 1939 tribal government structure and live primarily on and near the Nett Lake Reservation south of Voyageurs. Two tracts of land held in tribal trust and three tracts owned by Bois Forte families, place names and numerous archeological sites provide tangible evidence for the Bois Forte’s 200-year occupation of the border lakes.
The Bois Forte people retain a strong connection to traditional lands in the park: