The Sad Legacy of Moose Dung and Red Robe
Part 1 of a 2 part series.
In 1904, the Ojibwe village at Thief River Falls, in northwest Minnesota, was removed to the Red Lake Indian Reservation to the east, much diminished after the tribe’s cession of the land between the reservation and Thief River Falls (known as the eleven western townships—256,152 acres). The Indian cemetery at the village, on a piece of land known as “Squaw Point,” where the Red Lake and Thief rivers meet, was dug up and around 115 remains were taken by barge up the Red Lake River where they were to be “buried at a suitable point on the banks of the Red Lake river just across the reservation line.”1 (Some twenty of the supposedly Catholic remains were reburied at the Catholic cemetery at the Red Lake Agency.) Red Laker Wub-e-ke-niew, in his book We Have the Right to Exist, says that the remains were “dumped”: “The Métis told us that our dead were dumped near where the old Frogs’ Bridge was, but I went and looked, and found no evidence of this.”2 Two issues were involved in the removal, he says: “one of them was the plundering of the graves of my people for ‘artifacts,’ the second was the removal of all physical evidence that the Ahnishinahbæótjibway had ever lived in the area.”3
This site is known at Red Lake as Silent City. It is entirely swamp or marshland, and in 1904, before the river had been dredged, presumably it was even more marshy than it is today. It is hard to imagine that anything could have been reburied in this terrain, even as it is today. It is possible that the barge could not proceed any farther than Frogs’ Bridge, so had to leave the dead there. Another version from Red Lake has tribal elders stopping the barge out of disagreement with the village band, whose chief, Red Robe, had accepted allotment, whereas Red Lake had rejected allotment in favor of keeping all land to be owned in common by the tribe as a whole. This scenario seems unlikely because the village Indians “said they were willing to remove at any time, but would not sign any paper until their head men up at the lake approved of the matter.”4 It is said that moaning can sometimes be heard in the area, but I heard nothing on two occasions. The story of Silent City remains sensitive for Red Lake, and may be fraught with superstition as well. When I mentioned my research to one tribal official, he replied: “Some things should not be written about.”5
Bidding was taken for the removal of the cemetery, and the contract was awarded to Joseph Duchamp, who got $14.50 per body (it is possible that bones were not always kept together, so that more remains could be claimed to have been dug up). The remains were transported on a barge towed by the gas boat the Dan Patch. The translator for the operation was Rudolph Berg, a young Norwegian who left his family at age thirteen to live with the Red Lake Indians in the late nineteenth century.
The removal was the result of a 1902 agreement between the government and the Red Lake Indians, during which the whites pressured Red Lake to cede the land on grounds that so many white people were coming that they could not be stopped, that the Indians weren’t using good land for farming as the whites would, and that few Indians were living on the tract in any case. On June 20, 1904, sales of the land began, most going for four to five dollars an acre. (The highest price paid was $46.50, and that was for “Squaw Point,” where the two rivers meet and possibly the site of the former cemetery.) Less than 40 percent of the land was sold, and the average price was $6.27 per acre. Some eleven thousand dollars of the proceeds that were allotted to Red Lake (expected to be around two hundred thousand dollars) were deducted for the removal of the dead and “improvements,” with each Red Laker to receive approximately $225.6
The Ojibwe village, known as Negiddahmitigwayyung, “Where the Two Rivers Meet,” was located across the river from a tract of 640 acres that Red Robe had inherited when his father Mons-o-moh (Moose Dung) died in 1872. Whites had given Moose Dung the tract, known as the “Chief’s Section,” in gratitude for his help in persuading his fellow Red Lakers to sign the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty ceding 11 million acres of the most fertile land in the country along the valley of the Red River of the North.7
Moose Dung’s Role at Old Crossing
Of the Red Lake delegation to the negotiations at Old Crossing in October 1863, only one chief refused to sign the treaty: May-dwa-gun-on-ind. He left the negotiations after several days and later hiked the hundred or so miles from Red Lake to White Earth to beseech Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple to intercede on behalf of the Indians with Washington. Whipple had described this leading chief from Red Lake as “six feet and four inches in height, straight as an arrow, with flashing eyes, frank, open countenance, and as dignified in bearing as one of a kingly race.”8 The government’s negotiator, former Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey, described this chief and Moose Dung in his report to William P. Dole, Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “It here should be explained that Moose Dung, who was really the most influential of all the chiefs, stood at the head of a party embracing the large majority of all the bands who were favorable to and even anxious for a treaty, while May-dwa-gun-on-ind led a small and surly minority, who were determined, for reasons of their own, that no treaty should be made.” Once May-dwa-gun-on-ind had left, Moose Dung’s role in the negotiations increased, ultimately helping to persuade the delegation to sign the treaty. For that he was rewarded with the 640 acres. It is easy to see why if his comments as recorded by Ramsey are correct, for they come across as more ingratiating than a mere negotiating stance might have called for. Here are a few excerpts:
We were very glad to hear you make so good an offer over and above what you offered for the country east of the line we had fixed. As to the country west, he [May-dwa-gun-on-ind] expected another offer. That was all he had to say to that. Now I want . . . to speak of another thing. I do not mention the name of any chief that I see around me. The idea that I had, and that I always have, is this, and this is the reason that my thoughts run in this way. I have taken the mouth of Thieving river as my inheritance. I do not ask the chiefs here where I shall go. I make my home there. I wanted it for a reservation for myself, but I see you are ahead of me. You want to take these too. [Ramsey claimed he wanted the land at the mouth of the Thief River for road building.] I should have been very much gratified to have had one employé there to work for me. Whether the old man acts with me on this matter I do not know. I used to think that that was the proper place for me to settle; that it would be an inheritance for my children; where all my children could have enough to live on in the future.
Moose Dung kept insisting that he wanted the tract of land including the mouth of the Thief River, but Ramsey replied: “Tell him I don’t care anything about the mouth of Thieving river. He can have it if he wants it.” This in itself showed Ramsey’s arrogance. He acts as if he is giving land to an Indian whose land it already is! The land was neither Ramsey’s nor the U.S. government’s to give.
One by one, the Red Lake chiefs were won over to Moose Dung’s more conciliatory position. Ramsey made his final offer, including annuity payments, money for building houses for the chiefs, various goods, and so on, as well as a ban on liquor in the ceded land, to which Moose Dung responded:
Father, you have hit my heart in the right spot, in speaking of the liquor as you did. That is what I don’t want in my land, because it is the source of trouble and poverty. Father, I accept of the propositions, because I see that I am going to be raised from want to riches, to be raised to the level of the white man. Father, I hope you will do what is right with me, and my young men. I have always found that in holding in, I sometimes get more from my traders. You and the government have used every exertion for a great many years to bring about a treaty; I do not want you to exert yourself in vain; I now give up the tract of country; I hope you will have pity on me, and see that these terms are carried out to the letter, so as not to lead to trouble hereafter.9
After an hour of deliberating over each provision of the treaty, Moose Dung “touched the pen.” There was “great rejoicing in the Indian camp.”
By 1891, Red Robe had begun to lease out or sell parcels of the land he had inherited, mostly to lumbermen, and by 1901 he had lost all of it, so many whites saw no need for Indians to be living there and were glad to see them go in 1904—a sad, even ignominious, end to the brief history of the only parcel of Red Lake land taken as an allotment by a leading member of the tribe.
The entire treaty period was a land grab, and the whites used various stratagems to get their hands on Indian land, including naming pliable men “chiefs” who then became professional treaty signers. As happened with other tribes, the Ojibwe were browbeaten, threatened, lied to, cajoled, and hoodwinked out of most of their land. (Ramsey even threatened the Indians at Old Crossing by reminding them of the mass hanging of Dakota men in Mankato barely ten months earlier.) As the main Red River Valley daily observed about the Old Crossing Treaty:
When this treaty was negotiated, the Chippewa Indian leaders were conned into turning over 11 million acres of prime real estate in Northwestern Minnesota and Northeastern North Dakota for about half a million dollars. As far as real estate deals go, the ceding of the Red River Valley ranks up there with the Manhattan deal, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Alaska deal. It has been characterized as one of the most dishonest and fraudulent deals ever made.10
With the policy of allotment in the late 1880s, Red Robe in effect had to agree to allotment in order to retain his ancestral home. The allotment policy resulted in a reduction of Ojibwe land from 138 million acres to 48 million acres in 1934. The 640-acre Chief’s Section that Red Robe inherited from his father eventually met the same fate and was taken by whites. Although Moose Dung’s private parcel was adjacent to the Red Lake reservation, once his son inherited it and whites began to move into what would become Thief River Falls, it stood in the way of their moneymaking schemes. How could Red Robe, as someone who spoke only his native language, and whose culture had a very different notion of land ownership, be expected to have the skills and knowledge necessary to fend off whites who coveted his desirable parcel? It was they who wrote the laws and were able to use the white court system to validate their theft.11
This brings me to what originally piqued my curiosity: the story of the statue to Red Robe that now overlooks the site of the former Ojibwe village in Thief River Falls.
A Generic Indian
Moose Dung (Mons-o-mo) and his son Red Robe (Mis-co-co-noy-a) both signed the Old Crossing Treaty, the former as a chief, the latter as a warrior. When Moose Dung died in 1872, Red Robe took his father’s name, and became known as both Red Robe and Moose Dung the Younger. This practice was not uncommon among the Ojibwe.12
For the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, the Thief River Falls authorities decided to have a statue built of an Indian chief overlooking the site of the original Ojibwe village. A commemorative button went on sale to help finance the observances. It depicted not the chief but the sawmill of Patrick and James Meehan, the first to lease part of the Chief’s Section in 1891. The fifteen-foot statue was delivered on July 8 and was dedicated on July 10, with Red Lakers in attendance. Following a parade, the program included speeches by cochairs of the Bicentennial commission (Avis Odegaard and Rick Contos), Mayor Bob Carlson, Roger Jourdain, chairman of the Red Lake Tribal Council, and Dan Needham, former tribal treasurer. “Representatives of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians added color and pageantry to the program by performing several dances near the statue,” the local paper observed.13 The chief the statue portrayed was identified as Moose Dung in the plaque, which read as follows:
At the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863 Provision was made for 640 acres of land near the mouth of the Thief River to be given to the Chief of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Indians.
The Chief’s Section, on which a big part of Thief River Falls is located was inherited by Chief Mon-si-moh (also known as Chief Red Robe). In 1879 following a government survey, Mon-si-moh decided the land was too valuable to lie idle and for several years dealt with lumbermen leasing land to them. In 1895 the first sale was made from the Chief’s Section. By 1901 he had sold the last of his holdings.14
This failed to make clear that the parcel of land that became known as the Chief’s Section was originally given to Red Robe’s father, Moose Dung, and makes no mention of the son’s original Indian name, Mis-co-co-noy-a. It also elides aspects of the story that would not make city officials, especially local lumbermen, look very good, since, as soon as whites began to move into the area and it was platted, lumbermen sought to acquire it, which they did, piece by piece, in the 1890s. Several court cases, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, including one by Red Robe’s offspring, upheld the ownership of the land as belonging to him as a personal allotment (even though the policy of allotments was not yet in force at the time of the Old Crossing Treaty when the land was given to his father, Moose Dung), instead of being a reservation (thus it was not considered part of the Red Lake reservation). This meant that Red Robe was entitled to lease or sell his land—which he did—but it also meant that he was obliged to pay taxes on it—which he did not. All this resulted in his ultimately losing the land to whites. By the time the courts had resolved this question there was no land left to pass on to his offspring. It should be noted that the Thief River Falls newspaper at the time was owned by Patrick and James Meehan, who built their lumber mill in the young town in 1892 and who were also among those who ultimately gained possession of Red Robe’s land, so newspaper coverage was biased in favor of the lumber interests.15
The most confusing—and surprising—thing about the statue is that it doesn’t look at all like Red Robe. That led me to wonder at first if perhaps it had been meant to represent his father, Moose Dung, especially since the original plaque identified the man as Moose Dung, without specifying that it was Moose Dung the Younger. Moreover, the Chief’s Section (even if unplatted) had originally belonged to Moose Dung, not Red Robe, and, arguably, Moose Dung was the more significant figure from a historical point of view. Yet the statue had clearly been patterned on a photograph of Red Robe from 1885 because the statue’s clothing is identical to what the chief was wearing in the photograph, including his bandolier bag, the club he is holding, and the two eagle feathers in his hair. And it did not resemble the only photograph of a Moose Dung (Moozomo) I have seen, on the Red Lake Web site. The photo was taken “before 1877,” and since Moose Dung the Elder died in 1872, it seems likely—even if impossible to confirm—that it is of Red Robe’s father. One might reasonably have expected the statue to have been of Moose Dung the Elder, since he was the original grantee, but perhaps city officials decided on Red Robe instead because by the time Thief River Falls was being settled, the father had died, so the son became most closely identified with the tract in the eyes of whites. Still, one can wonder whether either chief really merited having a statue built in his honor, in view of their having taken allotment instead of following the Red Lake policy of holding land in common.
In any case, the statue, which stands in Red Robe Park overlooking the confluence of the Red Lake and Thief rivers, is not an accurate representation of Red Robe himself, but only of his clothes.16
This article presents what I learned in my quest to try to resolve some of the questions surrounding this statue.
The statue was built by Creative Display, Inc., of Sparta, Wisconsin (later, the FAST Corporation). The craftsman who designed it was Jerry Vettrus. Thief River Falls businessman L. B. Hartz headed a committee on the statue and paid for its construction as part of the city’s commemoration of the Bicentennial. Vettrus confirms that he worked from the photograph of Red Robe taken in 1885, but says that it would have cost around a thousand dollars extra to have made the face look like the chief.17 Rick Contos, cochair of the Bicentennial commission, recalls: “I did not have any input after we had (we thought) the proper photo/I.D. for the statue’s appearance; L. B. and his committee members took it from there, the financing, etc. was entirely the prerogative of the Statue/Park committee.” Contos says that when the commission was dissolved, “we were literally broke financially.”18 For some reason, Hartz or others did not wish to spend the extra money to make the statue authentic, so instead Vettrus designed one that kept only the clothing Red Robe was wearing in the photograph. The result was a generic Indian. (The L. B. Hartz Foundation has no records in its files of anything pertaining to the statue.)
Vettrus carved the statue in foam, with fiberglass applied to the carving. (Later, beginning in 1983, the technique changed: a model would be made of plaster, foam, and clay, and a fiberglass casting made and the foam thrown away.) He says that no particular face was specified when he was commissioned to design the statue. He estimates the price for the project at seven to ten thousand dollars. (Today, it would be twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars.) Creative Display was sold in 1982 and the company was moved to Florida.19
It seems odd that Thief River Falls would go to the trouble of having a statue built but not make it look like the figure it is supposed to represent. Can one imagine a generic statue of an important white figure—say, George Washington—that doesn’t even vaguely look like him? Couldn’t another thousand dollars have been raised to make it a true portrait? Why wasn’t authenticity considered essential to the portrayal of Red Robe? Instead, his true likeness was erased. This slight has resulted in the fact—which city officials could not have foreseen—that today there are at least five other statues made from the same mold in other parts of the United States: at the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee; a Big Indian Statue at the Dixie Discount in Franklin, Kentucky; a “Southern Plains Indian” at the Cherokee Inn in Geary, Oklahoma; a “Chippewa Indian” at the Thunderbird Motel in Bloomington, Minnesota (removed in 2006); and another at the Navajo Travel Lodge in Gallup, New Mexico. All of these statues have the exact same face as the Red Robe statue in Thief River Falls, are holding a “tomahawk” in the same position as he does, and have a similar bandolier bag, though other details, such as feathers and designs on the bandolier bag, differ in minor ways.20
The Red Lakers who were involved in the creation of the statue in 1976 (Al Thunder, Dan Needham, tribal chairman Roger Jourdain, as well as Red Robe’s grandson, Joe Sumner, who was interviewed about it at the time by the Thief River Falls Times) are all dead, and there is no record of anyone from Red Lake addressing the fact that the statue was not an actual representation of Red Robe, nor of any objection that instead of portraying the Red Lake chief, it was generic (any old Indian, so to say). Nobody I interviewed (whether Red Lakers or Thief River Falls officials) seemed to find this oddity particularly surprising or peculiar, but I found it bizarre.
Sumner (whose Ojibwe name was Min-ni-wi-gwon-yay-aush, or Good Sounding Feather) did, however, tell the Times in 1976—after the statue had been erected—that he would prefer to have his grandfather remembered as Red Robe rather than as Moose Dung, which he said was a nickname given him as a boy.21 Dan Needham too told the crowd at the statue’s dedication that Moose Dung “was a nick-name given the chief by other Indians.”22 That, however, is not accurate, since Moose Dung was the name Sumner’s great-grandfather had used in signing the Old Crossing Treaty, and when he died, Red Robe assumed his father’s name, becoming known as both Red Robe and Moose Dung the Younger. Mons-o-moh might have been a nickname, but it was not given to Red Robe, but to his father. In the same article in 1976, Dan Needham’s praise for the statue suggests that he and others were either unaware of the fact that the statue did not look like Red Robe (although his photo had been published in the Thief River Falls Times in the serialization of Mosbeck’s article in April 1975) but was instead a generic Indian, or they didn’t consider this important enough to make an issue of:
After all, our chiefs had the foresight to preserve our lands for our children and our children’s children. . . . I am sure that the good people of Thief River Falls will want to go along with us in preserving the memory of Chief Red Robe with dignity, and we hope that the name of Mon-si-moh can be changed to Mays-co-co-nay-yay on the fine statue erected to his memory.23
The Statue Gets Renamed
It took more than twenty years to implement Dan Needham’s and Joe Sumner’s suggestion that the statue be renamed. By 1997, the statue needed a new coat of paint and the plaque was worn, so the Parks and Recreation Board decided to revise the plaque as well, in deference to the wishes of Red Lakers who argued that the plaque was inaccurate by identifying Red Robe as Moose Dung.24 During plans to revise the plaque in 1997, city Community Development Director Stewart noted that he had edited a new text submitted by the “Red Lake Band of Chippewa Historian” (Jody Beaulieu, the archivist), and added: “I do find it interesting that no mention was made of the fact that Meskokonaye [Red Robe] was supposed to have shared the 640 acres with the members of his Band, which he never did, and was, apparently, despised for this.” He gives the source of this information as Bill Hallet, the late Economic Development Director of the Red Lake Band.25
There had been discussion of holding a powwow to inaugurate the refurbished statue, but by the time that happened in August 1997, frustrations on both sides were so great that no powwow took place and not even a report on the event appeared in the Thief River Falls Times.26 The new plaque text removed any mention of Moose Dung and asserted that both father and son were named Red Robe:
At the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863, a provision was made for the retention of 640 acres of land near the mouth of the Thief River by a chief of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. The Chief Meskokonaye (Red Robe) section, on which a large part of Thief River Falls is located, was inherited by his son, who was also known as Meskokonaye.
In 1879, following a government survey, the chief’s son was coerced into leasing land to lumbermen. In 1895, the first sale of land was made from the chief’s section.
By 1901, Meskokonaye had been forced to part with the last of his holdings.27
There are several inaccuracies and possible errors in this text. There is no documentary evidence that Moose Dung the Elder was ever known as Red Robe. He signed the Old Crossing Treaty (with an X, like all fourteen signatories) using the name Moose Dung, and his son signed as Red Robe. When Red Robe took his father’s name after his father died in 1872, he became known by both names. Red Robe was a warrior, not a chief, when his father, who was a chief, was given the parcel. And although the government survey was in 1879, Red Robe did not make the first lease on his land until 1891. But despite the apparent confusion over names, the wording is an improvement over the formulation in the original plaque claiming that he “decided the land was too valuable to lie idle,” so chose to lease and sell it. That formulation had been taken from an article in the local paper in 1895:
Mon-si-moh Jr., evidently decided to not let this valuable tract of land lie idle, and that the inheritance from his father should be made to yield him some of the white mans money. This decision formed, he set about to seek investment for his landed estate.28
The precise boundaries of the Chief’s Section were determined only with the 1879 government survey, and at that point the land was handed over to Red Robe. Whites increasingly began to move into the area. The first lease of Red Robe’s land in 1891 to James and Patrick Meehan was for a ten-foot strip of land off the west bank of the Red
Lake and Thief rivers and stretching the length of the Chief’s Section. In 1894, the same piece of land was leased to another lumberman, Ray W. Jones. The Meehans filed suit against Jones, and Red Robe was caught in the crossfire. Whether Red Robe was coerced, as the plaque states, or duped into leasing the land, he certainly lacked an adequate understanding of the whiteman’s laws pertaining to land ownership, including payment of taxes, leasing, and selling, and so was taken advantage of by men who weren’t about to let ethics and morality stand in their way. This is the case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Meehans.
Red Robe’s own testimony as to how Jones obtained his 1894 lease suggests that he was taken advantage of:
My name is Mon-si-moh. I do not know how old I am, I did not have anything to do with making a lease of a part of a section of land to Ray W. Jones of Minneapolis, Mr. Kellog [sic] used his own words, and read it to me, he asked me if I wanted to lease my land to build a sawmill on, for twenty years he told me he would give me $200.00 a year, I just listened to him and never said a word back.
I did not consent to that proposition. The paper was read to me several times, I just listened to it, and never said a word. I looked to the overseer Mr. Lawler to look after my interests. I told Mr. Kellogg to wait until I went to the lake [Red Lake] to see the overseer up there Captain Lawler the overseer said “if you sign the lease it would not be approved.” The overseer told him if Kellogg wanted to give him anything in advance to sign the lease, fifty dollars was offered to him and he signed the lease, I did not expect that the lease would be approved, if I had thought so, I would have made another kind of lease, I did not think anything about the lease after I signed it as I thought it would not be approved as I was told, I went down to White Earth after I learned this lease was for twenty-five years. I did not want this lease approved, I would not have signed of my own will, the lease—the Jones lease—if it was not for the overseer, he told me it would not be approved, I did not have any say about how the lease would be made up and that is the reason, I made the protest against it, the lease was made up by Mr. Kellogg and I did not have anything to do with making up the lease and that is the reason I did not want it.
Q. You went down to White Earth to make a paper protesting against the Jones lease; did you make any other paper?
A. Yes! I went down and made a lease for Mr. Meehan and I used my will making the lease, I did not use my will in the making of the Jones lease, I do not want anything that I did not have a say in.29
But were both father and son named Red Robe, as the revised 1997 plaque on the statue asserts? This assertion is also made on the Thief River Falls Parks and Recreation Board’s Web site:
After the death of Chief Meskokonaye, Meskokonaye Jr. became Chief and assumed control of the land retained by his father. Chief Meskokonaye Jr. was coerced into leasing a portion of their land to the Crookston Lumber Co. as a landing but unbeknownst to Chief Meskokonaye Jr. the Department of War later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs assumed control of all Indian land held in Trust and they had written a lease for this same land for the same time period to another white businessman. These two white men asserted their rights under lease agreements and challenged each other in court. This case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where it was ruled that Chief Meskokonaye Jr. was indeed the heir to this land and this land was intended to be an allotment rather than a reservation. With this land being declared an allotment, Chief Meskokonaye was declared competent and a fee patent was issued for this land so the Chief could lease, sell or do whatever he pleased with his own land. The Chief was not familiar with the ways of the white world and did not realize that with a fee patent came annual land taxes. He leased the land to the Crookston Lumber Company his original leasor and collected the rent for a number of years. In the meantime, Chief Meskokonaye and his band moved to Red Lake. He continued to collect the rent but his land continued to accumulate taxes against it, finally it was declared tax delinquent and tax forfeiture proceedings were initiated. The Crookston Lumber Company paid the delinquent taxes and took ownership of the land thus the reservation was lost.
In 1976, in time for the Bicentennial, a statue of Chief Mon-si-moh was dedicated. . . .30
The mention of “Chief Mon-si-moh” at the end does nothing to clarify the identification here of both men as being named Red Robe. Quite the contrary.
To be continued...