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'A big log in the road': Famed Ojibwe chief leaves checkered legacy 150 years after assassination

Chief Hole-in-the-Day the Younger (Bagone-giizhiig in Ojibwe) poses for an undated albumen print photo. Reputed as both a formidable negotiator and polarizing leader of the Objibwe, Hole-in-the-Day's life and death played a large part in shaping the Brainerd lakes area. Submitted photo / Crow Wing County Historical Society1 / 2
Chief Hole-in-the-Day the Younger (circa 1825-June 27, 1868) stands as an influential and mercurial figure during a period of upheaval for Minnesota's Native American communities. His life -- marked by his role as a staunch representative for the Minnesota Ojibwe, as well as his controversial ambitions -- came to a violent end June 27, 1868, near Gull Lake. Submitted photo / Crow Wing County Historical Society2 / 2

BRAINERD, Minn. — "They said Hole-in-the-Day was like a big log in the road, too high to get over, too big to go around."

Or so the Brainerd Dispatch reported Tuesday, Aug. 11, 1912, from the testimony of Kah-ke-gay-aush, then 73, of Big Bend. At the time, Kah-ke-gay-aush was recounting the assassination of Chief Hole-in-the-Day the Younger — one of the most prominent and recognizable faces of the Ojibwe people in Minnesota, gunned down and executed by a band of assassins in the road on June 27, 1868, near the current site of the Fisherman's Bridge off Gull Lake. Each of his killers were reportedly rewarded a crisp $1,000 and a new house for the deed.

Last Wednesday marked the 150th anniversary of the famed and controversial Ojibwe chief's death.

It was a moment in time that characterized the age — the relinquishing of the land from Native Americans to white settlers, a murky era when the Brainerd lakes area was part of a brand-new state barely a decade old, more of a wild frontier with conflicting authorities. There wasn't a city of Brainerd yet to call it the Brainerd lakes area in the first place.

Now, a century and a half later, a "big log on the road" may remain an apt description for the man — because, when one looks back at the history of the area, Chief Hole-in-the-Day remains something of an inescapable presence. His life and his death fundamentally shaped much of what the Brainerd lakes area is today, Brainerd historian Jeremy Jackson said during a phone interview, Tuesday, June 26 — to say little of the ramifications for the Ojibwe people of Minnesota all the way to the present.

However, at the surface level, most people only come across him through his namesakes, he said.

"There's two lakes in the Brainerd lakes area named for him, there's Hole-in-the-Day Bay (on Gull Lake), there's a Hole-in-the-Day Drive up by Nisswa," Jackson said. "It's sometimes interesting to find out who's the person behind these names."

Mixed reputation

Who was Hole-in-the-Day the Younger? He was a chief who held sway and largely represented the interests of the Ojibwe in Minnesota — though, his local and strongest ties remained with the bands in what is now the Brainerd lakes area, said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University who has written extensively on the subject.

"It was an impossible time for native people across the country. Some people, like the Cherokee, tried to accommodate, never fought and they still got marched off on the Trail of Tears. Some fought very famously, like the Apache or the Lakota, and they died and got pushed onto reservations and suffered horribly for that," Treuer said. "Hole-in-the-Day, in this difficult time, picked a different strategy. He did not simply accommodate and he did not simply fight — he was a tough diplomat in difficult circumstances."

At a time when Native American leaders were rapidly losing ground and bargaining power with the United States government, Treuer said, Hole-in-the-Day's firm and savvy brand of negotiating enabled him to protect his people's interests long after many other native communities were diminished and stripped of much of their sovereignty.

Jackson said Hole-in-the-Day frequently traveled to the White House and met with presidents face to face — often, he noted, in the role of a representative of all Minnesota Ojibwe.

"He was very well versed, I would say, in diplomacy and if he had to be the opposite of that, he could be a real strong warrior to represent the Indian people," said Ray Nelson, president of the Friends of Old Crow Wing.

As such, Hole-in-the-Day had a mixed reputation among the whites of his day, Nelson said — whether it was as a refined, welcoming figure who frequently entertained guests that traveled out to central Minnesota to meet him, or as a formidable and terrifying opponent, as evidenced by his role in the Dakota War of 1862.

His reputation among Native Americans and his own people, the Ojibwe, was polarizing as well.

"He had a two-story house while the rest of his people were descending into abject poverty. There was a feeling he was taking too much fat along with his deals," Treuer said. "He's not a good guy, he's not a bad guy, he's a good guy and a bad guy who's highly effective."

While he retained a powerful position in the area until his death — not only among the Ojibwe, but also the white traders, Indian agents and "mixed-blood" settlers in the settlement of Crow Wing — Hole-in-the-Day largely did this through engaging in blatant corruption that typified the area for decades. He invested into and benefited from questionable partnerships with local authorities, Treuer said, while he lined his own pockets.

At the same time, he could be recklessly ambitious and overstep the limits of his authority, Treuer added — Hole-in-the-Day's insistence he was the chief of all the Minnesota Ojibwe created rivals of his contemporaries, and there were cases, such as his misstep as posing as the unauthorized representative of the Mille Lacs Band during the treaty talks of 1867, that further strained his relationship with his fellow Ojibwe.

"When I was researching his assassination, the question wasn't, 'Who actually had motive,' it was, 'Who didn't have motive,'" said Treuer. He noted the famed Ojibwe chief contended with white and biracial settlers, Catholic missionaries, the United States government, the Sioux, historical figures like Clement Beaulieu and Charles Ruffee, as well as many of his fellow Ojibwe at different points in his life.

In 1912, the Dispatch reported it was generally accepted Hole-in-the-Day died because of his opposition to allowing "mixed-bloods," or biracial people, into the newly formed White Earth Reservation. At the time of his death, he was starting another journey eastward to meet in Washington, D.C., to renegotiate the terms of his people's agreements in that regard.

Documents at the time point to figures like Ruffee and Beaulieu, as well as a number of other prominent Crow Wing village families, as the instigators of the murder.

Treuer said he sees Hole-in-the-Day's death as a coup d'etat by the biracial settlers and white Indian agents the chief dealt with for years — men like Beaulieu and Ruffee, who enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Hole-in-the-Day when he controlled vast swaths of land during the fur trade; who now, as a result of these treaties, had little land left to offer and not much else to barter with when timber, mining and agriculture were coming to the forefront.

With his death, Treuer said, the White Earth Reservation didn't see Native American leadership until the native tribes were consolidated under their own authority in the 1930s.

With much of the area's wealth, timber and land under his control, Beaulieu and his cohorts would go on to found Crow Wing County — named like the village he founded, which collapsed, ironically, Treuer said, when Beaulieu overestimated his own bargaining power and pushed the railway and timber tycoons to form a new trade hub in the area.

We call it Brainerd.