Three Fires Unity: The Anishnaabeg of the Lake Huron Borderlands by Phil Bellfy

Reviewer: Sharon Brunner

Phil Bellfy’s book Three Fires Unity: The Anishnaabeg of the Lake Huron Borderlands provided a revolutionary view of the Three Fires confederacy and a history of multiple Native American tribes, the British, the French and the rising American population. Bellfy has a residence in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and is a member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe. The Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi referred to themselves as the Anishnaabeg (original people) and they served a prominent role concerning the history of Michigan. The book took place from the 1600s to the present day and predominantly in Michigan and Canada. Bellfy packed his book with interesting and informative data and used tables and maps to provide more definitive information. The book contained a chronological list of treaties signed by the Anishnaabeg as an appendix. Bellfy delineated clearly and thoroughly the vast amount of cross-border political activity between the Anishnaabeg, British and Americans.

The major themes that became evident throughout the book included: loss; anger; frustration; resiliency and unity. Native Americans for hundreds of years have suffered many losses from the loss of their homelands, to their family, and community members by various acts of genocide, oppression, disease and war. The growing population of Americans served as a threat when they intruded on their land in vast numbers coupled with formidable military prowess. The Indigenous found it difficult when the European settlers denied them the presents they were promised such as guns and gunpowder. As far as unity was involved, one example was when the French, the Anishnaabeg and other tribal entities came together to fight the Iroquois. The Indigenous demonstrated a remarkable ability concerning their adaptation to change.

Originally the Anishnaabeg in Michigan were a collection of closely related tribes: Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. Their alliances were established when they reached the area of Michlimackinac on their journey westward from the northeastern Atlantic coast. The Midewiwin scrolls revealed the formation of the Council of Three Fires which dated back to 796 AD at Michilimackinac. The Ojibwe were addressed as the Older Brother and keeper of the pictographs, the Odawa as the Middle Brother and keepers of trade, and the Potawatomi as the Younger Brother and they were designated keepers of the fire. Their alliances were established when they reached the area of Michilimackinac currently referred to as Mackinac City, Michigan.

The Three Fires Council had several meeting places. Michilimackinac became the preferred meeting place due to its central location. The Council met for military and political purposes. The totem served as their form of governance and was based on the clan structure and promotion of trade. The Anishnaabeg believed the Creator gifted the clan system to maintain social order. Each clan had roles, talents, and responsibilities and contributed to the well-being of the tribe. There were seven primary clans of the Anishnaabeg: loon, crane, fish, bird, bear, marten, and deer. Members who belonged to the same clan considered themselves close relatives & could not marry within their own clan. The tribes operated within their tribal communities as a cohesive unit until the arrival of the Europeans.

Bellfy defined the difficulties the Anishnaabeg and French had concerning the Iroquois during the mid-1600s. Many fled to the western part of the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. The Anishnaabeg were surrounded by the Iroquois and their other enemies, the Sioux. They spent several uncomfortable years trapped in an area at the western end of Lake Superior. The 1653 engagement at the Green Bay Fort demonstrated how far west they were pushed. A large group of Algonquin tribes and other Native tribes, with French support, defended the fort and drove the Iroquois to the east, where they came from. The Anishnaabeg were heavily involved in this engagement. Another battle was fought between the Anishnaabeg and the Iroquois 20 miles west of Sault Ste. Marie in 1662. The Iroquois were driven from the area. The Anishnaabeg could finally return to their ancient home of Bawating (Place of the Rapids). With Iroquois defeated and driven off, the French set up a mission and trading post in the Sault.

The Peace Alliance of 1667 permitted the French to secure their hold on the Great Lakes region. As a result, the “Pageant of Saint Lusson” was held to insure the cooperation of the Native people concerning their fur trading endeavors and the importance of the Sault as the centralized meeting place for the Anishnaabeg.

The French, who lived near the Native Americans, closely interacted with them and even married some of the Indian women. The British, on the other hand, referred to the Indian people as a savage people and if they got too close to them their savageness may rub off on them. They were afraid they would become like them. Bellfy paid a lot of attention on the giving of gifts by the Americans, French and British with the latter receiving the most attention. Native Americans became dependent on the gifts of guns, gunpowder and other valuable items. Some Native Americans who provided valuable service in combat were given more than the common soldiers and Native American people. If someone lost their life in combat, their family received more than others. Bellfy provided valuable information about the act of gift-giving. When the Native Americans became less of a threat, their gifts dwindled or stopped completely.

The British conquered the French at Fort Frontenac at the western end of the St. Lawrence River. The French lost command over the Plains of Abraham in 1759 which resulted in the fall of Montreal in 1760. The French lost their foothold in Canada. Spain joined France against England. Britain increased its efforts to seize more of the French and Spanish territories.

In March of 1762 the King of France, King Louis XV, ordered a formal request for peace talks with the British government. The British government was also interested in stopping the war, the French and Indian War. The war ended up being extremely expensive and was financed by accumulated debt. The creditors financing the British military efforts were wondering if Britain could pay off its loans. What added to the British decision to end the war was George II’s death. His successor, George III, demonstrated a strong interest in ending the war. The peace talks between France and Britain resulted in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In the terms of the treaty, France turned over all its territories in mainland North America which ended the military threats to the British colonies.

Dissension continued to occur between the American colonists and the British Government because of conflicting interests. The British were tired of providing a military presence to manage the post-treaty policies which were supposed to address the interests of the Indian people and the colonists. An argument transpired about the levying of taxes to pay for debts concerning wartime expenses. The Treaty of Paris resulted in the colonists moving towards independence even under the tyranny of a stalwart British Empire.

The Revolution that occurred from 1775 to 1783 did not involve the Anishnaabeg to a large degree. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an Indian agent, recorded set amounts of involvement for them: 5,000 Ojibwe, 450 Odawa and 450 Potawatomi warriors fought in the war. They fought on the side of the British. Not one fought on the American side. Siding with the British did not mean they had a love for the British, not at all, they feared the American settlers. The second Treaty of Paris signed in Paris between the United States and Britain on September 3, 1783, ended the war.

Throughout Bellfy’s book, he credited the Native Americans who had the good sense to fear the steadily growing population of Americans. William Harrison’s garrison took over Prophetstown and destroyed Tecumseh’s confederacy in 1811 and Harrison won the war at the Thames River in 1813 in which Tecumseh lost his life. After the loss of Tecumseh, many Native Americans lost hope of fighting against the oncoming Americans. The British left them high and dry at the Thames River battle. They discovered the British could not be depended upon. Bellfy did something I haven’t seen before, he referred to the War of 1812 as a Fur Trading War, a war concentrated on the commercial endeavors of the Americans and British. Again, the Native Americans fought with the British against the Americans.

In 1822, difficulties were experienced by the Native Americans when they tried to obtain their gifts from the British when they traveled near or through American territory. The Americans threatened them with imprisonment and beatings as they passed Michilimackinac. The presents had been distributed on Drummond Island and the British felt they needed to offer their protection. Governor Cass for the United States government stated his concerns that peace and safety concerning the Native Americans cannot happen until the British stopped providing the Native people with gifts. Cass considered the Old Northwest Territory the weakest area in the Union. He claimed the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa made up approximately 20,000 people at the peninsula and there were only 11,000 European Americans. Cass gave Henry Rowe Schoolcraft the assignment of addressing the balance of power in the region by nurturing good relationships with the tribal leaders.

Confusion existed which involved the Canadian and American boundary. The period between 1820 and 1836 marked distinctive Canadian residency requirements. The Anishnaabeg felt their freedom to go back and forth across the St. Mary’s River from Canada and the U.S. was in jeopardy. The Americans and British realized the decline of the power of the Anishnaabeg during the aforementioned time period. The indigenous felt their decreasing ability to control their own destiny.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson implemented the Indian Removal Act. The act gave the President the privilege of selecting the tribes to be relocated west of the Mississippi River and provided the financing for their removal. Seeds of greed and hatred fueled these acts of genocide and discrimination and the joint collaboration of wealthy businessmen falsely justified the takeover of the Indian people’s land. Jackson despised the Indian people and did not defend Indian rights. He openly rejected federal treaty obligations.

The act also authorized the President to negotiate treaties in order to take over tribal lands in exchange for lands further west, west of the Mississippi River. Treaties were mechanisms put into place as a formalized way of securing land holdings for Americans where Indian people resided. Treaties were used to delineate the relationship between the United States government and Indian tribes and they included provisions for the implementation of reservations, procurement of supplies, and payment for the land taken from the Indian people. The first treaty was established in 1778 and the last was enacted in 1871, 371 treaties were established between Indian tribes and the United States government.

Bellfy described a variety of treaties completed by the U.S. and Canadian governments in relation to the borderlands. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was mentioned concerning an 1839 Treaty. The most destructive treaty that the Odawa and Ojibwe signed involved the 1836 Treaty of Washington and made an impact on the borderland indigenous people. The treaty was a part of the Indian Removal faction, a movement that wiped out the ownership of a vast number of Indian territories in Michigan for the Native Americans. Schoolcraft was instrumental in organizing gatherings of Chippewa and Odawa leaders to discuss the impending treaty negotiations. He prepared these individuals for what he presumed was for the good of the general population as well as the Native Americans.

Schoolcraft strived to convert the Indian people into what he considered to be a more respectable people who farmed instead of hunted to provide sustenance for their villages. He portrayed himself as having the best interests of the Indian people in Michigan in mind when he pursued the aforementioned treaty. Although Schoolcraft married a woman of Ojibwe descent, he had a hand in taking away a lot of their land holdings as a result of the treaty. The treaty was completed and signed on March 28, 1836, in Washington D.C. by Henry Schoolcraft, Indian Commissioner for the United States and several representatives of the Native American nations. Approximately 16 million acres, or around three-eighths of the entire state of Michigan were ceded to the U.S. government.

His justification behind this treaty was stated in his personal memoirs. Schoolcraft’s “Personal Memoirs of a Residence of thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers delineated his efforts to convert the Native American people into respectable farmers. Another book that described thoroughly the process of the development of the 1836 Treaty of Washington Treaty and the ramifications of said treaty was “Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar: The Life of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft” by Richard Bremer.

An important factor involved with the 1836 Treaty of Washington Treaty was the Michigan Territory was able to obtain state status in 1837. To become a state, 60,000 white settlers were needed. As a result of the treaty, white settlers swarmed into the Michigan Territory in great numbers to set up their settlements. The state provided lots of fresh water, wild game and land to use for agriculture. The white settlers hunted a lot of wild game which ended up threatening sustenance for the indigenous. They were confined to much smaller plots of land and lost their ability to roam and hunt. Most of the time the indigenous were relocated to useless plots of land throughout the United States, not suitable for agriculture. Land the white settlers did not want.

I was surprised to learn how many Canadian treaties were developed for the indigenous people. Bellfy gave excellent examples of treaties established by the Canadian government. My experience as a researcher involved treaties implemented by the U.S. government. As part of my research, I discovered the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (Sault Tribe) legal department had continued to fight for the rights of tribal members and worked diligently to enforce the treaties that were put in place. As far as I know, they have reinstated fishing and hunting rights and have taken back some of the land that was illegally taken from them. I am a member of the Sault Tribe and live in the Sault. I am very familiar with many of the areas mentioned in the book such as Michilimackinac and the Upper Peninsula. I also completed an internship with the Sault Tribe Legal Department when working on obtaining my master’s degree and became familiar with the tribal constitution and other legal documents. I also worked for the tribe and served on several committees.

I found it interesting when Bellfy described the Manitoulin Island project. Canadian aboriginal inhabitants were sent to Manitoulin Island as part of an experiment by the Canadian government when they were removed from a region in Canada. The island was referred to as the Canadian “Oklahoma.” The Indigenous were paid for the land they were forced to leave and they were expected to use the money they made from the sale to pay for their presents from the government. The Canadian “Oklahoma” had been used to benefit the white settlers. The island afforded hunting, fishing, and fruit and the white settlers did not want the land.

In 1794 the Jay Treaty, secured between the U.S. and Britain, permitted the indigenous people to travel freely back and forth between the U.S. and Canada without customs duties. Both governments had contested that the Jay Treaty was not implemented through specific enabling legislation. In August of 1992, many indigenous people from Manitoba, Sault Ste. Marie and other parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario occupied the International Bridge between the two Saults to demonstrate their rights associated with the Jay Treaty. Another demonstration occurred in 1994 to mark the two-hundred-year anniversary of the Jay Treaty. I have not attempted to cross by presenting my tribal identification card and usually use my passport and pay the toll.

Bellfy presented a book packed with interesting and informative facts. He provided a colorful rendition of the trial and tribulations of the Anishnaabeg in relationship to their borderland political hurdles while they demonstrated steadfast resiliency. Treaties and other acts of oppression presented by the fast-growing population of Americans left the Indigenous with one course of action, adaptation. They served as allies for the British, not because they valued their relationship, but because the Americans were less trustworthy. The Americans appeared land-hungry and aggressive. Bellfy did an excellent job of portraying both sides of the story considering social, cultural, and political aspects. I recommend this book for its honest and informative format and because of its indigenous-centered history of the Lake Huron Borderlands, its description of extensive cross-border political activity, and Bellfy’s demonstration of how the Anishnaabeg were able to survive and come out on top in a disputed region.

Author: Phil Bellfy
Book: Three Fires Unity: The Anishnaabeg of the Lake Huron Borderlands

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