remembering Big Sandy Lake


Big Sandy Lake is the site of one of the unforgivable events in US-Native American relations. The DNR map chooses to ignore the event altogether, which really disturbs me. In 1850, the US government decided it wanted the Ojibwe bands that were spread over the upper Midwest east of the river all to move up here to Big Sandy Lake. So they told them all to gather there in order to receive money and food from the government. In good faith, about 4000 people gathered in late October, the government’s deadline, and waited. No money was forthcoming, and the food the US gave the Ojibwe was spoiled and killed about 150 people from dysentery. In early December, the Ojibwe finally decided to give up waiting, and on the trip home another 250 died from exposure and starvation.

Somehow this story embodies for me all the greed and bad faith and yes, pure evil, that our government has manifested in relation to the Native peoples. I mean, come on, you want to trick these people into relocating, fucked up in the first place. And then you give them spoiled food and renege on the promised funds? The people in charge cannot even pretend to justify themselves: it’s genocide, pure and simple.

And I was terrified that I would show up at Big Sandy Lake Recreation Area, which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and be confronted with a nice campsite full of RVs and overweight vacationers, and this appalling history would be conveniently invisible. And in fact, the campsite is exactly as I’ve described it. As I sit here looking out at the Lake, a powerboat full of folks is going by blasting 80’s classic rock, but there is also a memorial set up by the Ojibwe right in the middle of the campground, and at the overlook up on the road, there is another marker placed by the Minnesota Historical Society. I burst into tears at the overlook: the marker starts with a quote from an Ojibwe leader, Flat Mouth, saying “I hold the US government responsible for the children we have lost.”

I don’t know why this particular atrocity gets to me so badly. (After all, there is no shortage of terrible stories about the US government’s dealings with the Native peoples, including the government of our very favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.) Perhaps it’s because there are echoes of the Turks’ forced displacement of the Armenians from their ancestral lands in what is now eastern Turkey, another mostly ignored genocide, which is excused in sort of similar ways. The Native peoples (and the Armenians) were simply in the way, they needed to be moved so the new state could take root, we didn’t really mean to kill them off, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of nation-building.

And I end up getting very very interested in people like Henry Schoolcraft, and Archdeacon Gilfillan, [8/22/09: or maybe not Gilfillan; as Richard is reading further, he’s not such a sympathetic character] the white men who repeatedly argued for the rights of Native Americans at a time when everyone else seemed just as happy to kill them off or push them far enough away that they couldn’t make trouble. The analogous people in the Armenian genocide are Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and the American doctor Clarence Douglas Ussher, who wrote impassioned letters and articles documenting the genocide as it was unfolding, but sadly not successfully enough either to prevent a million deaths or to force an acknowledgment of what happened.

So what is the point of all this, really? The point, I think, is that we should remember the dead of Big Sandy Lake and Lake Van the way we remember the dead of Dachau and Auschwitz. We should remember Schoolcraft and Morganthau the way we remember Schindler and Bonhöffer. Attention must be paid. It must.

5 thoughts on “remembering Big Sandy Lake”

  1. Eve, my love,

    what a privilege it is to follow you on that magical mystery tour of yours, I wish I could be there! I totally concur with your conclusion that we must not forget – those who suffered and those who tried to make a difference. In addition, we shouldn’t allow history to distract us from the fact that xenophobia and – to its worst extend – genocide still kill thousands and thousands of people each and every day. We must remember AND speak up! But do I know how difficult this can be …

    Sigh. Anyways, while writing I listened to Brahms’ “Weltliche Gesänge”, among them “Waldesnacht”, one of my all-time favorites. Being the hopeless romantic I am unsuccessfully trying to subdue for nearly three decades now, I couldn’t at all help to relate Paul Heyse’s lyrics to your river project :o). So here are the first two stanzas:

    Waldesnacht du wunderkühle,
    die ich tausend Male grüß’.
    Nach dem lauten Weltgewühle,
    o, wie ist dein Rauschen süß.

    Träumerisch die müden Glieder
    berg’ ich weich ins Moos,
    und mir ist, als würd ich wieder
    all der irren Qualen los.

    Will you ever forgive me for being THAT kitschy? :o)

    Much, much love,


  2. It would be a wonderful thing if more US citizens were firstly aware of the awful history of the making of this country and secondly remember and honor to heal this wound.

    Couldn’t it have been done differently…?

    When I was in Kauai, HI a couple of years ago with ETHEL our host there opened doors to the indigenous people’s worlds. An outstanding experience was a trip to Waimea where we met and played with a chorus of school children from the “Forbidden Island” of Nihua. Their songs were primarily christian hymns that they sang in Hawaiian with uke accompaniment. I bring this up because these people’s land was sold by the King of Hawaii to the Robinson family in 1864 and it is a very different story.

  3. My husband’s grandmother spent time in Armenia as a young woman. She and her sister worked with orphans from the Armenian displacement; her sister wrote of their experiences. We have a copy of her book. So sad — all of it.

  4. thank you all for your responses here: kai, loving the your comments and the brahms; cori, the mingus is wonderful; mary, the info about nihua is fascinating, YES, really a different outcome… (we read a mention that there was a real chance in the 1820’s or so that the whole upper midwest could have become a separate country of Native Americans (i.e. MN, ND, SD, maybe a bit up upper MI as well? Imagine how different the history of all of us would be!!!) and susan, I am so so interested to learn and talk with you more about your husband’s relatives’ experiences in Armenia. were they missionaries in Armenia? I ask, because I am mulling over the whole concept of missionary service and its implications, and I’d really love to learn more about it from as many angles as possible….

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