Okeemakeequid, A Chippeway Chief

Okeemakeequid, A Chippeway Chief (Chippewa)

Our acquaintance with Okeemakeequid began and ended in 1826, at La Fond du Lac Superior. On arriving there, among the multitude of Indians, collected for the purpose of attending a treaty, our interest was at once excited in relation to Okeemakeequid. His countenance was intellectual, and wore an unusually civilized expression. After having been at La Fond du Lac for some days, we determined to have built a first rate canoe of bark, which is the only kind of canoe used in these lake regions. On inquiring for an experienced hand among the Indians, for that purpose, we were referred to Okeemakeequid. He appeared directly, and the bargain was soon made. On expressing our apprehensions that the structure of the canoe might consume more time than we could spare, we were told to name our own time. We did so, and the answer was, it shall be done. In a moment afterwards, we saw Okeemakeequid and his assistant striding in the direction of a piece of level ground, bordering the water, and about two hundred yards from our encampment, followed by a train of women and children. Then the squaws reappeared, bearing on their backs rolls of birch bark, followed by the little children with rolls of wattap, (the root of the red cedar, or fir,) which is used to confine the bark of a canoe to its frame. Mr. Schoolcraft, in an admirably drawn poetic description of the birch canoe, says

The bright leafy bark of the betula tree,
A flexible sheathing provides;
And the fir’s thready roots drew the parts to agree,
And bound down its high swelling sides.

All the materials being ready, the work was commenced with great spirit. As it has not fallen to the lot of many persons, into whose hands this work may fall, to witness the building of a birchen canoe, we will avail ourselves of an extract from our work “Tour to the Lakes,” to describe the process. The ground being laid off, in length and breadth, answering to the size of the canoe, (this was thirty-six feet long, and five feet wide in its widest part,) stakes are driven at the two extremes, and thence on either side, answer ing, in their position, to the form of the canoe. Pieces of bark are then sewn together with wattap, and placed between those stakes, from one end to the other, and made fast to them. The bark thus arranged, hangs loose, and in folds, resembling in general appearance, though without their regularity, the covers of a book, with its back downwards, the edges being up, and the leaves out. Cross pieces are then put in. These press out the rim, and give the upper edges the form of the canoe. Next, the ribs are forced in thin sheathing being laid between these and the bark. The ribs press out the bark, giving form and figure to the bottom and sides of the canoe. Upon these ribs, and along their whole extent, large stones are placed. The ribs having been previously well soaked, they bear the pressure of these stones, till they become dry. Passing round the bottom, and up the sides of the canoe to the rim, they resemble hoops cut in two, or half circles. The upper parts furnish mortising places for the rim; around, and over which, and through the bark, the wattap is wrapped. The stakes are then removed, the seams gummed, and the fabric is lifted into the water, where it floats like a feather.

We soon learned that Okeemakeequid was one of ten children of the most remarkable old squaw in those parts. Her name was Oshegwun. From childhood this woman had been the subject of affliction. When about fourteen years old, she accompanied her father, with five lodges of his band, amounting to forty persons, on a hunting expedition. They had killed a deer, and were in the act of cooking it, when they were attacked by about one hundred Sioux. Fifteen of the Chippewas were killed; three only surviving the first assault. Oshegwun ran off was overtaken and tied. A contention arose between two Sioux for the captive. One of them struck his war-club into her back, and otherwise , wounded her. She fell, crying, ” They are killing me.” At this moment,, she heard the crack of a rifle, when she became unconscious. Towards evening she was aroused by the pressure of a hand upon her arm. It was her father’s. He saw the struggle between the two Sioux for his child, when, leveling his rifle, he killed them both. He was too much engaged in the fight to go to the spot, but sought it afterwards. On arriving at it, he found his daughter gone, she having crawled a quarter of a mile. He tracked her by her blood on the snow. She was scalped in two places, on the right and left of her crown the knife passing round her throat, cut a deep gash, driving in pieces of wampum, which remained there. She survived, however, and lived to marry three husbands, all of whom treated her unkindly, and to be the mother of nine sons and one daughter. She was subsequently cured of a disease in the forefinger, by Okeemakeequid, after the Indian fashion, by placing it on a block, laying a knife across it, and with a single blow upon the knife with the eye of a hatchet, cutting it off.

We were shown all these wounds,; and also witnessed a scalping scene, by her two sons, Okeemakeequid and his brother, who went through the blank motions over the head of the mother, to show how the Sioux performed that ceremony. At this time, 1826, Oshegwun was about sixty years of age.

The dress in which Okeemakeequid appears is not a Chippewa, but a Sioux dress. The Indians would often jibe him about the circumstances under which he got it. At the treaty of Prairie du Chien, in 1825, peace was concluded, which terminated a war of nearly two hundred years’ duration, between the Sioux and Chippewas. In memorial of this occurrence a Sioux warrior proposed to exchange dresses with Okeemakeequid. The latter acceded to the proposition. After the exchange had been made, the Sioux, looking Okeemakeequid archly in the face, and pointing to the head-dress, said, “Brother, when you put that dress on, feel up there there are five feathers; I have put one in for each scalp I took from your people remember that!”

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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