Chief Oshkosh, Ultimate Leader

By Brad Larson, Director

The image of Chief Oshkosh, wearing a top hat that stares back at us from the famous 1855 daguerreotype creates a misleading perception of this Menominee man. His real name was Oskas, meaning “His Claw.”  He died because he was beaten by drunkards, but that is not how he should be remembered. Given his accomplishments, Oskas should be recognized as an exceptional leader who cared for his people and his culture.

The Menominee have lived in Wisconsin for over 10,000 years. Their origin stories include no other place except Wisconsin. They claimed much of our state, and today Wisconsin place names reflect this was once the Menominee homeland. There are about 86,500 Native people in our state; the Menominee population is about 8,700. Interesting to note, Native people are seldom included when talking about minorities.

The land is sacred to the Menominee. Since time began, it provided everything they needed, and the bones of their ancestors sleep there. By the time Oskas was an adult, the land they had lived on and cherished had been occupied by foreign people and was being altered by settlers and land speculators. 

Leadership was thrust on this man from the Bear Clan during a time of enormous transformation and stress for the Menominee.  The changes and challenges were so significant that it is hard to grasp what faced them.  Like all Native Americans, the Menominee had little real choice in anything related to their future. The tribe had no power, no clout. They were at the mercy of a powerful and domineering federal government. To acquire Native land, the federal government intimidated, threatened, and deceived.

As a member of the Bear Clan, Oskas had the responsibility for civil affairs for the tribe, including functioning as a peacekeeper and a speaker. The Bear Clan presided over meetings and ensured order, but did not have the power to demand action from the tribe. In the Menominee culture, no one person was given the right or authority to speak for the entire tribe. Decisions were made by consensus. The federal government never understood or respected this. Instead, they required one person to speak for all and to have the authority to make decisions and sign treaties. Oskas became the assigned leader of the Menominee people during this heartbreaking period. Not all the Menominee approved of Oskas, claiming he was just a tool manipulated by others.

Regardless, Native leaders were acutely aware that the Menominee way of life, its very culture, was being assailed. Not only was their land being taken, but so were the things that gave their life meaning and stability: their way of life, values, religion, and their history. The ability to care for their family and their people were taken from them.  With the increasing number of settlers and changes to the environment, traditional food sources were scarce. To feed their families, the Menominee had come to depend on the federal government for an annuity payment that included poor grade food and other staples. It was a powerful incentive to leaders like Oskas when the government warned that food allotments could be withheld.

Oskas and others were told if they did not make a treaty, the government would forcibly remove them. Thus, Oskas was compelled to sign away an enormous amount of Menominee land in 1848 in exchange for a 600,000-acre reservation in Minnesota, plus $20,000. The reservation land consisted of a small strip between the hostile Sioux and Ojibwa tribes. Menominee oral tradition states that Oskas never intended to move the people but used the treaty to buy time.

Oskas wanted to find a way to retain a semblance of normalcy for his people, to maintain their culture, and to keep the people on at least part of their beloved homeland. He used every tool, every obstacle that he could think of, to keep the Menominee in Wisconsin rather than move them to a questionable reservation west of the Mississippi River.  Given the incredible hurdles he faced, it would have been easy to give up and let the government win.

During this troubled period, Oskas’ adopted son was murdered by a white man in what is today Portage County. On New Year’s Day 1850, his 17-year-old son, said to be handsome, strong, and outgoing allegedly tried to take a glass of whiskey from a man named Joseph Cayau. For that, his son was stabbed to death. Cayau claimed the young man fell on his own blade. Justice Joseph Wood dismissed the case for lack of evidence; the Menominee were enraged.   Fortunately, Oskas kept the angry Menominee warriors under control.  Oskas went to Green Bay in an attempt to get justice through the Indian Subagent, William H. Bruce, but he refused to act. At that point, Oskas said, “It is clear that whites think less of an Indian than a dog, for if a white man’s dog had been killed, he would have satisfaction for it, but as it is only a poor Indian, it is no matter.” Yet, Oskas did not give up, but continued to seek a solution for his people and believed he could persuade the government to be fair to the Menominee.

A few months later, Oskas and 24 other Menominee leaders went to Minnesota. Game was scarce; the party only saw one deer and were unable to feed themselves. Returning in late summer, Oskas and other Menominee representatives traveled to Washington, D.C. One potent weapon Oskas had was the fact that he was an incredibly eloquent speaker. His remarkable ability to deliver powerfully and moving speeches was a true gift. In September 1850, he made an impassioned plea to President Millard Fillmore that had a tremendous emotional impact on everyone present. Sadly, no record of that speech survives. As a result, the President agreed to delay the Menominee’s move to Minnesota.

In the autumn of 1852, the Menominee were camped around Lake Poygan to receive their annuity payment when word came from the government that they could temporarily have land around the headwaters of the Wolf River. However, it came with the stipulation that they had to move north immediately.  The village consisted of children, women, the elderly, as well as young men. The weather was cold, and with each passing day, winter loomed closer.  Oskas led the Menominee on the cold, grueling 75-mile trek north.  Two years later, in 1854, a new treaty granted them about 250,000 acres as a reservation. Oskas was not satisfied and refused to sign until Congress gave them more compensation, which it did. He signed the new treaty with great reluctance.

The Menominee people did not abandon their identity. They remained united, held together in part by the gift the man we now call “Oshkosh” gave to his people. Today, the Menominee live on part of their ancestral homeland. It is unfortunate that this remarkable man is not remembered for his achievements.

Our identity as a people is tied to our history. Our shared story is the glue that binds us together as Americans, create unity, and gives our nation strength.  Through peace, turmoil, and war, we draw on the knowledge that our country has seen worse, yet we endure. The Menominee kept their identity and culture, and a small part of their ancestral homeland was because of Oskas’ leadership.

P1931.3.6 Menominee women and children on the reservation during a Dream Dance gathering, c. 1910.

P1936.6.2. Menominee participants, including members of Chief Oshkosh’s family, during Oshkosh Semi-Centennial in 1903.

P2002.30    Chief Oshkosh, c. 1855.

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