Navigating the Landscape of Assimilation: The Anishnabeg, the Lumber Industry, and the Failure of Federal Indian Policy in Michigan

By Gills, Bradley J. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Landscape of Assimilation: The Anishnabeg, the Lumber Industry, and the Failure of Federal Indian Policy in Michigan


Gills, Bradley J., Michigan Historical Review


In his groundbreaking work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson notes, "the fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one--and only one--extremely clear place." (1) There is, perhaps, no better representation of this observation than the Anishnabe Indians of Michigan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this period the Anishnabeg lived on the margins of American society--both literally and figuratively--periodically participating in the modern economy while also remaining devoted to traditional seasonal subsistence practices. Seeming in constant motion, Anishnabe families traversed the region in pursuit of wage-labor opportunities in addition to maintaining seasonal maple-sugar camps, hunting grounds, berry fields, and coastal fishing villages. As the creation of state and federal borders divided their homelands, the Anishnabeg confronted myriad social, legal, and economic challenges. State and federal officials came to them with promises of "civilization," demanding that they set aside their nomadic ways in favor of a stationary life committed to raising crops. Anishnabe lands were then further divided into smaller parcels that individuals could permanently inhabit and thereby contribute to subduing the land and creating an orderly, neatly mapped society in the northern woods of the Great Lakes. The federal Indian Office's philosophy of "assimilation" was in many ways dependent on the fallacy Benedict Anderson identified: that American Indians could have an ordered place in American society if only they learned to live as whites and became settled agriculturalists. But neither the creation of state and federal borders nor the advent of land allotment confined the Anishnabeg. Rather, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Anishnabeg inhabited many categories, crossed many borders, successfully adapted to the encroachment of industrial capitalism around them, and manipulated those federal policies meant to proscribe and transform their accustomed way of life.

The growth of the lumber industry was crucial to the Anishnabeg's resistance to federal assimilation policies in northern Michigan. Almost as soon as organized lumbering operations appeared in this area, Anishnabe men found work in winter lumber camps and summer milling operations. Massive stands of white pine were the great prize of Michigan's forests, and harvesting these trees provided the Anishnabeg with employment into the twentieth century. When the pine stands were exhausted, Indian laborers joined crews cutting hardwood for railroad ties, cordwood, paper mills, broom-handle factories, and any number of other ventures that depended on Michigan timber. By 1890 the lumber industry had long dominated Michigan's economy, with nearly 38 percent of the state's industrial workers employed in some facet of the production of salable timber products. (2) In the sawmills and winter lumber camps that dotted the landscape, Anishnabe laborers joined thousands of immigrants from Canada and numerous European nations. Indeed, immigrants dominated northern Michigan's late-nineteenth-century workforce, particularly in lumbering and mining enterprises that were in constant need of skilled and unskilled laborers. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States Census Office found that newly arrived immigrants or the children of immigrants accounted for more than 96 percent of laborers in the state's mines and quarries and nearly three-quarters of the workforce of its sawmills. (3) This pattern of employment in the Upper Peninsula of the late nineteenth century served the Anishnabeg well as they carved their own niche in the lumber industry's multiethnic workforce. As early as the 1860s Indian workers had gained renown for their skills in certain occupations within the industry, particularly as log drivers and woodchoppers. (4)

As the Anishnabeg adapted to incorporate wage labor in the lumber industry into their lives, they were also subjected to various federal policies bent on transforming them into "civilized" people fit for American citizenship. …

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