History of the Minnesota Conference UCC: The Ojibwe Peoples

The following is the second history segment in a series, shared regularly in COMMAntary to help us come to terms with our past. We’re doing this not to be mired in nostalgia for “the good old days,” but to consider what our history might tell us about God’s aims for our present and future ministry.

There’s no one correct way to tell the story of the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ, but there’s no way to tell the story correctly without including the Indigenous peoples in this region. This week, we reflect on the Ojibwe community, who encountered Congregationalist missionaries from New England in the 1800s.

Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of the Ojibwe peoples lived along the East Coast of North America. About 1,500 years ago, however, they began to move inland for a host of reasons, including tribal warfare and visions of a new life. This westward migration happened slowly over centuries, as Anishinaabe peoples settled around the Great Lakes in what is present-day Canada and the United States. The westernmost Anishinaabe peoples (the Ojibwe) settled in what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin.

When the Ojibwe arrived in what we’d now call Northern Minnesota, they encountered a Dakota community that had been living there for at least four centuries (and possibly much longer). Conflict ensued, ultimately concluding with a treaty in 1679 establishing peace between the two communities, as well as terms of mutual support. This peace lasted for nearly 60 years before conflict broke out again between 1736 and 1760. Peace once again ensued, and with the arrival of an increasing number of European-descended settlers in the 1800s, the Dakota and Ojibwe drew closer together.

As these European-American settlers arrived in the 1800s, there were some positive interactions between the Ojibwe and white people. Chief Peguis, for example, was among western-migrating Ojibwe who settled on the Red River in the late 1790s. While there, he welcomed the first Scottish settlers brought to the Red River Valley by Lord Selkirk in early 1812. As the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded, though, tragedy often emerged from even the best of interactions between the Ojibwe and white settlers.

Even with generations of tragedies and broken treaties, Ojibwe leaders continue to emerge and to push Minnesota toward becoming a more just and inclusive society. Clyde Bellecourt co-founded the American Indian Movement based on encounters he had while incarcerated in Stillwater. A young Peggy Flanagan, whose first political campaign was Sen. Paul Wellstone’s last, managed to face the senator’s tragic death and continue serving in public at the Minnesota Council of Churches, the House of Representatives, and now as lieutenant governor.

Photo credit: c. 1905, Minnesota Historical Society

© Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ | 2023