Brief History

The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa historically occupied a vast territory within a 100-mile radius of the current location of the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, located near Hayward, Wisconsin. The Lac Courte Oreilles people are one band of the large Ojibwe Nation that originally occupied the upper eastern woodlands of present-day United States and Canada.

The 1854 Treaty of La Pointe established the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation. The band lived in a settlement they called Pahquahwong. The French called the settlement Lac Courte Oreilles, or “Lake of Short Ears,” as their ears were not stretched like other Ojibwe who wore heavy earrings. The 1854 Treaty also set aside 200 acres on Madeline Island for traditional gathering practices for its members. This island is a longtime capital and cultural or religious center of the Ojibwe people and nations throughout the Great Lakes region. The 1854 Treaty established reservations for other Ojibwe bands of Wisconsin, including Bad River, Red Cliff, and Lac du Flambeau; the other two Ojibwe bands are the St. Croix and Mole Lake Nations. The influx of settlers into Wisconsin progressively displaced the Ojibwe from their traditional use of the ceded lands.

In the years 1825, 1837 and 1842, many Ojibwe bands entered into sovereign treaties with the United States. In these treaties, the Ojibwe ceded territories of land which became part of the United States and reserved Ojibwe bands’ rights to use the land and its resources. The Treaty of 1854  established specific territorial rights of the Lac Courte Oreilles and other Ojibwe nations including the right to hunt, fish, and gather in the northern third of Wisconsin. The off-reservation hunting, fishing, and gathering rights of the Ojibwe people were recognized in 1983 after years of litigation in Lac Courte Oreilles v. Voigt, 700 F.2d 341 (7th Cir. 1983).

When the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation was established, tribal elders wanted to protect certain resources like wild rice beds and fishing areas on present-day Grindstone Lake, Chief Lake, and Lac Courte Oreilles Lake. The land was rich in timber stands of oak, conifer, maple, hickory, cedar and birch. There were bountiful fishing sites on the Chippewa, Chief and Couderay rivers as well as hunting and trapping areas for waterfowl, deer, bear, beaver, mink, muskrat, and other game. Their nation also used water transportation routes via the Chippewa, Flambeau and Namekagon rivers.

Although the Lac Courte Oreilles already had a traditional government that provided safety and welfare to its people, after years of resistance, they adopted a constitution in 1966. The Lac Courte Oreilles constitution establishes a tribal government with a seven-member tribal governing board to make decisions on behalf of the nation and people on the areas of land, as well as the establishment of a tribal court, ordinances, contracts, agreements, governmental negotiations, tribal businesses, housing, and more. The constitution recognizes the sovereignty of the nation, along with jurisdiction within its territory on and off the reservation.

Present Day

Today, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is the largest employer in Sawyer County. Economic enterprises within the tribal nation include a tribal administration, a health care clinic, social services, a gaming/lodging/meeting facility, a cranberry marsh, construction, infrastructure, trucking, gas and grocery stores, savings and loan, a full family resort with restaurant, a radio station, and an electric plant, among others.

The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has its own law enforcement department with officers who are cross-deputized with the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department. The tribal court system has one part-time judge and one magistrate. Anyone providing legal representation to the tribal court must be admitted to the tribal court bar. The tribal court system handles civil cases including adoption, child custody, child welfare, adult and minor guardianships, conservation, traffic, ordinance violations, divorce, paternity, name change, landlord/tenant, small claims, and filing of foreign judgments.

For additional information  about the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, consider the following resources:

The essay was  altered and reprinted with permission from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction