Lake Country Lore: The Forgotten War — The Battle at Sugar Point
Written by Tenlee Lund | Photos courtesy of the Cass County Historical Society
THE LAST ARMED CONFLICT BETWEEN THE U.S. ARMY AND AMERICAN INDIANS HAPPENED ONE HUNDRED EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO—OCT. 5, 1898— ON THE SHORES OF LEECH LAKE, an hour or more from Walker, Minnesota. It started with an accidental shot from a dropped rifle, ended the next day, and is completely overlooked by the history books.
In fact, if historians Cecelia McKeig and Renee Geving hadn’t researched the Battle at Sugar Point, it would be all but forgotten. Their first book was written when McKeig was director of Indian education for Northland Community Schools based in Remer, Minnesota, which includes Sugar Point. As the 1998 centennial of the battle approached, she could not find any chronicle of the incident, so she wrote one, thus recording a story of exploitation, unmet needs, government apathy, and poor judgment that finally led to armed confrontation.
Indian deputies, shown at the time of the battle, were employed by the U.S. Indian Service on an “as needed” basis.
During the 1880s and ’90s, the Indians’ grievances accumulated. Dams flooded forty thousand acres of wild rice beds and ruined cranberry bogs that the Indians depended on for food. Frequent delays and irregularities in annuity payments created hardship for individuals and families. Proceeds promised from the sale of pine on reservation lands didn’t materialize.
Then there was the issue of illegal consumption of alcohol on Indian land. Indians would buy liquor and smuggle it back onto the reservation. If there was an incident, the federal marshal would be contacted and the Indians involved would be called to testify at a trial against the whites who had sold them the alcohol.
Bug-o-nay-ge-shig (left) an Ojibwe elder and an instigator of the 1898 Battle of Sugar Point is shown wearing a necklace made of ammunition shell casings.
This happened once too often for Bug-o-nay-ge-shig, an Ojibwe elder and known bootlegger. In April 1895 he was taken by train to Duluth to testify. The trial didn’t happen and he was discharged without enough money to get back home. He walked much of the way in the cold rain and snow and, being an old man, he vowed he would never do that again.
When he was served with another subpoena in June he refused to appear. By October, warrants had been issued for his arrest. A liquor-related stabbing on the reservation caused another subpoena to be issued. He didn’t respond.