Critique of Bear Island: (Part 1&2)

Bear Island 1



Bear Island: the War at Sugar Point is by Gerald Vizenor. The foreword by Jace Weaver and the introduction by Vizenor give a fairly detailed account of the Sugar Point incident near the more notable Bear Island. It was an incident that predominantly occurred after Chief Hole in the Day became upset at being forced to walk a long distance after being acquitted of whiskey running charges. He swore he would never deal with the white man’s court again, so when he was again subpoenaed to go to court, this time as a witness, he refused. Thus, the authorities attempted to arrest him, but the chief called for aid and approximately twenty natives helped him escape.

Reinforcements were requested following an overly-exaggerated report by Marshall Robert Morrison and Colonel Arthur Tinker, the inspector of the Indian agencies. An inexperienced 2nd Lieutenant arrived on September 30th, 1898, with twenty-two troops. The troops kept a vigil while Morrison and Tinker ineptly attempted to negotiate with the Pillager band of the Anishinaabe to turn over Chief Hole in the Day. It was an act of futility. Seventy-seven additional troops arrived on October 4th under the command of General Bacon and Major Melville Wilkinson.

The army attachment, along with reporters, set out on the 5th by barge and steamship for Bear Island, where Chief Hole in the Day was allegedly hiding. But they found their initial destination deserted, so they opted to continue on to Sugar Point, where the chief had a homestead. Again they see no one. Yet they are surrounded. And, as the troops were making camp, a soldier stumbles into a stack of rifles, knocking them over. One of the rifles, with the safety disengaged, fired, and the bullet went in the direction of the hidden warriors. The Indians, believing they had been discovered, opened fire on the unsuspecting troops. The soldiers scrambled for their weapons to return fire, though firing at shadows, and spent the remainder of the night unsure of the situation they found themselves in and under constant threat.

The battle, which lasted less than a day, against nineteen Indians (and without Chief Hole in the Day, who is believed to not have been present), cost the life of Major Wilkinson, six soldiers, and two Indian police. The Indians knew the terrain and were already in ambush position prior to the troop’s arrival. Yet, instead of seeking greater damage, the warriors chose to fade away unnoticed and allow the soldiers to withdraw. A sound judgment by whoever was in charge of the band of Pillagers. And yet, it was still a costly skirmish over incidents that could have been easily prevented if all involved had simply been honest and forthcoming.

Local Minnesota history, for tourism, along with Weaver and Vizenor’s accounts of the incident tout Sugar Point as a “war.” In fact, they contend that it is the last Indian war between American soldiers, instead of Wounded Knee. And they refer to it as a resounding success, matched only by the Sioux massacre of Custer and his men. It is a claim, I fear, overly stated after the facts are taken into account. In fact, reading the boastful account of Vizenor’s introduction was rather odd. He definitely has the Americanized braggadocio down pat, such as the following:

“Sugar Point is a trace of creation and the modern site of a war enacted by the United States Army in 1898. The Anishinaabe has resisted the arrogant and capricious federal marshals and then routed, by imagination, natural reason, stealth, and strategy, the imperious officers and immigrant soldiers from the Leech Lake Reservation.”

Quite an entertaining description when you consider the skirmish took place in a manner resembling the comedy of errors; especially the last two events, a soldier stumbling into a stack of rifles and, because a safety was not locked, a rifle fires in the exact direction where the Pillager warriors are hiding. And the warriors, who allegedly watched the soldiers from the moment they arrive, and should have witnessed the stumbling action, are now “convinced” they have been discovered and are under attack. And later, apparently out of embarrassment, some of the Native Americans claimed the shooting began after the soldiers fired on a canoe of native women on their way to beg release of some captives held in the steamer. Yet that tale contradicts accounts by both Anishinaabe and soldiers regarding the knocked down weapon.

I must admit I prefer recollections in other texts where the Native American authors hold themselves to a higher standard; though I understand the temptation to elevate even the oddest events if it gives the Native people something to point to as a clear win. But it just sounds weird when Native Americans lie as poorly as the “white eyes” on certain issues when compared to the “noble savage” image placed on most Native leaders.


Vizenor communicates the Native American perspective in his long poem, which is written in the lyric style representative of the Anishinaabe. The poem is metered, though it does not follow any set pattern for stanza length. The epic poem is ordered in a series of six poems, with each section emphasizing a specific aspect of the Sugar Point affair, including the history of the Anishinaabe, and specifically the Pillager band, leading up to the incident and certain events after the battle ceased: though it is not in strict chronological order, and some points are touched more than once. Due to the length of the poem I will only touch on the first two sections in this response.

The first section, Overture: Manidoo Creations, gives a brief nature-linked creation tale of the Anishinaabe, as if one with the land. Thus, in their eyes, their advantage created the inevitable outcome against the “sweaty newcomers,” “nervy soldiers,” and “soul savages.” And after reading Vizenor’s build-up the reader might be inclined to agree with the inevitable outcome. The Anishinaabe are allegedly “natives of the miigis,” the “fugitive rivers.” And they are presented as “worthy hunters” who “cut the barren masks of hunger,” as if they are “boreal shadows” and “eternal spirits on the ancient stone.”

In the second section, Bagwana: the Pillagers of Liberty, Vizenor begins telling the reader the additional causes allegedly creating the atmosphere that the Sugar Point skirmish was born out of, but then he foregoes the actual event. The poem begins honoring the victorious warriors, then quickly goes into a lengthy accounting of prior victories by Pillagers and a connection with a warrior with a name similar to the chief’s, as if the ancient spirits have come down through the generations to insure the victory at Sugar Point. It likewise touches on additional historic moments, such as their encounter with “an evil medicine” that “cursed the natives” with “grievous mamakiziwin,” “spotted faces,” their word for smallpox. And it continues with a historical accounting of their responses to fur trade and so-called allegiances with governments (French, English, and American), each trying to utilize them against their enemies. Vizenor equally touches on events happening elsewhere, such as the Sand Creek incident. He also brings up the writings of Walt Whitman. However, where many prior accountings by Native Americans hold Whitman in high regard, Vizenor clearly believes Whitman’s “crucial catchwords” were useless; they “invite no one” and it “promises nothing.” He relates it to a “timely trickster” and just “stories in a book.” Vizenor also shows a poetic distaste for the faith of the long knives. He equates the beliefs of Custer’s kind, especially around the Wounded Knee incident, as “the cruelest constitutional festival,” “a prairie genocide and celebration of jesus christ the son of god, born again that snowy morning at Wounded Knee.” And he continues to deride the faith of the Whites for several pages with talk against the “frankincense creations and the deceptions of treaty men” and how the “collars of abraham deface nature in the name of god.” Then Vizenor concludes the section with a quick stab at the powers that be by reclaiming the following:

they lost the war

that afternoon

in a vegetable garden

twice cultivated

by hole in the day

a wiry shaman

who lived at sugar point


This, however, deceptively gives the reader the impression Chief Hole in the Day was instrumental in the victory, or at least present, when all accounts suggest he was not even there on the day of the battle: though he was the cause for the soldiers being there, since they were attempting to carry out an arrest warrant.

Vizenor’s poetic talent is unquestioned in this text, but he does take writer’s license with regard to specific facts. Anything that can be illuminated in favor of the Native Americans is, similar to past historical accountings by Whites.


Part 3 concludes here.


6 thoughts on “Critique of Bear Island: (Part 1&2)

  1. alphajt June 17, 2017 / 8:57 am

    A very honest and informative review. And I’ve seen you praise other writers, like Joy Harjo, when they deserve it, so it makes it easier to accept the less than praiseworthy reviews.

    Good post and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. MC Clark June 17, 2017 / 5:34 pm

    A lot of people, from all races, religions, and political leanings, play fast and loose with the truth in order to forward their own personal agenda. It seems as if Native Americans are no exception.
    Interesting post, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

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