Meet Miskobineshii: Part One

St. Croix Tribe elder was raised in the old ways — and keeps her culture alive today.




7 minute read

On February 14, 1872, an Ojibwe man named Little Pipe walked into the U.S. government land office in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. He paid $42.63 (about a thousand dollars today) for 17 acres of property located 30 miles to the northeast, at the edge of Barron County, near the village of Cumberland.

The government had gotten hold of the land and millions more acres in a treaty with Little Pipe’s people thirty-five years before. Despite promises and agreements, most Ojibwe were soon left landless and pushed onto reservations. The St. Croix Tribe, with members living across what’s now northwestern Wisconsin, was excluded from an 1854 treaty that established reservations in northern Wisconsin, and the government did not correct its mistake until 1934.

Seeking to secure a place in a shrinking world, Little Pipe bought back some land with cash earned cutting timber and driving logs for lumber companies. On the steep, wooded shores of Sand Lake, high in the headwaters of the Clam River, he and his people finally had somewhere they could call home again. Over the following decades, Little Pipe’s children and grandchildren multiplied at the settlement. They lived in the old ways, as small bands had for centuries, finding seasonal sources of sustenance. Little Pipe died in 1898 but his land and people lived on.

In November 1931, about 60 years after Little Pipe bought the property, his great-granddaughter was born at Sand Lake. And today, 92 years later, that granddaughter, named Miskobineshii, lives in another nearby tribal community. She is a moccasin maker, a language teacher, a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and a respected elder of the St. Croix Tribe of Chippewa, also known as the Ricing Rails.

I was fortunate to meet Miskobineshii last year and to visit her home since then to learn more about her life. She and her people are an essential part of the St. Croix River region, from its history to its culture to its contemporary economy. Miskobineshii has kindly helped with this article and agreed to its publication.

In Miskobineshii’s nine decades, she has survived tuberculosis and cancer, criss-crossed the United States, had six children, written her life’s story, gotten to know Native people from across the continent, seen her work in the Smithsonian, made countless moccasins — and helped keep her people’s culture alive.

Miskobineshii was born three years before her tribe was recognized by the federal government. Her long life has paralleled her tribe’s legal existence, and connects her community to its resilience and roots.

From Plat Book of Barron County, 1888, C.M. Foote & Co.

Federal land patents showing Little Pipe’s purchase of the Sand Lake property.

It was cold and snowy on November 7, 1931 when Miskobineshii entered the world, born in a traditional Ojibwe wigwam on Little Pipe’s land. There was a white doctor attending the birth, along with a few Ojibwe grandmothers. The doctor may have been there because tuberculosis had torn through Sand Lake in recent years, and there were too few women left living in the community to help with traditional births.

The disease was not done. When Miskobineshii was six months old, tuberculosis took her mother’s life. Shortly after that, her father left for work in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp farther north.

That left Miskobineshii, her older sister Margaret, their grandparents, two aunts, named Bishikens and Amudjiwaybekwe, two nearby uncles — and the land. Surrounded by settlers, they lived in the old ways. They gardened and gathered, crafted objects from canoes to clothing, participated in ceremonies, and kept their relatives close.

“My grandparents were very traditional medicine people who healed the sick and were caring and supportive to their children and grandchildren,” Miskobineshii wrote in her 2004 self-titled memoir. “It was in this warm and loving family that I grew up without my parents.”

Her grandmother in particular insisted she learn the old ways, and inspired her. She was ”a quiet and compassionate woman,” with a ”gentle nature,” Miskobineshii recalls. “And she laughed a lot in a quiet chuckle.” “In fact, I do not recall her ever being stern with me or even raising her voice,” she wrote.

Sometimes on winter evenings, Miskobineshii and her cousins would give their grandmother some tobacco, a traditional way of respectfully asking for something, and she would pack her pipe and tell a story.

“Each story contained an important life lesson,” Miskobineshii wrote.

A tale might also take more than one sitting to tell, and the children would return each night to hear more.

The traditional Ojibwe life is synchronized with the seasons, and harmonized with harvests. With her grandmother and other relatives, Miskobineshii made maple syrup in March, picked berries in summer and harvested manoomin in September. In winter, they cut firewood. In between, they wove mats and rugs from rushes picked from lake, used for shelter, flooring, and other purposes. They made baskets of birch bark and twisted basswood fiber into twine. They tanned hides and made apparel. At various seasons, they collected medicines.

These cycles continue. Late this winter, Miskobineshii ate her first fresh walleye of the season, harvested by her son and grandson, and received a bottle of maple syrup from her neighbor’s first boil of the year.

The woods and waters helped her people endure the difficult years of the Great Depression. Miskobineshii remembers once standing in a line in Cumberland next to a farmer in overalls, with burlap wrapped around his feet instead of shoes. He was crying, and Miskobineshii said she felt pity for him. She and her family wore moccasins they made from deer hide.

While everyone was hungry in those days, the lakes and forest offered fish, game, manoomin, maple sugar, berries, medicine — life.

Miskobineshii and her grandmother would fish for sunfish on Sand Lake, harvesting only what they could eat that day, as they had no refrigerator to store the fish. Her uncles built them a canoe and pounded a stout wooden pole into the lake bottom a little ways from shore where the fishing was good. Grandmother and granddaughter could paddle out and tie up to the post, and drop their worms into the water.

“Before I’d ever gone to school, I knew how to paddle and bait my own hook,” she wrote.

One day, Miskobineshii got a bite and her pole was pulled sharply down, but when she brought the fish to the boat, it was just a tiny sunfish. Then a huge northern pike came out of the water chasing it, and jumped right into the boat. Miskobineshii’s grandmother stunned it with a paddle and they took it to shore, and had enough to feed everyone that night.

“We lived off the land, always,” Miskobineshii says.

Miskobineshii’s tribe is called the Mun-o-min-ik-a-sheenhug in the Ojibwe language, for the Ricing Rail, a secretive bird found among the manoomin, or wild rice. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls the rice rail “one of the hardest birds to see in North America,” but it can be a familiar friend to rice harvesters.

For 80 years, Miskobineshii’s people were nearly invisible to the U.S. government. They were excluded when other Ojibwe tribes from northwestern Minnesota to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were sent to reservations in the mid-nineteenth century. Due to some combination of miscommunication, disagreement, untimely death, and deceit by the U.S. government’s agents, the St. Croix Tribe was left landless until the 1940s — well after Miskobineshii’s birth. They were known as the “Lost Tribe.”

Between the first treaties and government recognition, the Mun-o-min-ik-a-sheenhug held on by sheer determination. They were scattered in small bands, living at historic village sites, where the timber companies had abandoned the cutover land, or they purchased property like Little Pipe, if they could. They were no longer at home in their own homeland.

Based on historical records, there were several small Ojibwe bands living around what’s now Cumberland before 1870. That’s when railroads and settlers started scoping out the area, and soon the government forced as many of these Ojibwe people as it could onto reservations, particularly the Lac Court Oreilles Reservation near Hayward, about 40 miles northwest of Sand Lake. Little Pipe came from Lac Court Oreilles to St. Croix Falls in 1872 when he bought back the land his family may have been living on for generations.

Miskobineshii is testament to her people’s perseverance. One-hundred-and-fifty years after Little Pipe bought the land at Sand Lake, she and others keep the the culture and connections alive. His land is now officially part of the St. Croix Tribe’s reservation, and has even been expanded.

The Ricing Rails are still here because it’s home, and because it sustains them.

At age six, Miskobineshii began attending Camp Dixon School, two miles away. There was no bus, and she and her cousins walked back and forth in fair weather and foul. During the cold and snowy winter, they wore wool inside their moccasins and protected their hands with deer hide mittens. They were the only Ojibwe pupils among the students, the rest were the children of white settlers.

“I was afraid of going to school because I was different,” Miskobineshii says. Her older sister Margaret told of the white students washing their hands in winter with water warmed on the wood stove, while the Ojibwe children were forced to use a basin of cold water, with newspapers to dry themselves.

Despite the difficulties, Miskobineshii loved school. She learned English, and how to sit still and be quiet, and more. She read and re-read the dictionary, quickly expanding her vocabulary. That helped her overcome some bigotry from white students, as she later explained.

During her time at Camp Dixon, there was a girl a few years older than her who bullied her, calling her a “dumb Indian.” Then, when Miskobineshii was in the fifth grade, she participated in an all-school spelling bee. She beat the older bully in the final round. The other girl didn’t call her names after that.

The next year, though, would be the last of Miskobineshii’s formal education for a long time, as tuberculosis took her far from school and home.


14 responses to “Meet Miskobineshii: Part One”

  1. Randol Crooks Avatar
    Randol Crooks

    Loved the historical story and events of the true people of the land.

    1. glen alvin WARNKE Avatar
      glen alvin WARNKE

      Great story! So much history we never heard as it was only a white persons perspective

  2. Paula Nauss Avatar
    Paula Nauss

    Thank you Miskobineshii for your story. We hope to read more about you.

  3. John Klein Avatar
    John Klein

    So interesting. Thanks

    1. Mark Hove Avatar
      Mark Hove


  4. Phil Sylla Avatar
    Phil Sylla

    I lived near the Sand Lake Reservation in the 1970s and enjoyed listening to frequent night time drumming.
    Phil Sylla

  5. Cheryl Avatar

    Best story I read in a long time Misco is a great lady and love her very much Thanks for being my friend


    A truly Awe-Inspiring Lady! Those of us who know her are proud she calls us Friend.

  7. Mike Clay Avatar
    Mike Clay

    Miskobineshii came to speak at Miss Paula’s preschool class in Cumberland several times. This history should be required reading for all area students. I look forward to reading more.

  8. Alice Thiede Avatar
    Alice Thiede

    Thank you for this enlightening history of an inspiring woman.

    Alice Thiede March 24, 2024

  9. Mary Bauer Avatar
    Mary Bauer

    Thank you for sharing this powerful truth. Miskobineshii’s story is one we all need to learn. I definitely am excited to hear more

  10. Melanie Hawkins Avatar
    Melanie Hawkins

    Awww,it was an Honor to have met her,I hope to see her again. I met her on,at Madeline Island,Wisconsin. She’s so sweet. Thoughts & prayers for more gentle years for her. She makes me smile❤️

  11. Paula Avatar

    I live on the St. Croix and I have wondered were the natives in the Croix valley are Ojibwa or Dakota.
    Thank you for clarifying.

  12. Cathy Avatar

    These are important stories to share. We all need to know the background of the places we live and of the people who have come before. What a beautiful woman!



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Meet Miskobineshii: Part One