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Unlikely Neighbors: When Little Hill Met the Umoⁿhoⁿ

Portrait of Little Hill, Blue Earth County, Minnesota.
Minnesota Digital Library Coalition and Blue Earth County Historical Society
Portrait of Little Hill, Blue Earth County, Minnesota.

There are parallels for sure, but let’s not go there yet. Let’s stay with the stories the old ones told, and start some place close to Blackbird Bend, when, in 1863, hundreds of Winnebago were packed into a steamship, under guard, taken up river to a starving place called Crow Creek.

The Winnebago weren’t the only ones aboard. Hundreds of Santee, just as clueless as to destination, were being held there beside the Winnebago.

Four of Little Hill’s children froze to death when he was gone, and three—and his wife—died of malnutrition.

What linked the tribes was treacherous fallout from the 1862 Dakota War. Minnesota’s Native people—all of them, no matter what tribe-- caught the bloody wrath of pioneer white folks, who had suffered brutal attacks they had not seen coming. The Santee had been sick and hungry, fed up with worthless treaties and promised reparations that never arrived. That August, the Minnesota River ran bloody red.

Once the steamer came up close to Blackbird Bend, the imprisoned Winnebago couldn’t help but see the Omaha. There may have been some talk back then of bargaining with the Umoⁿhoⁿ—the history isn’t clear—but the steamer kept going north and west to a place they’d never seen.

Along with the Santees, the Winnebago—men, women, and children—suffered horrifyingly at Crow Creek, suffering unlike anything close to what the Winnebago had ever known. To the Winnebago, Great Lakes people who lived along Lake Michigan’s western shore, Crow Creek seemed a desert. Poverty, hunger, malnutrition stalked them and killed hundreds. In just two years—1863 to 1865, close to 700 Winnebago died at Crow Creek. Little Priest, the famous chief, lost two family members.

A Winnebago headman named Little Hill, along with a few others, snuck away from Crow Creek aboard canoes they took down river, back to the place where they remembered seeing the Umoⁿhoⁿ. Four of Little Hill’s children froze to death when he was gone, and three—and his wife—died of malnutrition.

It’s difficult to imagine what Little Hill and the others must have looked like when they met the Umoⁿhoⁿ. Ragged, malnourished, destitute, nothing but skin and bones, the Umoⁿhoⁿ could see that these people were in need of immediate aid. Yes, they could stay, and, yes, the Umoⁿhoⁿ would help them.

Now the Umoⁿhoⁿ were finally beginning to stand up again after smallpox epidemics that took 70 percent of the tribe, including Chief Blackbird. But their work in the fur trade, as well as a few good growing years meant the Umoⁿhoⁿ could befriend the Winnebago. And they did.

The agent at Crow Creek, like many reservation agents, didn’t manage those in his charge, barely kept track of them. When word got out that Little Hill and his gang had found a much, much better place with the Umoⁿhoⁿ, the numbers coming downstream in whatever canoes could be found water worthy, increased exponentially.

The Umoⁿhoⁿ agent noted numbers this way: “Present on April 11--670; Arrived on April 18—201; arrived on May 8—94; on June 8—150; on August 6—16.”

These two connected reservations began with a reception worthy of the best of us—the tired and worn, a suffering people looking for relief, looking for a home of their own, found one just off the bank of the river.

When the Umoⁿhoⁿ offered comforts to Little Hill and that first batch of stragglers, their welcoming, their hospitality, their generous hearts began what is, today, more than a century and half of life as neighbors—and friends.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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