Keeping Legends Alive

Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe in BSU’s Department of Languages and Indigenous Studies

By Andy Bartlett

Love. Betrayal. Drama. Backstabbing. Assassination.

The story of legendary Ojibwe Chief Hole in the Day has all of those elements and more. Through his writing and, hopefully soon, through a feature film, Bemidji State University’s Dr. Anton Treuer is working to keep the chief’s legend alive.

Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe in BSU’s Department of Languages and Indigenous Studies, penned “The Assassination of Hole in the Day,” considered the definitive biography of the chief, in 2010 and has told and retold the tale in dozens of appearances promoting the book from coast to coast.

Assembled through meticulous research of historical documents and by carefully gathering and incorporating oral histories, the book explores the entwined stories of Hole in the Day the Younger and his father, Hole in the Day the Elder. Born in 1825, the younger Hole in the Day grew to become a renowned politician and diplomat, skillfully negotiating treaties with the U.S. government, traders in the region, and with Ojibwe and Dakota tribes in and around Minnesota. Following the death of his father, Hole in the Day staked his claim as head chief of all Ojibwe — a position the U.S. government recognized, but many Minnesota Ojibwe did not.

During the 1862 Dakota War, Hole in the Day spread false rumors that the U.S. government was conscripting Ojibwe men to fight in the civil war in efforts to encourage native people to join with the Dakota and attack white settlers. He flirted with the idea of joining the conflict himself, which included threats to attack Fort Ripley.

He later helped negotiate the 1867 Treaty with the Chippewa Indians of the Mississippi, which led to the creation of the White Earth reservation, which Hole in the Day envisioned as a home for all Minnesota Ojibwe.

The next year, in 1868, a group of traders, fearful that Hole in the Day would keep them out of White Earth and damage their businesses, solicited — but ultimately never paid — assassins, who would shoot him to death in Crow Wing while en route to Washington D.C. for a treaty negotiation.

“It’s a fantastic story with every kind of human drama you can imagine,” Treuer said.

Now, plans are in the works to develop the story into a full-length feature film.

In March, Treuer and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced a partnership with Debwe Films to produce the film, with the band agreeing to fund development of the screenplay. Treuer also announced that Oscar-winning producer and screenwriter Dave Franzoni, who co-wrote and produced 2000 Best Picture recipient “Gladiator” and wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film “Amistad,” had been hired to draft the screenplay.

“It was a series of conversations and probably a year of sorting out details,” Treuer said. “There are lots of mom-and-pop kinds of films and the tools to make your own things, and some of them are getting pretty good — but I wanted to do something bigger.”

Treuer, who began developing “The Assassination of Hole in the Day” as his doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota, said he has always been able to envision the story’s potential as a film.

“We have something to deliver,” he said. “Most treatment of Native Americans in films has just been caricature — always a tragic ending without fully realized characters or characters with an arc. This is just a really captivating story.“

Even with positive momentum, Treuer knows there remains a long road ahead before a completed film is realized.

“There are no guarantees in this business,” Treuer said. “When we first started this, I would say our chances were less than 1 percent. But, you know, I think we have a shot to pull it together.”

Treuer joined the BSU faculty in 2000 and has since become a national and global leader in Ojibwe language and cultural preservation efforts. He has written or contributed to 19 books and has received more than 40 awards and fellowships from organizations such as the American Philosophical Society, the National Science Foundation, the Bush Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

“The Assassination of Hole in the Day” was named “Minnesota’s Best Read” by the Library of Congress and received an
Award of Merit from the American Association for State
and Local History.