A gifted Ojibwe diplomat who navigated a changing 19th-century political landscape, Chief Hole-in-the-Day lives on in Minnesota place names.
One of the captivating place names we pass through on every return trip from the cabin in Northern Minnesota is Hole-In-The-Day. There’s a street that runs parallel along Highway 371 in Nisswa, and a bay in Gull Lake by the same name. During the long drive, I’ve often daydreamed about what was behind the name, as well as the colorful imagery it conjures.
Many places in Minnesota have melodic and imaginative Indian names: Shakopee (SHOCK-ah-pi), Wayzata (why-ZET-ta), Minnetonka, Bemidji, Minnehaha, Kandiyohi (candy-OH-high), Owatonna, Biwabik (bih-WAH-bick), Winnibigoshish (whinny-bye-GOSH-ish), Saganaga (sag-ah-NAY-gah), Kabekona. Other names come from literal translation: Crow Wing, Bearskin, Pipestone, Red Wing, Grand Portage, Arrowhead, Yellow Medicine, Split Rock, Blue Earth. Others, like Minneapolis, are hybrids. But I always wondered especially about Hole-In-The-Day.
Hole-In-The-Day (or perhaps the more literal translation Hole-In-The-Sky) was a name shared by two Ojibwe (Chippewa) chiefs in the 19th century, father and son. The native historian Ohiyesa (Dr.Charles Eastman, who helped found the Boy Scouts of America), of the Sioux nation, remembers Hole-In-The-Day the younger as a gifted diplomat who attempted to navigate the changing political landscape on behalf of his people. Before he was assassinated by rivals in 1868, along the trail that Highway 371 follows today, Hole-In-The-Day had traveled throughout the United States, and had made many trips to Washington to speak with leaders and the public.
The elder Hole-In-The-Day had been a war chief of Napoleonic proportions, seizing territory from the Sioux nation in a lengthy battle campaign. When the United States government mediated the negotiations to end the Ojibwe/Sioux conflict, Hole-In-The-Day the younger represented his people at the summit held at Fort Snelling. He also played a pivotal role in settling the issues surrounding the Dakota Uprising in 1862, representing the interests of a consortium of Mississippi tribal nations.
Hole-In-The-Day was a charismatic, handsome figure, with beautiful long hair, symmetrical features and striking dress. Especially popular with the ladies, he had several wives, including a white woman whom he had met and quickly married after a one-night stand in Washington, D.C. resulted in her pregnancy. Narratives abound with other anecdotes, including one from Infantryman William E. Seelye of Fort Ripley, who remembered:
An additional account of Hole-In-The-Day’s skill in diplomacy lies within a note found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, corroborating his charm:
The elder Hole-In-The-Day is buried outside the city of Little Falls, Minnesota. A long-standing legend warns that if his bones are disturbed, his guardianship of the city against natural disasters will cease. This would appear to have some merit. When the gravesite was disrupted for highway construction in the 20th century, the city flooded shortly thereafter.
The younger Hole-In-The-Day succeeded in diplomacy as long as he was recognized as the head of his people. His remarkable gifts in oratory and strategic thinking mitigated some of the more oppressing aspects of the inevitable progression of white settlement into native lands.
Update: Anton Treuer, professor at Bemidji State University and editor of the only academic journal written in the Ojibwe language, has combined solid researh and contextual background in The Assassination of Hole in the Day. Check out Amazon recommendations of other titles by this gifted writer:
Native legend tells that the Great Spirit is literally seen by man through a hole in the day (sky). Perhaps guidance to success arrives from above in the same manner. It seems as though this name, like so many, was a highly-accurate prophecy, foretelling of great accomplishments.
When I thought of a hole in the day before I knew the story of these great leaders, the image of a bubble through which I could step into another realm or time came to mind. What if we look for our own hole in the day? Will we be open to the guidance and gifts that will be given beyond it, and what will we do with these gifts upon our return?