MIGISI (meaning “eagle”; his letters were usually signed Michel d’Aigle Dokis), Ojibwa chief; b. c. 1818 in the vicinity of Lake Nipissing, Upper Canada; had a number of sons and daughters; d. 25 April 1906 on the Dokis Indian Reserve, Ont.
An account of Migisi’s background given to the Department of Indian Affairs by an English-speaking employee states that he was the son of a French Canadian fur trader, “Michael” d’Aigle, and an Ojibwa woman, Louise Obtagashio. Shortly after he was born his mother left his father and joined another French Canadian, Michel Restoul, sometimes called Washusk, with whom she had two more sons. The three boys would become the founders of the Dokis Indian Band, and Migisi would be its first chief.
Migisi was raised as an Ojibwa. He received no formal education and, being minimally proficient in English, would require a translator when later in his life he had to communicate with officials of the Department of Indian Affairs. According to band tradition, he acquired the sobriquet Dokis, by which he was usually called, from his tendency as a child to pronounce the plural of “duck” as “duckies.” An enterprising young man, he established a trading post on the north shore of Lake Nipissing with his half-brothers Francis and Joseph Washusk. The three also traded for a time on Lake Temagami in opposition to the Hudson’s Bay Company, bringing their trade goods up from Lake Nipissing by canoe.
When in 1850 William Benjamin Robinson* met at Sault Ste Marie with Ojibwa groups from the Lake Huron area to negotiate a treaty, he recognized Dokis as a band chief. In return for the surrender of a large block of territory extending from Penetanguishene to Batchawana Bay, each Ojibwa band was granted a reserve and other considerations. Dokis selected an island in the French River known as Okikendawt and an adjacent island-like peninsula. Consisting of about 61 square miles, the reserve was confirmed and registered in 1853 after a survey conducted under his watchful eye. His choice of land proved fortunate. The tract had one of the finest stands of red and white pine, hemlock, and assorted hardwoods in the north. The ground was level and no point was more than a mile and a half from the French River or its tributary the Memesagamesing.
By the 1880s the final deadly assault on the virgin white pine that had once covered eastern Ontario was well under way. Such a valuable piece of timberland as the Dokis reserve could not fail to be coveted by lumbermen. Both the Robinson-Huron Treaty and the Indian Act of 1876 permitted the dominion government to sell or lease timber on behalf of Indians, but only with the consent of a majority of adult male members of the band. Whereas many bands in northern Ontario were willing to give up their pine for an amount equal to the sale price set by the provincial government for timber limits on crown lands, Dokis and his band refused for over 20 years to sell their timber to anyone. Dokis’s obstinacy in this matter aroused the ire of lumbermen, Department of Indian Affairs officials, and politicians, all of whom tried various forms of argument, bribery, threat, and deception to pry the resource away from the chief’s control.
The first serious attempt to secure a surrender of the Dokis timber was made in 1888 when Thomas Walton, the regional superintendent of Indian affairs, arranged through the chief for a vote by the band. Despite the possibility of receiving an estimated annual income of four dollars each from the interest on the invested sale money and subsequent timber dues, the band members refused their consent. In response to the argument that rapid settlement of the district placed the pine in great danger from fire, Chief Dokis responded, “If it [is] the will of Providence that it should burn then let the timber burn,” leading Walton to conclude that “sentimental rather than monetary considerations guided their conduct” and to grumble that the chief’s influence over his band was “of a tyrannical nature.”
Every year the value of the Dokis timber increased. Two evaluation surveys made in 1893 (without the chief’s approval) estimated the sale price by public auction at $250,000, which would have given each band member an annual income of about $131. Still, guided by Chief Dokis, they would not reverse their stand. “The action of the Band in this matter exemplifies . . . the incapacity of the Indians to manage their own affairs,” Walton wrote to his superior. He recommended that the department “seek or take exceptional authority to dispose of their Timber without their consent.” The department did not follow this advice, but its further attempts to negotiate a surrender with the band encountered a steadfast refusal.
On 25 April 1906 Dokis died. His last act as chief was to exact an oath from his son and heir Michael that he “would hand down the timber to his children the same way as he himself had done.” Michael died two months after his father and was replaced as chief by his brother Alexander. Alex did not have the same control over the band his father had had; consequently Indian agent George P. Cockburn, taking advantage of a split in loyalties and bypassing the chief, called a surrender vote for 7 Jan. 1908. Eight Washusks and three Migisis voted in favour; Alex and five other Migisis voted against. The proceeds from the timber auction held in Ottawa on 27 June 1908, together with subsequent timber dues and ground-rent, netted the band, then numbering 81 souls, the sum of $1.1 million, and provided each member with an income of $50 a month. The band became the richest per capita in Canada.
Dokis’s qualities had not gone unappreciated, even among Indian department employees. Writing in 1898 George L. Chitty, a timber inspector, called him “thoroughly upright and candid in his statements, and [appreciative of] these qualities in others.” He described the 80-year-old Dokis as “straight, active and well preserved, of benign and refined aspect” and found him “a sensible man of large experience among Indians and White people.” The legacy of thrift and independent-mindedness the chief passed on to his descendants ensured that the Dokis Indians, who husband their resources well, remain a proud and prosperous people.
NA, RG 10, 2217–19. Ottawa Evening Journal, 27 April 1893. J. T. Angus, A Deo victoria: the story of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company, 1871–1942 (Thunder Bay, Ont., 1990); “How the Dokis Indians protected their timber,” OH, 81 (1989): 181–99. Canada, Indian treaties and surrenders . . . [1660–1906] (3v., Ottawa, 1891–1912; repr. Toronto, 1971), 1: 149–51.