HUMN 240
Oct. 7, 2003

The Ojibwa Indians

Introduction/General Information

The Ojibwa Indians, who make up one of the largest tribal groups in North America today, are considered the largest and most powerful of the Great Lakes tribes that existed, yet few people realize the significance of the Ojibwa in history. Some attribute the lack of historical prominence to the tribe’s “remoteness from the frontier during the colonial wars” (Britannica 895). Helen Tanner, in her book The Ojibwa, says that since their early history the people of the tribe have called themselves as “Anishinabe,” which means “first man” or “original man,” though some also translate it as “spontaneously created man” (Tanner 14). Others, such as neighboring tribes, used the term “Ojibwa,” probably either an altered form or mispronunciation of o-jib-i-weg, which means “those who make pictographs.” They have also been referred to as “Chippewa,” whose meaning is uncertain but seems to involve Ojibwa who lived in certain regions. Tanner asserts that they were one of few North American tribes that, by tradition, used a form of writing. Victor Barnouw, in Wisconsin Chippewa Myths & Tales, explains that their spoken language, Ojibwe, belongs to the linguistic family of Algonkian languages—the languages spoken by most Indians in northeastern North America (5). Ojibwe, which is described as being almost identical to Ottawa and Potawatomi, became the trade language in the northern Great Lakes around 1680.

The first outside contact with the Ojibwa was in the mid-17th century. Many consider the date of the first encounter to be 1665, when Father Claude Jean Allouez, a French Jesuit missionary, came across the Ojibwa when he came to found the Chequamegon Bay mission near what is today Lake Superior. The Britannica, however, cites reports dating from 1640 in the Jesuit Relations as being the first to discover the Ojibwa (895). The Jesuit Relations were annual reports and narratives written by French Jesuit missionaries at their stations in (present-day) America, from 1632 to 1673. They serve as historical records of various aboriginal tribes as well as describing French explorations. The French referred to the Ojibwa as “Saulteurs,” meaning “People of the Rapids” (Danziger 7).

The Ojibwa, who lived in the Great Lakes region, rely primarily on hunting, fishing and gathering as their central means of subsistence; additionally, they grew corn and squash in summer, harvested wild rice in the fall, and even (at least historically) tapped maple trees for sugar in the spring (Barnouw 5-6). Barnouw adds that this cycle often involved a “nomadic or seminomadic way of life” (6). The Ojibwa lived in dome-shaped wigwams, usually made of birchbark and often constructed by the women; travel was either by foot, canoe or toboggan (the latter in the winter).

The Ojibwa, sources agree, were significantly influenced by trades with the French and later the British; the Indians traded mainly furs to the French and British, who gave them various European goods in exchange. Among the more noteworthy items were steel (mostly in the form of tools) and firearms, which the Ojibwa later used to drive out rival tribes. One of the problems this caused, however, was the fact that the Indians became over-dependent on European goods and trade, and during times when trading declined—sometimes a couple decades or more—the Ojibwa suffered and often fell into times of poverty and ill health. One example, as cited by Edmund Danziger, was that “men ceased to hunt just for immediate food needs... Indian material culture was revolutionized and certain habits of life were altered” (31).

Over time, particularly in the years immediately after the end of the War of 1812, the United States government started to become more authoritative and began a series of treaties that took the various Indian tribes’ native lands in exchange for smaller reservations of land in certain areas. The Ojibwa are still around today, and remain one of the larger Native American groups. Helen Tanner, describing the merging of traditional culture with the modernized world, says, “Ojibwa have managed to hold on to elements of their past. Some tribal members acknowledge their rich cultural heritage through language and art” (21). In some ways, it makes the description of traditional life similar to the modern world of the Ojibwa.

Organization of Group

The classification of the Ojibwa seems to have gradually changed over time. In terms of social organization, the Ojibwa shared different social ties. Edmund Danziger, Jr., in his book The Chippewa of Lake Superior, says that the most significant social tie was the “tribal-wide network of totemic clans” (Danziger 10). Each of the clans, he explains, was represented by an animal that signified their common ancestry. Danziger goes on to add that these clans were almost exclusively exogamous, though polygamy occasionally occurred among exceptional hunters, chiefs or shamans who were capable of sustaining multiple families (15).

The Ojibwa are classified as a tribal society, though interestingly enough, the lifestyle they pursued often forced them to function differently than that. They are best described as a seminomadic people—with few exceptions—who had a subsistence level that, as Danziger puts it, “never encouraged a highly structured society or a large population” (10). The primary subsistence of the Ojibwa included hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plant food, though some of the southern groups cultivated corn.

Because of their dependence on hunting and trapping, the Ojibwa were able to act as individual small groups. An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica explains how the tribes operated throughout the year: “Each Ojibwa tribe was divided into migratory bands. In the autumn bands separated into family units, which dispersed to individual hunting areas; in summer, families gathered together, usually at fishing sites” (Britannica 895). Essentially, the hunter-gatherer way of life made it necessary for the Ojibwa to split into small bands so they could take full advantage of the resources available to them.

One other aspect of the Ojibwa society is the lack of central organization; while the tribes had a chief, he generally had relatively little power or authority. Helen Tanner remarks that the tribal chief had to discuss decisions concerning his tribe with the tribal council (Tanner 25). Intertribal councils only took place during times of war. The Encyclopedia Britannica reiterates that chieftainship was not a very powerful position, but adds, “dealings with European fur traders strengthened the position, which became hereditary through the paternal line” (895). Considering that at the simpler levels of social organization, a band or tribe usually lacks centralized authority, it seems more accurate to define the Ojibwa as a tribal society rather than a chiefdom.

Historical Overview

Tradition says that the Ojibwa remember a time when their people once lived near an ocean; Edmund Danziger refers to it as “probably at the mouth of the St. Lawrence” (7), although others believe Hudson Bay to be more likely. Along with the Ottawa and the Potawatomi, who lived in the same region until that point, the three tribes migrated to the region surrounding the Great Lakes around the 15th century. Upon reaching the Straits of Mackinac, says Helen Tanner, the tribes went separate ways: the Ottawa moved to territory north of Lake Huron, the Potawatomi went to present-day southwestern Michigan, and the Ojibwa traveled to the area at the eastern side of Lake Superior and the north shore of Lake Huron (14). Tanner attributes the vision of a megis, or cowrie shell, to the resettlement by the Great Lakes. Others feel that the migration took place simply because the tribes were looking for better hunting grounds and a better climate.

    According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, when the French first encountered the Ojibwa Indians in 1640, they lived in a region near Sault Ste. Marie in the upper peninsula of Michigan; however, they moved further westward as the fur trade began to expand (895). Danziger adds that firearms, which the Ojibwa had obtained from trades with the French circa 1690, allowed them to drive out the Dakota (Sioux) and the Fox—with whom they had been constantly at war over the wild rice fields—from Mille Lacs in 1737, and move to northern Minnesota (7). Over the course of the next century, the Ojibwa forced the Sioux out of Wisconsin and northern Minnesota; some bands reached Manitoba and North Dakota, while others pushed west to the areas around Saskatchewan and Montana. Still other Ojibwa settled in northernmost Illinois. Britannica says that in the mid-18th century, the Ojibwa controlled a large area that ranged “from what is now Minnesota to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota” (895). By the turn of the 19th century, the Ojibwa lived in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Illinois, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

In the French and Indian War, says Helen Tanner, the Ojibwa were allied with the French (48), and during the War of 1812, they supported the British. She attributes this in part to the fact that the United States was interested in “increasing non-Indian settlement throughout the Northwest” and was “determined to extend its authority over the Indians” (67), while on the other hand, the British had come to make a profit but maintained and preserved traditional culture, recognizing that the people were skilled huntsmen. When the war was over, the States were victorious, and it was a significant loss for not only the Ojibwa but the other Indian tribes as well. However, the significance to the Ojibwa in particular—who had controlled an area more vast than any other tribe—was the signing of a number of treaties that resulted in the gradual dwindling of Native American land as the United States became more nationalistic, imperialistic and determined to extend authority. One of the first treaties was the Spring Wells treaty (Danziger 68), signed in 1815, in which tribes recognized the States’ authority and both sides decided to “forgive and forget” in regards to wartime injuries and casualties. The treaty also reinstated prewar possessions and rights of various tribes, including but not limited to the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Seneca, Shawnee, and Delaware. Although sources indicate that few confrontations took place between the Americans and the Ojibwa after the treaty, subsequent treaties—such as the Fort Meigs Treaty of 1817—were not written with the Indians’ best interest at heart. Most of the treaties, says the World Book Encyclopedia, involved the Ojibwa (and other tribes) ceding their tribal land to the U.S. and Canadian federal governments in exchange for the establishment of federal reservations (514). Although the statement is somewhat of an overview, Tanner believes that in terms of land ownership and usage, little has changed since that point. She cites such reforms as Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Indian New Deal as signs of progress, but harkens back to the fact that as of 1992 (the time her book was published), only 15 tribal organizations are officially recognized by the U.S. federal government. “After 200 years of expansion, the Ojibwa now live on more than 100 reservations and reserves and in communities,” she explains (113).

Creation Story

The story of creation as told by the Ojibwa is somewhat complicated. A shortened version of the story is in order, beginning with Kitche-Manido. The story told in Basil Johnston’s two books The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway and Ojibway Heritage.

(“Creation”) Before the beginning of the world, only Kitche-Manido—“The Great Spirit” or “The Great Mystery”—existed. The omnipotent being and Creator, Kitche-Manido, had a vision of the stars, sun, moon and earth. He saw the birth, growth, and end of living things. He felt different emotions. Realizing he had to fulfill the dream he had seen and felt, from nothing he made the four basic elements of rock, fire, wind and water, and breathed life into them, creating the physical world of the stars, sun, moon and earth. He created plants, animals, and lastly, man. He had brought his vision into existence (Heritage 12-3).

(“Disaster”) Disaster came upon the world; a vast flood known as the Great Flood destroyed all life—all men died, all land creatures and plants died, and only the water animals, birds, and fish survived. The world remained but a great sea for generations. (Heritage 13).

(“Re-creation”) The world was flooded, but while it was under water and life was gradually coming to an end, new life was taking place in the sky above. Geezhigo-Quae (“Sky Woman”) was given a companion; she conceived, her companion left her, and her two children were born. One was pure spirit, the other pure physical being. The two, of opposite natures, fought and ultimately destroyed one another, leaving her alone once again. The animals and birds who had survived noticed Sky Woman’s changing condition, and asked a fellow survivor, the Giant Turtle, to offer his back to her as a place to rest, and she came down from the sky to the turtle’s back. Sky Woman asked for soil, and the muskrat—the least of the animals—was the only one who could bring her some. She breathed the breath of life, abundance, and growth into the soil and infused the soil with the attributes of womanhood and motherhood. She gave birth to twins whose descendants took the name Anishinaubaek (“Good Beings”). Over time, other nations named their fellow Anishinaubaek with names including Ojibway, Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Algonquin, and Mississauga (Manitous xv-xvi).

Comparison/Contrast With Other Groups

Although it would be impractical to try to discuss every similarity and dissimilarity between the Ojibwa and nearly a dozen other groups, it is feasible to cover some of the more significant parallels and contrasts. The five groups that will be used in the comparison are the Navajo, Hopi, Chichimecs, Aztecs, and Inca. Although it is difficult to even compare great empires to Indian tribes—like apples and oranges almost—they do share some common characteristics. However, the fact of the matter remains that some of the observations are relatively general and broad.

The Ojibwa are best classified as a tribal society (specifically, segmentary lineage). The Navajo, over time, changed from simple family bands to a tribal society. This is not entirely different from the Ojibwa, except they (the Ojibwa) annually divide up into bands rather than having developed from bands as the Navajo did. Their main form of subsistence comes from farm crops, though some own livestock and cattle. They are mostly located in the southwestern desert areas of North America. While they carved houses into the sides of mountains, the Ojibwa generally used wigwams.

The Hopi Indians are a tribal society and, in some ways, similar to the Navajo. They live around the same areas (and similar climates) as the Navajo, and also rely on crops such as corn, beans, wheat, and tobacco. The tribe is divided into clans and each village has a chief. There are significantly fewer Hopi than Ojibwa (12,000 in 1990 compared to over 100,000).

The Toltec were, unlike the Ojibwa, not nomadic. They lived in cities, but a similarity can be found in that both lived near large lakes. The Toltec, though, lived in the desert; the Ojibwa lived mostly in forested areas. The Toltec were also a tribal society (around the 12th century), but they were a conical clan; additionally, they later became a state society around Tula. The Toltecs were mostly in Middle America, around the valleys of central Mexico.

The Aztecs were, in most regards, quite different from the Ojibwa; they developed Chinampo agriculture as their primary means of subsistence. In terms of location, the Aztecs were also mainly in central Mexico, having essentially taken the place of the Toltec. Unlike the Ojibwa, the Aztecs were a powerful empire despite being in the tiny minority of the surrounding groups. Like the Ojibwa, the Aztecs found much significance in art, though theirs was particularly focused on sculptures.

Lastly, the Inca also share some common characteristics to the Ojibwa. The Incas lived in the Americas, though they were from South America (such countries as Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and more). Despite ruling over seven million people, the Incas themselves were a tiny minority. The Ojibwa did not rule over other tribes, though they were one of the groups in the majority. Also unlike the Ojibwa, the Inca encompassed four different ecosystems (desert, seashore, valleys, and the high Andes). Significantly, the Incas had extraordinary political integration and had a multi-ethnic empire. Again, while it is difficult to compare empires to tribes—given the fact that, among other things, tribes didn’t usually have one supreme reigning tribe—the style of subsistence between the Incas and the Ojibwa is similar. Fish was a central source of food to both.

Contribution to Society/Conclusion

The fact of the matter is that in the case of the Ojibwa, as well as other Native American groups, there is no precise or clear-cut answer to the question “What contribution did the group make?” Most of what is significant about the Ojibwa is not a concrete idea, innovation, or change. They were one of the most powerful and extensive tribes for over three millennia; today, they are still one of the largest Native American groups. Their trades with the French—and later the British—in the 17th and 18th centuries didn’t revolutionize things, or bring new innovations to the world, but their contribution in this case was to their own tribe. They transfigured aspects of their way of life. They made contributions to a number of wars, such as the French and Indian War: Tanner says that one of the Ojibwa war leaders from Saginaw Bay played a key role in the battle victories of the French.

Even in the 21st century, the Ojibwa manage to maintain what is significant from their cultural heritage while keeping up with the modern world. The World Book Encyclopedia describes the wide range of professions they work in: agriculture, the arts, law, education and medicine, among others. Some make a living in the manufacturing industry, some even run casinos. Other Ojibwa are making a more traditional living in areas such as hunting, trapping or lumbering, and some work as guides (514). The Ojibwa were central to milestones in North American history, and even today, they make a significant impact.

Works Cited

Barnow, Victor. Wisconsin Chippewa Myths & Tales. Madison: University of Wisconsin
           Press, 1977. 

“Chippewa Indians.” World Book Encyclopedia. 2002 ed. 2002.

Danziger, Edmund Jefferson Jr. The Chippewas of Lake Superior. Norman, Oklahoma:
           University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.

Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. New York:
           HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

“Ojibwa.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003 ed. 2003.

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. The Ojibwa. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.