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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home: The Indigenous Nations, our first inhabitants

(Ojibwe people in Belcourt, North Dakota)

The Ojibwe people, also known as Anishinaabeg or Chippewa, are among the most populous indigenous tribes in North America. They reside in more than 150 federally recognized communities in Canada and the United States.

The Ojibwe, Ojibwa, Chippewa, or Saulteaux are people that have lived for thousands of years in what is currently southern Canada and the northern Midwestern United States. According to the US census, in the United States Ojibwe people are one of the largest tribal populations among indigenous people's communities. In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population, surpassed only by the Cree. The Ojibwe people refer to themselves as Anishinaabe, a term meaning "original man" or "first man".

The Ojibwe people traditionally speak Anishinaabemowin, a branch of the Algonquian language family. They are part of the Council of Three Fires and the Anishinaabeg, which include the Algonquin, Nipissing, Oji-Cree, Odawa, and the Potawatomi. Historically, through the Saulteaux branch, they were a part of the Iron Confederacy, joining the Cree, Assiniboine, and Metis.

The Ojibwe population is approximately 320,000 people, with 170,742 living in the United States as of 2010, and approximately 160,000 living in Canada.

In the United States, there are 77,940 mainline Ojibwe; 76,760 Saulteaux; and 8,770 Mississauga, organized in 125 bands. In Canada, they live from western Quebec to eastern British Columbia.

Comprised of 29,161 members, of which 13,000 live on or near the Turtle Mountain Reservation, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa migrated to the area from the Great Lakes region in the late 1400s. The population for the entire Nation in 1764 was 30,000 and agriculture was their traditional means of support. The Turtle Mountain Reservation was established in 1882.

The Ojibwe are known for their birch bark canoes, birch bark scrolls, mining and trade in copper, as well as their cultivation of wild rice and maple syrup. They used birch-bark for many necessities but they were especially known for their well-crafted and graceful birch-bark canoes. Light and lean yet strong, these canoes were able to carry heavy loads through the water. Some crafts were made for beauty, but many were made for practical, every day use- such as baskets, wampum, snowshoes, and moccasins. Their art includes dream catchers (you can find a class to learn how to make them here) and intricate beadwork. Their Midewiwin Society is well respected as the keeper of detailed and complex scrolls of events, oral history, songs, maps, memories, stories, geometry, and mathematics. These scrolls are also made with birch bark.

Woodland Chippewa lived in houses called wigwams which were made of birch-bark. Chippewa living in the Great Plains region lived in tipis made of animal hide in order to accommodate their nomadic lifestyle.

The Objiwe tribe originally occupied a vast tract of lands around Lake Huron and Lake Superior and south in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota when their lifestyle was of the Northeast woodland cultural group. They were hunters, fishers and farmers. Once the French and English settlers arrived in the 1600's, the tribe became involved in fur-trading. Harvesting and making wild rice was a very important task for them too. Rice was a major food source and was also used in many important ceremonies. They used special paddles during harvesting, called knockers, while wading through the water in their canoes. Rice making was a multi-step process involving drying, parching, hulling and finally winnowing. Much of the process is still done by the Ojibwe today.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Ojibwe required they separate into small bands moving in a fixed pattern to take advantage of available resources. Polygamy was rare. During winter, they separated into extended families in isolated hunting camps which allowed the men to cover a large area without competition from other hunters. During warmer months, they gathered in bands of 300-400 at known locations where fish, berries, and wild rice were abundant. There was little central organization, and the authority of hereditary Ojibwe chiefs before contact was limited and confined pretty much to his own band. Tribal councils occurred only when several bands made common cause in times of war but otherwise were rare. However, this changed after the beginning of the fur trade with the French, and the different bands began merging.

There's a book, published in 1929, that speaks more about their customs from the perspective of Frances Denmore, one of the first ethnologists in specializing in the study of the Indigenous people of what we now call the Americas. You can buy the book here.

Ojibwe woman cleaning wild rice
Ojibwe woman cleaning wild rice

The Ojibwe band of tribes extended their territories across a massive area, and many adopted the lifestyle of the bison hunters of the Great Plains. Because there were so many bands of them, they relied on each other for trading. They were also close with the Potawatomi and Ottawa tribes and referred to the three tribes together as The Council of Three Fires. In contrast, they did not get along with the Sioux or the Iroquois and often fought with them. Their culture has evolved over the years and now allows both men and women who seek to become leaders to be elected as chiefs. Their houses, their diet, their clothing and jewelry and even how their kids are taught have all evolved through the centuries. What all of this change means to them, is that preserving the history of the tribe is more important than ever.

Ta-Ma-Kake-Toke, or The Woman That Spoke First. A Chippeway [Woman]. (mourning), 1836.  Painted at the Treaty of Fond du Lac, 1827
Ta-Ma-Kake-Toke, or The Woman That Spoke First. A Chippeway [Woman]. (mourning), 1836. Painted at the Treaty of Fond du Lac, 1827 Painter: James Otto Lewis From 'The Aboriginal Port Folio' by J. O. Lewis, lithographed by Lehman & Duval, Philladelphia. Art: 1835-1836 Collections Online Minnesota Historical Society Location No.AV1988.45.557 Negative No.10495

Next week we'll continue this series with more information on the history, culture, art and traditions of the Ojibwe or Chippewa.

Stay tuned for more information on more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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