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Spotlight on Culture

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

(Ojibwe people)


Food represents the strongest connection we have to our culture, second only to language. The kinds of food that people recount as culturally significant occupy places in our hearts, minds and body. This multi-dimensional relationship to food is especially prevalent among indigenous cultures. The Ojibwe maintain such a relationship to many foods found in their homelands to this day. To them, they have vital importance to spiritual and physical well being, especially manoomin, wild rice.

The food that the Ojibwe people traditionally ate, depended on the natural resources that were available to them in the locations that they lived in.

The food of the Northeast Woodland people included fish and small game like squirrels, deer, raccoon, bear and beaver. Corn, squash, beans and pumpkin were also available, so they were also consumed.

Ojibwe harvesting wild rice

The food of the people who inhabited the Great Plains region was a bit different, and consisted predominantly of bison meat but they also hunted deer, bear and wild turkeys. Their diet was supplemented with roots, wild fruits and plants, and vegetables.

Even though their diet once centered on fish, game, wild rice, corn, maple sugar and an enormous variety of nuts, berries, greens and tubers, it changed when, as a result of treaties imposed by the United States Government who paid for their lands with commodities, salt, fatback, spices, wheat and coffee were introduced. The government also limited their access to hunting game, and in certain locations, to fishing grounds and other traditional gathering fields, so there was the need to adapt to avoid starvation. Colonialism caused the disruption of their subsistence patterns. The eradication of the land base and enforced sedentary settlement on reservations, and the boarding school system which prevented a lot of their youth from learning about their culture, all disrupted the cultural transfer of important knowledge needed to continue their culinary heritage. This change also affected their health, as the new diet imposed to them had less nutritional value.

Fry Bread

In the last few decades, some individuals and other grass roots groups, have done a good job of reconnecting with this past, and teaching it to the new generations. Locally, Indigenous Legacy and Christy Goulet teach classes in Moorhead on how to make different dishes, most notably Fry Bread Tacos, and adaptation recipe that was concocted to use the flour provided by the authorities as part of the rations assigned to reservations in the past.

For more information on the Ojibwe way of life and the things that they ate, go here. For more in-depth information, there's also a paper written by an ethnobotanist, you can find it here. For recipes of other breads they also make, and a version of fry bread that you don't need to fry, and information about some of the traditional proteins the Ojibwe eat, go here. For more information on the Ojibwe's tradition of eating wild rice, go here.

There's also a 58-page cookbook compiled by the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics of the University of North Dakota, that includes some of these recipes and others from other indigenous cultures. You can find a free PDF of it here.

Music and Dancing

The Ojibwe people have stories about dance, drum, song and how these gifts came to the people who learned them. According to Indigenous scholar Basil Johnston (1976), around 1877, a Dakota person, Turkey Tailfeather Woman, gave the Ojibwe people the Drum Dance. The dance uses a large double-membrane drum that our people have associated with the sacred Drum Religion. In the 20th century, many Elders learned of dance, song, ceremonies and teachings while in their childhood, and they've passed on their tradition to the new generations.

Directly associated with their dancing is the articles of clothing called Jingle Dresses. These dresses, featuring rows of metal cones that jingle as the dancer moves, began to appear in the upper Midwest in the early 20th century. Oral histories vary on where the jingle dress exactly started, but they often trace it back to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in central Minnesota or the Naotkamegwanning First Nation in Ontario near Lake of the Woods. While the exact details vary from community to community, stories of the jingle dress often feature the dress appearing in a dream and someone who is healed by the dance.

The jingle-dress dance began to spread to even more Native communities in the 1980s, becoming even more popular as the competition powwow circuit, which includes dance competitions, grew in popularity. Today Native women with a wide range of tribal affiliations compete in traditional and contemporary jingle-dress dancing around the U.S.

The Ojibwe people practiced and developed their dance traditions over many centuries. Dancing was not entertainment. It created dramatic movements that expressed emotions and actions about a subject or event that drumming and dancing usually accompanied. Dancing moved to the rhythm and singing that celebrated exploits in war, hunting, scouting. It honored special individuals and animals.

All North, Central and South American Indigenous societies have developed these complex systems. Social norms, diplomatic protocols, proper conduct, and political oratory have been part of the entire manner in which each person and community have related to one other. Traditional public ceremonies and rituals took place before important occasions such as trade meetings, treaty making, honoring guests, remembering deceased individuals, observing first kill events, honoring chiefs, warriors and the building of military alliances among aboriginal communities as well as with European colonial powers.

Indigenous ceremonies in the 16th and 17th century incorporated diplomatic customs of gift giving, tobacco and calumet (pipe) smoking for peaceful relations and celebration of many important events in their society (Johnston 1976). The people have restored the Rain Dance as the central sacred ceremony (Gir-Mii-Waa-Nii-Mii in Anishinaabemowin).

With regard to musical instruments used in this ceremony, a folded deer hide was used as a drum. Often, the only instrument to accompany the drum is the shaker. The shaker mimics the sound of an advancing thunderstorm. Generally, crafters have used bison hide to create shakers, because it would not lose its shape. But moose hides, caribou or elk have also worked well. If a person received a dream that involved a shaker with deer hooves, then that individual would acquire such a shaker.

There's other traditional dances people also do, among them is The Feast Dance (ma’guce uci’m·o), a celebration in honor of someone who has provided a feast for the camp. Tobacco is distributed after the feast. When evening comes on, the chief performs the Feast Dance in honor of the donor. He wears some extra apparel and carries a drum in his hand to accompany his singing. The chief wears a woven rabbit skin robe over his head and shoulders. While singing the Feast Song, inserting a few words at times in honor of the feast maker and drumming, he dances before the assembly. Soon he threads his way in and out amongst the people, continuing his song, and when he has gone through the ranks of the spectators he dances back to the feast ground and ends his dance.

Other dances:

  • The Bear Dance (mak·wə’cim־o) where men and women, in no particular order, form a large circle, with the leader at their head. Several of the men carry rattles made of tin cans containing pebbles. The circle of dancers is led by the chief, who carries a drum and sings the Bear Dance song, then starts around counter-clockwise. The leader sometimes dances backwards, turns around, stoops, and in other ways imitates the bear. The circling keeps up until the song is finished.

  • The Duck Dance (Ci·ci’pci`m·o). European dances seemed to have influenced this. The orchestra consists of a violin upon which some old reel or hornpipe or French jig is played. Formerly, they used the drum. The dance begins with two files of partners, the men on one side and the women on the other, side by side. All facing the musician, they begin walking backward and forward together. After doing this three or four times, the men swerve to their right and the women to their left, circle around and meet again at the head of the line. Then the partners hold hands, forming a bridge, and the couple behind passes under the bridge, takes position in front of the first couple, also holding hands, while the next couple then has to pass under two hand bridges and fall in place before the preceding ones. The whole company resumes its original position in this way by passing under the bridge and forming a new link in its lower end. This circling and bridging is done several times. The next figure changes altogether. From the parallel line formation side by side, the first couple faces right about and starts to thread in, first to the right and the left of each of the other couples as they in turn come to the head of the line and follow the first couple toward the rear. The whole movement simply becomes a swerving chain figure in which each couple alternately passes to the right and to the left of the one coming toward it. Sometimes a modern waltz or two is introduced between the movements. On the whole, this is said to come from the native Duck Dance in which the object was to represent the movement of a flock of drakes and ducks.At the end of the dance the performers all quack two or three times. This is purely a pleasure dance.

  • Round Dance, The Ojibwe, like other cultures, have also created a Round Dance. One man sings any one of a set of tunes, which seem to be mostly improvisations in which humorous passages are often introduced, accompanying himself upon a drum which is suspended from the branches of a tree. The dancers form a circle, generally with the men at the head of the line, some carrying rattles. Then they begin trotting around to the left quite close together, in time to the music. Women and children join in for the sake of excitement. At irregular intervals the dancers may face right about and circle in the opposite direction a few turns.

  • Pipe Dance (upwac΄·΄ganahwe`cim·o), the people performed this when they visited another community. The dance is very similar to the Round Dance except that the figure the movement outlined is a pipe.

The people of the 20th and 21st centuries have not forgotten their ancient customs, especially traditional dancing, singing and drumming. Elders, adults and youth have continued to practice these dances and other things such as the Fancy Dance, Grass Dance, Shawl Dance, Jingle Dress Dance, fasting ritual, smudging ritual, offering of tobacco, Moon time Ceremony as well as other traditional teachings. Ojibwe now, more than ever before, have modelled the ancient ways and danced with their children. They have said they will continue to share and promote their traditional teachings, culture, language, song and dance.

The traditional and contemporary powwows are among important ceremonies where children have performed their first dances. They have always called this celebration, the “Coming Out Ceremony” in which boys and girls dance in colorful regalia to a drum song around the arbors, the dance area’s center.

This “Coming Out Ceremony” has been where parents have proudly presented the children to the world. Elders, grandparents and parents have continued to speak of the way the event has always supported and encouraged the children’s first dance.

When a child wants to be out there, and wants to dance, they help that child and introduce them to that way of dancing through the right way of doing it, which is more meaningful than just getting them ready to dance and sending them out. They do it right, the proper or traditional way, before they are introduced to the people.

The people offer their support behind that child, and the family of that child, that wants to be in that group of dancers, to be part of those dances. They do it at the powwows and they also know that there are other children there. They are not out there alone. By seeing other children getting involved, it helps a lot of these young children to be strong in their belief that this is a good thing.

Dancing and the music needed for it, have always been a part of their people, and will continue to be important parts of the rich cultural traditions passed on to future generations.

Like many other North American Indigenous cultures, Ojibwe culture has incorporated various powwow practices, plus song, dance and drum traditions from other cultures such as the Plains Lakota communities and European cultures. Also, some First Peoples have continued to practice European music, fiddle songs, square and step dances that originated with Scottish and French traditions. Today’s interconnected world of modern travel and communication systems have greatly increased people’s widespread abilities to create a cultural-sharing network. This has included Indigenous traditions at powwows, community gatherings, traditional teaching workshops and celebrations. Contemporary First Nation powwows have blended the celebrations of various cultures, such as the Apache, Mohawk, Anishinaabe, Plains Cree, Lakota, Wendat, Eeyou and others. All these peoples have continued to dance, sing and compete in harmony with one another.

To close, I leave you with these adorable kids dancing in a Pow wow in 2019. You're welcome :)

Next week we'll continue this series with information on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation

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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