The Amerindians known as the Ojibwa, Ojibway, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Bungi, Mississauga, Saulteaux, or Anishinaabe (as they call themselves) number well over 220,000. Their territory extends east to west from Lake Ontario to Lake Winnipeg and north to south from the Severn River Basin to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In Canada there are over 100 Ojibwa First Nation bands located in the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. In the United States there are 22 federally recognized Ojibwa bands: the Turtle Mountain, Sault Ste. Marie, Red Lake, Minnesota, Lac Courte Oreilles, White Earth, Bad River, Leech Lake, and many others in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. Historically the Ojibwa were never a single tribe in the political sense but rather consisted of a number of bands sharing a language and culture. They are grouped by scholars into four subtribes: the Southeastern, Southwestern, Northern (or Saulteaux), and Plains (or Bungi) Ojibwe.
There is disagreement concerning pre-contact origins and cultural development: while most Ojibwa maintain that they, like all other Native Americans, are autochthonic, many scholars insist that the ancestors of the Ojibwa originated in Northern Asia and moved across the Bering Strait to the Atlantic Ocean. Then, following an epidemic in 1400 C.E., they retraced their steps, going as far as the western shores of Lake Superior. The Ojibwa heartland today is located in the vicinity of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, but this was not always the case. The ancient migration legend, recorded on birchbark scrolls, recounts a long journey from the lower St. Lawrence River up past present-day Montreal, continuing northwest behind Manitoulin Island to St. Mary’s River. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they moved into Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Western Ontario, and Manitoba, with later migrations onto the northern Great Plains in North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan.
The Ojibwa share in both a Woodlands cultural heritage with the Ottawa, Pottawatomie, and Menominee and in a Plains cultural heritage with the Dakota and Lakota Sioux as well as the Cree. Thus, Ojibwa ethnic identity includes a combination of traits from these two distinct traditions. They practice Plains shamanic vision quests and healing rituals, a Rain Dance that is similar to Plains Sun Dances, a Cree-based Smoking Lodge Ceremony, horse breeding and racing. While they share in a Woodlands subsistence pattern that emphasizes fish, wild rice, and maple sugar, they also hunt deer and plant corn and squash. Ojibwa elders smoke and make ritual offerings of kin-nikinnick, a tobacco mixture of dried leaves and bark.
Ojibwa society is patrilineal with six major clans— Crane, Catfish, Bear, Marten, Wolf, and Loon—along with several minor ones including Pike, Eagle, Goose, Cormorant, Moose, and Reindeer. Each of these clans is exogamous; thus when a male member of the Loon clan marries a woman of a different clan, their children all belong to the Loon clan. Upon death, the clan animal is drawn, upside down, on the grave marker of everyone given a traditional non-Christian burial. Membership in the Midewiwin, or Great Medicine Lodge, involved many years of vision quests and instruction in herbal healing. The Midewiwin is described by its members as a “gift” carried by the Bear and Otter spirits, or manitook, and a megas shell. This shell, which is the main symbol for the society, first appeared in the Atlantic Ocean and then moved westward, disappearing and reappearing again and again until it reached Lake Superior. Members of the society institutionalized shamanism as a philosophy and a religion. The Mide philosophy, which is taught to all initiates, stresses the importance of maintaining balance in one’s life and showing respect for all other life forms.
Among the Ojibwa there is an extremely close relationship between personal and mythic experience, with myths serving as primary resources for cosmology and worldview. Their life-world is traditionally described and experienced through key religious symbols, beliefs, and practices as alive with the presence of manitook. These beings inhabit trees, rocks, streams, winds, thunder, lightning, animals, and the sun and moon. Manitook are perceived as other-than-human persons. Spiritual experiences of shamans and dreamers give birth to mythic narratives, and these narratives inform their experiences. Through dreams and vision quests, the Ojibwa elicit revelations that they commemorate in story and perform in ritual. They also gain reverence for the mystery of life that animates all things: humans, animals, plants, and the earth.
Dreams and visions play a central role in Ojibwa culture. Gifted dreamers become respected artists and elders, and children are encouraged to remember and tell their dreams. Since a newborn baby is born “empty” of personality, pressure is exerted upon children to get them to learn about the spiritual world in order “to fill their emptiness.” This is accomplished by learning traditional stories and developing a loving relationship with dream images. In this way, children become proficient at a special state of awareness halfway between waking and sleeping consciousness. During such dreaming, people experience a form of “doubling” or conscious awareness of both being in a dream state and of being sound asleep. Such dream experiences involve self-awareness, or self-reflectiveness, while otherwise asleep.
Today, while many Ojibwa engage in traditional craft production as well as occupations such as fishing, hunting, and harvesting of wild rice, many others teach in community colleges and universities, or run manufacturing companies, banks, marinas, fisheries, and ferry services, as well as hotels and casinos. U.S. reservations and Canadian reserves are using their casino revenues to establish community infrastructures. Thus, the northern Minnesota Mille Lacs Band used the profits from their casinos to build streets, schools, a tribal complex, and a museum on their reservation. Today they have nearly full employment together with numerous job opportunities for non-Indians. This has resulted in steadily growing political influence in nearby non-Indian towns. Other Ojibwa bands, however, have not profited from casinos, and unemployment, together with all of the accompanying social ills, is seriously damaging these groups.
- Peacock, T., & Wisuri, M. (2002). Ojibwe waasa inaabidaa: We look in all directions. Afton: Afton
- Historical Society Press. Peers, L. (1994). The Ojibwa of western Canada 1780-1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
- Smith, T. (1995). The island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and water monsters in the traditional Ojibwe life-world. Moscow: University of Idaho Press.