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The Sagassweidiwin (Council)

Updated: Mar 19

In the year of 1832 Father Baraga first set foot on Beaver Island which is a small island located just north of Lake Michigan. Baraga's journey started after only several months earlier after first being introduced to the Ottawa language in Cincinnati and spending some time in Arbre Crochet just south of Beaver Island. After arriving Baraga was greeted warmly and later requested a grand council which is called a Sagassweidiwin in Ojibway [1]. In Baraga's dictionary he writes that a Sagassweidiwin is the "smoking of several persons together, that is, an Indian assembly or council, where every Indian present lights his pipe and smokes." This blog gives an in depth view of what Baraga might have experienced in these moments of living and working among the Ottawa Natives.


Baraga bent down to avoid hitting hitting his head on the branch overhead. His 5'4 frame was still too tall for the structure he was now entering. When he was inside he looked around and saw these same branches around him, bent in a way to create a dome-like structure which was then covered with bark. Around the base of the frame were the men all gathered waiting for him. His eyes took in the expressions on their faces. They were stern which told him of the important business they had with him at that moment knowing that their discussion had utmost importance.

He took a seat on the ground in the spot they had left for him. His translator, an Ottawa, sat down next to him [2]. He looked at them now wanting them to know that he was fully attentive to whatever conversation was before them. They were expecting him. They had anticipated this day when a black robe would be among them again for a long time and now for the first time Baraga, a black robe, sat with them. Baraga remained silent knowing that his voice was going to be shared after the opportunity was given by the Ottawa.

Silence followed for a long time until finally one of the Ottawa chief raised his voice. Father Baraga listened attentively taking in the Ottawa language with which he was becoming familiar being translated into French which the Ottawa were familiar due to their work with the fur traders who lived with them in their region. Though Father Baraga's Slovenian language was the first which he knew, French became an important language for him due to the pressing of Napoleon into his families land. He soon was forced to learn this language which now became of paramount importance in his work with the Ottawa.

"We welcome you to our land. We have a great respect for the mekatewikwanaie (black robe)[3]". As Father Baraga listened he watched the elder who was speaking hold a stone with a long stick protruding from it in his left hand. He was cradling it like a child careful to ensure that the stone and stick remained together. In his right hand he was taking tobacco and adding it little by little to this pipe as he spoke. Baraga noted that he did this with great delicacy denoting the importance of this moment and the prayers being offered.

An image looking south of the Jesuit missions from the years 1636-1698 spanning from Montreal, Canada (bottom left) to La Pointe, WI (bottom right) [8]

He continued, "It was six generations ago when we first met a waiabishkiwed (white person)[4]. Then two generations later a waiabishkiwed by the name of Jacques Cartier

became known to us through our relatives who lived by the jiwitagani-kitchigami. The interpreter leaned over towards Baraga and said, "This is known as the ocean in English. This is known to us as the great salt sea [5]." Baraga understood that they were referencing the gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic ocean near Quebec, Canada where the French first had influence with their families and the Jesuits became first known to the Ottawa.

"Three generations later our ancestors had met the first great mekatewikwanaie whose name was Isaac Jogues whose name we remember [10]." Father Baraga's ears perked up when hearing about those who came before him. He knew that he was stepping into their footsteps when working with the Ottawa and that the Jesuits legacy played great importance to them. In that moment Baraga felt the reverence for all that these missionaries had accomplished before his arrival.

"A small group of our ancestors met with the Hurons in festivities and saw that they brought the mekatewikwanaie with them. We desired to have them meet our relatives so we invited them over to our home. Our Ancestors first met Isaac Jogues on Baawitigong which means the cascading rapids. It is known by the French as St. Mary's River. This is where we first became known as the Salteurs which means the people of the rapids [10]. This area is now known as Sault Ste. Marie and is important to our people because it is the place where the three great lakes connect.

"One generation later Father Allouez came upon us in the Bay of Chequamegon as we were gathered to go to war against the Dakota's [5]. Father Allouez helped to heal a number of children who were hurt from an explosion from gun powder. One of these children said later that he knew that he did not die because of listening to the black robe [6]. Because of this and the good works of the black robes among us the black robes are considered great among our people. They helped our children and our people."

The elder went on to share how his ancestors smoked their pipes and invited the black robes of the past to stay with them in their wigwams. He talked about the peace that they brought to his people. He shared about the challenges that his people faced now. Father Baraga listened still taking in the importance of all the elder was sharing and the importance he had to the Ottawa at this time. He was with a people that genuinely wanted him in the region and he genuinely wanted to be with them.

The elder then spoke of Father Marquette and how Marquette had also smoked the pipe with them [7]. The Ottawa chief said that smoking the pipe was a symbol of peace between the Anishinaabe (Native peoples) and the Waiabishkiwed (Europeans). He shared that many of the fur traders were also Catholic and they married the Ottawa's and Ojibwe's relatives and they also participated in this ceremony. They were family. He shared the importance of the pipe to the Native people and how grateful he was to have this moment with Baraga in this council.

Baraga was humbled at all that was spoken. When the elder was ready he would share the reasons for his coming there. He was grateful to those who came before him who met with the Ojibwe whose arrival made what he was going to share so much easier in being heard. He was grateful for their example for he knew without this he would have had a much greater challenge being accepted. Baraga looked again towards the elder wondering what would next come.

"So now," he continued, "I offer this pipe to you as well just as we did with Marquette and tomorrow we will hear what you have to share with us." The chief lit the pipe and soon smoke began to fill the wigwam. After he took a couple of puffs and passed it to Baraga. Baraga knew there was much to learn and much to share. Baraga lifted the pipe to his lips. He came there in peace.


[1] Baraga, F. (1992). Sagassweidiwin. In Beauchemin & Valois (Ed.) A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language, p. 360 Ojibway - English.

[2] Verwyst, C. (2017, January 19). Life and Labors of Bishop Baraga. Caritas Publishing. p. 100. (Original work published in 1900).

[3] Baraga, F. (1992). Mekatewikwanaie. In Beauchemin & Valois (Ed.) A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language, p. 230 Ojibway - English.

[4] Baraga, F. (1992). Waiabishkiwed. In Beauchemin & Valois (Ed.) A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language, p. 287 English - Ojibwe.

[5] Warren, W. W. (1984). History of the Ojibwe People. Minnesota Historical Society. p. 90-91. (Original work published in 1885).

[6] Link, M. (1937). The Missionary Labors and Travels of Father Claude Jean Allouez, S. J. Loyola University Chicago. p. 25

[7] Marquette, J. (1673-75). Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France. Voyages du P. Jacques Marquette. Vol. LIX 1610-1791 `

[8] Tanner, H. H. (1987). Atlas of the Great Lakes Indian History. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 36

[9] Rezek, A. I. (1906). History of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie and Marquette, Vol 1. M. A. Donohue & Co. p. 35.

[10] Danzieger, E. J. (1979). The Chippewas of Lake Superior. University of Oklahoma Press.


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