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The Ojibwe Culture


"We Christian regard the law to love our neighbour, and the pressing recommendation of charity, as the most material feature of our morality, and as something which distinquishes it from all other religious dogmas.  

In a certian sense, and to a certain degree, this may be true; but we must be cautious not to exalt ourselves too much, and deny the natural goodness of the rest of humanity. 

Charity and liberality, as regards the goods given by God, and noble hospitality, are praised as the pricipal virutes among non-Christian nations equally as with us.  Among the Indians this reaches such a pitch, that it is one of their chief obstacles to their conversion."

- Johann Georg Kohl, Kitchi Gami

The Ojibwe Community Values

The Ojibwe community spanned all the way from the eastern side of the United States to Lake Superior which is located in the north central part of the United States.  Although many dialects existed there was a bond that held the entirety of the group together no matter how far apart they lived from one another.  The understanding of community knit together families, neighbors and all those that were of the Ojibwe nation.  The Ojibwe culture was based on several values:

1) The principle of honesty

Stories, histories, and words had an expectation to be honest.  If one stood in front of the entirety of the group and would share something that was not truth, the group had the ability to correct the individual to ensure that their story was accurate.  Stealing and theft was considered a crime that could ostracize oneself from the community and their name would forever be connected to the misdeed that they did ensuring that one was accountable to the community as a whole.  

2) Competition for the benefit of the whole

The Ojibwe people sought to be the best at whatever they did.  Competition was rewarded, but competition was based on the benefit of the whole of the community.  To be the best hunter meant that this person had the most to give to the community.  Those that were the most skilled and the most talented gave the most to the community and therefore were known the most amongst the community.  To stifle your talents would only cause issues for the whole.

3) Seeking to follow God

The Ojibwe cultures prayers were not prayers were said throughout the day and God was seen throughout the entirety of their journey.  Their greatest desire was to be able to know how God talked to them on an individual basis and to devote their lives to him.  Kohl made mention of this in his texts, "was it ever known, among us Europeans, that boys or girls were able, at the tenderest age, to fast for days on behalf of a higher motive...and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters?"  They attempted to live a "thy will be done" life seeking to determine God's will in whatever their endeavors may entail.  

4) Giving first-fruits as a tradition

Whenever a hunter were to get a deer, he would first feed his community, then feed his family and then feed himself.  Each person in this way contributed.  First the community, then the family, then the self.  Gratitude for nature was at the center as well as a prayer for thanksgiving for the life of whatever creature's life was taken was honored.  This was gratitude for the plants as well as the animals for all was considered a sacrifice for their lives and all were honored in this way.  Gratitude was also offered to their ancestors as spirit dishes were made to be able to honor those who had crossed over and for whose help they still requested.  The guidance and wisdom of the elders was to be honored and it was considered a privilege to be the one who would serve the eldest in the community.  

5) Honoring the elders

One word for elderly in OJibwe is "Kitchi aiaa".  "Kitchi" translated means great/noble/mighty.  "Aiaa" meaning person or being.  The elders amongst the community were cared for and brought to locations with the entire community.  Their aged skin was a sign of their wisdom and they were highly regarded for it.  Elders were also the ones that helped the younger generation to their different ceremonies as well.  They knew based on experience what was needed to be able to assist and aid the younger in their varying quests.  Their wisdom was welcomed and honored.  

Kije Manito: God

Father Baraga used the Ojibwe word for God throughout the books that he wrote.  The word for God for them as he wrote it is Kije Manito.  Kije means "great" in Ojibwe and Manito means "spirit".  Kije Manito was an all encompassing being, meaning that one could find Kije Manito in all things.  Kije Manito is the one who lead the Ojibwe people to the region of "Kichi Gami" which is another name for Lake Superior or otherwise translated as "Great Lake".  In this way, he would create a bridge with the Ojibwe people so that they had the ability to understand the Catholic God using the same word for their own God. 

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Painting of Ojibwe natives in a canoe by Eastman Johnson.  Circa 1856


When Father Baraga was introduced to the Ojibwe culture, he was introduced to a culture that was completely different than the European culture.  He then was not only learning the language, he also had to understand how the culture operated so that he knew who he could connect with in order to have certain things done.  In the very beginning, when Father Baraga worked in Arbre Crochet, which was near Beaver Island.  He understood that the way to be heard was through the voice of the village.  When he arrived there then he spent his first day talking to the individuals, but then called a council for the next day in order that the whole village had the ability to hear him speak.  

When the French were initially introduced to the Ojibwe culture, they struggled to be able to find a way to create resolutions and to move forward with trading.  The European culture is one that is patriarchal and hierarchical.  In the European culture, a man was primarily the decision maker for the entirety of the group especially at that time.  This can be seen in the way that the government operated which votes were only cast by men and would then vote in men to be in office as well.  Women and minority voices did not have relevance.  The OJibwe culture was de-centralized in it's decision making.  

In the Ojibwe culture, the elder women (often called the grandmothers) would be the ones who made the decision.  The chief was elected by the women and the women also had the power to vote out a particular chief if he was not living up to the standards that ultimately was for the benefit of the community.  The chief though was the voice for the people in that he would express what the community would share with him.  Councils were created so that others voices had relevance in any decision that was made.  This is why the French had trouble with coming to decisions as the chief was not there to make decisions for the community and tell the community what that decision was, rather he was there to be a spokesperson for the community itself.  

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Chief Buffalo from La Pointe

In addition the Ojibwe culture was matriarchal.  The order that a person was to follow was passed down through the women.  When a child was born, the child would take on the clan of the mother.  The primary decision makers for the family were the mothers.  In the Ojibwe culture, the women cared for the home and family and the men were the ones who went to war and protected the family and area.  Women would often gather together in council themselves to help make decisions on behalf of the community and their families.  This also helped to create stronger family bonds as then men would not have the 'ultimate say' on what happened in the home.  The woman's voice was necessary and relevant.  In this way, the man and woman would walk with each other and one would not take the lead per se. 

The Clan Totems/Dodems


The clans or dodems were a central way of living for the Ojibwe people.  The word even for dodam means "I do or I commit".  These commitments were central to their identity and begat their way of living and connecting with the world.  

The clan system was divided into specific roles that a person would take on for the community itself.  In the Ojibwe culture there were seven primary clans.  These consisted of the crane, loon, fish, bear, marten, bird and deer.  These are described as follows:

Crane: The chiefs

Loon: The leaders

Fish: The dispute settlers, mediators

Bear: The medicine people, peace officers

Marten: The warriors, were responsible for protecting the people

Bird: The spiritual people, they were like the prophets of the community

Deer: The poets and peacemakers, kind and gentle in nature

These clan systems were also called 'doodem's' which is where the name 'totem' came from.  Chief Buffalo, whom Father Baraga worked with, was of the Loon Clan.  


The clan system reference chart

When greeting one another, in the European way, a name is simply stated.  If one is to get to know another more, then traditionally a last name is given as well signifying the ancestry lineage of the person.  In the Ojibwe culture, a person is known by their name given (often called a medicine name), the clan and the location that they are from.  In this way, the person they are greeting is able to identify the person individually, how they relate to the community, and the region they are from.  This served to aid the community especially in their way of connecting to the other Ojibwe people throughout the trading regions of the great lakes.  One then was never a stranger in this way, but rather was a person sent from a distant village to convey a certain message or to pick up something that was needed.  One was known and readily identified from this introduction and the greeter then had the ability to know how to interact with the person in front of them.  

Earth Connections


The Ojibwe people also had close connections to the earth.  Father Baraga called them often as "the children of the wilderness" to the Europeans when he described them.  The Ojibwe people knew the operations of the earth cycles and rhythms.  They harvested wild rice annually and knew exactly the time when the wild rice would need to be harvested.  They were hunters and gatherers and would sometimes travel south during the winter seasons in order to survive the harsh winters of the north.  The region that they lived in did not offer good land for being able to generate crops so hunting and gathering became their primary way of having food for the tribe.  In this way, plant medicines were also used on a regular basis.  For the Ojibwe people, for every ailment there was a cure. 

They lived in wigwams or teepee's during the summer time in which a small number of people would live.  The wigwams would have been too small in size to be able to accommodate the fire and needs for the winter time with their families.  All structures were lined with birch bark as birch bark was the element that provided the greatest waterproofing.  This is also the reason that the Ojibwe used birch bark canoes.  Birch was also useful for starting fires during various times, so fire keeping was a skill that one had to learn so that the fire would not be too large to consume the lodge, but also large enough to be able to help the families stay warm that were inside.  



Woman in a wigwam c. 1870


Trading then was also a specialty for the Ojibwe people.  The red pipestone from the pipestone quarry in Pipestone, MN was found out as far east as Quebec.  Buffalo skins and hides were incredibly useful during this time as this would be the primary blanket or way to have warmth.  The Ojibwe worked with the Dakota in this way and were often known to gather with many differing tribes from different regions so that trading could happen that would benefit the family and tribes.  In these times of trade, weapons were put down in order to accommodate the greater good of the people.  Places like Pipestone where the quarries are were places known to be places of peace where no warring could ensue.  

There was a common sign language amongst the native people as well that allowed them to be able to travel to distant location, not know the language of the native people there but still be able to communicate using this common sign language.  The language was easy to understand and helped these distant travelers tell where they were from, where they were going, how they rode, how many days they were away, etc.  

Ojibwa beading design 2.jpg

With the French arrival, the Ojibwe culture began to shift and change.  Furs were then something that were traded for items that the Europeans introduced.  This is when beading and cloth was introduced to the Ojibwe people.  Beading soon became an artform that embellished their dresses and moccasins just as much as quilling (crafting using porcupine quills) was in the past.  Flower patterns were commonly used among the Ojibwe.  Quilling then became a secondary artform to beading.  In addition, cloth was introduced which started to be used to cloth in replacement of skins that were traditionally used before.  Now the Ojibwe started to try and find furs so that this trading could take place and the fur trade industry was born.  

Ojibwe beading techniques and designs

Cultural changes over time

The fur trade industry also shifted the culture in that fur traders were introduced.  Soon it became endorsed and advantageous for the fur traders to marry the Ojibwe family and vice-versa.  Soon children were born that were both of Ojibwe and European descent.  When the Indian removal act was enacted then in 1830, the clear cut ability to remove all natives had a greater impact on the whole of the picture.  Questions about who was to be removed were raised and family separations due to these connections were brought forward.  Those who were of mixed descent were called "Metis" by the Ojibwe community.  They were not considered of lesser importance due to their mixed blood.  They were recognized as being significant members of the community due to their intercultural connections.  

In addition, the 1830 removal act put additional pressure on the Ojibwe people to reform their practices so that they could be seen as civilized by the American Government.  The governments two primary stipulations for this were the ability for natives to farm as well as Christianization.  If they were able to perform on these two fronts, their chances for survival and possibly for not being removed were greater.  In addition, the Catholic faith lent well in blending with the native faith.  The practices and customs of the Catholic faith seemed to appropriate themselves better than other religions.  The smoke from the incense burner was similar to their practice of smudging (using sage) in order to cleanse and clear a space.  The making of prayer ties (which came after the introduction to cloth), seemed to be similar to that of praying the rosary.  

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