Winter has always been a difficult time of the year for indigenous people. Survival was contingent on many things, including having the necessary shelter, food, and the ability to navigate the landscape without expending too much energy in the process.
Starting in the early fall, care would be taken to start gathering supplies such as wild rice, dried corn, pemmican, and smoked fish to store for the winter. Once a good stock was gathered, the group would start to move to the place where they would construct their winter camp – usually in a location known to have plenty of game, near a river or lake surrounded by adequate tree cover. Once there, female family members would work together to construct the winter wigwam. They cut saplings from the surrounding woods to form the lodge frame, covered them with rush mats and rolled sheets of birch bark sewn together. For additional warmth, a second row of rush mats was frequently placed around the entire lodge overlapping the first row. By working in a very organized manner, the women could construct a comfortable and inviting winter dwelling in a matter of a few hours.
The winter habitation represented the focus of life for the people. Winter evenings were social and pleasant, with a warm fire and storytelling. The young men would spend the evenings singing songs and playing their drums. The old women would tell wonderful stories, even acting them out for dramatic effect. At night, the family slept with their feet toward the fire, removing their moccasins and loosening their other clothing. If the weather was very cold, an old man or woman usually stayed awake throughout the night, smoking their pipe and tending the fire.
The core of most winter groups belonged to the same clan, or were intermarried families. Winter settlements composed of several households could numbering about 25 to 30 people, and their camps would usually be located within 100 miles of a nearby trading post. The territory used by each winter hunting group was fairly extensive, but the abundance of food and furs would set limits on the size of the hunting group as well as the extent of the territory exploited. A smaller territory might not be capable of supporting large winter groups.
The means of travel during winter months was by snowshoe. Without these, it was impossible to travel any distance when snow was deep. When possible, a dog team and toboggan or sled could be used to travel around. Basic equipment while out winter hunting included a packsack with food and matches, an axe, a rifle, and traps and snares. Even though men would trap together, they always set their traps separately, and each man claims only those animals caught with his own traps. Traps were usually checked every three to five days. It was customary to set about 20 to 30 traps per person. Even the women of the winter camp trapped when they could. Although they didn’t leave the immediate area surrounding the village, they would still set a few snares of their own and check them every few days – hoping for a rabbit or two.
Once spring came, it was time to break camp and head out to the maple groves and fishing camps, and the cycle of preparing for the next winter would began again.
Bishop, Charles A. 1974. “Northern Ojibwa And The Fur Trade: An Historical And Ecological Study.” Cultures And Communities, A Series Of Monographs : Native Peoples.
Buffalohead, Priscilla K. 1983. “Farmers, Warriors, Traders: A Fresh Look At Ojibway Women.” Minnesota History 48 (6). Saint Paul: 236–44.
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