The Ojibwe: an Overview

​The Ojibwe people comprise numerous communities ranging mainly from southern and northwestern Ontario, northern Michigan and Wisconsin, and Minnesota, to North Dakota and southern and central Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The most usual explanation of the name, "Ojibwe," relates it to a root meaning "puckered up," a reference to a distinct style of moccasin. Ojibwe speakers commonly refer to themselves as Anishinaabeg, a term meaning humans (as opposed to non-humans) or Indians (as opposed to whites).

The Ojibwa homeland before European contact extended at least along the eastern and northern shores of Lake Huron, up the northeastern shore of Lake Superior, and probably into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Ojibwe expanded along fur trade water routes to the north and west. Those with ancient connections to Sault Ste. Marie, named after the French mission founded there in 1668, carried with them the name Saulteaux (people of the rapids), a term still widely used in Manitoba. Numerous other local group names have gone out of use or have lost their reference to a specific place. For example, in the 1600s, the Mississauga (now an alternate term for the Southeastern Ojibwe) were a band residing near the Mississagi River on the north shore of Lake Huron.

Estimates of Ojibwa population at European contact are speculative. Some scholars estimate that there were about 30,000 Ojibwe in the region around the Northern Great Lakes, 2,000 Plains Ojibwe, and 3,000 Ojibwe the southern Great Lakes area. In the early 20th century, the combined Canada-United States population was reported to be 38,000-41,000, and during the late 20th century that number totaled about 80,000. This does not include people who are non-status Indians or persons of mixed descent who may self-identify as Anishinaabeg.

The Ojibwe language is a branch of the greater Algonquian language family. There are several dialects. Southern Ojibwe speakers include the Ottawas and Chippewas of southern Ontario, Manitoulin Island, and the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. To the east, the Nipissing and Algonquin represent another speech community, while western and northern Ojibwe speakers again represent perhaps three dialectal variants. The Northern Ojibwe (neighbors of the Swampy Cree) speak a dialect increasingly known as Ojicree or Oji-Cree; outsiders have often identified these communities as Cree, a label sometimes adopted by the people themselves when speaking English.

The earliest recorded Ojibwe contacts with Europeans began in the 1640s in the Great Lakes region; French Jesuit missionaries first preached at Sault Ste Marie in 1641. Iroquois warfare against the Huron and their Algonquian allies led to the destruction of the Huron confederacy in 1649 and to wide dispersal of affected communities. By the 1690s, however, the Mississauga, Ottawa, and others had defeated the Iroquois in several battles, and Mississauga villages began to occupy old Iroquois sites along the northern shores of Lake Ontario.

Meanwhile, French fur traders began actively to pursue contacts with Algonquian communities around and beyond the upper Great Lakes, to meet European demands for beaver felt for hats. French trade goods, especially kettles, knives, awls, and axes, drew strong Ojibwe interest for their convenience and durability and tended to replace or supplement bark and pottery containers and stone tools; cloth, trade beads, tobacco, and alcohol were also in demand. Dependency on European goods should not be assumed, however; guns of the 1600s, for example, were unwieldy, inefficient, and dangerous to their users. The fur trade fostered specialization; Ojibwe winter hunting and trapping began to focus more on securing the desired furs. The Ojibwe in turn increasingly expected French traders to advance goods and provisions as "debts" to support fur production. Ojibwe women were essential as processors of leather and furs; their workload in this sphere increased as the trade grew, although metal tools eased many of their customary tasks.

By the early 1700s, Ojibwe groups spread into Manitoba, Minnesota, and beyond. Montreal-based Canadian traders were moving westward to compete with the English Hudson's Bay Company which was extending its trade into the interior of the vast Hudson Bay watershed known as Rupert's Land, which it had claimed by royal charter since 1670. Many Ojibwe had long associated with the Canadians and frequently intermarried with them "according to the custom of the country," as these unions were styled. From the Great Lakes to the far northwest, a sizable population of mixed descent had arisen by the early to mid-1800s. Depending on circumstances, these offspring might remain with maternal relatives and identify as Ojibwe (as was common around the Great Lakes); or they might be connected with the growing number who coalesced into the unique community that became known as the Metis, who began in this period to see themselves as ethnically distinct and later as an independent nation in the Red River region. The rise of the Plains Ojibwe dates to this period.

Ojibwe communities diverged in several other directions by 1850. Those who traveled with the fur trade into the subarctic regions above Lake Superior adopted a lifestyle closer to that of their northern neighbors, the Swampy Cree. In the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe communities were under increased pressure from white settlers. Governmental policy oscillated between the encouraging of Indian reserves and agricultural mission settlements in the south, and the removing of Indians to more northern localities such as Manitoulin Island.

The Ojibwe groups that spread into Wisconsin and Minnesota expanded westward through warfare and conquest during the middle 1700s to early 1800s, and by allying themselves with their Metis relatives they were able to gain a solid foothold on the prairies. By the 1850s, their land base and population had been severely reduced by United States removal policies, by disease, and by the overall pressures of heavy white settlement, especially in more southern areas.

In forested areas, the Ojibwe economy was mixed; combining the seasonal harvest of wild resources (fish, game, birch bark, berries, plant medicines, and other local products) with gardening, wild rice harvesting, and trade making up the majority. The rise of the fur trade brought increased emphasis on beaver, muskrat, and other pelts, and encouraged production of maple sugar and wild rice as provisions valued by traders. Fish, notably whitefish, and more specialized products such as sturgeon isinglass acquired commercial value - bringing some groups into a more entrepreneurial focus. Those Ojibwe who had turned to the plains specialized in bison hunting, although they maintained mixed seasonal use of other resources and did not become as oriented toward horses as did other Plains groups.

Trade with the Europeans was also significant, with access to flour and other goods becoming increasingly important as the fur trade began to take up time from traditional subsistence activities. The fur trade turned many Ojibwe into middlemen, whereby the worked in tandem with the Metis population to gather furs, make pemmican, and serve as direct employees at forts and posts to augment their income.

Ojibwe communities consisted of local autonomous bands of interrelated families, often known by a name reflecting a geographical feature of their territory (such as the Red Lake people, Leech Lake band, and others). Bands often contained several hundred people. In more western communities, many bands, especially on the Plains, comprised an ethnic mix of Ojibwe, Ottawa, Cree, Metis, and Assiniboine influences - leading to the Ojibwe being, perhaps, one of the most widespread cultural groups in North America, extending from the eastern Great Lakes to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.


Brown, J.S.. (2000). “Culture Summary: Ojibwa.” EHRAF. Yale University, New Haven, Conn