Hunting dominated almost every aspect of life
Hunting was the primary concern of the aboriginal family group, especially in winter when sources of food were relatively limited. Nearly every aspect of life revolved around their hunting pursuits, including their expert use of deadfalls and snares, the establishment of their family hunting grounds, and the importance of animals to their spiritual well-being. It even dominated their social relationships, helping to forge new alliances and partnerships between families and bands.
Early European observers found that aboriginal people took pride in their hunting prowess and their sense of accomplishment and identity stemmed directly from hunting. Fur trader Peter Grant noted that the Ojibwas considered whites inferior to themselves. He noted, “They pity our want of skill in hunting and our incapacity of traveling through their immense forests without guides or food”.
The ability of aboriginal people to hunt gave them a sense of purpose and pride; a great hunter was an esteemed person who was valued by the people who had a special relationship with the animal world and the spiritual world.
Aboriginal preoccupation with hunting showed in their patterns of speech and conversation as well. Activities such as courting were described in hunting terms and hunting topics predominated almost every discussion. This fact was evident in the narrative of John Tanner, a white American who lived for thirty years among the Ojibwas and Ottawas after having been captured from his parents' home as a child. The editor of his narrative stated that he had to omit the numerous details of hunting upon which Tanner, speaking about his life among the Ojibwas, constantly dwelled. Despite these omissions, the books narrative primarily deals with hunting. Hunting was also central to the education of youth. Early missionaries and educators widely complained that the only thing taught by the Indians to their children was hunting techniques.
Adapted from Vecsey, Christopher. 1983. “Traditional Ojibwa Religion And Its Historical Changes.” Memoirs. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
A Red Lake Story of Fasting for Power and Knowledge
A 1926 story told of the power of dreams.
In the story, a young fellow (about 20 years old now), in Ponemah dreamed and fasted in hopes that the Manitou would grant him power. He climbed up a tree and sat in it for 4 days and 4 nights without anything to eat. He was granted vision and thereafter claimed to have a special knowledge.
One day when annuity payments were made, a woman found upon arriving home that her 90-dollar payment had been taken from her. Her husband went to the dreamer and asked him if he knew who took it. The fellow went away and sang and pounded a small drum, and when he returned he told the man that a certain woman had the money and had not yet used any of it.
“Go to her and tell her that she has your money and that you want it.” He went to the woman and in a gracious manner said to her, “You must have taken my wife's money by mistake.” She admitted that she had the money and handed it right over to him and said she had not spent any of it.
Not long ago that same dreamer came across the lake with some young men. These fellows thought they'd try him out and bet with him that he didn't know who the first Indian would be whom they would meet at Redby. He remarked that he did (naming the man), and sure enough it was he. He is the only one around this vicinity who can do that. This young man often goes to the Ponemah Point and stays there for days. He doesn't eat, and no one knows what he does there. My neighbor's youngest brother went to dream for power, some 20 years ago. There was an old man near here, too, who had the same power; but he died last winter.
from Hilger, M. Inez (Mary Inez). 1951. “Chippewa Child Life And Its Cultural Background.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
The crimes of some Frenchmen do not go unpunished
Conflict between European fur traders and Natives seldom arose, but when trouble did arise it often happened because a trader failed to respect the moral standards of the Natives and tried to take a Native woman by force (i.e. rape), rather than by courting her and asking permission from her family, as custom mandated.
One such incident occurred when a group of Frenchmen decided to rape some Cree women. The Frenchmen decided they had the right to the Native women, so they just went up to a group pf women and dragged them kicking and screaming into the trading post against their will and had their way with them.
Following the crime, the women avenged themselves with the cooperation of their husbands. They informed their husbands to be ready for a signal. Then the women took the opportunity to wet the fuses of the Frenchmen’s rifles with their urine and gave the signal. The men crept up to the post under cover of darkness and attacked. The Frenchmen ran to their guns but they would not fire. Eight Frenchmen were killed in revenge for their awful crime.
Adapted from Beginnings of the Mixed Blood Family in Canada, Gabriel Dumont Institute
A unique style of housing used by the Ojibwe People
A long triangular ‘prism’ in shape, the cäbandawan was typically a multiple-family dwelling that could be used at all times of the year. It was created by placing a ridgepole, supported at each end by four forked crossed poles, with a series of smaller poles laid at a 45 degrees angle to form the sides. The structure was then covered with birchbark or hides with cattail mats used as insulation. There was usually a fireplace in the center, and possibly one or more fires between this point and the door at either end of the dwelling, depending upon the number of families occupying it. The size of some of these structures in former times could be quite large. One report of a cäbandawan at Sandy Lake had 10 fires.
Usually two families would occupy a cäbandawan, living on opposite sides of the dwelling and sharing a single fire. In addition to having doors at each end, if more than four families shared a lodge openings would be created at each side to provide an easy exit and entrance for the women, who would not then have to pass through the center of the dwelling with the possibility of stepping over people’s legs and belongings, which was strictly forbidden. Except for infants, the children were segregated according to sex. The girls slept on the side of the mother away from the father, and the boys on the side of the father away from the mother. This brought the men together in a group, and left the women to cluster around the doors.
The cäbandawan was always occupied by closely related persons—parents and their married children, married brothers, or a few generations back, by a man and his several wives
Adapted from Hallowell, A. Irving (Alfred Irving), and Jennifer S. H. Brown. 1991. “Ojibwa Of Berens River, Manitoba: Ethnography Into History.” Case Studies In Cultural Anthropology. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Supplies were moved throughout the year
In old times, winter transportation was done by dog team and toboggan or sled. Usually three dogs were used in a team. These dogs were harnessed using collars made from a piece of flat rawhide with a hole cut in it that was padded or wound with blankets or soft leather so it would not chafe the dogs' necks. Straps were fastened to the harnesses for dragging the sled or toboggan, and the collars were slipped over the dogs' heads, resting against their shoulders.
Dog toboggans would travel single-file one behind another and were able to go 40 or 50 miles a day. The Ojibwe and Metis would often be hired to bring supplies between fur posts and sometimes would travel all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota to trade and gather supplies.
In summer such work was done using Red River ox carts.
Adapted from Densmore, Frances. 1929. “Chippewa Customs.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off.
How the Dakota Sioux Gained Control of Prairie Island
Prior to the Dakota Sioux taking control of their beloved Prairie Island, this location was the temporary home of a wandering band of Hurons and Ottawa who had accompanied the French explorer Radisson up the Mississippi during the middle 1600s.
At first, the Dakota were very affectionate to both Hurons and Ottawa, and the Hurons and Ottawa were careful to show submission to the Dakota, as they were visitors in their lands and were grateful to be able to use Prairie Island in a climate of peace. During their time of occupation, they often received friendly visits from the Dakota.
One day it happened that the Hurons met some Dakota while hunting on the prairies. They killed the party of Dakota, who were eventually found by their relatives and were noted to have had their corpses abused. The Dakota were incensed and they returned in haste to their village with the sad news. On their way, the Dakota found some Hurons and they made them prisoners, taking them to their chiefs, who forgave the Hurons and released them back to their people. The Hurons took this gesture as a sign of weakness and they soon conspired with the Ottawa to make war upon the Dakota and to try to drive them from the country so that they might have more extended hunting grounds.
The Ottawa and Hurons joined forces and marched against the Dakota. They believed that as soon as they appeared, the Dakota would retreat out of fear; but they were much mistaken, for the Dakota sustained their attacks and even repulsed them. If the Hurons and Ottawa did not retreat themselves, they would have been entirely destroyed by the great number of Dakota who came from the other villages to aid in the battle.
Eventually, the Hurons and Ottawa retreated to Prairie Island, where they were obliged to build a poorly fortified defensive system, but this could not stop the Dakota attacks. Knowing that they could not win, the Hurons and Ottawa retreated to the east and eventually made their way to Black river. Here the Hurons found a suitable place to fortify and establish their village. The Ottawa pushed on further, and established themselves at Chagouamikon. The Dakota took control of Prairie Island for good and have lived there for over 300 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited Native settlements in the region.
Adapted From: McCalester College Contributions: Department of History, Literature, and Political Science (Vol. 1). (1890). St. Paul, MN: Pioneer Press Publishing Company.
Economics drove a blending of people in the west
Due to a general falling-off in the European trade demand for beaver, the Ojibwa people suffered a relative decline during the early decades of the 1800s. The decline of the market, a decline in the beaver population, bad weather and its effects on food resources; and new competition in the quest for diminishing fur-bearers, and more mobile Cree populations caused the Ojibwe to change their strategies. Some bands, like the Red Lake people, retained their basic seasonal rounds in the forests, while others like those at Pembina began hunting and trapping further west and began living with Plains Cree, freeman, and Métis families, sharing the special skills and advantages of those groups.
By joining forces with the Métis, better prices could be obtained for furs. By working with the Plains Cree and Métis, the decline in beaver furs could be mitigated by shifting focus towards buffalo hunting and the pemmican trade. This way, the Ojibwe ensured their standard of living and even increased it.
By the early to middle 1800s, the number of mixed-group camps rose and the intermarriage between the Ojibwe, Cree, and Metis also increased. As well, the Ojibwe were frequently wintering with Cree and Assiniboine in the Pembina Hills and at Turtle Mountain, and some groups even moved further west into Saskatchewan. Trader Alexander Henry described a camp at Setting River as containing “20 leather tents of Crees, a few Saulteurs [Ojibwe], and two freemen [Métis],” while another camp nearby was composed of “10 Crees, and a few Saulteurs and freemen, who had a number of horses.”
From Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: MN Historical Society Press.
How the horse became part of the Plains Ojibwe Culture
Many of the Ojibwe who had horses during the early 1800s seem to have been those who spent more time with Cree and Métis friends and relatives. The Pembina band was one such group.
Intermarriage and other contacts exposed the Pembina Ojibwe to the values and skills of these peoples, and mixed-group (Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Cree, and Métis) camps fostered the borrowing and sharing of many cultural elements and values. By 1800, when the Ojibwe were in close association with the Cree and Assiniboine and were acquiring horses from them, horses had assumed a position of importance among these peoples. This was the era of the flowering of plains equestrian cultures. For the Pembina people, horses were not only symbols of individual affluence and prestige, but, because of the burgeoning pemmican trade and the independence and power of mounted bison-hunting peoples, they were also both the means and the symbol of the affluence of these tribes.
Given that the Pembina Ojibwe initially came west at least partly in search of economic gains and a higher standard of living, and that they used certain trade goods as badges of personal social status, it is not surprising that some of them were attracted to the means of wealth. Horses, and the finery and flamboyance associated with them by plains tribes, were such hallmarks.
Reinforcing this admiration of the success of plains peoples was the fact that Cree was frequently used as a trade language by peoples throughout the West, including the Pembina Ojibwe, thus creating the unique form of Ojibwe/Cree language that developed later at Turtle Mountain.
From Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: MN Historical Society Press.
Sleeping on the job can have serious consequences
The legend from which this isolated butte takes its name was related to the Northwest Boundary Commission by an old Metis man. He told it thusly:
Late in the fall of 1830, a party of Assiniboine were travelling far to the east of their own country. They were camped on the point on a lake to the north of the butte. One of the Assiniboine climbed the hill to search the surrounding country for traces of enemies. He noticed that there was a camp of Sioux close under the hill on the south.
As he cautiously approached the crest of the hill for a better look, he came suddenly upon a Sioux scout lying rolled in his buffalo-robe. The scout had apparently fallen asleep on the job. The Assiniboine sneaked up and grabbed a large granite rock and with one vigorous blow he struck the Sioux in the head. Fearing to have missed his aim, or that it might not have been fatal, the Assiniboine turned and ran from the spot. When he looked back he saw the Sioux scout quivering on the ground, so he returned and hit him again, dispatched him.
In memory of this deed, the Assiniboine dug in the gravelly soil the figure of a man lying at full length, with outstretched legs and uplifted arms. He also scooped out each of the footprints marking his path as he fled. These marks, though only a few inches deep, were still distinctly visible when the boundary commission visited the spot in the summer of 1873. They noted that in the hollow representing the head of the murdered man, there was a red granite stone, smooth, oblong in shape, and about eight inches diameter, which was said to have been the stone used to kill the Sioux scout.
The Hill of the Murdered scout is located a few miles north of Northgate, Saskatchewan.
Adapted from: DEPARTMENT OF STATE. REPORTS UPON THE SURVEY OF THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN THE TERRITORY OF THE UNITED STATES AND THE POSSESSIONS OF GREAT BRITAIN (1877)
The Red Lake Ojibwe take a scalp at Portage La Prairie
In 1856, a party of Red Lake Ojibwe traveling to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, to visit Pacheto Tanner, son of famous white captive John Tanner, encountered a group of Sioux who were camped there. The Ojibwe stayed as guests of Pacheto at his house during their visit, but enjoyed several meetings with the Sioux who wanted to establish a peace basis with them. The Sioux were anxious to arrive at a peaceful end with the Ojibwe, but the Ojibwe always postponed any agreement, apparently more anxious for feasting and amusement than anything else.
Eventually, an event occurred which showed the true design of their visit.
Near to Pacheto’s home was the home of a man by the name of Spence, who was very sickly and confined the greater part of the time to his bed. His wife, was taking care of most of the household business and work around the place. She had hired a young Sioux—probably between 15 and 18 years of age—to help around the house. One day she and the young boy had to go for hay on the plains. She was driving one cart and he was driving another. The Ojibwe saw them returning from their task and could not resist the temptation of an easily attained Sioux scalp.
Concealing themselves in the long grass along the trail, they waited until the Mother Spence had passed in her cart. As the unsuspecting Sioux boy came down the river road to a point where they were hidden—near a saw pit—they emerged and with a yell they rushed out, brandishing their tomahawks and knives. The Sioux boy, seeing that it meant life or death to him, dodged around the cart for some time, but was speedily headed off and shot. Before his body could fall to the ground an Ojibwe took his scalping knife and had made a circle round the top of his head and pulled off his scalp lock. Then he held up the body until every man of them, seven in number, had plunged their knives into the unfortunate boy.
After further mutilating the remains in a manner too horrible to relate, they threw the body into the old saw pit, threw the scalp upon the ground, and danced around it with glee. Having indulged in this for some time they retired to Pacheto’s house. Mother Spence drove on as if nothing had happened, not noticing the murder of her hired man.
After the Ojibwe had returned to Pacheto’s house, the Sioux congregated around the old sawpit and found the boy’s body. Swinging their blankets, they shouted for the Ojibwe to come out and fight, calling them cowards and other scornful epithets in their language. The Ojibwe would not come out of the house to fight, and after a while the Sioux retired to their camp carrying with them the lad’s mutilated body. After the Sioux had got to a safe distance, the Ojibwe came out of the house and challenged them to fight, calling them also cowards and other names.
This war of words continued for a day or two, during which the Sioux finally gave up trying to draw the Ojibwe to fight. The Ojibwe eventually left Pacheto’s house and returned to their camping ground at Red Lake.
From Manitoba: History of Its Early Settlement, Development, and Resources. By Robert B. Hill
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities