About Ojibwe fishing
Fishing was an industry which happened throughout entire year.
In the late spring, the people would usually move directly from their sugar camps and gardens to a place where they could fish. If they didn’t choose to attend the annual sturgeon runs on Rainy River, they would undertaking fishing near the site of their summer camp, where fishing could be done all summer long. Autumn fishing season was important as well, as it was during that time the people would secure a large supply of fish for winter use. Traditional knowledge said that the fish would come close to shore in November, just before the lakes froze. When this happened, the women would set their nets and make a good haul.
Fish could be caught were secured by a variety of means.
One of the most important methods of fishing was the use of seines ― fishing nets that were hanged vertically in the water with floats at the top and weights at the bottom edge. The ends would then be drawn together to encircle the fish. This method secured the largest results in both number and variety of fish caught.
Spearing was another popular method of fishing ― especially at night, using a torch as bait. The torch used in night fishing consisted of a stake about 4 feet long which was split at the end, strips of birch bark about 6 inches wide and 18 inches long being placed in this slit and fastened in such a manner that, the stake (or pole) being upright in the canoe, the birch-bark strip extended over the water and threw a light on the water. The light would attract the fish and the fisherman could see the fish and spear them while he himself remained invisible. The largest fish were speared and were best secured at night.
In some cases, fish traps were also used. These included small traps used in catching small fish and a large form of trap known as a “sturgeon rack” for catching large sturgeon. Small traps were made of twigs and branches of trees and were placed in shallow water where the current would carry the fish into them. Sturgeon traps were similar, but larger and quite complex ― sometimes encompassing the entire river in some places.
Standard fishing using fishhooks was usually used in the summer. The earliest fishhooks were made of deer bone carved into a hook shape. After European contact, fishhooks were made from wire or metal. Wood or bark bobbers could be used. Sinkers were usually made from small stones. Trolling was also done during canoe trips. This was accomplished by twisting a line around the wrist and then around the canoe paddle, which moved the line through the water as the canoe traveled along the lakes or rivers.
During winter, fish would be speared through the ice using a decoy as bait. The decoy fish were made of wood with a tail of birch bark and body weighted with stones (or later lead). Some skill was required in making the decoys so that they floated in the water perfectly. Fishing was done by cutting a hole in the ice and lying beside the hole while covered by a blanket. One hand was used to move the decoy so that its movements would be as lifelike as possible, with the spear ready to strike at the proper moment.
Learn more at: Buffalohead, Priscilla K. 1983. “Farmers, Warriors, Traders: A Fresh Look At Ojibway Women.” Minnesota History 48 (6). Saint Paul: 236–44.; and Densmore, Frances. 1929. “Chippewa Customs.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off.
The Ojibwe were always prepared for Battle
A warrior who wished to lead a war party against the enemy of the Anishinaabe sent a messenger with tobacco to ask the other warriors to join the expedition. This messenger traveled to each village and requested the warriors to assemble. He then explained the purpose of the expedition, filled a pipe, and holding the bowl of the pipe, offered the stem to one warrior after another.
All who were willing to join the expedition did so by smoking the pipe. In a short time the warriors assembled and camped near the lodge of the leader, who gave a feast, explaining more fully the proposed expedition, and receiving the final pledge of the warriors.
Prior to the use of guns as the main tools of war, the weapons used by the Ojibwe in battle were the bow and arrow, a knife, a war-club, and a stone wrapped in leather and fastened by a thong to a short stick.
The bow used was the standard ‘war bow’ which was made with the outer surface rounded and the inner surface flat. The club used was a ‘ball club’ made from knobbed knotted hickory or ash. This club might also be fitted with a stone point secured in a socket with pitch. The ball stick could be thrown at the shoulder of a fleeing enemy so that the ball would swing down and strike him in the stomach; then he could be dispatched easily with the club. Warriors might also wear ‘armor’ made of moosehide, and would often carry round or oblong shields that were usually made of moose rawhide or turtle shell.
An interesting history of early 1900s Native baseball
Between World War I and World War II, baseball started to open its doors to minority players. On the upper Great Plains, Native American baseball teams began to be a growing part of the townball movement that developed in the numerous small towns in North Dakota and surrounding states. In general, local newspapers looked upon Native American baseball players as equal to white players, and most papers almost completely ignored the ethnicity and heritage of the Native ballplayers.
One of the teams that gained some notoriety was the Belcourt Indians independent baseball team, who traveled and played across the region. Below is a newspaper story about one of their lopsided victories.
Decades of interaction saw great changes for the Ojibwe
The first recorded contacts between Europeans and the Ojibwe began in the 1640s in the Great Lakes region. The majority of contact revolved around trade and early attempts at establishing missions among the tribes.
By the middle of the 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. After a few decades, many Ojibwe ― who had long associated with the Canadians ― began to intermarry with them "according to the custom of the country." Soon, the region from the Great Lakes to the far northwest saw a sizable population of mixed-blood people arising. Depending on circumstances, these mixed-blood children might remain with maternal relatives and identify as Ojibwe; or they might instead connect with others in the growing population of others who began to see themselves as ethnically distinct: the Metis.
As this demographic change was occurring, European fur traders began to actively pursue contacts with Ojibwe and Cree communities around the upper Great Lakes and into the prairies to meet European demands for beaver felt for hats. European trade goods, especially kettles, knives, awls, and axes, drew strong interest from the Ojibwe for their convenience and durability and tended to replace or supplement bark and pottery containers and stone tools; trade cloth, trade beads, tobacco, and alcohol were also in demand.
The fur trade fostered specialization. Ojibwe winter hunting and trapping began to focus more on securing the desired furs needed for trade. The Ojibwe increasingly expected 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.
See more at Brown, and John Beierle. 2000. “Culture Summary: Ojibwa.” New Haven, Conn.: HRAF.
The most revered and useful wood of the Ojibwe
Paper Birch is one of the most sacred trees of the Ojibwe. The people regard the birch bark as a distinct contribution from the Creator. No birch is gathered by the Ojibwe without due offering of tobacco. Families make a pilgrimage to birch groves during the latter part of June and in July to gather their supply of birch bark, because it peels most easily at that time. As everyone knows, there are many layers of bark on a birch tree ranging from the thinnest paper to quite heavy pieces that make very durable canoes. The bark was used for many utilitarian items including buckets, baskets, wigwam covering, and for art. Patterns for decorative art were also made upon the bark, and records of the medicine lodge ritual were kept on birch bark scrolls by marking stories on the bark. However, it is for canoes that it is most famous for the Ojibwe.
For building a canoe, the tree used should have a trunk ten to fifteen inches in diameter, smooth and straight as can be. To find trees with thick bark suitable for canoe, a considerable journey might be necessary to find the best trees for the job. When a tree was selected, it was given a proper ceremony where a hole was dug into the ground at the base of the tree; tobacco placed as an offering. Then, a pipe was smoked and offered to the cardinal directions and to the sky and earth. The tree was then cut down and placed on crossed logs to hold it off the ground. To remove the bark, a long perpendicular slit is made the length desired. From this cut the bark is laid back on either side, with an axe, and peeled from the log. To overcome the natural curl of the bark, the bark is then rolled up inside-out, in proper lengths and tied and carried back to where the canoe will be built.
The framework for the canoe was made of White Cedar or Arbor Vitae because these woods are light, elastic, strong and easy to split. Two lengths are cut: sixteen feet for top rails, and six feet for ribs. The curves of the prow and stern are obtained by slitting the wood twelve times so that it may be bent at the proper angles, tied securely with string, and held in place until dried. A staked form eighteen feet long is next laid out on the ground. The bark is secured between the two stakes so that it cannot slip and is then ready for sewing together. Large rocks are piled inside to overcome any tendency of the bark to curl.
The sewing material that was most used was the root of Jack Pine because it is long and straight. Sewing is done using a White Oak wood awl. Both ends of the string are drawn through the same hole with a lock stitch. The holes are then caulked and made watertight using the pitch of a Balsam, Norway Pine, or White Pine which is boiled with tallow in a kettle.
Decorations were sometimes painted on the finished canoe using dyes such as blue clay and red ochre. Designs might include clan marks painted on each end.
Nearly any kitchen utensil can be made using birch bark, such as funnels for pouring hot liquids, baskets for gathering and storing items, containers for maple sugar, dried fish, meat, or any food. The birch bark is considered a miracle as it tends to keeps foods from spoiling. All sorts of drying trays are made from birch bark. Shallow trays for winnowing wild rice are also made of it. For housing, sheets of bark are sewed together with string and made into birch bark rolls, used as waterproof roofing for wigwams. Sticks tied across the end of the roll keep it from splitting and tearing, and it can be easily rolled back up if necessary using these sticks.
Overall, it was a miraculous and wonderful gift from the creator to the Ojibwe people.
Learn more: Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians by Huron H. Smith. Bulletin of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 4, No. 3, Pp. 327-525, Plates 46-77 May 2, 1932
An increasingly important food after the fur trade started
As Europeans began to enter into the territories of the Anishinaabe people, and as economic ventures into the fur trade began to become part of everyday life for the people, agriculture became more important than the harvest of wild rice for some.
While the growing of corn and potatoes to augment wild plant foods and game was long practiced by the Anishinaabe while living in the woodlands, they were always secondary to rice. However, as time went on and people began to operate more in the prairies where wild rice doesn’t grow, horticulture and agriculture became more popular.
The Red Lake Ojibwa were rapid experts on horticulture and they spread their knowledge rapidly through the Boundary Waters and Red River valley regions around the turn of the nineteenth century. Their gardens at Garden Island (Lake of the Woods) and at Netley Creek were reported to be flourishing in 1805. Other gardens were begun by mixed Métis, Ojibwa, and Cree families at the Forks (Winnipeg) by 1812 and at a site between Brandon House and Portage la Prairie in 1816.
Corn and potatoes provided a supplement to wild rice during years in which the rice harvest was poor or failed altogether, and if it was not possible to get to wild rice fields these crops proved a life saver during more difficult times.
Garden produce was in a sense a double addition to Ojibwa subsistence, for, as well as the food value of the crops, the gardens required little tending during summer and therefore allowed the people to harvest other foods while the crops were ripening. The carbohydrates provided by corn and potatoes were also important in adding calories and energy to the diet, especially during winter when game was lean.
Learn more: Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Medicinal uses of Wild Rice
The use of wild rice as a food by the Anishinaabe is well established. However, its use as a medicine was a unique distinction.
In some cases, if a mother was unable to nurse her infant, she would give the baby wild rice boiled with meat or fish broth as a milk substitute. This thin porridge could sustain the child and was a widely held Ojibwe health formula that would have reduced infant mortality and infant health.
As a medicine, fine, broken rice (manzaan) was boiled and strained to render its “juice”. This juice was then mixed with certain herbs gathered in the spring or late fall to produce a poultice (or salve) that could be applied to relieve skin infections caused by poison ivy.
Urinary tract infections were also treated using the root of the wild rice plant and goldenseal, brewed into a liquid that could be injected into the urethra with a syringe.
In terms of spiritual cures, it was noted by some that if a person accidentally tasted the blood of another human being that they should drink nothing but boiled rice broth for a period of time to ensure that they wouldn’t become a windigo. Girls in their puberty rites were also supposed to abstain from all foods except rice in order to ensure a good passage into womanhood.
On the flipside, it was believed that a pregnant woman should avoid eating popped rice as eating it would cause her baby to have difficulty breathing when it was born.
Read more: Vennum, Thomas. 1988. “Wild Rice And The Ojibway People.” St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Some traditional preparations and uses of hunted meat
The flesh of the bear was cut in strips about 6 inches wide and hung on a frame to dry. If intended for winter use, it frequently was put on high racks to freeze. When used it was cut up a little and boiled. Bear meat was liked because it was so fat. All parts of the bear were eaten or utilized. The head was considered a luxury. They singed it, removed the inside, and boiled it whole. The paws were singed, scraped, and boiled. The liver was good to eat and the intestines were so fat that the Ojibwe cleaned them and fried them crisp. The stomach was filled with tallow, known as “bear's grease,” which was used for seasoning. In filling a container of this sort a funnel of birch bark was used. The gall was dried, mixed with cedar charcoal, and “pricked into the skin” as a remedy for rheumatism and other ailments.
The Ojibwe used rabbits as food, catching them near their winter camp. Detailed information was given by a Canadian Ojibwe, who said that his people caught rabbits with snares of nettle twine and prepared them as follows:
(a) The meat was removed from the bones, roasted, and pounded. The bones were then pounded with what meat remained on them. The pounded bones were boiled in a small kettle and the grease skimmed off and eaten with the pounded meat.
(b) The meat was cut in pieces and dried, the bones being dried also. The bones were pounded to a powder and mixed with the dry meat and any available grease. This was eaten dry, and not boiled at the time of using.
The fresh meat of the deer was prepared as follows:
(b) Cut in pieces and roasted on sticks before the fire.
(c) Cut in thin slices, roasted, and then pounded on a flat stone, the pounding being done with a smaller stone. After being pounded finely it was stored in makuks.
The method of drying deer meat depended on the time of year. If the deer were killed during the winter season, it was customary to dry the meat only enough so that it would keep until spring, when the drying process was completed in the sun. A good supply of meat was usually obtained during the winter and was thus partially dried on a large frame over the camp fire. If the deer were killed in the autumn, a portion of the meat was cut in strips, dried on a rack over a slow fire, and wrapped in large packets, an entire deerskin tanned with the hair on it being sometimes used for this purpose. The meat, having been dried, was prepared as follows:
(b) Chopped, mixed with bear's grease, and stored in birch-bark makuks.
(c) The meat of an entire deer was spread in layers on a tanned deer hide and pounded with a board until it was in shreds. It was then thoroughly mixed with hot deer tallow and put in a deer-hide bag. When desired for use it was cut in slices.
(d) The dried meat was cut in pieces, spread on birch bark, and covered with birch bark. A man then trod on it until it was crushed. This was called by a term meaning “foot-trodden meat.”
The bladder and large intestine were used as containers for the tallow, which was rendered and poured into them while hot, birch-bark funnels being used for this purpose.
The use of moose meat was similar to the uses of venison. The moose is abundant in the northern regions, and a Canadian Ojibwe said that his people kept moose fat in strong birch-bark makuks, with tops sewed in place with spruce root. He said that moose fat freezes readily. Its use with dried blueberries has already been mentioned.
from Densmore, Frances. 1929. “Chippewa Customs.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off.
The Ojibwe waged a war of destruction against the Cheyenne
A terrifying example of genocidal warfare waged by the Ojibwe can be found in a description of an attack by the Red Lake people against a Cheyenne village (or possibly more than one village) chronicled by explorer/cartographer David Thompson in his journals. Thompson described a personal encounter with an Ojibwe Chief named Sheshepaskut (“Sugar”) which took place at the Cadotte’s House Northwest Company trading post on the Red River near the mouth of the Sheyenne River, in the spring of 1798.
In speaking with Sheshepaskut, Thompson learned of a military campaign by the Ojibwe against the Cheyenne which resulted in the total destruction of a Cheyenne village(s). Sheshepaskut recounted to Thompson that for many years a détente had existed between the Ojibwe and Cheyenne, but this peace was fragile due to mistrust. The Ojibwe, Sheshepaskut explained, had tolerated the Cheyenne because they grew crops (e.g. corn and squash) which the Ojibwe desired and traded with them for. Sheshepaskut recounted how a party of Ojibwe hunters had gone missing while hunting on the Red River near the Sheyenne River. At first the Sioux were suspect, but investigation revealed evidence that implicated the Cheyenne in the disappearance.
Sheshepaskut claimed that a war party of about 150 Ojibwe warriors (led by Sheshepaskut personally) set out from Red Lake and launched an attack on the Cheyenne. He stated that the Ojibwe hid for several days outside the Cheyenne village until the main body of the Cheyenne exited the village to hunt. When it was certain that the Cheyenne hunters were beyond earshot, the Ojibwe attacked the village en masse. Everyone in the village was slaughtered, with the exception of three women who were taken as captives. The village was then set to fire and destroyed.
The exact date of this attack in not known, but it is likely that the attack took place sometime prior to 1790 – perhaps at or near 1780. Archaeological evidence recovered from the Biesterfeldt site near Lisbon, North Dakota, revealed the remnants of burnt timbers – indicative of a large fire. This evidence was interpreted by researchers to be compelling evidence substantiating the historical claims of Sheshepaskut. Archaeological dates for Biesterfeldt (ca. 1780) also lend credence to these claims.
From: Ferris, Kade Michael. 2006. The Chippewa of North Dakota: An Examination of American Indian Cultural Evolution During the 18th and 19th Centuries. North Dakota State University.
The adoption of the Ojibwe to Horse Culture was not immediate
The adoption of horses by the Ojibwe – a traditionally pedestrian and canoe-using people – as they ventured west into the fringes of the prairies was not an immediate thing. Although horses were an efficient means of transportation, during their initial move westward the Ojibwe continued to live along the wooded shores of the rivers and lakes of the region for most of the year, using their canoes to move across the landscape. Even when birchbark was hard to find in the poplar-rich region west of the Red River, skin canoes were substituted in many cases.
It was noted by traders that the Ojibwe were hunting bison without the aid of horses well before 1800, and that they remained horse-poor for several decades. This resistance to adopting the horse was helped by the fact that buffalo were very plentiful and often could be hunted on foot. However, as time wore on and the Métis started to hunt buffalo in larger groups using horses to chase the herds, the hunting of them on foot became harder to do.
Surprisingly, the Ojibwe living along the Red and Assiniboine rivers had horses about a decade earlier than those bands living west of the Assiniboine. One reason for this was that the Ojibwe on the Red River were often in conflict with the Sioux, who were mounted, and that the Ojibwe were finding it difficult to properly fight against a mounted enemy who could avoid direct confrontation and cut off their retreats using their speedy mounts.
Another factor in the adoption of the horse was the closer social contact that was happening between the Ojibwe and their Cree and Métis friends and relatives. Intermarriage and other contacts exposed the Ojibwe to the values and skills of their equestrian allies, and mixed-group camps fostered the borrowing of many cultural elements and values. By about 1800, more and more Ojibwe were working in concert with the Cree and Assiniboine and were acquiring horses from them.
It was during this time that there was a general flowering of plains equestrian culture. Horses became a symbol of individual wealth and allowed those who owned them to participate in the burgeoning pemmican trade to a greater extent. With the new ability to gain wealth and prestige, horses were adopted on the Ojibwes' terms, to suit their own needs and agendas, and integrated into their own value system.
Read more at Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn), The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1994