Sturgeon fishing was a source of power for the Ojibwe in their relations with European Traders
Early European explorers, fur traders, and missionaries reported that they were impressed by the Ojibwe sturgeon fisheries in the vicinity of Rainy River and Lake of the Woods.
Nearly every part of the sturgeon was used by the Ojibwe. The eggs or caviar were consumed, and the inner membrane of the swim bladder was used as a glue in paints. One Hudson Bay Company trader, James Isham, noted in 1743 that: “The Glue the Natives saves out of the Sturgeon is very strong and good, they use it in mixing with their paint, which fixes the Colors so they never Rub out”.
During the fur trade period, large numbers of Ojibwe from the surrounding region gathered at the Rainy River sturgeon fisheries. They came from as far away as Lake Winnipeg on the west, Lac Seul to the north, Red Lake and Leech Lake to the south, and Lake Superior to the east. Wesleyan missionary Peter Jacobs reported over 300 Ojibwe engaged in the sturgeon fishery at Manitou Rapids in 1852. In 1868 the usual number congregating at locations on the Rainy River could be as high as 1,000 people, with some years as many as 1,500 turning out to fish and gather for ceremonies. These large gatherings, supported by the seasonal abundance of sturgeon, facilitated renewal of friendships and social ties, discussion of military and political affairs, and holding of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. Because of the ceremonial nature of the Rainy River sturgeon runs and gatherings, the Ojibwe refused to allow the establishment of missions near Manitou Rapids because they thought it would ruin the sturgeon fishery there.
Fur trade documents illustrated the importance of the sturgeon trade between the Ojibwe and Euro-Canadian fur traders and suggest a tradition of commercial exchange among the Natives themselves. The fur traders often depicted the Rainy River Ojibwe as highly competent traders who had at their disposal abundant and varied natural products for barter. They sold (in addition to sturgeon) furs, wild rice, maple sugar, berries, venison, birch bark canoes, and other items to European traders.
The abundant and diverse natural products of the Rainy River area made the Ojibwe difficult and expensive trading partners. One trader, Simon J. Dawson, described the Ojibwe as “formidable if inclined to be troublesome, and independent; sometimes even a little saucy”. Reverend Peter Jacobs described his frustration in his lack of success in Christianizing the Ojibwe, referring to them in an 1849 letter as a “stiffnecked people”. Even then, the Ojibwe were often content forgo trade and simply to just subsist on their sturgeon and other foods rather than engage with the Europeans. It was reported by the Hudson Bay Company in 1849 that the Rainy River Ojibwe were independent of the Company’s influence due to the fact that they had abundance of sturgeon and great quantities of wild rice, thereby not needing anything from the traders at all.
See more at Holzkamm, Tim E., Victor P. Lytwyn, and Leo G. Waisberg. 1988. “Rainy River Sturgeon: An Ojibway Resource In The Fur Trade Economy.” Canadian Geographer 32 (3). Toronto: 194–205.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities