Mille Lacs Ojibwe Oral History
The following is a description of the yearly life of an Ojibwe family living in the woodlands of Minnesota. The narrator is Nodinens, a member of the Mille Lac Band of Ojibwe, who was 74 years old when giving this information. The narrative is given practically in the words of the interpreter:
When I was young everything was very systematic. We worked day and night and made the best use of the material we had. My father kept count of the days on a stick. He had a stick long enough to last a year and he always began a new stick in the fall. He cut a big notch for the first day of a new moon and a small notch for each of the other days. I will begin my story at the time when he began a new counting stick. After my mother had put away the wild rice, maple sugar, and other food that we would need during the winter she made some new mats for the sides of the wigwam. These were made of bulrushes which she had gathered and dried. She selected a nice smooth piece of ground and spread them out.
I, as the oldest daughter, boiled basswood bark, and made cord, and grandmother made the bone needles that we would use in weaving the mats. When the rushes were ready, we laid a cord on the ground and measured the right length for the mats. My mother knew just how long they should be to go around the wigwam, and we made five long ones, four of middle size, and two small ones. The long ones were two double-arms' lengths, and the middle-sized ones were about one and a half double-arms' lengths. We laid the rushes two layers deep on the ground with the ends resting on the cord, and then fastened the ends of the rushes to the cord, after which we fastened the cord to the pole that was the upper, horizontal part of the weaving frame. My grandmother directed everything, and she had a large quantity of the thorns from the thorn-apple tree in a leather bag. She had been gathering these all summer, but she made sure she had plenty. We all three worked hard getting ready for winter. When my mother had finished the bulrush mats she made more mats for the floor, using either fresh reeds or some that she had gathered during the summer, and she made more of the woven-yarn bags in which we kept our belongings.
My home was at Mille Lac, and when the ice froze on the lake we started for the game field. I carried half of the bulrush mats and my mother carried the other half. We rolled the blankets inside the mats; and if there was a little baby, my mother put it inside the roll, cradle board and all. It was a warm place and safe for the baby. I carried a kettle beside my roll of mats. We took only food that was light in weight, such as rice and dried berries, and we always took a bag of dried pumpkin flowers, as they were so nice to thicken the meat gravy during the winter. There were six families in our party, and when we found a nice place in the deep woods we made our winter camp. The men shoveled away the snow in a big space, and the six wigwams were put in a circle and banked with evergreen boughs and snow. Of course, the snow was all shoveled away in the inside of the wigwam, and plenty of cedar boughs were spread on the ground and covered with blankets for our beds, the bright yarn bags being set along the wall for use as pillows. In the center was a place for a fire, and between it and the floor mats there was a strip of hard, dry ground that was kept clean by sweeping it with a broom made of cedar boughs. The wigwam looked nice with the yellow birch-bark top and the bright-colored things inside. Outside the door there was a little shed made of cedar bark in which we kept the split wood for the fire, so it would not get wet and so we could get it easily in the night. Sometimes there were many of these sheds around the door of a wigwam. The men brought the logs and the women chopped the wood, and put it in the sheds ready for use.
There was a big fire in the middle of the camp, and all the families did their cooking around this fire if the weather was not too cold, but we always had a fire in the wigwam in the evening, so it would be warm for us to sleep. We always slept barefoot, with our feet toward the fire, and we loosened our other clothing. I wore a dress of coarse broadcloth, with separate pieces of the cloth to cover my arms, and I had broadcloth leggings that came to my knees, but I wore no other clothing except my moccasins and blanket. The big rack for drying meat was over the fire in the middle of the circle. During the day the women kept this fire burning low and evenly to dry the meat. When the men came home at night the rack was taken off the fire, for the men put in lots of light wood to dry their clothing. They sat around it, smoking and talking. If a snowstorm came on we spread sheets of birch bark over the meat. We did not dry it entirely—only enough so that it would keep—and the drying was finished in the sun when we reached our summer camp. The fire blazed brightly until bedtime, and then the men put on dry wood so it would smolder all night. The women were busy during the day preparing the meat, attending to their household tasks, and keeping the clothing of the men in order. Each man had two or three leather suits which required considerable mending, as they had such hard wear. We snared rabbits and partridges for food and cleaned and froze all that we did not need at the time.
My father was a good hunter and sometimes killed two deer in a day. Some hunters took a sled to bring back the game, but more frequently they brought back only part of the animal, and the women went next day and packed the rest of the meat on their backs. It was the custom for a man to give a feast with the first deer or other game that he killed. The deer was cut up, boiled, and seasoned nicely, and all the other families were invited to the feast. Each family gave such a feast when the man killed his first game. The men were good hunters, and we had plenty of meat, but every bit of the deer that was not eaten was dried for carrying away, the extra meat, the liver and heart, and even the hoofs. I remember that once a hunter heard an owl following him. When he returned to camp he said: “You must preserve every bit of deer. This is a bad sign, and we will not get any more game for a long time.” The hunters went out every day, but could find nothing. We stayed there until we had eaten almost all that we intended to carry away. We were so hungry that we had to dig roots and boil them. My father was a Mide, and one day, when the provisions were almost gone, a young man entered our wigwam with a kettle of rice, some dried berries, and some tobacco. He placed this before my father, saying: “Our friend, we are in danger of starving; help us.” This man was the ockabewis who managed and directed things in the camp, and his arms were painted with vermilion.
My father called his Mide friends together and they sang almost all night. The men sang Mide songs and shook their rattles. No woman was allowed to go in that direction. The children were put to bed early and told that they must not even look up. My mother sat up and kept the fire burning. My father came in late and sang a Mide song, and a voice was heard outside the wigwam joining in the song. It was a woman's voice, and my mother heard it plainly. This was considered a good omen. The next morning my father directed that a fire be made at some distance from the camp. The ockabewis made the fire, and the Mide went there and sang. They put sweet grass and medicine on the fire, and let the smoke cover their bodies, their clothing, and their guns. When this was finished, my father covered his hand with red paint and applied it to the shoulders of the men. They took their guns and started to hunt, feeling sure they would succeed. No woman was allowed to pass in front of the hunters when they were starting. The ockabewis killed a bear that day and every man got some game. They killed plenty of deer and bear, and each person boiled the breast of the animals in a separate kettle from the rest of the meat. There was a feast, and they brought these kettles to my father's lodge, and the old men ate there, sitting by themselves and eating from these kettles. After that whenever we were short of game they brought a kettle of rice to my father and he sang and the luck would return. He was so successful that we had plenty of food all that winter.
The hides were tanned with the hair on and were spread on the cedar boughs along the edge of the wigwam. Father gathered us children around him in the evening and instructed us as we sat on these soft hides. He instructed us to be kind to the poor and aged and to help those who were helpless. This made a deep impression on me, and I have always helped the old people, going into the woods and getting sticks and scraping their kinnikinnick. This is a common expression and refers to tobacco and red willow. Kinikinige means “he mixes together things of different kinds.”
During the winter my grandmother made lots of fish nets of nettle-stalk fiber. Everyone was busy. Some of the men started on long hunting trips in the middle of the winter, and did not get back until after the spring work was done; then they rested a while and started off on their fall hunting and trapping.
Toward the last of the winter my father would say, “one month after another month has gone by. Spring is near and we must get back to our other work.” So the women wrapped the dried meat tightly in tanned deerskins and the men packed their furs on sleds or toboggans. Once there was a fearful snowstorm when we were starting to go back and my father quickly made snowshoes from the branches for all the older people. Grandmother had a supply of thorn-apple thorns and she got these out and pinned up the children's coats so they would be warm and we started off in the snowstorm and went to the sugar bush.
When we got to the sugar bush we took the birch-bark dishes out of the storage and the women began tapping the trees. We had queer-shaped axes made of iron. Our sugar camp was always near Mille Lac, and the men cut holes in the ice, put something over their heads, and fished through the ice. There were plenty of big fish in those days, and the men speared them. My father had some wire, and he made fishhooks and tied them on basswood cord, and he got lots of pickerel that way. A food cache was always near the sugar camp. We opened that and had all kinds of nice food that we had stored in the fall. There were cedar-bark bags of rice and there were cranberries sewed in birch-bark makuks and long strings of dried potatoes and apples. Grandmother had charge of all this, and made the young girls do the work. As soon as the little creeks opened, the boys caught lots of small fish, and my sister and I carried them to the camp and dried them on a frame. My mother had two or three big brass kettles that she had bought from an English trader and a few tin pails from the American trader. She used these in making the sugar.
We had plenty of birch-bark dishes, but the children ate mostly from the large shells that we got along the lake shore. We had sauce from the dried cranberries and blueberries sweetened with the new maple sugar. The women gathered the inside bark of the cedar. This can only be gotten in the spring, and we got plenty of it for making mats and bags.
Toward the end of the sugar season there was a great deal of thick syrup called the “last run of sap,” and we had lots of fish that we had dried. This provided us with food during the time we were making our gardens.
The six families went together, and the distance was not long. Each family had a large bark house with a platform along each side, like the lodge in which the maple sap was boiled. We renewed the bark if necessary, and this was our summer home. The camps extended along the lake shore, and each family had its own garden. We added to our garden every year, my father and brothers breaking the ground with old axes, bones, or anything that would cut and break up the ground. My father had wooden hoes that he made, and sometimes we used the shoulder blade of a large deer or a moose, holding it in the hand. We planted potatoes, corn, and pumpkins. These were the principal crops. After the garden was planted the Mide gathered together, made a feast, and asked the Mide manido to bless the garden. They had a kind of ceremony and sang Mide songs. Old women could attend this feast, but no young people were allowed. Children were afraid when their parents told them to keep away from such a place. The gardens were never watered. A scarecrow made of straw was always put in a garden.
In the spring we had pigeons to eat. They came in flocks and the men put up long fish nets on poles, just the same as in the water, and caught the pigeons in that way. We boiled them with potatoes and with meat. We went to get wild potatoes in the spring and a little later the blueberries, gooseberries, and June berries were ripe along the lake shore. The previous fall the women had tied green rice in long bundles and at this time they took it out, parched and pounded it, and we had that for food. There was scarcely an idle person around the place. The women made cedar-bark mats and bags for summer use. By that time the reeds for making floor mats were ready for use. They grew in a certain place and the girls carried them to the camp. We gathered plenty of the basswood bark and birch bark, using our canoes along the lake and the streams. We dried berries and put them in bags for winter use. During the summer we frequently slept in the open.
Next came the rice season. The rice fields were quite a distance away and we went there and camped while we gathered rice. Then we returned to our summer camp and harvested our potatoes, corn, pumpkins, and squash, putting them in caches which were not far from the gardens.
By this time the men had gone away for the fall trapping. When the harvest was over and colder weather came, the women began their fall fishing, often working at this until after the snow came. When the men returned from the fall trapping we started for the winter camp.
Densmore, Frances. 1929. “Chippewa Customs.” Bulletin. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off.
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