Throughout the early fur trade in Canada and the United States the one unspoken and (for the most part) unwritten rule was that so long as white women were absent on the frontiers, Indigenous women could be used to satisfy the carnal needs of the white men seeking to colonize the continent. To grasp the rapidity and the extent to with which Aboriginal women became sexualized as prostitutes and as persons who could be trafficked with impunity, a few passages are offered here. These are provided to show that the groundwork for the current problem with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) is not a modern phenomenon, but rather is the modern-day continuation of a pattern of the devaluation and degradation of indigenous women from its roots in colonial history.
One passage remarked on the social ills that had developed surrounding some of the Hudson Bay trading posts during the height of the fur trade. It stated that the ‘civilizing habits’ learned at the trading posts by the Indians were mostly the bad habits of the whites, including drunkenness and prostitution. One of the most serious difficulties, the passage states, is in reforming the growing practice of Indian parents being pushed to sell their daughters, and men hiring out their wives to white men for prostitution. The white men, in turn, were taking Indian women as their concubines, not infrequently leaving their children from these women as virtual slaves.[i]
When the American Fur Company began the erection of trading posts, and buying the valuable furs of the Indian hunter and trapper, the traders would often pay the Indians in whiskey and cheap goods. As their efforts to spread their “civilization” advanced, many of the whites traders took Indian women as their concubines, living with them and using them for only as long as it suited their convenience or inclination to do so. Thus, it was reported, the traders have given the Indians their first lesson in civilization by teaching them the prostitution of their young women![ii]
In yet another passage it was stated that when the Hudson lay Company opened a trading post at Fort Simpson (British Columbia), that many of the men found jobs working for the white people. This provided them money from which they could earn a living. However, at the same time the women and girls found jobs doing tasks such as sewing, washing, and other domestic tasks, but also were enticed into more nefarious jobs in prostitution.[iii]
When a Hudson Bay post was established near a village 300 Indians at Bella Coola (British Columbia), the standard of living plummeted. While the Indians were able to supplement their losses by cultivating some crops, they were soon suffering in a much degraded condition, with many of the men living by the proceeds of the prostitution of their women to the local white traders.[iv]
In many instances the white men who took Indian women as their wives did so for less than honorable reasons. In one case, a trader named William Banks, Sr., enticed the parents of a widowed Indian woman to allow her to be his ‘country wife’. He gave her relatives some presents, and she lived in his house, cooked for him, and cohabitated with him. Subsequently, Banks offered his new “wife” as a prostitute at any such time as he chose to use her.[v]
To think that the Indians were somehow complicit, or were equal partners in the debauchery of their people and their women would be an erroneous assumption. This was certainly not the case. In a speech given at the general council of the Colville Indians, held near Kettle Falls, on August 12, 1873, Antoine, chief of the band, speaking for his people, berated the local traders by stating, “We want you to take our [word]; the liquor is coming up to our knees; we tie our people [when they are drunk], but the whites do not tie up or punish their people for selling liquor to Indians. I wish you [the local Indian agent] would take our side and stop this selling of liquor to us.” Antoine also made serious accusations against the local white men forcing Indian women who they took as “country wives” as prostitutes. Antoine noted that the bad white men do this under the guise of marriage, but that the “poor Indian woman believes she is married to a white man, [but] he treats it in the light of cohabitation only, and which he breaks off at will, often abandoning both women and children with impunity and with gross indifference.”[vi]
The human trafficking was not just confined to the fur posts on the frontier. In an 1861 article about the debaucheries occurring at mining camps in the Rocky Mountains, it was noted that dance halls at these camps were maintained as places of prostitution that were exploiting indigenous women. To quote the article, it was said: “It is a misnomer to call them [dance halls] “places of amusement “. They are sinks of iniquity and pollution; prostitution and kindred vices in all their hideous deformity, and diseases in every form Iurk there.”[vii]
When Indian women did stand up to the abuse offered upon them, they were not afforded protection from the local authorities due to their being “lesser” than whites due to their aboriginal blood. In one case, an aboriginal woman dragged the friend of a man who had raped her to a local constable station so that he could bear witness on her behalf, but he was detained only until she left the police station, at which time he was released without charges. In another case, an Indian woman who was raped by a policeman on the frontier was able to secure a jury trial for her attacker, but the verdict hinged on whether the evidence of the Indian woman and her three Indian witnesses mattered. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’.[viii]
[i] The Tsimsheans at Metlakahtla in Magazine of Western History (1891)
[ii] Portrait and biographical album of Midland County, Mich.: Containing ... sketches ... citizens ... also ... a complete history of the county, from its earliest settlement to the present time. (1884). Chicago: Chapman Brothers.
[iii] Peet, S.D., Kinnaman, J.O. (1888). The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 13.
[iv] Chittenden, N. H. (1882). Settlers, prospectors and tourists guide: Or, Travels through British Columbia. Victoria.
[v] The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 51 (1899). West Publishing Company
[vi] Congressional Serial Set. (1874). Washington: USGPO
[vii] "The Dance Houses," (1861). British Colonist, 20 December 1861.
[viii] "A Squaw Arrests a White Man," (1862). British Colonist, 17 January 1862
One of the most common forms of human trafficking practiced by colonizers during the early fur trade was the practice of taking “country brides”.
Country marriages were a widespread phenomenon in Canada and the United States frontiers during the fur trade. They were essentially a way for European traders to exploit the Indigenous community by forging “alliances” with local native populations by taking native girls as “country wives”, whereby they cemented a connection with the tribal people for the purpose of trade, while at the same time satisfying their carnal urges while away from the trading centers in places like Montreal, Detroit, and elsewhere.
The country marriage was a way for colonizers to gain a competitive advantage over other competing traders, as their marriage to their native brides helped gain them access to rich fur trapping grounds, allowed them to establish franchises within native communities, and in some cases helped them to exclude other traders from also exploiting an area. At the same time, the native girls and women they took as country brides were easily-exploited sexual partners and “workers” who possessed valuable domestic and outdoors skills that could be exploited for advantage. These marriages were not based on love, but rather were a tool of colonialism used to exploit indigenous women for the benefit of the European frontiersmen.
It was noted by some eyewitnesses that most of these marriages were shams, and in some cases were nothing but ruses used to conveniently handle trade and sex. One recorded observation states that, “In earlier days they [traders] had handled the situation more conveniently by contracting a so-called "country marriage" which in reality, was no marriage at all.” Another noted that while country marriages were the preferred lifestyle, when only sex was desired (rather than a protracted trade issue) that prostitution was common, and in many cases was a flourishing business around the Hudson Bay, which led to a spread of various forms of venereal disease that made its way into the indigenous community, harming the population with diseases introduced by European men traveling about and spreading it from post to post.
There was little consideration for the indigenous women who became country wives, and in the majority of cases, the early country marriages resulted in the abandonment of the women and any offspring that resulted. In one example, a young trader, having gone to the Saskatchewan River region in the early 1800s, took a French Canadian half-breed girl, aged fourteen, as his country wife. He wrote in his memoir that he, in the custom of the country, took the young girl for his wife, lived with her in the country for a time, and then, upon intending to leave the country to return east, placed her and her children under the care of an “honest man” and gave him a certain amount for her support.
One can only think that this “giving” of his wife and children to another man was simply the transfer (i.e. trafficking) of his sexual slave to free himself of a burden.
Bryce, G. (1900). The remarkable history of the Hudson's Bay company: including that of the French traders of north-western Canada and of the North-west, XY, and Astor Fur companies. Toronto: W. Briggs.
Godsell, P.H. (1939). The Vanishing Frontier -- A Saga of Traders, Mounties and Men of the Last North West. Toronto: Ryerson
In writing about civil life in the early fur trade in the area surrounding the Great Lakes during the late 18th century, unions between the white men there to trade and colonize, and natives – occasionally happening due to the lack of European women at these remote posts – were certainly not causes for celebration for the young native girls who were often forced into wedlock with significantly older European men. In many cases, girls barely pubescent were literally taken from playing childhood games and wed to adult men.
Their choice in the matter was not deliberated, and their age was irrelevant, as the racist sentiment of the colonizers saw their physical or emotional maturity as irrelevant to the needs of the men to secure a woman for their carnal needs. Nowadays, we would probably consider this sort of arrangement to be human trafficking, and the girls "child brides", but belief in the racial inferiority of natives played a large role in these sorts of 'marriages'.
As noted in the Army and Navy Chronicle, such marriages were “quick and dirty” affairs with no consideration for the wishes of the girls:
“The commanding officer of the post, besides his military sway also held a kind of civil jurisdiction. He could grant land and solemnize marriages. We have before us a record, showing that on the 15th of November, 1791, Edward Charleton, Esq, Captain in his Majesty’s 5th Regiment, and commander of the post of Michillmackinac and dependencies, did join in the bands of wedlock, one of his subalterns with a daughter of the Surgeon of the post.”
The discussion continues, describing the extreme youth of the bride, who was literally swept off the playground and forced into wedlock…
“The bride was a half breed – her mother an Indian. What her age was does not appear; neither should we have any curiosity to know, except for ascertaining at that time those marriages [to extremely young girls] first came in vogue. It is said concerning the marriage of one girl, that she was called in from playing with her fellows in the streets, to be dressed for her wedding.”
The same was not said for native girls, as their physical or emotional maturity was not considered of equal importance to those of white girls.
“The principles of physiology [physical maturity] appear to be held in perfect contempt. Indian and half breed girls frequently marry at the age of 13-15, and for aught we know, with impunity, but a white girl who enters the married like at such an early age [would] find her cup of matrimonial bliss turbid with the dregs of affliction and regret.”
Mackinac. (1841, January 7). Army and Navy Chronicle, XII(1), 115-119.
There is a persistent myth among some that the “country wives” of many of the European fur traders were matches based on ideals of love and mutual respect, but this wasn’t always (or even often) the case. In most cases, the marriages between traders and Indian, or half-breed, women were matters of convenience, or even matters of economic gain for the indigenous families. They sometimes cemented trading ties with Indian bands by creating kinship connections, and in some cases they were even a way to escape difficult circumstances.
One curious “marriage” was described by Ross Cox (b.1793–d.1853) who was an Irish clerk in the employ of the Pacific Fur Company and the North West Company, during the early part of the 19th century. He wrote a narrative of his experiences during his time spent living in the west. In one story, Cox describes the desire of a young European man in the employ of the company who wanted a wife for himself. With no European women, and no eligible (of age) half-breed girls, available he was wedded to a willing young girl of the Spokane tribe. Little did he know he was getting more than he bargained for. His description is as follows:
"In the course of the winter an incident occurred which threatened at the time to interrupt the harmony that had previously existed between our people and the Spokane Indians. One of our younger clerks, having become tired of celibacy, resolved to take a wife; and as none of the Columbian half-breeds had attained a sufficiently mature age, he· was necessitated to make his selection from the Spokane tribe. He therefore requested the interpreter. to make an inquiry in the village, and ascertain whether any unappropriated comely young woman was willing to become the partner of a juvenile chief. A pretty looking damsel, about seventeen years of age, immediately became a candidate for the prize. As her father had died some years before, she was under the guardianship of her mother, who, with her brother, settled the terms of the negotiation. Blankets and kettles were presented to her principal relations; while beads, hawk-bells, etc. were distributed among the remaining kindred. About nine o'clock at night the bride was conducted to the fort gate by her mother, and, after. an apathetic parting, she was consigned to the care of one of the men's wives, called "the scourer," conversant in such affairs, who had her head and body thoroughly cleansed from all the Indian paint and grease with which they had been saturated. After this purification she was handed over to the dressmaker, who instantly discharged her leathern chemise, and supplied its place by more appropriate clothing; and the following morning, when she appeared in her new habiliments, we thought her one of the most engaging females that we had previously seen of the Spokane nation."
"Matters rolled on pleasantly enough for a few days, and the youthful couple appeared mutually enamored of each other; but a "little week" had scarcely passed over their heads when, one day about two o'clock, a number of young warriors well mounted galloped into the courtyard of the fort armed at all points. Their appearance was so unusual, and unlike the general manner of the Spokane nation, that we were at a loss to account for it, and vague suspicions of treachery began to flit across our imaginations; but the mystery was shortly cleared up. The bride, on perceiving the foremost horseman of the band enter the court, instantly fled into an adjoining store, in which she concealed herself; while he and his associates dismounted, and demanded to speak with the principal white chief, at the same time requesting the other chiefs would also appear. His wishes having been complied with, he addressed us in substance to the following effect: "Three snows have passed away since the white men came from their own country to live among the Spokanes. When the Evil Spirit thought proper to distress the white people by covering the waters of the rivers with ice, so that they could not catch any fish, and sent snow all over the mountains and the plains, by means whereof their horses were nearly destroyed by the wolves, when their own hunters in fact could not find an animal, did the Spokanes take advantage of their afflictions? Did they rob them of their horses like dogs? Did they say, the white men are now poor and starving; they are a great distance from their own country and from any assistance, and we can easily take all their goods from them, and send them away naked and hungry? No! we never spoke or even thought of such bad things. The white men came amongst us with confidence, and our hearts were glad to see them; they paid us for our fish, for our meat, and for our furs. We thought they were all good people, and in particular their chiefs; but I find we were wrong in so thinking. Here he paused for a short period; after which he thus recommenced: "My relations and myself left our village some days ago for the purpose of hunting. We returned home this morning. Their wives and their children leaped with joy to meet them, and all their hearts were glad but mine. I went to my hut, and called on my wife to come forth; but she did not appear. I was sorrowful and hungry, and went into my brother's hut, where I was told that she had gone away, and had become the wife of a white chief. She is now in your house. I come, therefore, white men, to demand justice. I first require that my wife be delivered up to me. She has acted like a dog, and I shall live no more with her; but I shall punish her as she deserves. And in the next place, I expect, as you have been the cause of my losing her, that you will give me ample compensation for her loss.” Our interpreter immediately explained to the Indian that the girl's relatives were the cause of the trick that had been played on him; and added, that had our friend been aware of her having been a married woman, he never would have thought of making her his wife. That he was willing to give him reasonable compensation for her loss; but that she should not be delivered to him. except he undertook not to injure her. He refused to make any promise, and still insisted on her restitution; but as we had reason to fear that her life would have been sacrificed, we refused to comply. The old chief next addressed him for some time; the result of which was, that he agreed to accept of a gun, one hundred rounds of ammunition, three blankets; two kettles, a spear, a dagger, ten fathoms of tobacco, with a quantity of smaller articles, and to leave his frail helpmate in quiet possession of her pale-faced spouse, promising never more to think of her, or do her any harm. Exorbitant as these terms were, it was judged advisable to accede to them rather than disturb the good feeling that had hitherto subsisted between us. After we had delivered the above articles to him, we all smoked the calumet; on perceiving which, the fugitive, knowing that it was the ratification of peace, emerged from her place of concealment and boldly walked past her late lord. She caught his eye for a moment; but no sign of recognition appeared; and neither anger nor regret seemed to disturb the natural serenity of his cold and swarthy countenance."
Cox, R. (1831). Adventures on the Columbia River including the narrative of a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown: Together with a journey across the American continent. London: H. Colburn.
The historical record and the general conventional wisdom about the role and place of women in indigenous society has been largely determined by white historians, clergymen, and others who viewed women from a western, colonial point of view. Most primary records speak of women in highly derogatory terms, often casting them as nothing more than beasts of burden and nearly slaves to men. This is especially the case of Indian women who were attached to European men, whereby they were viewed by settler society as something less than human at times – with terms like ‘sauvage’ or ‘sauvagesse’ being used to describe them. While the Europeans maintained a generally negative view of the Indian women they sometimes took as ‘country brides’ – perhaps leading to the desire of mixed-blood children to often attach themselves to their native communities, or later to become an independent ‘Metis” nation in the Red River region – the status of women in the traditional Indigenous cultures was much different and one that was (more or less) egalitarian.
In most indigenous cultures, labor was a process wherein each person played a role that, while not the same, was equally important and valued. For instance, while hunting and trapping were tasks carried out by men, the processing of the food and the tanning of hides was a female domain. This did not mean that the women were performing as workhorses for the men, but rather that they were doing what they did best and making sure that the hides were processed correctly in order to gain the highest prices at the trading posts. Even more so, women had an ownership stake in these furs and hides and it was reported by many fur trade journals that Indian women were very shrewd negotiators – often better than the men.
Women were the experts at gathering wild plant foods and medicines; during canoe building, while the men fashioned the frame of the birch-bark canoe and made the paddles, the women were the experts at sewing the bark and sealing the seams to create a watertight boat.
During large-scale hunts, women were an essential part of the action. As soon as the men killed a large number of buffalo, they were quickly relegated to a subservient role to the women who led the effort in skinning, tanning, making pemmican, and more, with men acting as ‘fetchers’ and general laborers for the women. Women knew how to best build lodges; they were valued for their skill at fashioning beautiful clothing for their families; they were the artists of the people, making beautiful beadwork, quillwork, and decorations; and they were the on-the-ground leaders at the annual maple and wild rice gathering efforts of the people.
If we are to decolonize as Indigenous people, we need to cast off the European ideas that women were nothing more than chattel and draft animals. While this might have been true for some of the early Indian women who had the misfortune of being selected as wives by voyageurs and traders, that was not their actual role in traditional society.
'For 500 years they've tried to kill us off, and for 500 years we keep coming back.' — These activists are trying to make 2018 the year Native Americans change an election. This video, "Voting While Native American in Montana", first appeared on nowthisnews.com.
The Magic Circle in the Prairie
A young hunter was hunting on the prairie and he came upon a strange, circular shape on the prairie, without any trail leading to or from it. The grass there was smooth and well-beaten, and looked as if footsteps had trod in it recently. This puzzled and amazed him, so he hid himself in the grass nearby see who or what had caused this strange phenomenon.
After waiting for a short time, the young man thought that he heard music coming from the sky. He listened and could clearly hear the strange sound, but when he looked upwards, all he could see was a small speck in the sky. In a short time the speck became larger and larger and the music sweeter and sweeter. The object descended rapidly, and when it came near it proved to be a strange basket which landed in the center of the circle. From out of the basket came twelve beautiful girls, who each had a kind of a ball-shaped drum in their hand which was struck with the grace of an angel. The girls began to dance in the circle, at the same time striking the shining ball in their hands.
The young hunter had seen many a dances, but none were as beautiful or graceful as this. The music was sweeter than any he had ever heard. But nothing about this strange sight could equal the beauty of the girls themselves. He found them all to be beautiful, but he was most infatuated with the youngest. He wanted her for his wife and wanted to speak to her. As quietly as he could, he moved towards the girls and their basket, but before he could speak to his chosen girl, the girls spotted him and they all nimbly leaped into the basket and were drawn back to the skies.
The hunter was completely foiled. He stood gazing upward as they flew away. “They are gone forever, and I shall see them no more” he said to himself as he returned to his lodge. Even so, he could not forget this wonder that he had seen, nor the beautiful girl he wished to speak to. That night he dreamed of her and he made up his mind to go to the circle on the prairie the next day and to better hide himself so he could speak to the girl.
That next day, he went back to the prairie and placed a large log near the circle and hid himself behind it. Soon, he heard the same sweet music and the basket landed. The girls commenced their dance and as he peeked at them, he thought they seemed even more beautiful and graceful than before. He slowly crept slowly towards the ring. Again the girls spied him, but in the confusion the youngest girl stumbled and did not make it back to the basket and it left without her. The girl was extremely upset and cried for her sisters to return. She fell down on the prairie and was inconsolable. The young man spoke to her and begged her to stop crying. He wiped the tears from her eyes and spoke to her to calm down. Once she had calmed down, he led her gently to his lodge and after a short time he and asked her to be his wife. She accepted and from that moment he was the happiest of men.
Winter and summer passed rapidly away, and their happiness increased by the addition of a beautiful baby boy. Even though they were happy, the girl would often cry out of loneliness for her home in the stars and for her people. She did her best to hide these feelings from her husband, but she was always thinking about her family and her home.
One day, she could not take it any longer and she constructed a basket that would be large enough to take her back to her people. While her husband was away hunting, she gathered some of her things, took her son by the hand, and took her basket to the ring on the prairie. As soon as she and her son stepped into the basket, the basket rose and she ascended to the sky. Her husband saw the basket rising into the sky and he ran to the prairie, but he could not reach the ring before they disappeared. In misery, he walked back to his lodge and spent a long winter and a long summer alone without her and his son.
In the meantime his wife had reached her home in the stars. She had almost forgotten the beauty of her home and her people, and she reveled in it all and started to forget her time on earth until one day when her son told her that he missed his father. The girl’s father heard this and he said to his daughter, “Go, my child, and take your son down to his father, and ask him to come up and live with us. But tell him to bring along some of the animals of the earth for me.” She accordingly took the boy and descended back to earth.
The hunter, who was never far from the circle on the prairie, heard the sound of her basket as she came down from the sky. His heart beat with excitement as he saw her and their son step out of it. He rushed forward and grabbed them in his arms. She told him of her father’s message, that he could come live with her in the stars. He was overjoyed by this and began to hunt with the greatest activity to collect the specimens that her father desired. He spent whole days and nights searching for every curious and beautiful bird or animal he could, and when all was ready, they went to the circle, and were carried up in her basket.
Upon arrival at her home-world her father invited all of his people to a feast, and when they had assembled he proclaimed aloud that each person in attendance could take of the earthly gifts. Some people chose birds, others chose other animals such as rabbits, deer, and muskrats. Soon, a very strange confusion arose and the people changed themselves into the animal that they had selected and ran off (or flew off). The hunter, his wife and his son chose hawks. Then they changed to become hawks. They spread their wings and descended to the earth. In this form they could fly between the earth and her home in the sky whenever they wanted to.
They were happy.
A tradition of Bravery
Women have often achieved great fame as warriors (ogichidaa).
Sometimes, when a man went to war, his wife would insist on accompanying him, and sometimes she was lucky enough to succeed in obtaining a war honor by killing an enemy or another act of valor, in which case she received a customary feather for her efforts. In most cases the ogichidaa woman didn’t wear her feather, but instead designating one of her male relatives, usually a son or grandson, to wear it for her. Nonetheless, she was thereafter called by the title ogichidaakwe.
An ogichidaakwe was entitled to go to the ogichidaag lodge at any time when the warriors were dancing, and to join them. When the warriors reenacted their valorous deeds, and counted their coups, she was entitled to do the same, and her narration was received with the same respect as any other ogichidaa.
One ogichidaakwe from Long Plain obtained her title by joining with the warriors when they went to battle. On one occasion when a Sioux was shot from his horse, she ran to count coup upon him, finally she killed the Dakota with her turnip digging-stick. The men in the war party then scalped the Dakota, and she painted her face with his blood.
Another renowned ogichidaakwe was out on the plains digging turnips when the group she was with were attacked by Sioux. The women hastily dug a rifle pit to conceal the party. As the battle was waged, one brave woman ventured forth and dragged the men who were wounded to safety. The Sioux were firing at her each time that she did this, but under fire she rescued each of the wounded men. In this manner she became an ogichidaakwe.
This tradition of women soldiers has continued until today.
Fourteen Native American women served as members of the Army Nurse Corps during World War I, two of them overseas. Nearly 800 Native American women served in the military during World War II. Countless Native women served in Vietnam, and increasing numbers of Native American women entered the military in the 1970s and 1980s. Even during the past decades, Native women have shown bravery as soldiers.
Private Lori Ann Piestewa, was not only the first woman in the U.S. military to lose her life in the Iraq War, she was also the first Native American woman to die in combat with the United States Armed Forces. Piestewa was a Native American of Hopi descent with Mexican-American heritage. Her native name was White Bear Girl.
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.
A healing dance that is at the heart of the Ojibwe Nation
The Jingle Dress (ziibaaska'iganagooday) originated among the Ojibwe people long ago.
According to one legend, there was a powerful medicine man who had a beautiful and cherished granddaughter. One day she became sick. The grandfather was very concerned and he prayed to his manitou to help him heal his granddaughter. That night the manitou appeared to him in a dream. They showed him several women wearing beautiful dresses which made a powerful sound when they danced. The manitou taught him how to make the dress and what dance steps were to be performed. The manitou also played and sang to him the sort of songs that would make the dance work for healing his granddaughter and for healing the hearts of the Ojibwe people.
In the morning, the grandfather and his wife started to make the dress together according to the directions given to him by the manitou. When the dress was finished, the grandfather and his wife took the dress to their granddaughter. She wore it into the center of the camp. A man took the drum and proceeded to sing a song as directed by the grandfather. Then, because the granddaughter was so weak, the grandfather and grandmother helped support the girl as she tried to dance around in a circle. On the second time around, she could walk a little more with their help, and on the third time she was dancing slowly on her own. During her fourth time around, she was dancing the Jingle Dress Dance and was healed of her sickness.
Ever since, the Jingle Dress Dance has been regarded as powerful medicine and is considered by the Ojibwe to be the most beautiful of all dances at the pow wow.