The first people to inhabit the Great Lakes area were those of the Ojibwa Nation. They moved westward from the east coast in the 1400s. By the 1500s the Ojibwa lived as far west as Lake Superior. The Ojibwa fought the Iroquois and the Dakota Nations to obtain the territory known today as Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. By the 1800s the Ojibwa were living in Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The Ojibwa Nation is the only tribe ever to have controlled such a huge territory. When Europeans settled in the Americas, they took over the native peoples’ land and forced them onto reservations.
What was the population of the Ojibwa Nation?
Since the Ojibwa lived so spread out it was difficult to get an accurate population count. Early European settlers estimated that there were about 35,000 Ojibwa people. There was probably about three times that number in the 1600s. Today there are 130,000 Ojibwa in the US and 60,000 in Canada.
Traditional Ojibwa Life
- The Ojibwa were traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers. In the winter they would live in small family groups in the forests and in the summer the families came together in small bands near rivers and lakeshores.
- Another name for the Ojibwa tribe are the Chippewa. If you place an “O” in front of Chippewa you can see the relationship.
- Their main concern in the winter was keeping warm and having enough food.
- The winters in the north woods are extremely cold and the Ojibwa had to adapt to life in severe weather. They relied on sleds know as nobugidaban to pull their belongings around over the snow. The word has been changed in English to toboggan. The Ojibwa also made snowshoes that allowed them to walk over the snow without sinking through the thick powder.
- When the family relocated to their winter land they constructed a wigwam out of bark. They used extra bark for the wigwam in the winter to provide more insulation. A large fire pit was dug out in the middle of the wigwam and a fire was kept going all through the night to keep the family warm.
- Often there was a pot filled with stew that was kept on the fire all day so that people coming in from outside could have warm food.
- In the winter the men were in charge of going hunting. The animals played a vital role in native life. None of the animal went to waste. The meat fed the family and the skins were used as blankets, clothing and also for making moccasins.
- When the men skinned the animals, the women went about the time consuming task of tanning the hide. After tanning, the hide had to be stretched on frames and treated with oil and then placed above a fire pit. The women spent a lot of time making moccasins and repairing clothes and blankets with the newly treated skins.
- The older boys in the family were expected to collect the firewood.
- On very cold days everyone stayed inside and the men worked on sharpening arrowheads or preparing bows. They also played games with the children and the women cooked and sewed. The older men told stories and legends around the fire.
- Everyone became excited when spring arrived because of the warmer temperatures and the maple sugar season. Maple sugar time was a holiday for the Ojibwa; a time when the families moved out of their winter land to their temporary homes in the maple forest where they reunited with other members of their band.
- The maple sugar was important because the people used it to sweeten their food.
- Each spring the maples were tapped by cutting a diagonal slit in the trees and then placing a cedar spout in the cut. The women collected the syrup in baskets called makuks. The syrup was heated over the fire and eventually hardened and formed maple sugar. The women stored the maple sugar for eating throughout the rest of the year.
- In the summer, the Ojibwa people moved to their permanent homes on the lake and river shores. The women and girls spent time planting and harvesting the gardens while the men went on the warpath and the boys fished.
- Canoes were used to transport people over all of the lakes and rivers in the north woods. They were made by placing long strips of birch-bark over cedar frames.
- The canoes took a family about 10 to 15 days to make. The men cut white cedar to make the ribs, gunwales, and thwarts for the canoe. The cedar had to be soaked in water for several days to keep it flexible.
- Long sheets of birch bark were then placed over the ribbing and the women sewed the bark to the frame. The canoe was waterproofed with a mixture of charcoal, grease, and resin. Each family had a few canoes weighing between 65 to 100 pounds.
- An important food source for the Ojibwa was wild rice. They called wild rice manomin or “good berry.” Each fall the families canoed to the wild rice paddies to harvest the delicious food. Before the European settlers came to North America, wild rice used to grow from Lake Winnipeg south to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Rockies to the coast. Rice was found in shallow lakes, and slow streams. Rice grows best in areas where there is thick mud so that the roots can stick in. There are still places in the north woods where wild rice can be found today.
- To harvest the rice, the Ojibwa used their canoes and paddled over the rice beds. One person would paddle while another person would gather the rice over the canoe and then beat it with a stick so that the grains spilled inside. Since they did not disturb the roots, the plants kept producing rice year after year.
Once the white man settled in this country, life changed dramatically for the Ojibwa and all native people. They had good trade relations with the French fur traders and were introduced to many useful household goods such as knives, cooking pots, sewing needles etc. However by 1855, when whites moved into the Great Lakes country, the Ojibwa were forced to live on reservations and most of their land was taken away from them.
Bleeker, S. 1955. The Chippewa Indians. George J. McLeod Limited, Toronto.
Schmalz, P.S. 1991. The Ojibwa of Southern Ontario. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.