Thursday, May 1, 2008

Bezhig (Introduction)

They are the third largest Native American tribute in the United States. First divided between the U.S and Canada, the Ojibwa will move several times during their history, especially after the arrival of the European. During their migration, they will adopt some concepts and technique of the ancient world while keeping most of their traditions intact.

This blog provides a first outlook at the Ojibwa nation, their traditions and Religious belief. How the encounter of the New World with the Ancient World changed things and which traditions lasted.

From Shamanism to the harvest of wild rice, past to present… Welcome to the Ojibwa Nation.

From Hunting to Harvesting: "the food that grows on water"

The different tribes of the Ojibwa nation who now inhabit the shores of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Simcoe, originally came from the great western lakes, Huron and Superior.
Traditional oral history indicates that the early Ojibwas planted corn and used canoes, overland trails and sled dogs.

However, the acculturation of the Ojibwa took some time. Cultural preferences and tradition were still very strong when they first encountered the European convenience of farming and harvesting. Most of them resisted those changes since there was no economic urge to adapt, but some were more willing to experience this new way of life (especially single men and women).
Eventually, they made the move, sometimes reported as a successful one.
“The Lake Simcoe Ojibwa were doing extremely well in their transition from food gatherers to sedentary farmers...” [Schmalz, Peter S, 145]

But the constant arrival of European population during the 19th century forced several tribes to move again. Their hunting grounds were getting smaller and smaller, now covered by white settlements.

Ultimately, they were directed to places where farming was not a viable solution considering the natural environment and resources.
As the Chief of the Lake Simcoe Ojibwa, Joseph Sawyer (Kawahjegezhewabe) put it:

“Now we raise our own corn, potatoes, wheat; we have cattle, many comforts, and convenience. But if we go to Maneetoolin, we could not live; soon we should be extinct as a people; we could raise no potatoes, corn, pork, or beef; nothing would grown by putting the seed on the smooth rock.” [Schmalz, Peter S, 145]

After their final move, the Ojibwa started growing wild rice, ‘the food that grows on water’. Perpetuating this culture of harvesting wild rice for centuries, it became an essential food in the tribe’s diet, also used as a medicine. 'Ricing' is so central to the Ojibwa that it became a part of the tribe's founding myth : “the creator told the tribe to seek out the place where food grows on the water.” [Wilcox, Lauren]

More than just convenient rice, it also became a source of revenue for the Ojibwa and helped them to financially survive and participate in the modern American life (e.g.: pay for school). “Each autumn, several hundred Ojibwa harvest more than 50,000 pounds of wild rice, selling most of it to local mills” [Wilcox, Lauren]

Like most of the tribe’s practices, the harvesting of wild rice was ritualized and obeyed to centuries of old tradition.

“In northern Minnesota, on lakes on the lands, harvesters, two per canoe, pole through thick clusters of wild rice plants growing along the marshy shores. One stands in the stern like a gondolier; the other sits midships and uses a pair of carved cedar "knocking" sticks to sweep the tall grasses over the bow. The rice, still in its hull, falls into the boat with a soft patter.” [Wilcox, Lauren]

Nowadays, wild rice harvest is still a tradition for Ojibwa’s descendants.
“Ojibwa wild rice is one of the only five U.S. products supported by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, an international organization based in Italy that aims to preserve traditional or artisan foods. “[Wilcox, Lauren]

However, the modern society and its constant desire for efficiency conflict with the traditional tribe’s ways. The University of Minnesota has conducted genetic research on wild rice that raised some concerns within the Ojibwa community. The descendants are worried about the survival of their tradition and the economic impact of such researches.

Even though, the University of Minnesota researchers try to promote the benefits of their work:
“The more the native community understands about modern science and genomic, the more that community will be happy with the research.”[Laduke, Winona, 28]
Most of the community disagree and negotiate to put an end to those researches.

“The Anishinaabeg community remains hopeful that the University of Minnesota will bring ethics into its relationships with indigenous people and others in the new millennium, to stop destructive patters of research, and work toward a positive future for all children.” [Laduke, Winona, 29]

Fasting and Spirituality

In the Ojibwa nation, “‘religious education’ was the foundation to every successful activity of life.”[Copway, George, 20]

Every actor in the social life of the tribe, and especially those considered as “gifted” (hunter, fisherman, warrior, craftsman, etc), were encouraged to participate in spiritual activities such as meditation. The ultimate goal of this requirement was the spiritual awakening and elevation of the tribe members. The connection with the earth and the living world was crucial. The Ojibwa thought that development of the spirit and understanding of gods was vital in every activity: hunters will know where to hunt, fishermen where to find fish and warriors will be brave and victorious.

The Ojibwa developed different induction technique to reach an altered state of mind, leading to a more conscious understanding of the world and ultimately spiritual awakening. Among those techniques, dreams induced by fasting were widely used.

On the highest level of the hierarchy, even though the Ojibwa are sometimes believed to have none, the shamans incarnated the mastery of this technique.
Combined with the “power” of shamans, dreams could deliver important message about future events. But most importantly, it was a ritual for apprentice shaman to find and develop their abilities.

An Ojibwa shaman gave the following account of importance of fasting and dreams in his life:

“When I reached the age of puberty, my father wished me to fast, that I might become holy; invincible and invulnerable in war; become like one of those about whom tales are told in the future. Thus I would be if I made special effort in my fasting. I would be ‘blessed’ with long life, he told me; I would be able to cure the sick; life would not be able to harm me in any way. No one would dare to be uncivil to me for fear of incurring my enmity. He pleaded with me to fast long and intently, for only then would the various spirits ‘bless’ me.” [Copway, George, 7]

Shamanism was not ‘hereditary’ and rituals of initiation were needed even for a shaman’s son. However, the chances of acquiring the secular and spiritual power were correlated to the effort put into the practice of fasting, and shaman’s descendant had an edge.

Interestingly, spirituality was also an important part of a warrior’s life. During military preparations for war, the Chief would call one by one the warriors to the battlefield and ask them about the dreams they had the nights before. The warriors selected would be those who dreamed about victory or war scenes. Their “visions” provided them with bravery and psychological immunity (as well as physical) against the enemy.

The fasting method, because of its efficiency and active approach, was applied to all tribe members. Thus, “The summer season is the time of the children’s fasting.” [Copway, George, 149]

“The Indian youth from the age of ten to manhood are encouraged into fasting, with the promise that if they do they will entertain them in the evening by the relation of one of their tradition or tales.” [Copway, George, 87]

Besides fasting, meditation and isolation where also used as a mean to provoke lucid or revelatory dreams.
“Young women usually went through a ritual involving temporary isolation at the onset of menstruation.”[William S. Lyon, 40]

However they were both a passive method while fasting asked for a more active approach which explains why fasting was more widely used. The psychological conscious and intentional effort to fast increased the chance of ‘visions’.

Rituals also played an important role at crucial stages in the life of the individual as well as in society as a whole. Emergence into adulthood, often at the onset of puberty, was the most frequent occasion for the observation of these “rites of passages”.

“The vision quest for males in the hunting cultures of the North, such as the Massachusetts of New England or the Ojibwa of the Great Lakes, tended to be more dramatic. A boy would be conditioned over the years to expect to undertake the quest for a uniquely personal vision putting him into contact with supernatural world and thereby authenticating his entry into the adult world. After appropriate ritual preparation, the vision might be achieved after days spent in the wilderness with no food or water.” [William S. Lyon, 40]

Finally, physical pain was used to induce trance state. The idea was that the physiological constraint of prolonged severe pain would lead to a delirious/trance state where the mind would supersede the physical. “Intense pain brought about through suspension on ropes fastened to needles inserted into the flesh induced a trance state conductive to visionary experience.” [William S. Lyon, 42]

Religious Belief, Myths and Feasts

There is a predominant interaction between the environment and spirituality in the Ojibwa religious belief.

The Ojibwa nation believed in a “Good Spirit” and in a “Bad Spirit”. They also had more particular gods such as the god of war or the god of hunting, with Ke-che-mon-e-doo being the Ruler of all, the Great Spirit. The “benevolent spirit”, as they called it, is a loving god, abounding in mercy and kindness toward leaving creatures. Its opposite is the evil spirit Mahje-munedoo (Munedoo meaning spirit,bad or good). This munedoo possesses the power to injure people who offended him. Therefore, fearing not to please the spirit, the Ojibwa proceeded to a lot of sacrifices in his favor.

Gods were everywhere but essentially in the sky. Their presence in the forest, mountains or river was only temporary, as if they were just visiting. “The earth teemed with all sorts of spirits, good and bad; those of the forest clothed themselves with moss. During a shower of rain, thousands of them are sheltered in a flower.”[Copway, George, 149]

Furthermore, the sun, moon and stars were adored gods.
“Every morning, Chiefs sang to welcome the return of the rising sun.” [Copway, George, 149]
The Ojibwas consider the wolf, fox, toad and all venomous snakes as sacred animals. They are believed to have supernatural powers and are venerated.

Every phenomenon that sparked tribute member’s curiosity or astonishment were soon considered as supernatural and sometimes referred as a deity. Thus, the thunder is considered as the most powerful deity.

Tobacco or tobacco smoke is usually considered as an offer to the gods since they are known to like it.

Despite the numerous different gods, worship and invocations were only conducted when needed (before hunting for example).

Feasting is not periodical but still very important for both the religious aspect and the community. As there is no particular calendar for the different feasts, anyone could organize one. Despite the apparent randomness of the organization, the way the feast is conduct is much ritualized. All the guests sit on the ground, around the fire, and smoke silently while the food is prepared. The one who is organizing the feast is also sat, smoking, and dressed with its best attire. The cooked meat is then shared among the guests and one piece is thrown to the fire as an offer.

There are several kinds of feast: [William S. Lyon, 80]

-The Painted Pole feast or Sahsahgweijega which signifies: spreading out to view the desires of the supplicant.

-The Naming feast is organized when a child is given a name. During this feast, an offer of meat is throwm into the fire while an elder prays.

-Ooshkenetahgawin is the offering of the first animal. The animal offered has to be killed by a boy, cooked and, as always, a part is offered to the fire.

-Jeebanahkamin is the offering to the dead. A fire is lighted at the head of the grave and a portion of meat is burnt while tribute members pray.

-Uhnemoosh or the dog feast. For Ojibwas, the dog is considered as an ominous animal with great virtue therefore its sacrifice is a meritorious sacrifice. The dog is killed, hair singed off and cooked without breaking a bone. As always, after being divided between the guests a portion is thrown in the fire.


Myths are also a very important aspect of the religious/spiritual life of the Ojibwas.
There is an abundance of them, most of the time relating the powers of a great shaman or warrior, or simply embodying fundamental values and beliefs of the Ojibwas.

One of the most interesting myths is the one that led to the creation of dreamcatchers.
It is said that a long time ago, a spider called Asibikaashi was protecting the tribe’s kids by building its web above the place where they slept. Nightmares, negative thoughts and bad vibrations were caught in the web and destroyed by the rising sun in the morning. However, with years, the tribe grew in number and spread its territory. As the spider could not visit all the “wigwams” to give its protection, it asked the Ojibwa women to help her. They soon started to build a web of vegetal and animal fibers inside a wood circle.


In the Ojibwa society, shamans and shamanism occupied (and still occupy) a predominant place.
“The role of shaman and priest were merged together and the position required a great deal of codified esoteric knowledge.”[Johnson, Troy R., 189]

Besides the traditional medicine and healing abilities, the Ojibwa shaman could be seen as a multidimensional caretaker.
“Shoniagizik (a recognized great shaman) was a physician, obstetrician, pharmacologist, psychiatrist, homeopath, bonesetter and surgeon. He was a master of the healing arts, and the position carried both prestige and a certain authority.” [Johnson, Troy R., 189]

The development of a ‘Native pharmacopeia’ led to the use of different plants and mixtures as medicine to stop bleeding, reduce fever or ease colic.

The power of the shaman had various uses, from healing to ‘love potion’.
“Among the Ojibwa of North Minnesota, a love medicine consisted of some powder made of herbs noted for this power, mixed with quicksilver. Frequently, the woman wore a lock of her beloved’s hair and made cuts or figurine representing the man she wished to attract. Even today at Red lake the young women wear these charms to attract the other sex. Medicine was sometimes injected into the heart of a figurine… Round and queer-shaped stones were also carried for love charms.”[William S. Lyon, 168]

While the invocation of the assigned god was necessary before any social activity such as hunting, the benediction of the shaman was also an essential point in the preparation.
“Among the Bungi (plains Ojibwa) the elder would sit up all night singing to rattle accompaniment and in the morning, four would be sent out. Each would infallibly be successful.” [William S. Lyon, 112]

In addition to their abilities to help others, shamans were also believed to have supernatural power such as immunity to fire.
“Around 1796 the fire-handling abilities of the Menomini and Ojibwa shamans were incorporated into a religious revitalization movement known as the Wabeno complex, and by the early 1800’s the term wabeno was being used for these shamans. In 1896, Hoffman reported that the wabeno was able “to take up and handle with impunity red-hot stones and burning brands, and without evincing the slightest discomfort it is said that he will bathe his hands in boiling water, or even in boiling syrup.” [William S. Lyon, 80]

However, “as incredible as it may seem, these early anthropologists actually believed that the wabeno simply used a plant which he rubbed on his skin, to make him impervious to fire.” [William S. Lyon, 80]

Work Cited Page

-Copway, George The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation
New York : AMS Press, 1978.

-Johnson, Troy R. Distinguished Native American spiritual practitioners and healers
Westport, Connecticut: Oryx Press, 2002.

-William S. Lyon. Encyclopedia of Native American shamanism : sacred ceremonies of North America
Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

-Schmalz, Peter S. The Ojibwa of southern Ontario
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

-Wilcox, Lauren. “Going with the grain”
Smithsonian Sep2007, Vol. 38 Issue 6, p94-96, 2007.

-LaDuke, Winona. “The Political Economy of Wild Rice”
Multinational Monitor Apr2004, Vol. 25 Issue 4, p27-29, 2004.

- Helen Hornbeck Tanner. The Ojibwas : a critical bibliography
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1976.

- G.L. Piggott and A. Grafstein. An Ojibwa lexicon
Ottawa : National Museums of Canada, 1983.