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December 23, 2019 3 min read

The Ojibwe are one of the most numerous indigenous peoples north of the Rio Grande. They are also known as Chippewa, but this is an anglicisation. Chippewa is more commonly used in United States and Ojibwe in Canada.


The Song of Hiawatha is an 1855 epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow relating the fictional adventures of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. It is set in the Pictured Rocks area on the south shore of Lake Superior. The poem is based on oral traditions surrounding the figure of Nanabozho. Nanabozho is a spirit that figures prominently in the Ojibwe’s storytelling, including the story of the world's creation. He is both a shape-shifting trickster figure and cultural hero, which is a common feature in First Nation beliefs. Longfellow drew some of his material from his friendship with Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh, who would visit him at his home. Longfellow also had frequent encounters with Black Hawk and other Ojibwe people on Boston Common.


According to both Ojibwe oral history and birch bark scrolls, they originated from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River on the Atlantic coast. They were traders who travelled widely across the continent for thousands of years. Seven great miigis (radiant/iridescent beings) appeared to them in the Land of the Dawn, to teach them the secret mide way of life of the Grand Medicine Society. One of the miigis was so spiritually powerful that the people died in its presence, so it returned to the Ocean. The remaining six remained to teach and establish five clans, with individual doodem (totems), symbolized by animals. They were the Wawaazisii (Bullhead), Baswenaazhi (Crane), Aan'aawenh (Pintail Duck), Nooke (Bear) and Moozoonsii (Little Moose). A totem is a symbol of a tutelary spirit or deity that protects a tribe. Although totem is derived from the Ojibwe language, similar beliefs are common to many cultures worldwide. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages. Neopagans have been known to use "totem" terminology, but this is seen as cultural misappropriation. After teaching and establishing the five clans, the six remaining miigis also returned to the ocean.


One day, one of the miigis appeared in a vision. It prophesised that if they did not move further west, they would lose their traditional ways due to the arrival of many new pale-skinned settlers in the east. They gradually migrated west along the Saint Lawrence River to the Ottawa River to Lake Nipissing, and then to the Great Lakes. Their territory eventually spanned from Western Quebec to British Columbia in Canada to the northern Mid-West United States. In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population and in the United States, they have the fifth-largest population among Native American peoples.


Historically, the Ojibwe had good relationships with French settlers, who were the first Europeans to contact and trade with them. Later British settlers provided them with guns and worked together to subdue their enemies, like the Lakota and Fox tribes. "Peace and Friendship Treaties" were made to establish community bonds and territory between the Ojibwe and European settlers. The Ojibwe did not understand the land cession terms in the same way because of the cultural differences in understanding the uses of land. Whilst the US and Canada considered land a commodity of value that could be freely bought, owned and sold, the Ojibwe viewed it as a fully shared resource, along with air, water and sunlight. Consequently, even in modern times, legal arguments in treaty-rights and treaty interpretations bring to light the differences in cultural understanding.


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