Introduction to Anishinabe Culture and History/A Brief History

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This chapter is a brief overview of the history of the Anishinabe tribe and their traditional homelands.

Creation and migration[edit | edit source]

"Anishinabe" is often translated as "first man," "original man," or "good person". (The plural, Anishinabeg or Anishinaabeg, means "first people".) In the Anishinabe creation myth, Git-chi'e Man-i-to', "Creator" or "Great Mystery", lowered the original man down from the heavens as the ancestor of all North American tribes. There are many interesting parallels between Anishinabe mythology and the bible, including the naming of all the creatures of the earth by an Adam figure and a great flood.

According to oral tradition, the Anishinabe originally lived near an ocean, a belief also held by the Ottawa and Potawatomi. Because of this shared heritage, the three tribes are collectively known as the Three Fires. It is unclear whether this was the Atlantic near the gulf of the St. Lawrence or the shores of the Hudson Bay, but the latter is considered more plausible by most. Less disputed is the Anishinabe's migration west to Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands.

In the United States[edit | edit source]

The 17th and 18th centuries[edit | edit source]

The first probable encounter between the Anishinabe and the Europeans occurred sometime in the 17th century. This first contact was probably with the Jesuits. Further contact ensued with the French Voyageurs (fur traders and explorers), then British fur traders and explorers, and finally the U.S. government and her citizens.

Trading the rich resources of their lands to the Europeans, especially beaver pelts for goods such as firearms, ignited a fierce competition and arms race between tribes that would end in war. With the help of the firearms the Anishinabe pushed the Fox tribe south into Wisconsin; fighting with the Dakota and Winnebago (Sioux) was especially brutal but the Anishinabe eventually succeeded in forcing them to the southwest and claiming the resource-abundant northeast of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan for their own.

There were also several European epidemics during this time, notably smallpox. The Anishinabe tribes escaped relatively unscathed compared to their counterparts to the east.

The 19th century[edit | edit source]

Anishinabe distribution around 1800

The Anishinabe were truly a superpower among the native peoples of the Great Lakes and possibly even out of all the tribes east of the Mississippi. Their division between America and Canada, the many names attributed to their tribe (Ojibwe, Chippewa, Mississauga, Bungi and Saulteaux as well as dozens of variant spellings) and their location to the north of the main flow of settlement masked much of their true size and influence. The Anishinabe have also signed over fifty treaties with American and European governments, more than any other tribe in North America.

The Anishinabe fought their last battle against the Americans and Europeans in the early 19th century; most inter-tribal warfare had also ceased by this time. However, the battles between the Anishinabe and Dakota continued for half a century. The first half of the 19th century signaled the exchange of tribal lands for reservations, notably the Ohio territories of the Anishinabe and other tribes after particularly bloody fighting during the War of 1812. These disputes over lands and reservations fueled the fighting with the Dakota, which slowed after the Dakota were moved to reservations in the far southwest of Minnesota, and only ceased entirely when they were driven out of the state entirely by the Americans during the Minnesota Valley Uprising in 1862.

By the mid-19th century the Anishinabe had split off into five geographical and cultural groups: the Southeastern Anishinabe, living on the shores of Lake Huron in what is now Michigan and southern Ontario; the Southwestern Anishinabe, along both the northern and southern shores of Lake Superior; the Northern Anishinabe, in northern Ontario; and the Plains Anishinabe (also known as the Bungi), spread across North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Bungi culture resembled that of many other plains tribes, with their reliance on buffalo for food and clothing as well as their horses and tipis.

In the late 19th century there was some haggling over the size and location of Anishinabe reservations; at one point when the desire for the copper and timber surrounding Lake Superior was particularly strong there was talk of moving the Minnesota Anishinabe to reservations in Kansas. However, this order was rescinded by Millard Filmore in 1853. Twelve years and nine treaties later, Anishinabe reservations were finally settled in Minnesota.

The Plains Anishinabe, however, were not so lucky. During one of their frequent excursions from the reservation for a buffalo hunt, a group of almost 5000 Anishinabe and Metis were cut off from their Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota when the government decided that the reservation was too large for the amount of Anishinabe that lived there and parceled off 90% of the land for sale to Americans. The government offered 10 cents an acre (the settlement was later known as the Ten Cent Treaty) as compensation, and most Anishinabe took the money and kept their homes on the now-overcrowded reservation. However, Little Shell's band refused the settlement and currently remains without federal recognition or a reservation.

For a list of Anishinabe bands and reservations that exist today, please see Appendix 1.

In Canada[edit | edit source]

The Canadian Anishinabe are usually referred to as Saulteurs, Saulteaux or Mississaugas. Canada currently recognizes over 100 Anishinabe and part-Anishinabe bands, located in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Epidemics of smallpox and other diseases were especially devastating to the Canadian tribes in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the Anishinabe escaped relatively unscathed compared to many Algonquian tribes to the east. In Canada as in the United States the Anishinabe were moved to reservations (known as reserves) by the mid-19th century. However, the Anishinabe in Canada seem to have survived the onslaught of the Europeans better than their American counterparts, holding on to more of the culture and language and maintaining smaller, more tightly-knit reserves.

Discussion questions[edit | edit source]

  1. What is your opinion on the creation and migration myths of the Anishinabe, Ottawa and Potawatomi and their similarities to other myths found throughout the world? Do you believe that this shared mythology between cultures adds or detracts from their credibility as a theory for how the world began?
  2. Do you believe that contact with the Europeans caused the massive tribal warfare of the 17th and 18th centuries or simply worsened it? Or would the wars have occurred that way no matter what? Do you believe that an arms race was inevitable when trade with the Europeans began, or could it have been avoided by more ethical trading practices?
  3. What makes a tribe? Is it culture or common heritage? In the end, what distinguished the Bungi (Plains Anishinabe) from their enemies, the Dakota, whose culture they seemed to adopt?
  4. How do you feel about the American government's management of tribal lands and affairs? Do you believe that the Anishinabe were treated more fairly than other tribes? If so, why do you think this favoritism occurred?

Further reading and references[edit | edit source]