Introduction to Anishinabe Culture and History/The Anishinabe and the Land
This chapter is an overview of the Anishinabe's relationship with the land where they lived.
The land and the seasons
The traditional homelands of the Anishinabe, the western half of the Great Lakes region, are heavily wooded and have a short growing season, long winters and poor soil, unsuited to large-scale agriculture. The Anishinabe therefore were hunter-gatherers who lived in harmony with the seasons and their land as a necessity. To have not done so would have meant starvation and death.
Southeastern Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the primary territories of the Anishinabe by the late 17th century, are heavily wooded both with deciduous and coniferous trees. Lakes, rivers and fresh water are abundant, as is game, berries and other wild edibles. However, the winters can be bitterly cold and long and snow drifts and falls to heights of over ten feet in record years. Thus, the Anishinabe had to be careful not to overharvest and to preserve enough food to survive the winter.
In the spring, it was maple-tapping time; time to gather the sap that would be turned into maple sugar as a seasoning and preservative for other foods. In summer, huge groups of up to four hundred (though smaller gatherings of one to two hundred were far more common) gathered around the myriad lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the nearby regions of Canada in areas where resources were known to be plentiful. Fall was ricing time, wild rice being one of the primary sources of food for the Anishinabe. In the winter, it became necessary to break up into much small groups, usually twenty to twenty-five members of an extended family, for a time of rest, storytelling and crafts when there was little else one could do in the cold.
Maple sugar and wild rice: two food staples of the Anishinabe
Between February and April, or the Anishinabe moon of Izhkigamisegi Geezis (Boiling Time), was the month of maple sugaring, an important ritual in the Anishinabe year that was celebrated more like a festival than work. Because of the climate of the area at that time of the year, balmy thawing days and freezing nights, the sap begins to flow freely in the maple trees, making collection much easier than at any other time of year. Traditionally, the signal for sugaring season to begin was the cry of the crow, signifying that another winter had passed and that the move to the sugaring camp could begin.
The first step was the construction of the camp. The traditional wigwam consisted of a sturdy frame built of bent green saplings lashed together with basswood fibers or another durable material, covered with strips of waterproof birchbark to keep out snowmelt and cold. There was an opening on the roof of the dwelling, to allow smoke to escape, and also a small door. The frames were left during the months between sugaring time, so that entire camps could be constructed in a day, in the same location year after year, by simply re-weaving the birchbark through the saplings.
In addition, there was often a food cache located near the camp, full of food that had been stored in the fall. Though some supplementary fishing and gathering was necessary, usually done by the younger girls and boys, the focus was clearly on harvesting as much sap as possible to last through the year. Salt was rarely used by the Anishinabe, and so maple sugar was often the only available seasoning. Due to the fact that it takes between 30 and 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, which then must be boiled down further to yield a scant 3 quarts of sugar, everybody was kept busy running back and forth gathering pails from the trees.
They would take the canoes to shallow water where the rice grew, and harvested the rice by bending the stalks over the canoes and knocking off the rice.