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Ojibway Magic & Hunting Traditions

Updated on January 3, 2016

Chippewa Customs - Frances Densmore


What Was Lost

Michigan is a unique state made of two peninsulas covering 58,000 square miles. Great lakes border on three sides. The Indians named her “Michi-ghami” meaning “Great Lake” and the official word “Michigan” was used in 1805. The first Michiganians were Indians. These Native Americans roamed in clans for 13,000 years, hunting and gathering to live. After surviving the trapping and trade wars between the French and English, disease and Christian colonization, the Ojibway nation, a unit of the People of The Three Fires, underwent a great transformation.

By the 18th century most tribal members ceased to give from mutual obligation to insure their lines. They began trading for innovative goods brought by foreign traders. This new concept altered their world view. An item now had worth other than reciprocity. Subsistence no longer depended upon spiritual or magical forces, but on the money belts that hung from the hips of unscrupulous traders. Before the onset of capitalism, clans of Ojibway people relied on magic and reciprocity as they hunted and gathered to survive.

The Ojibway were a people of oral tradition. Stories were handed down for many generations and was considered a dignified matter. The structure of the stories were entertaining and contained the accepted standards of behavior for survival. Magical elements were often included reflecting their cosmology. For example, stories instructed about the use herbs as “hunting charms”. The powdered roots of Aster novae-anglia and Arctostaphylos (uva-ursi) and the fine root tendril of Aster puniceus should be smoked in a pipe with tobacco and red willow. Some hunters said the smoke resembled deers hoof and was very penetrating. Not only did the aroma attract deer it was an offering to Kichi Manido in thanksgiving for a kill. Other stories shared the anxiety a hunter might have if he hadn’t fed his family in a long time. He was instructed to have his family fast while he was gone and to paint their faces black until he returned to insure a kill.

Ceremonial, magical blessings and offerings were given by women during garden planting, wild rice and herb gathering, foraging and sugar bush season as well. Offering of first fruits began with the season of making maple sugar and lasted throughout the industrial year. A feast was given and the first fruits were placed on the graves of loved ones. Other families had a generational ceremonial kettle they boiled the foods in letting the steam carry thanksgiving to the proper Mide spirit. Kinnikinnik (an adulterated blend of tobacco and sumac leaves or bearberry) was usually smoked to incur support of the hunt or gather. The gathering of medicinal herbs was supported by magic as well.

The Djasakid or juggler as he was known, was the tribal psychologist and often conjured by swallowing and regurgitating short sections of bone. He was master of the magical “Shaking Tent Ceremony” in which he requested the sick person’s soul to return to the body. Pharmacopeia was individual to each healer. A magical plant might work in one way for one person and yet another way for someone else. Charms were made from herbs as antidotes for bad medicine or to attract a mate.

Reciprocity , or the mutual relationship of dependence and exchange, so reverently practiced by the Ojibway, was lost with the introduction of capitalism during the mid 1600’s. Clan life surrounded sharing resources without exchange. A complete downward flow of food and tools was practiced. People who were more adept at certain skills shared equally with those who were not. Elders were cared for. Ceremonies surrounded rites of passage, all had magic and responsibilities. The white trader’s introduction of the metal sewing needle replaced the need to gather barbs from the thorn apple tree. The convenience of the tool saved time but cost an animal pelt. The Ojibway were not accustomed to spending time hunting to trade pelts. The pelt was clothing and took enough time to gather as it was. More time was spent hunting for exchange with traders for new goods and rum. Divisions of labor within the tribe changed as women, children and the elderly began hunting as well as gathering. Family life and values deteriorated as a result with reliance upon unscrupulous traders who lined their money belts with the loss of innocence.  

The use of alcohol provided by post traders was the final straw in the decline of family values. Hunters worked less, violence erupted in family clans and prime hunters met early deaths. Broken and partially assimilated to Christianity, families came out of the forests to live quietly on mission reserves. Reciprocity declined even more as the US government taught social welfare.

The Ojibway were a hunting and gather society located along the great lake shorelines of Michigan. They practiced a social/spiritual way of life which was lost as a result of capitalism.

By the early 18th century the culture had undergone a great transformation. Men ceased to hunt to meet immediate needs. No longer did they give from mutual obligation to insure their lines. The innovative goods they traded for altered their world view. An item now had worth other than reciprocity. They abandoned and soon forgot how to make traditional tools. Alcoholism, family dysfunction and disease spread wildly. Forts, farms, schools, missions, roads and new people covered Michigan, intermingling and diluting tribal influences. The wondrous magical ways of the Ojibway has been lost, fracturing and disabling an incredible section of the human race.

Excerpt from: WHAT WAS LOST – She Bear Publishing 1998 – JoAnna Varney-Kondrat

Bibliography available upon request

Video clips produced by MEOW Productions - JoAnna Varney-Kondrat

Una Tierra Madre


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