The Ojibwe People: History and Culture

Engraving depicts an Ojibwe (Chippewa) camp on the bank of a river, circa 1800s. The tribe members use birchbark to repair their damaged canoe.
Engraving depicts an Ojibwe (Chippewa) camp on the bank of a river, circa 1800s. The tribe members use birchbark to repair their damaged canoe.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Ojibwe people, also known as Anishinaabeg or Chippewa, are among the most populous indigenous tribes in North America. They used a combination of thoughtful adaptation and factioning to stave off the incursions of Europeans. Today, the Ojibwe reside in more than 150 federally recognized communities in Canada and the United States.  

Fast Facts: Ojibwe People

  • Alternate Spellings: Ojibwa, Chippewa, Achipoes, Chepeway, Chippeway, Ochipoy, Odjibwa, Ojibweg, Ojibwey, Ojibwa, and Otchipwe
  • Known For: Their ability for survival and expansion
  • Location: More than 130 federally recognized Ojibwe communities in Canada, and 22 in the United States
  • Language: Anishinaabem (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa)
  • Religious Beliefs: Traditional Midewiwin, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian
  • Current Status: Over 200,000 members

The Story of the Ojibwe (Chippewa Indians)

The Anishinaabeg (singular Anishinaabe) is the umbrella name for the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi nations. The names "Ojibwe" and "Chippewa" are essentially different spellings of the same word, "otchipwa," which means "to pucker," a likely reference to the distinctive puckered seam on an Ojibwa moccasin. 

According to tradition, which is supported by linguistic and archaeological studies, the ancestors of the Anishinaabeg migrated from the Atlantic Ocean, or perhaps Hudson Bay, following the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Straits of Mackinac, arriving there about 1400. They continued expanding west, south, and northward, and first met French fur traders in 1623, in what would become the eastern half of the upper peninsula of Michigan.  

An Ojibwa couple in front of their wickiup.
An Ojibwa couple in front of their wickiup. CORBIS/Corbis / Getty Images

The Ojibwe primary prehistoric mode of existence was based on hunting and fishing, harvesting wild rice, living in small communities of wigwams (their traditional dwellings), and traveling inland waterways in birchbark canoes. The nucleus of the Ojibwe world was the island of Michilimackinac ("the great turtle"), famous for pike, sturgeon, and whitefish. 

Ojibwe History

In the 16th century, the Anishinaabeg split from the Potawatomi and the Odawa, settling at Boweting, Gichigamiing, near what would become Sault Ste. Marie on Lake Superior. By the early 17th century, the Ojibwe divided again, some going towards "La Pointe" on Madeline Island on Wisconsin's Chequamegon Bay. 

During the fur trade period of the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Ojibwe allied with the Dakota, agreeing that the Ojibwe would provide the Dakota with trade goods, and the Ojibwe could live west towards the Mississippi River. The peace lasted for 57 years, but between 1736 and 1760, an intense territorial conflict led to a war between the two, which persisted in some form until the mid-19th century.

From Lake Superior, the Ojibwe people spread north of Lake Ontario, around Lake Huron, and north of Lake Michigan. They settled all sides of Lake Superior and lived near the headwaters of the Misi-ziibii, today spelled Mississippi. 

Missionaries 

After the fur traders, the first Europeans who held sustained contact with the Ojibwe people were missionaries who arrived in Minnesota in 1832. They were Calvinist New Englanders who were associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). The Ojibwe welcomed them into their communities, seeing them as agents of alliance with the Europeans, while the ABCFM saw their role as straight-up converting the people to Christianity. The misunderstanding was definitely a mixed blessing, but it did supply the Ojibwe with information about European plans and lifestyles, even if it led to some internal discord. 

By the mid-19th century, the Ojibwe had become alarmed at the decline of both game and fur-bearing animals in their country and correctly identified that decline as resulting from the growing number of Euro-Americans. Particularly damaging were those commercial interests that built roads and homesteads and began logging activities.

Some Ojibwe responded by increasing their reliance on agriculture, especially wild rice, and the technology, tools, and equipment of the foreigners were considered to be useful for promoting that. Others had no interest at all in U.S. farming technology. Among the Ojibwe, sharp factions arose, likely derived from earlier factions of those who supported a war against the Europeans and those who favored conciliation. The new factions were those who chose selective accommodation and those who held out for military resistance. To ameliorate the situation, the Ojibwe cleaved again. 

Reservation Era 

The end result of about 50 different treaties with the new Americans, the allotment of U.S. reservation lands began in the late 1870s and 1880s. In the U.S., there would be eventually 22 different reservations, and the rules required the Ojibwe to clear the land of trees and farm it. Subtle but persistent cultural resistance allowed the Ojibwe to continue their traditional activities, but hunting and fishing off-reservation became more difficult with increased sport fishermen and hunters, and competition for game from commercial sources. 

To survive, the Ojibwe people leveraged their traditional food sources—roots, nuts, berries, maple sugar, and wild rice—and sold the surplus to local communities. By the 1890s, the Indian Service pressed for more logging on Ojibwe lands, but multiple fires fueled by downed timber on and off the reservation ended that in 1904. The burned-over areas, however, resulted in an increase in berry crops. 

Ojibwe Traditions

The Ojibwe have a strong history of negotiation and political alliances, as well as the ability to cleave communities when necessary to resolve disputes but without bad effect—the cleaved communities remained in contact. U.S. ethnographer Nancy Oestreich Lurie has argued that this ability led to their success in the maelstrom of Euro-American colonization. The Ojibwe culture has a strong dichotomy of leadership, with an emphasis on separate military and civil leaders; and a keen agility for alliance and negotiation.

The Mishibizhiw or Great Lynx is pictured along with canoes and snakes, a 17th-18th century panel at the Agawa Rock Pictographs, Lake Superior Provincial Park, in Ontario, Canada.
The Mishibizhiw or Great Lynx is pictured along with canoes and snakes, a 17th-18th century panel at the Agawa Rock Pictographs, Lake Superior Provincial Park, in Ontario, Canada. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ojibwe historical and spiritual beliefs were passed down to succeeding generations by teaching, birch bark scrolls and rock art pictographs. 

Ojibwe Religion 

The traditional Ojibwe religion, Midewiwin, sets down a path of life to follow (mino-bimaadizi). That path honors promises and elders, and values behaving moderately and in coherence with the natural world. Midewiwin is closely tied to indigenous medicine and healing practices based on an extensive understanding of the ethnobotany of the regions the Ojibwa reside in, as well as songs, dances, and ceremonies. 

The Anishinaabeg reckon that humans are comprised of a physical body and two distinct souls. One is the seat of intelligence and experience (jiibay), which leaves the body when asleep or in trance; the other is seated in the heart (ojichaag), where it remains until freed at death. The human life cycle and old age are considered pathways to a world of profound relationality. 

Many Ojibwe today practice Catholic or Episcopal Christianity, but continue to keep the spiritual and healing components of the old traditions. 

Ojibwe Language

The language spoken by the Ojibwe is called Anishinaabem or Ojibwemowin, as well as the Chippewa or Ojibwe language. An Algonquian language, Anishinaabem is not a single language, but rather a chain of linked local varieties, with nearly a dozen different dialects. There are about 5,000 speakers across Canada and the United States; the most endangered dialect is southwestern Ojibwe, with between 500–700 speakers. 

Documentation of the language began in the mid-19th century, and today Ojibwe is taught in schools and private homes, assisted by simulated-immersion experience software (Ojibwemodaa!). The University of Minnesota maintains the Ojibwe People's Dictionary, a searchable, talking Ojibwe-English dictionary that features the voices of Ojibwe people. 

Ojibwe Tribe Today

The Ojibwe people are among the largest population of indigenous people in North America, with over 200,000 individuals living in Canada—primarily in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan—and the United States, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. The Canadian government recognizes more than 130 Chippewa First Nations, and the U.S. recognizes 22. The Ojibwe people today reside on small reservations or in small towns or urban centers. 

Each of the new communities created during their long history in the Great Lakes region is autonomous, and each has its own history, government, and flag, as well as a sense of place that cannot be easily distilled. 

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