Revitalizing Native Cultures
Mark Anthony Rolo returns to his Ojibwe homeMark Anthony Rolo returns to his Ojibwe home

Ojibwe Language & Culture

Ojibwe is actually only one of three names the tribe is known as. "Chippewa" is another and is actually an anglicized version of Ojibwe. The third word is "Anishinabe" which comes from the tribe's own language. In the U.S. there are about 150,000 who identify themselves as Ojibwe and there are another 75,000 in Canada. Some sources say the combined populations make them the third largest tribal group north of Mexico.

Before first contact with the Europeans the Ojibwe migrated from the east coast to the Great Lakes area. Archeological evidence shows that they continued to use miigis shells for their ceremonies. Since the shells are only found on the east coast, there had to have been a vast trading network of Native Americans across the continent. The Ojibwe also used copper that had to be imported from the Hopewell cultural area around present day Ohio.

Their traditional lands stretched from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains. But beginning as early as 1781, the tribe was forced to cede millions of square miles to the governments of England, Canada and the U.S. in exchange for "guaranteed" reservations and some material goods. Today, there are reservations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Canadian provinces stretching from western Québec to eastern British Columbia.

The tribe is organized into five original clans with at least 21 sub-clans. Like other Algonquian groups, Ojibwe clans are self-governing groups as well as a way of dividing labor. For instance, the Wawaazisii (Bullhead) clan traditionally would be charged with teaching and healing tasks. The Moozwaanowe (Little Moose-tail) clan would be expected to scout, hunt and gather food. The Nooke (Bear) clan would be charged with defense and healing.

Once they settled in the Great Lakes area, they built permanent wigwam dwellings and became accomplished fishermen, hunters, and farmers, growing maize and squash. They made maple sugar and developed medicines from wild plants. They also harvested wild rice that they found along the shores of the lakes in the area. They would row out in birch bark canoes, bend the rice over the canoe and beat the grain, collecting it in the boat's hull — a practice that continues today for commercial sale.

Birch bark was also used as scrolls on which the Ojibwe recorded their religious beliefs and ceremonies using a pictorial writing system. With that long linguistic tradition, perhaps it's no accident that some of today's best Native American writers are Ojibwe, including Louise Erdich, Winona LaDuke and Mark Anthony Rolo.

Yet, the Ojibwe language is threatened, at least in the U.S. The 2000 Census found that less than 9 percent of Ojibwe Indians speak the language in the home. Over 90 percent speak only English at home.

In response, several Ojibwe groups are using new casino revenues and other tribal funds to sponsor Ojibwe language programs. For instance, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe developed a language immersion program for pre-school and elementary students that features not just one teacher but two so that the students can hear native speakers in real conversations. Tribal members in non-tribal public schools can take high school Ojibwe language courses through interactive television connections.

As with many tribes, casino gaming has changed Ojibwe landscape and life. In 1985, unemployment rates in the tribe's communities approached third-world conditions. Jobless rates ranged from a high of 82 percent at White Earth to a low of 41 percent at Fond du Lac. For the rest of the country in 1985, the unemployment rate was around 7 percent.

Then, in 1988, Congress passed the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act. Now, at least 16 Ojibwe groups have casinos, out of about 50 Ojibwe communities in the U.S. Several have built more than one. Some of the communities boast full employment and all have created new social programs with the revenue.

Despite so many changes and the challenges to the language, many Ojibwe still take part in traditional ceremonies like the sun dance and sweat lodge. Many still harvest the wild rice, pick berries, hunt, and make maple sugar.

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