Anishinabe, Saulteur, Ojibwe, Chippewa -- all names of a people who have lived in the Chippewa Valley for the past three centuries. Anishinabe, "original or spontaneous people," is what they called themselves during their 500-year migration from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Lake Superior. French explorers and fur traders labelled them Saulteur, or "people of the rapids," because they first encountered them near the rapids of the St. Mary' s River between Upper Michigan and Ontario.
Ojibwe, meaning "to roast until puckered," refers to their distinctive style of moccasins. This was the name commonly used by their long-time enemies, the Eastern Dakota or Sioux. The English and Americans corrupted the word Ojibwe to Chippewa. Since Chippewa was the name written on 19th-century treaties with the United States, it is the name that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has used since that time. People at Lac Court Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau, the two reservations in the Chippewa Valley, today most often refer to themselves as Ojibwe.
Ojibwe oral tradition speaks of
life as a circular path, with parents passing on knowledge to children
and grandchildren. Over the past 300 years, contact with Europeans and
settlement by Americans have forced them to adapt in order to survive.
The challenges each generation has faced-whether at treaty grounds,
boarding schools, or boat landings-have influenced what knowledge has
been passed down, what paths taken.
The Ojibwe pursued a hunting and gathering economy which required them to travel seasonally over a large territory as various resources became available. They adapted their way of life to suit the demands and limitations of their environment. Oral tradition and spiritual practices reinforced and promoted those behaviors which maintained good relations with the manitos (spirits) of the plants and animals upon which the Ojibwe depended for their survival. Material wealth did not enhance the status of an individual in society. Instead, courage, skill, and reverence for the manitos enabled a person to win respect, and enjoy bimaadiziwin (a good way of life).
Within this world view,
individuals in Ojibwe society exercised diversity of opinion, honing
those skills which allowed them to complete daily tasks efficiently, or
overcome common problems. Their lives were not idyllic, nor their
culture static. Indeed, by the time the Ojibwe arrived in the Chippewa
Valley, they were already actively trading with the French and English,
acquiring European implements which would dramatically alter their way
The military strength of the United States grew in the 19th century, along with its booming citizenry. The U.S. population, boosted by European immigration, nearly doubled from 1840-1860, and by 1900 soared to more than 74 million. Persistent demands by settlers for land and resources gradually compelled the federal government to acquire lands in "Indian country," often by force. Many tribes in the eastern United States suffered great hardships as they were relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi. However, by the 1850s, even these lands were being sought after by westward-moving settlers and capitalists.
By the end ofthe century, white Americans, pursuing "manifest destiny," ruled lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific, completely surrounding what remained of "Indian country." American Indians came to be treated, at best, with paternalism. Concerned citizens called for policies that would extend the blessings of American "civilization" to the "unfortunate" Indian peoples. Others, not so well-intended, maneuvered for access to remaining Indian lands. Together, they comprised an assault on American Indians, threatening to eradicate their cultures and, in some cases, the people themselves.
During this period, the Ojibwe
managed to remain in the Chippewa Valley, yet they saw their land base
drastically reduced, and their way of life severely impaired. By the
1920s, Ojibwe children could hardly expect to enjoy the life led by
their grandparents. Indeed, many could scarcely imagine it.
The Ojibwe have struggled to preserve elements of their culture for their children and grandchildren, yet the past 300 years have had an impact. Living in the modern world, they choose the paths that allow them to compete in a society dominated by non-Indians, while retaining those aspects of Ojibwe culture that are important to them.
For many it is a balancing act. The boundaries of the reservation often represent a home, and tribal membership, an extended family. The land and their historical relationship to it exist as powerful reinforcers of Ojibwe culture and heritage.
However, many find it necessary to live off the reservation. In cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Eau Claire, they find wider educational and employment opportunities, yet fewer avenues for cultural expression. The dilemma remains: how to provide for the family's physical well-being, while also nourishing their identity as Ojibwe people.
. . . we are unique in as much as that we are a nationality of people, a race of people, that have been separated from the mainstream of life. Our values are different than other towns and cities. The way we do things are much different than other towns and cities. And we have a unique history. We have been stereotyped and made novelties of by the mainstream of society, to the extent that we continue to be aware of that and we feel different about ourselves.
Court Oreilles elder
Personal Interview, June 1992