Ties that Bind: Societal Transformation in the Face of Relocation

The Ojibwa, a culturally heterogeneous people which called themselves Anishnabe, were historically, not a single tribe in the political sense but rather organized into a number of bands (or sub-tribes) who shared the same language and culture, yet their customs however also varied from one band to another.

These bands were divided into permanent clans, which originally were subdivided into five groups from which more than twenty clans developed. Of these, a clan would claim hereditary chieftainship of the tribe while another claims precedence in the council of war.

The family played an important role in their society, as clans were simply clusters of related families claiming a common ancestor. The division of labor was well established – men hunted and gathered food, and built weapons and other tools while women carried water, cooked food meals, wove cloth, fashioned pottery and tended the home, though either or both sexes could farm the land, prepare animal skins etc.

Though the family or the extended unit of the clan for that matter, had a strong influence on the broader social structures of Ojibwa community life, societal functions which tend to promote the good of the community generally determined the roles individuals were expected to play.

Caring for and educating children were a clan affair, the children learning by example the tribe’s cultural values, e.g. strength of character, wisdom and endurance, and through oral traditions and the telling of stories, and participation in religious ceremonies.

The Ojibwa of Grassy Narrows were devastated by changes to their community upon contact with modern industrial society. The Ojibwa encounter with modernization ultimately destroyed their traditional way of life, painfully emphasized by the poisoning of their river-lake system, which had tied them to the land through their primary activities of hunting, trapping, fishing, and subsistence agriculture.

Granted access to unemployment benefits, alcohol and other previously unavailable influences rendered the Ojibwa vulnerable to the manipulation and exploitation of others.

Traditional Ojibwa culture was heavily influenced by the natural terrain of their habitat – they had adapted their semi-nomadic way of life to a heavily forested land with an extensive network of lakes and rivers. Primarily a hunting-and-fishing society, they would travel through the lakes and river systems in light canoes.

Other economic activities include gathering wild fruits and seeds, as well as some farming, and the making of sugar from maple syrup. As with most Native Americans, their housing consisted of wigwams made with pole frames, and typically covered with birch bark. Their clothing was made largely from animal hides such as tanned deerskin and woven nettle fibers.

In terms of religious belief, Ojibwa mythology appears to be elaborate. Aside from general belief in the Great Spirit, their chief religious rites centered on the Grand Medicine Society (Medewiwin), composed of practitioners skilled in healing. Traditionally, the Ojibwa view essential matters relating to health, their subsistence, social organization and tribe leadership, from a religious perspective.

The central rite of the Medewiwin – the killing and reviving of initiates through the use of sacred seashells and medicine bags, recreated the necessity of death for the continuation and strengthening of life, as in the Creation Myth. It also carried on the hunting concern and imagery of traditional Ojibwa, going beyond mere imagery into hunting medicine to help them and their neighbors find game.

Medewinin ceremonies also incorporated ritual components of traditional Ojibwa cult – tobacco offerings, dog sacrifices, ceremonial sweat baths, feasting and dancing in communion with objects of their religion, the performance of ceremonies for the help and blessing of the spirits.

Familial relationships, as well as those in the community, were fostered on a mystical reverence for nature reinforced by myth and ritual. The breakdown of these relationships and the disruption and ensuing disharmony among the community resulted in serious problems for the Ojibwa, which due to its foreign nature they did not seem competent of handling.

It is important to note that the Ojibwa are participants in complex, multi-cultural societies with the preponderance of minority-majority relationships and interaction in the social milieu to which they function. Consequently, the issues they face, particularly environmental degradation and the failure of adequate and proper government support, also concern non-Native Americans.

The community of Grassy Narrows, an Ojibwa First Nation located 80 km south of Kenora in northwestern Ontario, was forcibly relocated to its present location in 1962, five miles south of the original settlement. When they first ceded their land through Treaty # 3, local Ojibwa maintained most of their material and spiritual culture. Grassy Narrows folk held on to clan loyalties and political autonomy until the late 19th century, adapting their old skills to new conditions.

The 20th century however, proved disastrous with an influenza epidemic wiped out around 75% of the population shaking the native economy, social system, and the local aboriginal religion. Traditional healers proved powerless to explain or combat the disease.