Ojibwe Culture and History

Recorded history estimates that the Ojibwe occupied the territories around the Great Lakes as early as 1400, expanding westward until the 1600s (Sultzman, 2000). The Ojibway people were the largest and most powerful of all the tribes inhabiting the Great Lakes region of North America. Despite the fur trade and Indian wars, the Ojibwe peoples continued to expand their territories and by the 1800s they occupied lands in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. According to Sultzmann (2000), white settlement forcibly removed the Ojibwe from their lands and onto reservations.

Most Ojibwe belong to a cultural grouping known as the Woodlands culture. The Ojibwe people inhabit a great area around the Great Lakes and some have migrated to the plains or to areas further south. This has resulted in the need to adapt to different environmental conditions, which has influenced aspects of life such as art, ceremony and dress. For example, the Ojibwe that migrated towards the southern regions of their territories – Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ontario – were able to establish larger, more permanent villages and began to cultivate plants such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. The Ojibwe people who lived in the northern Great Lakes region had a shorter growing season and poor soil so tended to rely on hunting and gathering for their food sources. They would harvest wild rice and maple sugar. Woodland Ojibwe were skilled hunters and trappers as well as fishermen. Ojibwe people still engage in hunting, trapping and fishing practices although their methods may have changed over the years.

The Ojibwe were very resourceful using what was available from their environment as building materials and for household items. For example, birch bark was used for almost everything: utensils, storage containers, and canoes. Birch bark was also used as a building material to cover the wigwam. It was an excellent building material because it was sturdy, lightweight and portable so that when the family moved it was easy to disassemble their wigwam and re-assemble it in their new location.

Clothing and moccasins were made from the hide of animals, particularly deer and moose, which also served as their food sources. During the winter months, the Ojibwe spent much of their time inside the wigwams. The winter was a time of storytelling and for working on their clothing. The women would decorate their moccasins with quill and moose hair designs, often taking designs from the environment such as floral patterns that are distinctive to the woodland people.

Ojibwe life was centered around the land and the seasons. For example, in the winter months the tribe would separate into their extended family units and travel to their hunting camps. In this way, they could hunt in a specific territory without competition from other hunters and ensure that over-hunting would not occur. In the summer, they would return to their summer homes where fish, wild rice and berries were abundant.

Learning Activities

  1. Describe how life changed for the Ojibwe as a result of sharing land with the settlers.
  2. Are there remnants of Ojibwe culture that remain intact today? What might those be?
  3. How did the Ojibwe of the Eastern Woodlands optimize their food sources for nutrition?
  4. Describe how the Ojibwe people used their environment to fashion fishing and hunting technologies and to design their dwellings.
  5. Describe how the Ojibwe people used the knowledge of their environment to ensure survival.

Expanding Your Knowledge

  1. The following link provides greater detail into the history of the Ojibwe and includes some description of the Ojibwe culture:
    Ojibwe History