The Culture and Language of the Minnesota Ojibwe
An Introduction

This essay is supposed to give a brief introduction to the language and traditions of the Minnesota Ojibwe. Given its length it is not very detailed, but hopefully, it will show a glimpse of the beauty and fascination coming from this aboriginal American culture.

The Ojibwe at first lived on the US Atlantic Coast. Supposedly their migration to the Midwest "started around 900 AD and took about 500 years" (Callahan 20). According to oral tradition, the people were led by the Sacred Megis Shell, which appeared at every major stopping point on the way to their final destination, a place where the food should grow on water. This can be understood as a description of the typical Minnesota wild rice.

Today, there are seven Chippewa and Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota: Grand Portage, Bois Forte, Red Lake, White Earth, Leech Lake, Fond du Lac and Mille Lacs. These reservations were established through treaties and are regarded as individual nations by the US government. All except for Red Lake Reservation were allotted after the Dawes Act of 1887. Nowadays, about one third of the Native American population of Minnesota lives in the Twin Cities St. Paul and Minneapolis (Minnesota Indian Affairs Council).

The name Chippewa, which one will come across quite often when doing research on the Native Americans of Minnesota, "is simply an Anglicized version of the name 'Ojibwe'" as Bonni Knight puts it (Knight 6).

Originally, the Ojibwe people were divided into seven clans, each of them having unique responsibilities. The Crane and Loon Clans shared the power of chieftainship, the people of the Fish Clan functioned as teachers, the Bear Clan operated as some sort of police, the Hoof Clan ensured that housing and recreational needs were met, the Martin Clan produced hunters and warriors and the spiritual leaders of the Ojibwe came from the Bird Clan. All the clans worked together in caring for the Ojibwe people. Today however, the clan system has vanished almost entirely and only few people still carry out the duties of their clan (Flett).

Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, belongs to the Algonquian language family, which "is the largest and most widely spoken language family in North America" (Gresczyk, Why Study Ojibwe? 1) and is closely linked with Ojibwe culture and spirituality. Jessie Clark and Rick Gresczyk are convinced "that learning Ojibwe is a primarily a [sic] spiritual act" (Clark 1). 

When I was taking an Ojibwe class with Rick Gresczyk, we made a tobacco offering at the end of the first session in order to honor the Spirits and ask them to help us learn the language. He reminded us constantly that learning Ojibwe is also a spiritual process. Gresczyk believes that "one cannot truly learn Ojibwe [...] rather one has to experience it" (Gresczyk, The VAI Verb 1).

Learning the language can also seem quite difficult and confusing because a standard orthography does not exist. Knowledge and culture of the Ojibwe were traditionally passed down orally. Only recently, this language has been put into written word. That is why it is so complex. Two important features of written Ojibwe are the double vowels and the apostrophe indicating the glottal stop. The double vowel system employs letters from the English alphabet, but their phonetic realization is different. Furthermore, the English letters and phonemes of f, l, q, r, u, v and x are left out and the double letter symbols aa, ch, ii, oo, sh and zh are added (Ojibwe Language Society 3,4).

Ojibwe does not have infinitives like one knows them from languages like English or German. Rather, the simplest form of a verb is the third person singular, for example: Manoominike - 's/he rices,' zagaswaa - 's/he smokes' or ojibwemo - 's/he speaks Ojibwe'.  Different prefixes and suffixes are added to this form of the verb to demonstrate a different person, number, time etc., for example: Gigiimanominikemin - 'we (inclusive) were ricing'.  The difference between the inclusive and the exclusive form of 'we' is whether or not the speaker includes the person he or she is addressing into the group referred to (Gresczyk, Ojibwe Word Lists 12, 31). 

Another interesting characteristic of Ojibwe is the double negation. While in most languages, a double negation leads to a positive statement, in Ojibwe it is essential for a valid negative statement. For example, the statement 's/he picks berries' - mawinzo is negated by adding another word and a suffix: Gaawiin mawinzosii (Gresczyk, The Double Negation). 

Questions are formed by adding 'ina': Giiyose ina? - 'Is he hunting?'

There are strict rules as to where to place the suffixes and prefixes in the sentence. A change of this order accompanied by a slightly wrong pronunciation could change the entire meaning of the statement.

Proof for the connection between language and spirituality can be found for example in the semantic distinction between animate and inanimate objects. This distinction can be made by three different sets of categories: living vs. not living, man-made vs. not man-made and ability vs. inability to house a spirit (Gresczyk, The VAI Verb).

Ojibwe spirituality revolves around the Spirit World and the manidoog, the Spirits in it. 

Objects like the drum - 'dewe'igan',  the pipe - 'opwaagan' and tobacco - 'asemaa' play an essential role. The drum symbolizes the circle of life. In order to be used at a Pow wow, where it can have the ability "to heal and unify all people" (Flett 2), a new drum needs to undergo a special ceremony where it is being blessed. Tobacco is offered on numerous occasions, for example to protect oneself from evil beings (Kegg 109). 

Another very important part of Ojibwe spiritual life is the sweat lodge. The Ojibwe visit the sweat lodge to receive guidance from the Spirits in regard to how to live their lives and serve their people. Often supported by fasting and meditation, visiting the sweat lodge cleanses the body as well as mind and soul (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe 3-5).

Besides their legal names, Ojibwe people can have Indian names, too. The Indian names are given to children by a medicine person. The mother and father ask that person "to seek a name for their child" (Callahan 18) and the medicine person turns to meditation, prayer, fasting, dreaming or visits the sweat lodge to find out the name the Spirits give to the child. The new name is pronounced during a ceremony and four people that have been asked to be the sponsors of the child promise to guide and help it. The Spirit World now recognizes the child a living thing. After the completion of this ritual, the Spirits will take care of the child and prepare a place for it when it dies. 

The traditional Ojibwe way of life followed a seasonal circle. In spring, the people moved into the woods for sugaring off and making syrup. Then they went to the lakes and caught fish. Summer was the time of picking berries and fall was ricing time. The people traveled around from place to place and put up their camps according to this cycle. The winters were spent in bark lodges or similar types of housing (Treuer 25-29). 

Rice is a very important element of Ojibwe culture. When the time for ricing came, the officials went out and looked for a place for the band, then the wigwams were built and everything was prepared for knocking the rice. Before the harvesting began, tobacco offerings were made and there was a pipe ceremony. When the rice had been knocked and cleaned, none was to be eaten until an offering had been made. Sometimes, the rice would be left alone for a little while and no one was allowed to break any of it up. If anyone refused to obey this order, they were dispelled from the lake or even had their canoes taken apart. There was no consumption of alcohol during the time of ricing. When they were done, the band took apart the wigwams and went back home (Kegg 123-127).

Throughout the year, there were medicine dances and pipe ceremonies, for example when the lakes started to freeze (Treuer 25, 27).

Cultural traditions were passed down from generation to generation, especially among the female members of a family (Treuer 43).

Ojibwe people respect everything. All that comes from nature is treated with respect, because the people think that all these things have dignity and are related to the Spirits. That is why tobacco offerings are made whenever something is taken from nature (Treuer 43-45).

Ojibwe culture and traditions are very rich and beautiful. The Ojibwe look back on several hundred years of history, but like other groups of Native Americans all over the country, they are facing the problem that their culture is vanishing more and more. Many people strive hard to teach Ojibwe language and customs to the children and young people, but it is a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this beautiful language and fascinating culture is well worth fighting for.

List of works Cited

  1. Callahan, Kevin L. "Ojibwe Culture and History" (17 March 2003). 

  2. Clark, Jessie, and Richard Gresczyk. Ambe, Ojibwemodaa Endaayang! Come On, Let's Talk Ojibwe At Home!. Minneapolis: Eagle Works, 1998.

  3. Flett, Harold. "So You Should Know/Chi Ki Ken Da Mun" (17 March 2003).

  4. Gresczyk, Richard. "The Double Negation." Ojibwe I. Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 13 September 2001.

  5. Gresczyk, Richard. "The VAI Verb." Ojibwe I. Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 27 September 2001.

  6. Gresczyk, Richard. Why Study Ojibwe?. 2001.

  7. Gresczyk, Richard, and Margaret Sayers. Ojibwe Word Lists. A Few Questions and Lots of Answers. Minneapolis: Eagle Works.

  8. Kegg, Maude, and John D. Nichols, ed. Portage Lake. Memories of an Ojibwe
    Childhood. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

  9. Knight, Bonni. (17 March 2003).

  10. Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. "Sweat Lodges and Visions" (17 March 2003).

  11. Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. "Minnesota Indian Affairs Council" (17 March 2003)

  12. Ojibwe Language Society. "Ojibwe Language Society: Ojibwe Alphabet and Pronunciation Chart" (17 March 2003).

  13. Treuer, Anton, ed. Living Our Language. Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

   back to text


   2003   Karoline Schneider