Ojibwa Migrations

Migration is an important part of the oral traditions and histories of many Indian nations. The oral tradition of the Ojibwa (Anishinabe) tells of the five original clans – Crane, Catfish, Loon, Bear, and Marten – traveling west from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Great Lakes and into what are now Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba. Originally, the people had been living by a great sea, traditionally called the Land of the Dawn (Waabanakiing), where they were ravaged by sickness and death. The great miigis (cowrie shell; also spelled megis) appeared out of the sea and brought warmth and light to the people by reflecting the rays of the sun. At this time, the people were given the great rite-the Midewiwin-in which life was restored and prolonged.

The oral tradition also tells that a powerful miigis went into the sea and then returned with a prophecy for the people. According to this prophecy, the people needed to move west to keep their traditional ways alive. The prophecy told of a time when there would be new settlements by the sea of a people who would be incapable of understanding the traditional ways.

The miigis then disappeared and reappeared in the west leading the people into new areas. The Midewiwin lodge was pulled down and the rite was not practiced until the people settled in the area near present-day Montreal, Canada. After a while, the miigis led them farther west to the shores of Lake Huron. Once again the Midewiwin lodge was constructed and the rite practiced. After a while, the miigis led them to a place called Bow-e-ting located at the outlet of Lake Superior. Here they remained for many winters. The miigis then led them to the Island of La Point (Medicine Island).

The story of the migrations of the five Anishinabe clans has been recorded in oral tradition and has also been incised on the birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin lodge. John Rogers recalls his father telling him about one of the scrolls:

“This is a chart … that has been handed down to me through many generations of our peoples. It is said to be fully six hundred years old.”

As an aside, it should be pointed out that most non-Indian scholars seem firmly predisposed to the idea that no Indian nation north of Mexico had writing. Yet the designation of the Ojibwa as Ozhibii’iwe meaning “those who keep records of a vision” refers to their pictorial writing used in the Midewiwin rites.

The tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy-Ojibwa (known as Older Brother), Ottawa (known as Middle Brother), Potawatomi (known as Younger Brother)-were once a single people living in the east according to oral tradition. According to the Midewiwin scrolls, the Confederacy was formally organized about 796 CE. At this time, the tribes were living in the area of the Straits of Mackinac. The Potawatomi would later separate and move south into present-day Michigan. It is estimated that the three tribes may have separated as late as 1550.

With the coming of the European fur trade, the Ojibwa once again migrated. As the Ojibwa moved into the present-day states of Minnesota and Wisconsin during the late 1700s, they established numerous permanent villages along rivers and lakes. This in-migration resulted in pushing the Sioux populations of the area toward the west and south. During this time, the people were fragmented into numerous villages, large and small, distributed over a very broad area. This meant that economic, ceremonial, and political cooperation and communication were not maintained among them.

Some of the people moved out into the plains of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (Canada), often working with the fur traders, intermarrying with them, and having children who would later become known as M├ętis. These western groups of Ojibwa were sometimes called Nakawe, Saulteaux, or Bungee.

The migrations of the Ojibwa people continued during the twentieth century, with some settling on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana. In the twenty-first century, federal recognition was denied for the Little Shell Chippewa (Ojibwa).Today there are Ojibwa living throughout the United States and Canada, including, according to oral tradition, at least one living in a New Mexico pueblo.

The Ojibwa, Copper, and Millard Fillmore

It is a long held maxim that American Indians should not be allowed to acquire wealth. Since one of the ways of acquiring wealth is through minerals-such as copper, iron, silver, and gold-when then minerals were discovered on Indian lands, these lands, and the mineral rights, had to be taken from the Indians so that they could be developed by non-Indian interests. One example of this can be seen in the Great Lakes region and the fight to remove that Ojibwa from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  

By 1850 it had become evident to non-Indians that there might be a great deal of wealth on Ojibwa lands in the form of copper and timber. In order for non-Indians to exploit these resources, it was first necessary to get rid of the Ojibwa who were seen as barriers to civilization and development. In response to pressure by non-Indian mining and timber interests, President Zachary Taylor ordered the removal of the Ojibwa (also called Chippewa) from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. He offered four reasons for the removal and requested prompt action in carrying it out:

The Ojibwa must be removed to prevent “injurious contact” with American settlers

The Indians need to be removed from areas where they can obtain alcohol

The Americans need to be relieved of the “annoyance” and “evils” of having Indians as neighbors

Removal would provide the Indians with opportunities for promoting their civilization and prosperity.

The Ojibwa were shocked by the removal order and messengers were sent to all of the villages by the chiefs to determine if there had been any depredations committed against American settlers. When they failed to find any incident which would have triggered the President’s action, the chiefs convened councils throughout the territory to discuss the situation.

The Ojibwa did gain some allies in their fight against removal. In 1851, an editorial in the Lake Superior News and Mining Journal opposed the proposed removal:

“We believe we express the conviction of the entire population of the Lake Superior county in regarding this removal as uncalled for by the best interests of the Government, the whites, or the Indians.”

The editorial goes on to say:

“From time immemorial this people have occupied the northern region, and have become acclimated to its cold and rigorous climate; and by hunting and fishing, and the cultivation of their small patches of soil, they have lived comfortably and contentedly, causing little or no trouble to the United States and their neighbors.”

In 1852, Chippewa chief Buffalo, who was in his early nineties, together with several other chiefs and an interpreter traveled to Washington, D.C. without government authorization. They brought with them a petition supporting the Chippewa cause against removal. When the delegation reached Washington, D.C., the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior ordered them to return home immediately as they did not have permission to make the trip. However, a chance encounter with a Congressman from New York resulted in a meeting with President Millard Fillmore. Prior to his meeting with the President, Buffalo dictated a document that reviewed all of the outstanding grievances against the United States.

After meeting with the Chippewa delegation, President Fillmore rescinded the removal order and agreed to cease all efforts to remove them. A grand council of all Chippewa bands was held when Buffalo and the other chiefs returned. A message from the President was read to the people. While the people retained the right to remain in their homelands, the wealth of these homelands was developed by others.