For thousands of years, the landscape of Canada was dominated by the Indigenous who called the land home. Long before the Europeans arrived, the Indigenous formed alliances, unique cultures, controlled territory and shaped the landscape.
Today, I am looking at the Anishinaabe.
This episode won’t be able to cover everything about the Anishinaabe, but I will do my best, there is just so much to cover. Most of this episode will also cover the history of the Anishinaabe, before and after European arrival, along with looking briefly at various important Anishinaabe over the years. I also apologize if I mispronounce anything. I am also focusing, as can be expected, on the Anishinaabe in Canada, rather than the Anishinaabe in the United States.
The first thing to cover is just who are the Anishinaabe. The Anishinaabe are a group of culturally and linguistically related Indigenous groups that are found in Canada and the United States. Most of their land is centred around the Great Lakes, but the Indigenous groups can be found as far west as Saskatchewan. If you were to look at a map of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, it would stretch from Montreal to Regina.
The Anishinaabe name is used most often to describe the Ojibwe people, and many other groups identify as Anishinaabe including the Chippewa, Odawa, Algonquin, Nipissing and Missisauga, along with the Oji-Cree and Metis.
According to Elder Basil H. Johnston, the name Anishinaabe translates as Beings Made Out Of Nothing and Spontaneous Beings. Oral traditions state that the name comes from the word anishinaa, which was the first word uttered by the Anishinaabe upon creation. On Manitoulin Island, Anishinaabe means Second Man and refers to the story of Nanabozo and The Great Flood. Nanabozo was an Ojibwe trickster and cultural hero who was one of the four sons of the spirits of directions. He had a human mother and E-bangishimog, translated as In The West, a spirit father. He was sent to earth to teach the Ojibwe. One of his first tasks was to name the plants and animal, and he is said to be the inventor of fishing and hieroglyphs.
The oral histories of the Anishinaabe say that they originated on the northeast coast of Canada and migrated to the west towards Lake Superior. In their histories this is called The Great Migration. The oral stories say that the homeland of the Anishinaabe was called Turtle Island and that the Anishinaabe are the descendants of the Abenaki people, referring to them as Fathers, who themselves are said to be descendants of the Lenape, or Delaware, people, which the Anishinaabe called grandfathers.
In the oral history of the Anishinaabe, seven great miigis, radiant beings in human form, appeared to the Anishinaabe in the Land of the Dawn, also called the Eastern Land, to teach them about the Midewiwin life. It was said that one of the miggis was too spiritually powerful and would kill people in the Eastern Land whenever they were in its presence. This being returned to the ocean, leaving the six great miigis to teach the people. Each of these miigis established clans for the people. These clans were the Bullhead, Crane, Pintail Duck, Bear, Little Moose and Marten. After the clans were founded, the beings returned to the ocean.
The Miigis would return in a vision saying that the Anishinaabe had to move west to keep their traditional ways alive because people not of Anishinaabe blood would soon arrive. After getting assurance from their Allied Brothers, the Mi’kmaq and Fathers, the Abnaki, of their safety crossing other tribal territory, they moved inland along the St. Lawrence River to the Ottawa River, through Lake Nipissing on to the Great Lakes. It was said the migration path of the Anishinaabe would become smaller Turtle islands. This is also called the Seven Fires Prophecy.
The first turtle island was at the present site of Montreal, where the Anishinaabe divided into two groups. One went and settled along the Ottawa River, where the other group moved to the second turtle island, near Niagara Falls. Continuing on to their third stopping place near present-day Detroit, the Anishinaabe had divided into six nations, the Algonquin, Nipissing, Mississauga, Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomi.
According to Potawatomi elder Shup-Shewana, it was round 796 AD, that the Council of Three Fires would be formed. The Three Fires were the Ojibwa, called Older Brother, the Odawa, called Middle Brother and the Potawatomi, called Younger Brother. Within this alliance, each group had a specific function. The Ojibwa were the keepers of the faith, the Odawa were the keepers of the trade and the Potawatomi were the keepers of the fire.
In all, the seven fires were believed to be the island on the St. Lawrence that would become Montreal, Niagara Falls, the Detroit River, Manitoulin Island, Baawating (Sault. Ste Marie), Duluth and Madeline Island in Wisconsin.
For the leaders in the Anishinaabe, a chief was temporary and there were few lifetime chiefs. Their duties often included taking care of the sick, old and orphans before themselves. The chiefs were taught to be advisors to the people and that a spiritual consensus was the highest form of politics.
For the Anishinaabe, during the winter groups would go into the woods to hunt moose, deer and bear, while in the spring and summer larger camps would come together to fish, gather wild rice, berries and get syrup from maple trees. Agriculture was also developed by some of the Anishinaabe groups, especially in the areas of future Quebec City and Montreal and in southern Ontario.
The Anishinaabe lived in dome-shaped wigwams that were made by tying saplings together at the top and covering them with sheets of bark or rushes. Insulation of moss could be added between layers in the winter for extra warmth.
For transportation, the Anishinaabe used birchbark canoes with seams sealed using spruce or pine gum. In the winter, toboggans and snowshoes were the primary form of movement.
The culture of the Anishinaabe was vibrant and highly artistic. Art forms included baskets made from ash trees and birchbark, and would often feature designs made of porcupine quills. When the Anishinaabe came across Europeans, they would incorporate European beads, cloth and other items into their artistic endeavors.
Music was also an important part of the cultural identity of the Anishinaabe. Flutes were often made by young men and used in courtship, while drumming was a form of entertainment but also used in healing ceremonies. Due to that musical cultural tradition, many important Anishinaabe musicians have found success in music including Leonard Sumner and Lawrence Houle.
The spiritual life of the Anishinaabe, as we have seen, was very important to them. As was common in many Indigenous groups, they saw spirits in many things and their word for spirit was manitou, and The Great Spirit was known as Kitchi Manitou. Some groups of Anishinaabe would gather once a year for a celebration of the Grand Medicine Society, and these social events were when the elders would tell stories from the past, and tell stories of the of the spirits that lived across the land.
When the Europeans arrived in Canada, the Anishinaabe established themselves as early trading partners in the fur trade.
The first Anishinaabe to encounter Europeans were the Three Fires. The Anishinaabe were also hired as guides through the lands of North America and some fur traders would intermarry with Anishinaabe women, whose descendants would create the Metis ethnic group. The French tended to get along better with the Anishinaabe since they were mostly fur traders and trappers, rather than settlers. During the Seven Years War, the Three Fires Council fought with the French against the English and had longstanding trade with the French.
Later, with the British taking over from the French, the Anishinaabe would begin to have a relationship with the English, similar to the French at first, through fur trading and trapping.
The British were more in the settler category, which would lead to the eventually taking of land from the Indigenous. In reaction to this, the Three Fires Confederation would be formed due to conflicts with settlers and continued tensions with the British Canadian government.
Their contact with Europeans would also involve them in the wars of Europeans, from the Beaver Wars of 1640, something I covered in the podcast, to Pontiac’s War, to the War of 1812 and all the way up to the World Wars and Korea.
As more Europeans began to arrive in North America, the Anishinaabe would begin to play a key role in treaty negotiations, including the 1764 Treaty of Niagara.
That treaty was between The British Crown and 24 nations that included the Anishinaabe, along with the Western Lakes Confederacy and the Seven Nations of Canada. The treaty was signed on Aug. 1, 1764 and it transferred a narrow four mile strip of land by the western shore of the Niagara River, while establishing the relationship that was to be honoured by the new settlers moving into what would become Canada.
Following the War of 1812, the British believed that they had enough of a military presence in Canada that they did not need to work with the Anishinaabe anymore or treat them with respect of fairness. This would begin the taking of land through treaties.
They would also be involved in the 1850 Robinson Treaties, Treaties 1,2,3,4,5 and 9, and the 1923 Williams Treaties. The Williams Treaties were signed in 1923 by the governments of Canada and Ontario and by the seven First Nations located in central southern Ontario. It was the last land treaty in Canada, and it transferred 20,000 square kilometres of land to the Crown. The Indigenous who signed received a one-time cash payment.
Like so many of the Indigenous in Canada, despite treaties, trading and early contact, the Anishinaabe suffered because of European, and later, Canadian rule over their traditional lands. In 1895, the Indian Act would ban the jingle dance, which was a healing dance for the Anishinaabe
In addition, the establishment of the residential school program would cause immense suffering under the assimilation colonial policies of the Canadian government. Residential schools, something that deserves its own episode that will be coming down the road, forbid the use of any Anishinaabe languages, and removed the Anishinaabe culture from the lives of the children at the schools.
On top of all of that, the Anishinaabe would suffer from epidemics of smallpox and other diseases brought by the Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries. While the Anishinaabe in Canada would fair better than those in the United States, their culture was changed forever through racist federal policies, which ramifications are still lasting to this day.
I am going to close out this episode by looking at some very notable Anishinaabe. I won’t be going into deep detail on them, mainly because I would like to devote full episodes to some, and some have already had episodes about them on the podcast.
Leonard Sumner, a member of the Little Saskatchewan First Nation in Manitoba, is a singer-songwriter whose music blends folk, hip hop and country music together. In 2013, he released his debut album, Rez Poetry. In 2018, he would release Standing In The Light, which would receive a Juno nomination for Indigenous Music Album Of The Year.
Lawrence Houle, also known as Teddy Boy, was fiddler from Ebb an Flow, Manitoba, where he was born in 1938. He taught himself to play Red River Valley on one string at an early age and would go on to record a number of albums and tour extensively through the country. He would appear in films as a fiddler and was known for performing jigs while he was playing. His musical style followed Indigenous and Metis styles and for two decades he was devote to recovering his Anishinaabe heritage. He would pass away in 2020.
Richard Wagamese was born on Oct. 14, 1955 in Minaki, Ontario and he would describe his first home as a tent hung from a spruce. His family would fish, trap and hunt and both his parents were forced to attend residential schools, which Wagamese described as “each of the adults had suffered in an institution that tried to scrape the Indian out of their insides, and they came back to the bush raw, sore and aching.” In 1979, Wagamese would begin working as a newspaper author for New Breed, an Indigenous publication, before becoming a writer for the Calgary Herald. In 1994, he would write his debut novel, Keeper ‘n Me, which was a co-winner of the Georges Bugnet Award for Novel. He would publish five more books, a book a poetry, two children’s books and five non-fiction books that included two memoirs. He also wrote for the television series North of 60. In 2012 he released Indian Horse, his best-known novel, which won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature. In 2017, the same year he passed away, it was turned into a feature film
George Copway was born in Trenton, Ontario in 1818 and would go on to become a writer, lecturer and advocate for Indigenous people. His Ojibwa name was Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, which means He Who Stands Forever. In 1847, he published a memoir about his life that became a hit and made him Canada’s first literary celebrity in the United States. In 1851, he published The Traditional History and Characteristics Sketches Of the Ojibway Nation. He would pass away in 1869 and in 2018, he was made a National Historic Person.
Mary Spencer was born on Dec. 12, 1984 in Wiarton, Ontario and would become one of Canada’s top boxers. During her career, she has had 126 fights with 118 wins, including eight by knockout and only eight losses. She has won three gold medals at the World Amateur Championships in 2005, 2008 and 2010, along with a bronze in 2006. She would earn gold at the 2011 Pan American Games.
James Bartleman was born on Dec. 24, 1939 in Orillia, Ontario and grew up in the Muskoka town of Port Carling. In 1963 he would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Western Ontario and would spend 35 years working in the Canadian foreign service, including as Canada’s ambassador to Cuba from 1981 to 1983, the Ambassador to Israel from 1986 to 1990 and the Ambassador to the European Union form 2000 to 2002. That same year, he was sworn in as the Lt. Governor of Ontario. During his life, he has received 12 honourary degrees, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Order of Canada, the Order of St. John, the Order of Ontario and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award.
Phil Fontaine was born on Sept. 20, 1944 at the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. He was forced to attend residential school and would attend Powerview Collegiate afterwards in 1961. In 1973, he was elected as chief of his community for two terms. In 1981, he would graduate from the University of Manitoba with a degree in political studies and in 1991 he was elected grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. From 1997 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2009, he served as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In 2004, he was awarded the Order of Manitoba and in 2012, he was awarded the Order of Canada. He has also been awarded 11 honourary degrees.
Tommy Prince was born on Oct. 15, 1915 in Scanterbury, Manitoba and would go on to become one of the most decorated Indigenous soldiers in Canadian history and a war hero of the Second World War and Korea. I am not going to go too in detail on Prince, because I actually have an episode coming in two weeks all about his life.
Francis Pegahmagabow is another Indigenous soldier who became a hero, but his time was in the First World War. He is credited with killing 378 Germans as a sniper and capturing a further 300. He would earn several medals for his service including the incredibly rare Military Medal with two bars. After the war, he would become a chief and advocate for Indigenous rights. Again, I won’t go into too much detail on Francis because I did an episode on him a few months back that you can find on the podcast feed or by going to my website www.canadaehx.com
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Native-Languages.Org, Canada History Project, Wikipedia, EveryCulture.com, Native Languages.Org, Aboriginal Peoples and Their Heritage, Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada,