Archive for August, 2011

The Ojibwe

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Really, they’re the Anishinaabeg (plural noun), which means First People, or Original People, or simply The People.  The adjectival form is Anishinaabe.  As in, “She’s Anishianaabe.”  Or “That’s an Anishinaabe trait.”  Some of the Anishinaabeg call themselves Chippewa, as do many whites, but that’s a name that’s fallen into disrepute among many in this particular culture, because the word is an English bastardization of “Ojibwe.”  Ojibwe means “to pucker.”  The most accepted explanation for how they came by this particular name is that it referred to the way in which they made moccasins, a technique that resulted in puckering around the stitches.  However, it’s also been reported that the name was given them because they had a penchant for roasting their enemies over a fire until their skin puckered.

I write a lot about the Anishinaabeg, and for good reason.  In the area in which I’ve set my series, their influence is ubiquitous.  Lakes, rivers, roads, landforms, even many of the towns still carry names first given to them by the Anishinaabe people.  Some of the words we commonly use originated in Anishinaabemowin, the language of The People, or with the Algonquin, from which the Ojibwe language developed, words like: chipmunk, moccasin, moose, toboggan, tomahawk.  The father of waters, the mighty Mississippi, got its name from the Ojibwe who called it Misi-ziibi, the Great River.

I write about the Anishinaabeg for other reasons as well.  I do it because I admire the richness of the culture, its history, and the tenacity of those who identify themselves as Anishinaabe.  Like so many other indigeous people, the Anishinaabeg have been ill-treated in every way imaginable, yet they’ve endured.  And one of the things I admire most about those Shinnobs (a kind of shorthand they use) I know personally is that their sense of humor is undiminished despite all the prejudice they routinely face and all the obstacles they constantly have to overcome.  (American Indians have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the United States; Indians have the highest poverty level of any ethnic group in Minnesota and the highest rate of unemployment as well; Indians report the highest rates of alcoholism of any ethnic group—I could go on, but you get the picture.)

I get a lot comments on the fact that, in my stories, I don’t reinforce the stereotype many people continue to hold regarding the Ojibwe.  One of the things I try point out in my work is that there are, among the Anishinaabeg, doctors, lawyers, judges, plumbers, veterinarians, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and educators, just as there are in every other ethic group.  Here are a few well-known Ojibwe: David Anderson, of Famous Dave’s; Louise Erdrich, award-winning writer; Bill Miller, marvelous musician, poet, and raconteur; Jim Northrup, columnist and storyteller; Winona LaDuke, activist and writer; Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, founders of AIM; Adam Beach, actor; Henry Boucha, Hall of Fame hockey player.  They are simply human beings who see the world in the context of their own cultural awareness, just like everyone else.

If you read my stories, please don’t read them as ethnography.  The Anishinaabeg are far more complex culturally, rich historically, and textured spiritually, than I will ever be able to adequately portray in my writing.  But if I’m able to give you a sense of the admiration I feel for them, then I’ve succeeded.