Worlds Apart: The Enduring Significance of Ojibwe Culture

Carol A. Hand

It makes me angry when I hear about cultural competence. There aren’t any cultural differences between the people on the reservation and the rest of the residents in the county. The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past. (County Decision Maker, October 15, 2001)

To say there is not a culture is not true. It justifies them [county social services and court systems] for not learning about us. (Terrence, Ojibwe Community Member, October 19, 2001)

These statements were given voice by Ojibwe and Euro-American community members during a critical ethnographic study in 2001-2002. One perspective carried more weight. Because of the speaker’s gender, ethnicity, and position, the statement symbolizes one of the many ways in which Ojibwe sovereignty continues to be constrained and traditional lifeways, disparaged.

The Ojibwe community I studied had been confined on an ever-decreasing landbase and subjected to the policies and institutions of the dominant Euro-American community that surrounded them over the course of centuries. Although this study was focused on understanding the child welfare system and its impacts for Ojibwe families, the question of culture remained a central issue. The importance of addressing the question of cultural differences became apparent when the County Decision Maker forcefully proclaimed “The culture is gone; it’s a thing of the past.” When the person who controls child welfare funding for all county residents, including Ojibwe people, believes there is no culture, what incentive is there to keep Ojibwe families together and keep children within their tribal community? A leading expert in child welfare research criticized the significance of the study not because of methodological flaws, but because, from his perspective, “It was a good thing that we [Euro-Americans] imposed our system on tribes.” As the following essay argues, the assumptions of both the County Decision Maker and the child welfare expert are incorrect.

My research focused on child welfare. What evidence could I draw from the study to address this topic? Fortunately, I had collected evidence about culture. As a new researcher, I wrote down everything I noticed which proved to be a wise practice. The timing of my arrival in the community was serendipitous. It was August 28, 2001, just as the gathering of wild rice was underway in the Ojibwe community, and just before deer hunting season for Euro-American residents in the surrounding county.

ojibwe by river cg

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy

A long description of research would be out of place in this essay, but it is important for me to mention that I chose critical ethnography as my methodology because its focus is liberatory. Like traditional ethnography, critical ethnography typically involves several methods: extended cultural immersion, participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and document review. Yet critical ethnography differs in a crucial way. It is concerned with the ways in which the power of institutions, symbols, and meaning are used to “construct and limit choices, confer legitimacy, and guide our daily routine” (Thomas, 1993, p. 6). The significance of a critical stance in the process of ethnographic work is to explore not only what is, but what could be, to question the “unnecessary social domination” that promotes inequality (Thomas, 1994, p. 5). In the context of the present study, an historical component was added to explore “what was” based primarily on ethnographic interviews and document reviews. Understanding history is particularly important when trying to make sense of present conditions for tribal communities (Weaver, 1999; Flemming, 1992).

Because the question of culture and cultural survival are central to this discussion, it is important to define the increasingly suspect concept of “culture.” Early anthropologists defined culture as a complex whole that included all capabilities and habits people acquired as members of a given society, including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and customs (Asad, 1986). In more recent times, debates have surfaced about the efficacy and morality of “a distinct, bounded, and unifying culture” that is “an embarrassing colonial artifact” (Van Maanan, 1995, p. 27). For the purposes of this discussion, “culture” in the sense of distinct patterns of behavior becomes central when contrasting the beliefs and behaviors of Ojibwe and Euro-American community members who shared their stories and perspectives with me (Wolcott, 1995).

A simpler definition of culture is “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior” (Spradley, 1980, p. 6). This definition suggests that behavior and meaning are learned within the context of one’s family and community. Children learn how to “act” appropriately and what it means to “be” a member of a specific group. The strong sentiments about culture voiced above by the county decision maker and the divergent view expressed by the Ojibwe community member made it essential to determine if there was evidence of a distinct Ojibwe culture in present times. A second important focus was to explore whether there was evidence that at least some members of the Ojibwe community were involved in efforts to preserve and revitalize distinct cultural values and lifeways. A third question related to context was the degree to which there was evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities.


Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy – Snowshoe Dance

All cultures are complex, multi-dimensional, and elastic (Handler, 1983). Shared cultural meanings and lifeways rely on “a delicate balance … [between] tradition and innovation, inherited forms and creativity” (Handler, 1983, p. 219). It is necessary to distinguish what is shared, by whom, in what ways, and under what conditions: culture is multifaceted ( Dirks, Eley, & Ortner, 1994). Many factors influence shared culture, the most important of which include gender, age, and social status.

There are wide variations among individuals within any given society with respect to the degree to which cultural meanings and customs are internalized and expressed through behaviors and the explanations or rationales behind those behaviors. Yet a cultural gestalt is portrayed and preserved through stories that are passed down to future generations either orally or through written documents. Stories symbolize the shared meanings of life and one’s place in the universe, often expressed through metaphors.

A decade earlier, this essay may well have reflected a balanced attempt to argue from a stance of cultural relativism by including a caveat that it is always inappropriate to portray the ways of one culture as superior to those of another. Times have changed. Within the context of global climate change, endangered species, and the accelerating destruction of forests and wilderness areas, such a stance feels profoundly unethical to me as an Ojibwe scholar. I began my study from a stance of cultural relativism. However, analysis of the findings of the study and additional reflection within a larger historical and global context have shifted my stance. As an Ojibwe researcher and scholar, I admit a biased interpretive perspective. It is important for readers to know this up front so they can determine for themselves if the soundness of the following arguments and the weight of the following evidence, gathered from as many sources as possible with no conscious agenda to substantiate a pre-study bias, withstand the scrutiny of critical readers.

Cultural emersion involved deciding where to live in the focal county, on the Ojibwe reservation or in the local county seat. Given that I am Ojibwe and lived for many years in a different Ojibwe community, it made sense to live within the county seat in order to observe a less-familiar cultural milieu on a daily basis. As sometimes happens with ethnographic research, serendipity played a role in identifying participants and a place to live. I was fortunate to find a “culture broker” within each community, that is, someone who was respected because of their knowledge and positive relationships with others in the community. They served as key participants and as links to others in their respective communities.

Within the Ojibwe community, the person who played this role was from a prominent family in the community, and took me under her wing to introduce me to tribal elders and leaders. In the Euro-American community, my “culture broker” was identified by many Euro-American community residents whom I asked about city and county history. They repeatedly mentioned the owner of a copy shop located in the county seat. Although it took many visits to the copy shop to actually meet the owner, we formed an instant connection and the evolving friendship we developed was profoundly important in many ways. A life-long resident of the area, he had stored newspaper and journal articles from the area for more than 40 years and personally knew many of the Ojibwe tribal leaders and members, past and present, as well as the Euro-American residents. He owned the storefront that housed the copy shop in the center of the small town, above which he had a number of efficiency apartments to rent. He became a study participant and my landlord, opening his collections of historical materials and refusing to allow me to pay for the thousands of pages of documents that he let me copy. From my centrally located vantage point in a second-story apartment that overlooked the major cross-section in town, I was able to learn a great deal about the community and the relationships between community residents and tribal people, especially between the local police and youth from both communities.

Participant observations included regular visits to the tribal elders’ noon meal, visits to elder apartments in the county, and participation/observations of a variety of events and agencies within both communities. Most of the people I spoke with participated in ethnographic interviews. In contrast to one-time semi-structured interviews, ethnographic interviews involve meeting with the same participants periodically throughout the course of a study. Time between interviews allowed me, as the researcher, to learn more and ask clarifying questions, and also allowed participants an opportunity to reflect on the questions asked and their responses in previous interviews. Because of the timing of my study, conversations around the tables at the tribal elder center during lunch often focused on their adventures ricing and hunting. Similarly, if I stopped by the copy shop, the owner and I would sit by the large picture window at a table just inside the front door. Community members would stop by and join us, and the talk would often turn to hunting excursions.

In addition to interviews, document review became one of the key methods for understanding past and present behaviors and meanings associated with hunting and gathering within each of the cultures. As noted above, the owner of the copy shop became a key source for documents both directly as the source of many of the documents and as an ethnographic interview participant who helped explain the significance and meaning of information. He also helped indirectly though his knowledge of both the Euro-American and Ojibwe communities and suggested other people I should interview. Books, pamphlets, newspaper accounts and photos, old maps, and administrative reports all provided a rich context of information for both communities, past and present.

The following discussion highlights one dimension, the economic sphere, to describe both local cultures in terms of the past and the present and to illustrate points of cultural similarity and difference. “Economic sphere” means hunting and gathering activities. There are a number of reasons for focusing on hunting and gathering activities. First, by placing the experiences of one Ojibwe community within a more general Ojibwe historical-cultural context, specific cultural aspects of change, continuity, and complexity become more apparent. Second, given the timing of my study, the economic sphere is the most completely documented for both Ojibwe and Euro-American communities by all three research methods – interviews, observations, and documents. Third, the evidence shows the intergenerational transmission of culture within both cultural milieus in this narrowly defined dimension.

Drawing from observations, interviews, and documents, a number of important findings emerge that provide evidence of observable cultural distinctions between the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities. Hunting and gathering activities within both the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities were a frequent topic of conversation in the fall of 2001. As the following exemplars from interviews, observations, and documents show, cultural differences between local Ojibwe and Euro-American culture are evident within the narrowly defined economic dimension. There is also evidence of cultural continuity and change within both communities.

Ojibwe Community

A central aspect of the Ojibwe economic sphere was the seasonal round they followed to grow and gather food and manufacture basic necessities within the ecosystems of their habitation (Meyer, 1994; Venum, 1988). Although the specific activities and timing varied depending on the particular geographic habitats of widely scattered Ojibwe communities, the cycle generally involved a congregation of members in summer villages comprised of 100 or more people. Here, they planted family gardens (beans, corn, squash, and pumpkins). In mid and later summer, families traveled to pick berries, and in the fall to rice camps to gather and process wild rice, which for many was the major subsistence crop. They harvested, processed, and cached the produce from their gardens, ricing, berrying, and their summer and early fall fishing and hunting. In the fall, smaller family groups (20 to 25 people) prepared to move to their winter hunting areas, and in the spring, when the snow and icy waterways began to melt, families traveled to the sugarbush to gather and process the sap of maple trees.

The seasonal movements “from one place to another …, [and] the stability in timing and locations gave the cycle great continuity” (Meyer (1994, p. 24). The seasonal pattern also represents an effective strategy for dealing with the natural climate and environment, maintaining a self-sufficient lifestyle and assuring a “diverse resource base” in case any resource failed in a given year (Meyer, 1994, p. 27). Despite confinement on reservations in the 1850s, many of these seasonal round activities continue to be of importance for members of the focal Ojibwe community. In the fall, wild rice (Vennum, 1988) and deer hunting (Hickerson, 1988) remain particularly important.

ricing cg

Photo Credit: Carl Gawboy: Little Rice River – Madeline Island

Because ricing is such a deeply rooted activity, most Ojibway build harvest time into their annual schedules as a matter of course. Many urban Indians return to their home reservations for ricing; others leave regular jobs in nearby towns for the harvest, even though it can mean financial loss…. Ricing is also an activity that older people continue to participate in…. For cultural reasons alone, the Ojibway people will probably never give up ricing willingly. (Vennum, 1988, pp. 298-299)

Participant-observations, particularly during the fall of 2001, underscored the continuing importance of seasonal round activities (Meyer, 1994). Ricing, hunting, fishing, and to a more limited extent, gathering berries, were a central topic of informal conversations among Ojibwe elders during noon meals. One Ojibwe elder (Mishoomis Thomas, September 9, 2001) drew a series of cartoons about hunting and ricing – including an illustration of the experiences of the Nacomis Xina, cited below, with her head above water next to an overturned canoe with wild rice stems encircling her legs.

I’m lucky to be alive! I went out ricing with [my niece] last weekend. I let her pole while I knocked the rice into the canoe. I didn’t know that she didn’t know how to pole. She pushed the pole in too far and it got stuck in the mud, and when the canoe rocked and spun around, we were both thrown into the water. I was afraid I was going to drown. The rice stalks wrapped around my legs, and the more I kicked, the tighter they became. We were finally able to climb back into the canoe. I usually don’t wear a jacket [life preserver] when I go out, but I had one on that day and it kept me afloat even when the rice was wrapped around my legs…. I’ll never go out again with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing (Nacomis Xina, September 9, 2001).

Escaping danger and humor were common elements of the stories that were shared. Perhaps more central, however, were the remembered social interactions. The accounts always interwove family and community members who shared the activities, and stories of how they worked together to face challenges and danger. As elders competed for opportunities to share their stories, adding details to the stories others shared, the sound of merriment and laughter filled the room.

Although ricing remains central for these tribal elders, they observed that fewer people practice traditional gathering activities than did in the past. At the same time, however, despite inexperience, people in younger generations still do participate. Younger people are still interested in learning, although some of them, like the niece described above, may have to find other teachers. An Ojibwe community member in the next generation shared his story about the importance of ricing.

It is more important for me to be doing what I am right now, processing food as a way to practice the ways of the people. Chimokoman [White Man] has tried to make the people forget, but some of the knowledge has been retained and is now being taught to young people. Hunting is also an important way to practice culture, to harvest when the time is right rather than punching a time clock. Look around [lifting his arm he gestures toward the trees in full autumn colors – bright yellow, red, orange, and gold], this is gold (“Tyler,” October 4, 2001).

Despite the continuing importance of ricing for Ojibwe community members, environmental changes pose concerns for the community.

There used to be a lot of rice on the lake – it was covered with plants – now there are only scattered patches. And there used to be as many as 140 boats out at one time – now there are maybe eight (Mishoomis Raymond, October 10, 2001).

White-tailed or Virginia deer were an important part of the Ojibwe diet in the past (Hickerson, 1988), and remain so today as exemplified by the following interview excerpt. Hunting is a skill that continues to be passed on to younger generations. A more distinctive cultural component, however, is the continuing importance of sharing. The account of Mishoomis Raymond demonstrates how critical hunting and sharing were for family and community survival in the past.

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone (Mishoomis Raymond, September 10, 2001).

Mishoomis Raymond also discussed how he continues to practice the skills and Ojibwe ethics of hunting, and his efforts to ensure that these skills are passed on to younger generations.

There’s a young non-Indian girl here who told me that she couldn’t eat most kinds of meat, fish, or shrimp – it makes her sick. But she can eat venison. So I’m going to give her one of the two deer I shot yesterday. My grandson and I went out hunting with [another Ojibwe community member] and his grandson. The two boys were able to track down a deer that was shot but kept running. When we caught up with the boys, they were already gutting the deer. I was proud of them (Mishoomis Raymond, November 19, 2001).

A number of community documents underscore the meaning and importance of Ojibwe seasonal round activities in more contemporary times. Included in these documents are accounts shared by Ojibwe community elders who have demonstrated and described the steps for processing wild rice, the techniques and timing for gathering birchbark, and the techniques and timing for gathering cranberries.

… [Mishoomis Raymond] recalled his childhood days spent with his cousin … exploring the swamp and snacking on mashkiigiminan (cranberries); the tart flavor forcing their lips to pucker… Two weeks before… [Mishoomis Raymond] and [his cousin] had revisited the footsteps of their childhood to once again gather mashkiigiminan. [Ojibwe Raymond] could not have been happier that his daughter and granddaughter [who went with them] had shown interest in gathering mashkiigiminan (Tribal Publication 1, 2001, p. 10).

The article adds that the Mishoomis Raymond, his cousin, and his friend frequently help and encourage “… youngsters to learn traditional ways. All three elders know the importance of passing their knowledge onto younger generations” (p. 10).

Ricing, one of the Ojibwe traditional practices described by Ojibwe community members, is highlighted in contemporary promotional materials developed to attract tourists. “The annual harvest of wild rice, an essential part of the Indian diet, has altered very little in the hundreds of years that the [Ojibwe] have lived here (Tribal Publication 2, p. 18).

Euro-American Community

Stories gathered within the Ojibwe community are qualitatively different than those of the long-term Euro-American residents in the surrounding community. Hunting and fishing stories were a topic frequently raised by Euro-American men in the community. Some noted that hunting and woodsmanship are longstanding traditions for families from their Euro-ethnic identity who originally settled in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky before moving to the county seat several generations ago.

[People of my ancestry and geographic origin] were outdoorsmen: they could make it on the land and the area here is a lot like the land they knew. They lived off the land like the native peoples, and did almost as well… They could hunt, trap, and fish (Euro-American Community Member, October 25, 2001).

Some of the accounts focused on hunting excursions with sons, or in one case, with a wife. The emphasis of stories was typically on the challenge of the hunt. Only one community member said that hunting for him was more about the chance to be in a remote area to enjoy the natural beauty. Hunting has played an important symbolic role for Euro-American men (Haraway, 1994). The stories told by Euro-American male informants seem to fit with Haraway’s (1994, p. 75) characterization as:

… the tales of a pure man whose danger in pursuit of a noble cause brings him into communion with the beasts he kills, with nature. This nature is a worthy brother of man, a worthy foil for his manhood.

Documents gathered from a variety of community sources provide confirmation of Haraway’s (1994) interpretation of Euro-American sportsmanship. Hunting has been an important part of local Euro-American culture since the days of the first non-indigenous settlers. Promotional materials originally published in the early 1900s to attract Euro-American “home-seekers and investors” to the area emphasize hunting, fishing, and recreation. These materials were reprinted in 2001 to preserve local historical accounts and cultural traditions. One of the publications includes photographs of hunters standing by their slain prey, or scores of deer carcasses hanging from racks, accompanied by the following text:

[The county seat] is the outfitting point for parties bound to the deer hunting grounds…. For several years, the hunting parties have brought back a hundred or more deer each year with now and then a bear and large number of partridges and other small game (Community document, 1906/2001).

deer hanging rack

Photo Credit: Deer Hanging Rack

Another publication appeals for people to settle in the area and farm “cut-over lands,” or lands once occupied by the Ojibwe and other First Nations peoples that had been completely stripped of the virgin hardwood and pine forests by large outside lumber companies (Community Document). One of the enticements for new settlers was the following text:

Every season this section is visited by armies of nimrods from the southern part of the state, and from other states, who always return home with their allotted number of deer…. Ducks are killed in great numbers on the lakes, where they feed on the wild rice beds (Community Document, 1914/2001).

Hunting remains important for local Euro-American residents in contemporary times. Before deer hunting season in 2001, the editorial section of the local newspaper underscored the the importance of this gendered legacy:

THE COUNTDOWN to deer season is well underway. I can tell because of the increased number of phone calls [my husband] gets from his brothers and nephews. They all have to touch base several times in order to plan the big hunt. This annual get together is a tradition in the … family…. (it’s definitely a guy thing). (Community Newspaper, 2001, p. 2)

deer hunt

Photo Credit: Hunting the Trophy Whitetail

Deer hunting was still front page news in the local newspaper during 2001 and 2002. Under the front page headline “Gun Deer Harvest Down in County” is a photo of a successful 13-year-old Euro-American boy grasping the antlers of his kill. The accompanying story notes that only 1,200 deer were killed in the county during the opening weekend of hunting season. Yet there are indications from other sources that hunting is becoming less important than it was in the past, or that there are other recreational competitors. Proposed state legislation to extend deer hunting season was forcefully criticized by the local legislator because it would interfere “with snowmobiling activities and other winter recreation” (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 12). Promotional materials in contemporary times are written to attract a broader selection of visitors. No longer are scores of deer carcasses hung on racks highlighted by photos. Instead, visitors are told:

The hunter, fisherman and trapper feel at home in this forest, but so do hikers, bikers, cross-county skiers, snowmobilers, birdwatchers, photographers, campers – the list is endless (Community Newspaper, 2002, p. 3).

Ojibwe/Euro-American Cultural Comparison

The stories, observations, and documents convey an important message. In the end, I am left with two contrasting metaphors, a front-page picture in the local newspaper of a young Euro-American man triumphantly holding up the head of the trophy he slaughtered, and the story shared by an Ojibwe community member.

Hunting is not a sport – it’s something that you do for food. It’s not a sport if you leave something for what you take. That’s why we leave tobacco for something we take – we’re being responsible. We are at the mercy of the Great One and the power when we’re out there, but we go knowing that we have to have food to live and we have to do that.

It’s work. I don’t really like to kill. There’s a sadness there for that deer. I don’t hunt just to kill it, and I don’t feel good about killing. Sometimes, the deer doesn’t die right away. That’s why we leave something, to ask forgiveness. That’s why we take it home to feed our family and others who are hungry – out of respect. My brother-in-law and I like to hunt together and we both feel that sadness – that loss or sadness. Ojibwe people have been doing this for thousands of years. My grandmother told me that a lot of our people feel that way – feel that sadness. That’s why we have to eat it all and use all of the parts – out of respect. If we don’t do that, we won’t have that relationship with the deer. That relationship with the deer is important. That’s why we always put mocassins on when we are preparing someone who has died – so that they will have that deer skin on their feet when they take that long journey – so we can walk with deer skin on our feet.

That’s why we leave something – the other society just takes and keeps everything for themselves. Chimokes [White Men] are not respecting the deer, that’s why the deer are sick. The Creator is doing that to teach a lesson (Tyler, January 2, 2003).

Despite past child removal and relocation policies, Ojibwe culture has survived and for that, I am grateful. Many Ojibwe people in the community I studied, each in their own individual ways, are actively working to ensure that cultural practices and values are passed on for generations to come. This is not to say that the community is free of serious problems. Some of those problems – alcoholism, child maltreatment, juvenile delinquency, and incest – are in large measure part of a legacy of oppressive federal and state policies and practices that continue today.

All traditions are created, whether through vision, dreams or an epiphany and they are adopted because they serve some function from the perspective of those who have the power to convince others of the legitimacy of particular ways of seeing their world (Anderson, 1995). The larger ethical (and pragmatic) question is whether a given set of traditions encourages a people to “walk lightly on the earth” by taking only what they need, encourages them to leave the world a better place for their having lived, or whether the set of traditions encourages a people to deplete the earth of resources and create death and destruction in their wake, heedless of the world they will leave for future generations. This is a question to ponder. For the Ojibwe and Euro-American people studied in this small sample, the contrasts were clear, although not consciously chosen nor in most cases, deliberately articulated. Yet, from my perspective, we must learn to be mindful of the impacts our cultural ways have on those with whom we share the earth, now and in the future…

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Carl Gawboy for granting permission to use images of his paintings for this essay. Carl is a renowned Ojibwe artist who was born in Minnesota. His paintings often portray traditional Ojibwe scenes – hunting, fishing, and harvesting – in a style that is realistic and respectful. These are the images I felt best represented what Ojibwe participants shared with me during my study. To view more of his work and long list of accomplishments, please check out some of the following links:

I should also add that he is a gifted storyteller with his own memories of ricing adventures to share – guaranteed to make you laugh.

Note: In order to protect the identities of the people who shared their stories, all names have been changed and all written tribal and community publications lack specific citations.


Mishoomis is the Ojibwe word for grandfather and is used here to denote respect.

Nacomis means grandmother in Ojibwe, and again, is an expression used to show respect.

Works Cited

Anderson, B. (1995). Imagined communities, revised ed. London: Verso.

Asad, T. (1986). The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology. In J. Clifford & G. E. Marcus (Ed.), Writing culture: The poetics and politics of writing ethnography (pp. 141–161). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dirks, N. B., Eley, G., & Ortner, S. B. (Eds.)(1994). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fleming, C. M. (1992). American Indians and Alaska Natives: Changing societies past and present. In Office of Substance Abuse Prevention (OSAP), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Ed.), Cultural competence for evaluators: A guide for alcohol and other drug abuse prevention practitioners working with racial/ethnic communities (pp. 147-172). Rockville, MD: OSAP.

Handler, R. (1983). The dainty and the hungry man: Literature and anthropology in the work of Edward Sapir. In G. W. Stocking, Jr. (Ed.), Observers observed: Essay on ethnographic fieldwork. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Haraway, D. (1994). Teddy bear patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City 1908-1936. In N. B. Dirks, G. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds.), Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 49-95). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hickerson, H. (1988). The Chippewa and their neighbors: A study of ethnohistory (revised and expanded edition). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Meyer, M. L. (1994). The White Earth tragedy: Ethnicity and dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinabe reservation, 1889-1920. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. Fort Wroth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Thomas, J. (1993). Doing critical ethnography. Qualitative Research Methods Series 26. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Van Maanan, J. (Ed.)(1995). Representation in ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Venum, T., Jr. (1988). Wild rice and the Ojibway people. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Press.

Weaver, H. N. (1999). Indigenous people and the social work profession: Defining culturally competent services, Social Work, 44(3), 217-225.

Wolcott, H. F. (1995). Making a study “more ethnographic.” In J. Van Maanen (Ed.), Representation in ethnography (pp. 79-111). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.




47 thoughts on “Worlds Apart: The Enduring Significance of Ojibwe Culture

    1. Cindy, thank you so much for your kindness. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and the joy your beautiful photo essays bring into my life.


  1. “Yet, from my perspective, we must learn to be mindful of the impacts our cultural ways have on those with whom we share the earth, now and in the future” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve lived close to First Peoples and old Spanish families in New Mexico. This helped me to better understand ‘culture’ as my New England upbringing taught little other than an appreciation for ‘ethnic’ foods of European immigrants. Now living in Hawaii for a number of years I am able to better acknowledge and learn from the those that live a modern lifestyle while maintaining their principles and world view.


    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections, Dohn. It seems you have had a chance to experience a wide variety of cultural views. I don’t know of a better way to make our own taken-for-granted cultures visible to our eyes than to learn to see what other cultures value.

      Hawaii is a special place. I look forward to learning more about your experiences and insights about your new home.


  2. How typical of European-American officials to negate culture. They probably don’t recognize themselves as participating in culture. In the mainstream, greed for money drives all social interaction. It’s replaced the ethics and morality that are the foundation of culture in other ethnic groups.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Stuart. I agree that money is a significant motivation for dominating other cultures, but I wonder if there is a deeper issue — the fear that revolutionary alternatives to domination threaten the power of those who currently hold it in any given context. Money is certainly one primary means to maintain that power.

      I remember reading the comments of legislators from the late 1800s who crafted policies to impose private land ownership on tribal communities in the U.S. They acknowledged that this communistic approach provided lives of self-sufficiency and contentment for tribal people, but this was viewed as a disincentive to “progress.” By forcing individual land ownership on tribal people, they hoped to encourage competition and eliminate an alternative to capitalism. In the words of Senator Henry Dawes who championed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, “They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common … and under that there is no enterprise to make your home better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much progress.” Of course, the resulting legislation was also a means to abrogate treaties yet again so the U.S. could appropriate additional territory.

      Competition versus collaboration, individualism versus interdependence, stewardship of nature versus domination and exploitation — money is but one means to stay in power and impose and maintain the supremacy of one cultural social order on others. I’m not sure why it is so difficult to dislodge the notion that competition, individualism, and domination are preferable!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Individual land ownership has had really unfortunate consequences for the great majority of European Americans. As far as I can see competition and individualism are ideologies that are very systematically promoted by corporate media propaganda.

        I also see millions of people globally working on the local level to reject competition and individualism in favor of cooperation and mutual interdependence. In other words, people are rising up and rejecting their conditioning.

        I suspect it has a lot to do with the economic downturn and the realization that capitalism isn’t really working any longer.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree with your observation about land and home ownership in the U.S. For most families, home “ownership” means working to pay banks exorbitant interest rates, a form of wage slavery.

          It’s heartening to hear about growing global movements to focus on alternatives to individualism – yet it also seems that state repression of activists is increasing also. These are certainly interesting times we live in…


  3. I’m reading a dissertation written by an Alutiiq woman about her people’s storytelling tradition. Interestingly she discusses many of the same issues you do in your research. I like the wholistic approach to scholarship that you both use – and as she explains it’s a necessary approach to research of people you are part of. And of course, as always you provided another glimpse into your people’s culture that I did not know about – the ricing. Thanks as always for sharing your knowledge and wise observations.


    1. Thank you for sharing information about a fascinating research study on storytelling, Skywalker! I wish more people recognized the importance of approaching life (and scholarship about life) from a holistic perspective.


  4. From my perspective, raised in western tradition, I think we have such a lot to learn. It’s sad to think of the cultural arrogance which is imposed, when in reality it is western culture and selfish capitalism which have created much of the crisis and pain which fills the world at the moment. Please keep sharing, so that we can learn other ways of being, and of living with life. It’s an honour and a privilege to read your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. First off, this is an excellent essay; I loved it, enlightened by it and enjoyed it.

    I find many admirable and honorable cultural qualities of all Native Americans. Many people of all cultures hold admiration for them. I certainly do, they’ve had a preponderance of positive influence on my life that has extended to our décor. And though I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a musician, I play, or rather attempt to play, the Native American five-hole Flute. I know many white folks are fond of telling me, a 100% German white man, that they have “Indian” blood in them, though you’d never suspect it, not on a bet.

    Culture, group, society, whatever it is, I think—I don’t know, I’m just turning thoughts in my head, bear with me, please—removes the individual, the individual thought, perspective, ideas, and instills groupthink but more damning a sense of group elitism. And that, of course, stirs discord among various groups, cultures, countries. On the group’s individual level, it keeps us locked to “old ways” which can be but aren’t necessary always good ways. The, “we’ve always done it like this” attitude, is retrograde if civilization (mockingly called) is to advance to a peaceful harmonious existence for all of earth’s creatures. Culture, tradition, reminiscing, and stubbornness feed that mentality. We, all of cultures, have been doing the same basic thing for millennia and not surprisingly with the same results—war, killing, strife.

    Which brings me to this, you know there’s a saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it, that we—the white settlers—should have let the “Indians” civilize us. Well, we can’t say how that would have turned out, but I’m betting we’d all been better off; a whole lot better off.

    Finally, as an animal rights activist, even I understand the once necessity for hunting, and I respect it as the moral dilemma Native Americas once faced. That then was a far cry from what hunting is today, a blood lust arousal. And this arousal is epidemic and the foundations of all war, hate, and killing.

    Peace Carol, and thank you.


    1. Thank you, Peter. You have raised so many important issues. I wonder if we will ever be able to recognize that we are all relatives regardless of our socially-constructed cultures and the geographic origins of our ancestors. The thing about traditions is that they were all invented and continue to transform everyday with each individual’s interpretation. Unfortunately, too few people take the time to think about the underlying values and ethics that are the real problem, and whose interests are served by not questioning why we act in certain ways. What will it take for us to learn to celebrate the richness of diversity that other cultures offer? And how can we learn to work together to preserve the abundance and beauty of the earth we all (should) share? I wish I had answers to these questions.

      I appreciate your commitment to animal rights and living in harmony with nature, and your discussion of your flute and décor! It reminds me of Peter Seeger’s song, “All Mixed Up.”

      Peter, I am grateful that we are part of the same virtual family so I can learn from your wisdom and compassion.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Carol, you have provided an ethnographic tour-de-force that the dominant/power culture would do well to consider. While I’m not holding my breath on that happening, I do think there are people paying closer attention to the role that culture plays in shaping “the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior” that you referenced. I wish that educational research utilized this approach to a greater extent rather than continually relying on easily manipulated quantitative studies and “data” sets, reducing students and teachers to an impersonal set of inputs/outputs.

    The differences highlighted in the approaches to hunting and subsistence were telling. Food consumption involves the transference of energy of sentient beings, whether plants or animals. To reduce the taking of animal life to “blood sport” reveals an utter contempt and disconnect from the land that sustains us all. If we continue to “walk heavily”, we will reap the whirlwind of climate change, broken ecosystems and fragmented cultures. So much food for thought here, so little time…


    1. I, too, wish that the educational system did a better job measuring outcomes that are meaningful, Jeff, and a better job providing teachers with the freedom, respect, and resources to educate students about things that really matter. Maybe then we could avoid “the whirlwind of climate change, broken ecosystems and fragmented cultures” you so eloquently describe as the possible future we are all facing.

      Peace to you, Jeff, and thank you for sharing important insights with such clarity and eloquence.


    1. Claire, you are so kind. Thank you.

      I have been thinking about you and wondering whether the petition resulted in support and positive outcomes. If there’s anything I can do to follow up, please let me know. (You can always let me know via email.)


  7. My oldest daughter majored in “cultural anthropology” and got her degree from Muenster ,Germany a few years ago. After reading your “process” of how one goes about studying a culture etc, I understand why she was so fascinated with the subject. I feel we need to learn from one another + respect our differences in life, but throughout history it is not what we humans do…we seem to feel it is our “right” to change everyone to think/live the way we do since we know best…it is good people like you that dedicate your life, to help others keep their cultures alive.
    I was facintated by the “pole” and how a person could be killed harvesting rice! I am terrified of drowning and never realized the dangers in harvesting rice.

    “Hunting is not a sport – it’s something that you do for food. It’s not a sport if you leave something for what you take. That’s why we leave tobacco for something we take – we’re being responsible. We are at the mercy of the Great One and the power when we’re out there, but we go knowing that we have to have food to live and we have to do that.”

    I believe God provides all that we need here on earth and we need to “all” pay attention. We are not taking care of the earth and our young people will be left with a mess. I am trying to teach my children + my two very small grandchildren how to take care of the earth. It all works beautifully since our creator made it that way + if we don’t learn how to respect it and take care of it, we will lose it. In my opinion, the Native American Culture is the one we should be looking to for our answers to many of our environmental problems today…they understand how it works better than anyone!


  8. Thank you for sharing so many important issues, Robbie. Certainly your example as an urban gardener committed to growing food and flowers, caring for the earth and helping keep pollinators healthy. models important principles for children. I know I learn something new each time I visit your blog.

    It’s exciting to learn that your daughter studied cultural anthropology. I’d love to hear more about her work sometime 🙂

    As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and even more so now when I know you took time away from your beautiful garden to sit inside and look at a computer screen.


  9. My first sitting was interrupted so I had to delay commenting when I liked this earlier. This is a wonderfully written piece that I really enjoyed reading Carol. My fellow bloggers have been quite accurate in the assignment of superlatives. I thought the refusal to assign a superior status to a particular approach made the comparison all the more valid. Moreover, the understanding of the evolution of traditions fundamentally underpinning the survey is also something with which I found favor.

    The sacredness with which the Ojibwe approach life harkens back to a time when man understood that he was part of an ecosystem and sought only dominion dictated by necessity. This resonated with me on a deep level.

    I think the interweaving of Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” with Darwin’s evolution have had a profoundly detrimental impact on man’s understanding of both his role and place within the natural order. The superiority of mutual aid and a co-operative paradigm versus one grounded in competition are largely lost to the imperial approach to societal organization. This however is now a global mindset as the model has been exported well beyond the confines of Western Europe and America. I guess time will decide whether there’s any merit to this approach as it certainly eludes me.

    I must ask, during the process of data collection and research, were you privy to any information regarding the Ojibwe understanding of spirituality? Or more specifically is there an influence exerted by the “spirit world” on the material universe?


    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments, H3nry. I promise to reply in a more substantive way, but it may not be until tomorrow evening after my class. I still have to finish reading and commenting on student papers and prepare my class “lecture/dialogue.”

      I send my best wishes to you in the meantime, H3nry!


    2. Again, I want to thank you for your thoughtful comments, H3nry. I appreciate the two specific areas you highlighted, cultural relativism and exploring cultural contrasts over time. Too many research studies ignore the need to explore the reality that cultures change, and hence, present only what they see in a narrow window of time, taking a snapshot that tends to reify and freeze culture for eternity. The second issue is the need to let readers know who the author is and how he or she sees the world. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I was “trained” as a quantitative researcher to be objective and only use third person language when I wrote. Learning anthropological methodology opened up new possibilities and forced me to put myself in the picture and share my own perspectives. I have realized that I can never be separate from the research I do, from the people who share their stories with me. The experiences and stories become part of who I am forever. One of the many reasons I find your posts so fascinating is the frequent reminder of our interconnectedness, the way our consciousness influences others through the energy of quantum physics.

      In terms of your question about spirituality, I made a very conscious decision during the study to keep my focus on the questions I was exploring in my research out of respect for others’ beliefs. Although I was asked to attend ceremonies by community members, I needed to decline. I’m not sure I can explain why, except that it felt like “bad medicine” to attend sacred ceremonies as an observer. The little I have learned about spiritual beliefs has come from my own experiences, from living on my mother’s reservation for more than a decade, and from working with tribal people throughout Wisconsin for many years. Simply stated, what I learned is that there is no separation between spiritual and material worlds — they’re inextricably interwoven. How we live is our ceremony, our prayer. Teaching for me feels like a sacred duty. Some people are more aware of this than others, and their sensitivity sometimes makes it impossible to bear living in this world of competition, greed, and cruelty without some means of escape.


      1. I understand and respect the position that you adopted during the course of your research Carol. The interwoven nature of the spiritual and material realms is largely lost to our world of ipods and oil spills but there are a few of us out there that continue to define life by something more than measureability. Usually when life affords a glimpse of this connectedness terms like “synchronicity” or “coincidence” are tossed around.

        I have always thought that a great tragedy of the genocide of the Americas is the death of the sacredness of the world around us and a resulting commodification of every aspect of the natural world. I am glad that there are teachers like you whose very existence speaks to preserving this perspective.

        Keep well my friend.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. wow – thanks!
    this is a piece I’d love to have my C1 (advanced) students read! Can we include it in our little ebook project?


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Michelle. Please feel free to share the essay with students and in the ebook. (I actually wrote it because my research students inspired me to dust off an old draft academic manuscript and rework it into a more user-friendly essay. I am grateful that it can be of use 🙂 .)


  11. This is a beautiful addition, masterfully produced, to add to the wealth of unique Ojibwe and Native American history presented here. The stories, photos and pictures add to the excitement of this unique and informative post!


    1. I so appreciate your kind and thoughtful comments, Eddie. I know Carl Gawboy, the Ojibwe artist who allowed me to share his work, will appreciate your kindness as well.


  12. Carol–Thanks so much for inviting me to join you here! Your entries are insightful, beautifully written, and full of knowledge and information about the Ojibwe people.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Reblogged this on Voices from the Margins and commented:

    Ojibwe Resistance in the News – I don’t often reblog previous posts these days. I’ve also noticed an interesting trend. The posts about Native American issues tend to be the least popular in terms of views, likes, and comments. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they’re viewed as historical, too long or academic, angry, or no longer relevant. Yet as I read the news today, contemporary Ojibwe resistance was among the highlighted stories on Huffington Post (
    From my perspective, differing worldviews about life and our responsibility for protecting our environment – our world – our relatives – never lose relevance. As hunting and gathering season begins here in the north country, I decided to reblog this post.


  14. ‘Culture matters not a jot to a white Euro American’ … I will never, for the life of me, understand two things about Americans ( I use the term loosely ) first is their love affair with guns and secondly, their other mistress, hunting for ‘fun’. Both extremely destructive pastimes.
    I have only travelled to your country once (1975, and I visited Montana) and I was appalled at how the native Americans, the women in particular, were treat by Euro-Americans. It will be a stain forever on their souls. Fascinating post Carol, Gave me plenty of food for thought and reflection…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pat, these are such astute observations about USA culture (or what passes for culture here)!

      Interesting that your one visit to the USA was Montana. I actually lived there for 3 years – and your observations about the anti-Native sentiment are also very astute. I remember the rush of freedom I felt as I crossed over the border for the last time – “out of enemy territory” as I called it then – on my way back home to the Great Lakes. Of course, I left friends I cared about and wonderful students, but I don’t miss the nastiness of the racism, both subtle and in-your-face, that accentuates the troubling conditions Native people face there.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Oh Carol, Thank you for this heart-touching post. You have touched on so many issues, yet kept the focus on the generosity and resilience of the people. As fall approaches, we remember that subsistence practices are necessary, even when we are economically comfortable, for without them we forget who we are. Yesterday I was privileged to walk with a student as we sought medicinal plants for winter use. It was a blessing to walk with him, to share, and to embody the knowledge of the old ones, what small part of that I still hold. It was, as my grandmother might have said, “good”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience gathering medicinal plants, Michael. Such a wonderful thing to do with a student 🙂

      I always think of these stories in the fall and I remember the warmth and laughter as Ojibwe people talked about their adventures hunting and ricing and the lessons they learned from the elders. I am hopeful that the youth of today have that privilege so they can hold on to that knowledge, too.

      Chi miigwetch for your ever kind and thoughtful comments.


    1. Thank you for sharing this essay, Sojourner. I know it goes against all of the advice for being popular – too long, too academic, and on a topic that interests very few people. It may even be viewed as critical, angry, and offensive despite my efforts to use evidence-based dialectical arguments to support my ultimate hypotheses.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. God knows, we need more of this in depth, mind using kind of investigative writing.

        I am more than happy to reblog this. And what is popular or what gets “hits” is of little importance to me, as is the same with you!

        I am more than half way through, and I have found nothing to be angry or offensive. Critical yes, but criticism and much more is needed!!

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Just sighted this article, Carol, thanks to Honey’s reblog, in turn enabling my connect with your wonderful world of ethnography. Be it Ojibwa, Euro-American, African, or Oriental cultures, the story of mankind evolves from hunter-gatherer stages to agriculture, land owning, and industrialisation, to present day frenzy of produce-consume and self-aggrandisement, driven by market capitalism. While hunter-gatherers of yore extracted only as per requirement, sharing the booty responsibly, their latter day formations are on an exploitation spree, taking more than required, and depleting earth’s resources; not only depletion but also perpetrating pollution and destruction with nil concern for sustainability and renewal. So the bottomline is all about conservation and sustainability, in the wider interest of mankind everywhere…best wishes… Raj.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and discussion a great deal, Raj. Thank you. I agree that capitalism has been devastating to societies and the environment worldwide. We do need to explore alternatives that are based on the recognition of interdependence, community sharing and environmental stewardship. Some cultures of the past and present have much to teach us in this regard.

      Liked by 1 person

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