Some groups may have believed in the existence of an overarching supreme creative power. All animate and inanimate objects had spirits that could be good or evil (the latter, like the cannibalistic Windigo, were greatly feared). People attempted to keep the spirits happy through prayer, by the ritual use of tobacco, and with the intervention of shamans. Tobacco played a significant role in many rituals.
By fasting and dreaming in a remote place, young men sought a guardian spirit that would assist them throughout their lives. In general, dreams were considered of extreme importance. There was probably little religious ceremonialism before people began dying in unprecedented numbers as a result of hitherto unknown diseases of Old World origin. The Midewiwin, or Medicine Dance, was a curing society that probably arose, except among the northern Ojibwas, in response to this development.
Men led autonomous bands of perhaps 300 to 400 people on the basis of both family and ability. Band headman were often war captains but had little direct authority before the fur trade period; for their own advantage, traders worked to increase the power of the headman. These efforts ultimately led to the creation of a patrilineal line of chiefs.
About fifteen to twenty-five patrilineal clans were linked into the larger divisions. Bands came together in villages during the summer and dispersed for the winter hunting season. Within the context of a social organization that was relatively egalitarian, there were people with higher status than others, such as chiefs, accomplished warriors, and shamans.
Although a special feast was held to celebrate a boy's first kill, the major male puberty rite was the vision quest, which entailed a four-day fast deep in the forest to await a propitious dream. Girls might also have visions, but they were not generally required to undergo a quest.
Corpses were washed and well presented. Wrapped in birchbark, they were removed from the wigwam, after a period of lying in state, through an opening in the west side. A priest gave a funeral ceremony, after which the body was buried with tools and equipment. The soul was said to travel for four days to a happy location in the west. The mourning period lasted one year.
The Anishinabes enjoyed regular visiting as well as social dancing (although on such occasions men often danced apart from women). They also enjoyed various sports, such as lacrosse and a game in which they threw a pole along frozen snow, and contests; gambling invariably played a part in these activities. Lacrosse was rough and carried religious overtones.
The traditional Anishinabe dwelling was a domed wigwam of cattail mats or birchbark over a pole frame. There were also larger, elliptical wigwams that housed several families. Hunters also used temporary bark-covered A-frame lodges, and people built smaller sweat lodges, used for purification or curing, as well as menstrual huts and Midewiwin, or Medicine Lodge Society, lodges.
Women grew small gardens of corn, beans, and squash in the south. Men hunted and trapped a variety of large and small game, mostly in the winter, as well as birds and fowl. Meat was roasted, stone boiled, or dried and stored. Some was dried and mixed with fat and chokecherries to make pemmican, an extremely nourishing, long-lasting food. Men fished year round, especially for sturgeon, sometimes at night by the light of flaming birchbark torches. People also ate shellfish where available.
In the fall, women in canoes gathered wild rice, which became a staple in the Anishinabe southwest and important as well around Lake Winnipeg. They also gathered a variety of berries, fruits, and nuts, and some groups collected maple sap for sugar, which they used as a seasoning and in water. Northern Ojibwas had access neither to wild rice nor to maple sap.
Trade items included elm-bark bags and assorted birchbark goods, carved wooden bowls, food, and maple sugar. As they expanded west, the people began to trade Woodland items for buffalo-derived products. Clothing and medicine bags were decorated with quillwork. Men carved wooden utilitarian as well as religious items (figurines). They also made birchbark canoes and snowshoes. Northern Ojibwas used toboggans and canoe sleds, sometimes hauled by large dogs, from the nineteenth century on. The Anishinabe were also known for their soft elm-bark bags. Lake Winnipeg women made fine moose hide mittens, richly decorated in beads. As with many Native peoples, storytelling evolved to a fine art.
Dress varied according to location. Most clothing was made of buckskin. Ojibwas tended to color their clothing with red, yellow, blue, and green dyes. In the southwestern areas, women wore woven fiber shirts under a sleeveless dress. Other clothing included breechclouts, leggings, robes, and moccasins, the last often dyed and featuring a distinctive puckered seam. Fur garments were added in cold weather.
The Anishinabes probably came to their historical location from the northeast and had arrived by about 1200. They encountered Frenchmen in the early seventeenth century and soon became reliable French allies. From the later seventeenth century on, the people experienced great changes in their material and economic culture as they became dependent on guns, beads, cloth, metal items, and alcohol.
Pressures related to the fur trade, including Iroquois attacks, drove the Anishinabes to expand their territory by the late seventeenth century. With French firearms, they pressured the Dakotas to move west toward the Great Plains. They also drove tribes such as the Sauks, Foxes, and Kickapoos from Michigan and replaced the Hurons in lower Michigan and extreme southeast Ontario. With the westward march of British and especially French trading posts, Ojibwa bands also moved into Minnesota and north central Canada, displacing Siouan and other Algonquin groups. Many people also intermarried with Cree Indians and French trappers and became known as Métis, or Mitchif. By the eighteenth century, Anishinabe bands stretched from Lake Huron to the Missouri River.
The people were most deeply involved in the fur (especially beaver) trade during the eighteenth century. They fought the British in the French and Indian War and in Pontiac's Rebellion. In 1769, in alliance with neighboring tribes, they utterly defeated the Illinois Indians. They fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War. Following this loss, they kept up anti-American military pressure, engaging the non-Natives in Little Turtle's War, Tecumseh's Rebellion, and the War of 1812.
By the early nineteenth century, scattered, small hunter-fisher-gatherer bands of northern Ojibwas and Salteaux were located north and west of the Great Lakes. These people experienced significant changes from the early nineteenth century, such as a greater reliance on fish and hare products and on non-Native material goods.
The Plains Ojibwas (Bungis) had moved west as far as southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba and North Dakota and Montana. They adopted much of the Great Plains culture. The southeastern Ojibwas (Mississaugas), living in northern and southern Michigan and nearby Ontario, were hunters, fishers, gatherers, and gardeners. They also made maple sugar and, on occasion, used wild rice. Their summer villages were relatively large. Finally, the southwestern Ojibwas had moved into northern Wisconsin and Minnesota following the departing Dakotas. They depended on wild rice as well as hunting, fishing, gathering, gardening, and maple sugaring.
The Anishinabes living in the United States ceded much of their eastern land to that government in 1815 upon the final British defeat. Land cessions and the establishment of reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota followed during the early to midnineteenth century. Two small bands went to Kansas in 1839. In the 1860s, some groups settled with the Ottawas, Munsees, and Potawatomis in Indian Territory.
Michigan and Minnesota Anishinabe groups (with the exception of the Red Lake people) lost most of their land (90 percent or more in many cases) to allotment, fraud, and other irregularities in the mid- to late nineteenth century. They also suffered significant culture loss as a result of government policies encouraging forced assimilation. In the late nineteenth century, many southwestern Ojibwas worked as lumberjacks. Many in the southeast concentrated more on farming, although they continued other traditional subsistence activities when possible. Transition to non-Native styles of housing, clothing, and political organization was confirmed during this period.
Plains Ojibwas took part in the Métis rebellion of Louis Riel in 1869–1870. These groups were finally settled on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in the late nineteenth century and on the Rocky Boy Reservation in the early twentieth century. Around the turn of the century, the Turtle Mountain Chippewas, led by Chief Little Shell, worked to regain land lost in 1884 and to reenroll thousands of Métis whom the United States had unilaterally excluded from the tribal rolls. In 1904, the tribe received $1 million for a 10-million-acre land claim. Soon thereafter, most of the Turtle Mountain land was allotted. One result of that action was that many people, denied adequate land, were forced to scatter across the Dakotas and Montana. Most of the allotments were later lost to tax foreclosure, after which the tribal members, now landless, drifted back to Turtle Mountain.
The growing poverty of Michigan bands was partially reversed after most accepted the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in the 1930s and the United States reassumed its trust relationship with them. Many of these people moved to the industrial cities of the Midwest, especially in Michigan and Wisconsin, after World War II, although most retained close ties with the reservation communities.