Anishinaabe Religious Traditions

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ANISHINAABE RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Anishinaabe (A-ni-shi-naa-bay; pl. Anishinaabe or Anishinaabeg) occupy an area roughly described by the Great Lakes. To the north, they can be found in the Canadian province of Ontario. In the United States, their home territory includes parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Other branches can be found in outlying areas, such as Manitoba and North Dakota. There are many names by which the Anishinaabe are known, the most common being Ojibwe (Ojibwa, Ojibway) and Chippewa. In Canada, the term Saulteaux can also be found. Some Anishinaabe view their nation as consisting of the "three fires," the Ojibwe, Ottawa (Odawa), and Potawatomi. Anishinaabe is thought of as the most traditional name, and its usage is starting to become more widespread and common. Like many native societies, the Anishinaabe are traditionally organized by clans, or dodaims, from which the English term totem is derived.

The migration story of the Anishinaabe holds that the people originally lived around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. Sometime in the late 1500s, however, the Anishinaabe began to move west. There are several accounts of how this migration began. Most commonly, it is thought that an epidemic originally spurred the migration. However, it is also said that a sacred megis shell appeared before the people to lead them west. They were to stop for a period of time at various points when the shell showed itself, and finish the migration when the shell appeared for the last time. The route of the migration included stopping points at current-day Montreal and Lake Nipissing in Canada, Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan, and Madeline Island in the Apostle Island group in Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. Madeline Island was the last place at which the shell showed itself, establishing that location as one of the most sacred places for the Anishinaabe. The migration continued, however, and the Anishinaabe eventually established outposts in Minnesota and as far west as Turtle Mountain in North Dakota. Other Anishinaabe moved along the north shore of Lake Superior and into Manitoba.

Anishinaabe cosmology pictures a layered universe filled with "other-than-human" agents. The layers consist of the underwater realm, the land, and the sky. Living beings are thought to be controlled by what are sometimes referred to as the "masters of the species." That is, each species of living beings has a manitou (manito, manidoo), or spirit, which controls the presence and movements of representatives of that species on earth. The master can dispense or withhold blessings as it sees fit. However, individual representatives of the species also have a certain degree of autonomy.

Within the layered universe, one particularly important dynamic is that which exists between the Thunderers and Michibizhii. The Thunderers are generally imagined as large birds of prey. Michibizhii, or Messhepeshu, has various incarnations. He is sometimes pictured as a snake-like creature, but he can also appear as more cat-like, or even as a combination of the two. He is the leader of the fish, reptile, and amphibian manitous. While not entirely hostile toward humans, he is very powerful, and that power must be carefully respected. For example, it is not uncommon for Anishinaabe to sprinkle tobacco over the water when venturing out by boat in order to appease him. It is thought that the Thunderers prey on Michibizhii, hunting him with lightning bolts. Not ever being able to destroy the manitou completely, their eternal battle is reenacted with every summer thunderstorm.

Another significant being is the windigo, a giant, cannibal ice skeleton who roams the woods in the winter, preying on human beings. Under conditions of starvation, human beings could also become, or turn, windigo. When an individual turned into a cannibal in this manner, it was thought there was no hope of cure, and the only option was to kill the affected person. The last known case of so-called windigo psychosis occurred in Canada in the early twentieth century.

One of the most important aspects of Anishinaabe morality involves maintaining good relations with other humans and "other-than-human" agents. Maintaining respect for all living things is a core value by which the Anishinaabe live. Sometimes the relationships are individual in nature; other times the relationships are more corporate. Usually, maintaining good relationships will take the form of giving thanks or asking for blessings. Many of these relationships are with animals or natural forces, but it should under no circumstances be thought that the Anishinaabe worship nature. In the past, the custom was to thank an animal for sacrificing its life and to treat the animal as an honored guest so that its individual spirit would make a favorable report back to the master of the species, thus ensuring the continued pity and blessings of the master. Maintaining good relations can take other forms, however. After killing a deer, for example, it is taught that part of the liver should be left with the entrails as a gift for the wolves, whom the Anishinaabe hold very close to their hearts.

Human life is regulated by its own moral system, which is referred to as bimaadiziwin, or the "Good Life." The Good Life is oriented toward achieving a long and healthy existence. The teaching of bimaadiziwn operates at many levels. On a simple day-to-day basis, they suggest such actions as rising and retiring with the sun. Bimaadiziwin governs human relations as well, stressing the type of conduct appropriate between individuals and the manner in which social life is to be conducted. Bimaadiziwin also covers the relationship with the broader environment. So, for example, it teaches the necessity of respecting all life, from the smallest insects on up. Bimaadiziwin, however, does not exist as a definitive body of law. Instead, it is left up to the individual to develop an understanding of bimaadiziwin through careful attention to its teachings wherever they can be found. Because of this the term is quite complex and can apply variously to a religious blessing, a moral teaching, a value system, or a goal in life.

Humor is an important part of the worldview of the Anishinaabe, who believe that maintaining a sense of humor is a critical part of life. This perspective leads to certain thinking patterns and modes of conduct, and it informs everything from complex conceptual schemes to situation ethics, patterns of social integration, and attitudes of forgiveness or pragmatism, which include complex conceptual schemes, situational ethics, patterns of social integration, attitudes of forgiveness, and a pragmatic approach to life. The root of the comic vision of the Anishinaabe is found in their sacred stories, most especially those involving Nanabush.

Nanabush is the cultural hero of the Anishinaabe, and he is often thought of as a trickster figure. He is known by many names, including Nanabush, Nanapush, Nanabozho, Manabush, Manabozho, and Wenabozho. Tales about Nanabush are told only during the winter and it is considered a severe breech of Anishinaabe etiquette and spiritually dangerous to discuss him out of season. Traditionally, it was thought his father was the West Wind, and he is commonly paired with a twin brother, Flint. His mother died in childbirth while giving birth to Flint, so Nanabush was raised by his grandmother, or Nokomis in the Anishinaabe language. In the present day, some religious leaders teach that Nanabush is the son of God, and that while God sent Jesus to instruct Europeans, He sent Nanabush to teach Indian people.

While not all Anishinaabe myths involve Nanabush, he is a central figure in traditional lore, and so will form the nexus of the discussion of Anishinaabe sacred stories here. As with many trickster figures, Nanabush is not thought to have created the world, but rather to have shaped life into its current configuration. He is thus credited with having named the different aspects of creation and with having determined their present form. Nanabush was also responsible for the creation of human beings, to whom he brought the various accoutrements of civilization, such as fire and music. Earlier in human history, the Anishinaabe believe, giant cannibals and other monsters roamed the earth. Nanabush was responsible for destroying them.

However, in true trickster fashion, Nanabush was also responsible for introducing greed, gluttony, selfishness, laziness, and other base behaviors. However, the Anishinaabe do not fault Nanabush for being morally decrepit or evil as a result. Instead, they point to the shortcomings of Nanabush as a way of explaining human behavior. Nanabush served as the model for and creator of human conduct. Thus, whenever he did anything stupid, he said to himself, "There's another foolish thing my aunts and uncles [human beings] can do." So, being able to attribute less than noble acts to Nanabush allows the Anishinaabe to exercise forgiveness in regard to their own weaknesses.

Eventually, Nanabush left this world, and it is now commonly thought that he stands in the Northwest sky next to his father, the West Wind. The Northwest wind is thus a reminder of Nanabush to the Anishinaabe. Some believe he will one day return to help restore Anishinaabe culture.

In the peopled universe of the Anishinaabe, access to the sacred was achieved through vision quests. In traditional society, the quest had to occur before the supplicant reached puberty. It should be borne in mind that the word for "vision" in Anishinaabe also has the nuance of deep thought. So, children were primed for the vision quest in being directed by their parents to spend time the woods thinking about life and absorbing the environment. Vision quests could last anywhere from four to eight days, during which time the condition of the faster was carefully monitored. Children were admonished to not seek too much spiritual strength by fasting for overly long periods of time. They were also told they could reject visions. Thus, weaker "spiritual guides"that is, beings who visited them during visionswere to be shunned in favor of stronger beings. Children not successful in the spiritual quest were thought to lack direction in life. For those who were successful, it was customary not to reveal the identity of the spirit guide. Doing so could result in severe retribution from the guide. At the start of the twenty-first century, the practice of the vision quest continues among some Anishinaabe, and instances of individuals past the time of puberty going on the vision quest occur.

Spiritual power gained in the vision quest is further developed in the Midewiwin, or "Grand Medicine Society." The Midewiwin is often thought of as the traditional religion of the Anishinaabe. The rites and teachings surrounding the Midewiwin are secret, however, and modern-day Anishinaabe are reluctant to discuss the Society. For this reason, the remarks here will be kept to a minimum. The Midewiwin is a medicine society. Priests are known as Midé, and there are either four or eight degrees of initiation, depending on the local tradition. Along with the teaching of traditional lore, instruction in healing is provided, particularly concerning the use of herbs. In the past, it was not uncommon for the Midewiwin to handle funerals as well.

In traditional thinking, the land of the ancestors is thought to lie to the west. Upon death, the soul begins a four-day journey. Each day along the path the soul encounters a different temptation in the form of berries. The list of these temptations varies, but strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and gooseberries are commonly mentioned. A soul being guided along the path of the dead is admonished to not stop and eat. Doing so will result in one being permanently stuck in that location. Once having passed those temptations, the soul reaches a river across which is a slippery log, difficult to cross. Traditionally, this was not conceived of as a test of moral character or judgment of one's actions in life. However, those not able to cross the log were thought to be swept away into oblivion. After safely crossing the river, one could join the ancestors.

The religious landscape of the Anishinaabe was altered with the arrival of Europeans on these shores, of course. However, it should in no way be thought that the Anishinaabe were passive victims or unthinking recipients of religious conversion. Many Anishinaabe kept to the old ways, and those who converted adapted Christianity to fit their own worldview. As Michael D. McNally has shown in detail, the introduction of Anishinaabe religiosity into Christian forms is most evident in the singing of hymns. For example, the texts of Anishinaabe hymns reflect the many ways in which life in this world is privileged over salvation in the next. Other aspects of Anishinaabe culture are reflected in hymn-singing as well, such as the importance of silence. Hymns are sung very slowly, which exaggerates and gives meaning to the pauses between sounds. Also, since the hymns are sung in the Anishinaabe language, hymn-singing is one means by which the language is being kept alive. So, in its Nativist form, Christianity among the Anishinaabe expresses the traditional worldview and culture in some ways.

There is a belief among the Anishinaabe that after the appearance of Europeans, an historical phase consisting of seven "fires," or eras began, each with its own characteristics. The "sixth fire" is a time of great loss and struggle. The "seventh fire" is a time of recovery of lost traditions. Many Anishinaabe believe that the "seventh fire" has been lit. And, indeed, there is a resurgence of Anishinaabe culture underway. Of course, it must be acknowledged that expressions of religion among the Anishinaabe today are quite varied. Some Anishinaabe are fully assimilated into mainstream culture, while others are deeply rooted in Anishinaabe language and tradition. Many Anishinaabe fall in between these two extremes. The cultural movement, though, is toward a return to traditions. Thus, while Anishinaabe religion, culture, and worldview are certain to continue to undergo changes, it appears the "seventh fire" will continue to burn.

See Also

Cosmology, article on Indigenous North and Mesoamerican Cosmologies; Native American Christianities; North American Indian Religions, overview articles.


Two good introductory books on Anishinaabe religion are Frances Densmore's Chippewa Customs (1929; reprint, St. Paul, Minn., 1979) and Christopher Vecsey's Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes (Philadelphia, 1983). However, Vecsey's conclusions about the collapse of Anishinaabe culture need to be viewed with caution in light of the resurgence of the traditions of the people over the last several decades.

In the current age, the Anishinaabe are starting to write about their religion and worldview. Basil Johnston is a well-known and authoritative author on the Anishinaabe. His books include: The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (New York, 1995), Ojibway Ceremonies (Lincoln, Neb., 1982), and Ojibway Heritage (Lincoln, Neb., 1976). Winona LaDuke is an internationally recognized Anishinaabe leader and activist. She has written on bimaadiziwin in "White Earth: A Lifeway in the Forest," included in a book edited by her: All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, pp. 115134 (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). Edward Benton-Banai is a spiritual leader from Madeline Island. His version of certain Anishinaabe sacred stories appears in his book for children, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (St. Paul, Minn., 1988). Ann M. Dunn is a storyteller from the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota. Her books include When Beaver Was Very Great: Stories to Live By (Mount Horeb, Wis., 1995).

Modern scholars are doing a better job than some of their predecessors at representing the Anishinaabe, especially as a living tradition. Two of the best are Michael D. McNally and Theresa S. Smith; see McNally's Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion (Oxford, 2000) and Smith's The Island of the Anishinaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World (Moscow, Idaho, 1995).

This author's work focuses on cultural interpretation, and deals especially with the manner in which Anishinaabe religion is surviving the impact of colonialism; see Lawrence W. Gross's "Bimaadiziwin, or the 'Good Life,' as a Unifying Concept of Anishinaabe Religion," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 26, no. 1 (2002): 1532; "Cultural Sovereignty and Native American Hermeneutics in the Interpretation of the Sacred Stories of the Anishinaabe," Wicazo-Sa Review 18, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 127134; and "The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion," American Indian Quarterly 26, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 436459.

A good treatment of the Anishinaabe worldview can be found in Rupert Ross's Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality (St. Louis, Mo., 1992).

Selwyn Dewdney's The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway (Toronto, 1975) provides the most thorough investigation of the birch-bark scrolls used by the Anishinaabe to record their history and teaching. His observations on deviant scrolls, however, should be read with caution. For more sacred stories and an academic interpretation of their meaning, consult Thomas W. Overholt and J. Baird Callicott's Clothed-in-Fur, and Other Tales: An Introduction to an Ojibwa World View (Lanham, Md., 1982).

M. Inez Hilger was a Catholic nun who worked with the Anishinaabe for a number of years. Her works provide insights into the everyday life of the Anishinaabe, including religious beliefs; see her Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background (Washington, D.C., 1951; reprint, St. Paul, Minn., 1992) and Chippewa Families: A Social Study of White Earth Reservation, 1938 (Washington, D.C., 1939; reprint, St. Paul, Minn., 1998).

The works of two earlier scholars of the Anishinaabe, A. Irving Hallowell and Ruth Landes, must be read with caution. Evidence of an anti-Anishinaabe bias can sometimes be found in their writing. So, while their ethnographic observations are useful, some of their conclusions are suspect. However, they have made major contributions to the field, so their works must be included here. Hallowell's Culture and Experience (Philadelphia, 1955; reprint, Prospect Heights, Ill., 1988) is a collection of essays, and his "Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View," in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, pp. 1952 (New York, 1960), is one of the most classic treatments of the Anishinaabe. Landes's works include Ojibwa Religion and the Midéwiwin (Madison, Wis., 1968), The Ojibwa Woman (New York, 1938; reprint, Lincoln, Neb., 1997), and Ojibwa Sociology (New York, 1937; reprint, 1969).

One of the best ethnographic descriptions of the Midewiwin can be found in W. J. Hoffman's "The Midé'wiwin or 'Grand Medicine Society' of the Ojibwa," in the Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 18851886, edited by J. W. Powell, pp. 143300 (Washington, D.C., 1891).

William Warren was an Anishinaabe well versed in the tradition and history of his people. His history of the Ojibwe includes discussions of Anishinaabe religion; see his History of the Ojibway People (St. Paul, Minn., 1885; reprint, 1984). The German traveler, Johann Kohl, provided a detailed discussion of his visit to the Anishinaabe in the 1850s, and his work remains a valuable resource; see his Kitchi-Gami: Life among the Lake Superior Ojibway, translated by Lascelles Wraxall (London, 1860; reprint, St. Paul, Minn., 1985).

The works of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft need to be addressed because of their enduring legacy. His so-called Algic research on the Anishinaabe and other woodland nations should only be used with extreme caution, and his works are not recommended, nor will they be listed here. Schoolcraft mixed Anishinaabe, Iroquois, other woodland Indian, and non-Indian myths, religions, and cultures; committed errors in his analyses and conclusions; falsified material; and invented evidence. Thus, unless one is well versed in the sacred stories and other traditions of woodland nations, it is better to avoid his work.

Lawrence W. Gross (2005)