MANITOU is the Algonquian name for a powerful and dangerous entity, especially one who appears in a nonhuman form and who controls a vital human resource, such as a food, medicine, pathway, or premonition. Although the numbers and types of manitous are believed to be indefinite and manifold, some common examples include animals, lakes, rapids, cliffs, winds, thunders, inspirations, visions, and dreams. Best translated as "spirit," manitou also refers to an individual's seat of personhood and agency. While the term originates specifically from the Algoquian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River valley, the concept is ubiquitous among all indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands. Known by other names, including oki, pilotois, and powwow in the various languages of this vast region, manitou is the more prominent term among indigenous peoples and scholars alike.
The concept of manitou reflects an anthropomorphic outlook shared by the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands, according to which all living things possess the same fundamental human characteristics. Rather than drawing sharp ontological distinctions between different classes of beings, such as humans, gods, plants, and animals, indigenous peoples of the region endow every living thing with the same type of tangible life force, or spirit, with the conjoined sense of personhood and power. According to this perspective, all beings possess similar (human) needs, emotions, motivations, and behaviors.
Conversely, the physical appearance of any particular living thing is understood as a nonessential, sometimes impermanent, feature of the person. This idea is evident in the indigenous oral traditions of the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands, where metamorphosis is a recurring theme. Some narratives, for instance, describe the circumstances in which certain ancestors transmogrified into the cliffs, lakes, hills, and other prominent physical features of the environment. Other stories relate occasions in which animals have transmogrified into human forms.
It is traditionally believed that while a person dreams the spirit wanders from the body and that at death it departs for the land of the dead or moves into a newborn's body. Thus it is the spirit that ultimately defines the person. Consequently, it is difficult and misleading in this context to speak of different classifications of manitous based on appearances, since these qualitative differences belie a common essential character that indigenous peoples confer to all living things.
But precisely what things, according to this perspective, are living? Given the variability that they associate with life-forms, it is perhaps not surprising that the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes and Northeast Woodlands detect and classify sprits according to quantitative rather than qualitative measures. While all living things are persons, according to this perspective, a living presence itself is indicated by agency—that is, by a movement, force, or power of any kind. Hence, all powers are persons.
While there are an indefinite number of living entities, it is the powerful, the especially spirited who command the attention of others. Likewise, while there are an indefinite number of nonhuman forces that might occupy any given locality in the form of such things as plants, animals, winds, and rocks, it is the powerful among spirits—the particularly awesome, beautiful, or striking objects of experience—that indigenous peoples typically refer to as manitous. This may include wolves, bears, eagles, thunders, rapids, dreams, inspirations, and other impressive nonhuman entities. Like powerful human beings, these entities are honored and respected because their impressiveness is an ominous indicator of their ability to dispense fortune or misfortune. Prayer, song, tobacco, or other gifts of gratitude are humbly offered to them in hope of arousing their favor and calming their temper.
Likewise, many of these indigenous communities received their first European visitors, along with their guns, brass kettles, and other strange and impressive wares, as manitous. Thus, rather than honoring a manitou according to a rigid taxonomy of living things, indigenous peoples honor any given manitou in direct correlation to the spiritual capacity that they perceive in it, him, or her.
As they view all spirits within the same ontological frame of reference, indigenous peoples apply ordinary social protocols of exchange and reciprocity to guide and interpret their interactions with manitous. According to the ethics of reciprocal gift exchange, in lieu of an even trade, material goods are exchanged for political capital—that is, in exchange for honor and respect. Consequently, these societies are led traditionally by the accomplished hunters, fishermen, healers, and orators of their communities, that is, those who amass honor in return for the food, medicine, wisdom, and other precious commodities that they provide.
Likewise, indigenous peoples pay homage to the nonhuman forces to which they attribute their fortunes and misfortunes. Thus, in fishing, hunting, healing, traveling, and all other important enterprises that are subject to fortuitous circumstances, indigenous peoples seek the aid or forbearance of associated spirits by presenting prayer, song, tobacco, or other ceremonial offerings. By placing tobacco in a lake at the outset of a fishing expedition, for instance, the fisherman intends to compel the lake manitou to reciprocate by releasing its bounty.
In many of these traditions, an individual seeks his or her own personal spirit helper by performing a vision quest, often at the time of adolescence. Upon envisioning an eagle, bear, thunder, or some other manitou while fasting in isolation, the quester finds a charm that represents the manitou, such as a feather, claw, bone, shell, or stone, which he or she thenceforth carries in a medicine bundle.
The anthropomorphic outlook embraced by the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands, which underscores the mutability of life forms, reflects a religious orientation that is ultimately grounded in a method, rather than an orthodoxy, for deciphering spirits. Although the characteristics of specific manitous are certainly conveyed by the many narrative traditions of the region, it is important to recognize that a people's oral tradition is in constant flux due to their ongoing encounters with the actual objects of experience that they consider manitous. In other words, while stories describe the anthropomorphic characteristics of a particular plant, animal, or landscape feature, these characteristics are shaped by the practical economic relationships that indigenous peoples have with them. As a people's relationships to various manitous shift over time, so do the corresponding myths and stories.
North American Indians, articles on Indians of the Northeast Woodlands, Indians of the Plains.
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James B. Jeffries (2005)