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Type of Government

Communities of Chippewa in the United States and Canada formed loosely connected groups (known as “bands”) that were politically independent. Bands were governed by councils made up of elders who chose a chief.


The Europeans first met the Chippewa in the Great Lakes region, a meeting reported in the Jesuit Relations (1640). In about 1660 the Chippewa migrated west, guided by a vision of a cowry shell, also known as the sacred miigis. Around 1690 they began trading furs for firearms and other goods with the French. The Chippewa used these firearms to combat the Sioux and Fox, who vied with them not only for fur but also for fields of wild rice. They pushed the Fox south into Wisconsin and drove the Sioux out of the northern Mississippi region. By the mid-eighteenth century they numbered about twenty-five thousand in the region from Lake Huron to the Turtle Mountains in the west (modern-day North Dakota).

The Chippewa relied on birch bark for their canoes, containers, structures called wigwams, and writing surfaces. In the fall bands divided into extended family units for the winter, and in the summer they gathered together, often at fishing sites or places where berries and wild rice were plentiful.

Government Structure

The Chippewa government was a multilevel system of elders and civil chiefs. Respected members met in councils and selected a chief, who took charge of the day-to-day operations. Civil chiefs could inherit their position or the elders could nominate them; regardless, acceptance of the position was not required. Councils of chiefs and elders from a number of bands sometimes met in a larger council to make decisions that would affect more than one band. Chiefs had official assistants. Any man or woman who could convince others to go into battle was a self-designated war chief. Men and women joined in discussion at general councils though votes were not usually counted.

Political Parties and Factions

Members of the Midewiwin Society, also called the Grand Medicine Society, wore mide (medicine bags) that were made from animal parts. Its members believed all living things had spirits that could be called on to protect the sick or to cause harm to enemies. This society practiced initiation, secrecy, and symbolism and did the record keeping of Chippewa history, stories, and music—in fact, it played such a crucial role for the Chippewa that it helped create a sense of solidarity among the bands.

Major Events

The Chippewa fought the British in two major wars: the French and Indian War (1754–1763) and the American Revolution (1775–1783). After the War of 1812, during which they allied with the British, the Chippewa made a treaty with the United States and since then have lived on reservations or in cities in Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. In Canada they live in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

In 1968 three Chippewa men in Minneapolis founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist group dedicated to advocating Native American rights and fighting discrimination against American Indians. Among other protests, members of AIM took part in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island; the 1972 invasion of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.; and the 1973 seizure of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where two Native Americans were killed.

Twenty-First Century

The Chippewa are the third-largest group of Native Americans in the United States, surpassed only by the Cherokee and Navajo. There are over one hundred thousand Chippewa in the Untied States and more than seventy-five thousand in Canada. They live in bands, among them the Red Lake, Turtle Mountain, White Earth, Leech Lake, Bad River, and Lac Courte Oreilles. Some Chippewa continue to harvest wild rice, whereas others run manufacturing or casino businesses. Many Chippewa work with the Great Lakes Indian fish and Wildlife Commission, which manages treaty hunting and fishing rights in the region; legal complications concerning the treaties made with the United States and Canada continue. Most Chippewa are Catholic or Methodist, though some adhere to traditional religious beliefs. Many speak the Ojibwa language, which is part of the Algonquin language group.

Angel, Michael. Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 2002.

Vennun, Thomas, J. Wild Rice and the Ojibway People. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Warren, William W. History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1984.