Friday, May 25, 2007

Experiences of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwa from 1763 to 1803.

I want to start out with a note about names and history, Chippewa and Ojibwa are the same people, and the word is even the same with different pronunciation this is difficult to grasp until you put the O in front of Chippewa (Ochippewa). The Ojibwa also call themselves Anishinaabe or “the original men" it can be shortened to Shinob when used as a nickname among them. Ottawa and Potawatomi also call themselves Anishinaabe, and at some time in the past, the three tribes were a single tribe. Ojibwa is the Algonquin word meaning to pucker and came the unique puckered seam of Ojibwa moccasins.

The Ojibwa after by late 1680 progressed to the east, south, and west. During the conflicts with the Iroquois, the Ojibwa moved down both sides of Lake Huron and by the early1700s dominated almost all of Lower Michigan and Southern Ontario. Ojibwa clans Followed the French fur trade west during the should be noted at the same time, other Ojibwa bands pushed south to settle in northern Illinois. By the early1800s Ojibwa were living in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Euro-American occupation and genocide would take most of their land and forced them onto reservations, but most Ojibwa bands have remained in their homeland, including the band at Grand Portage.

Though out this project, I have often referred to Ojibwa as if all belonged to the Grand Portage bands for simplicity. The Ojibwa Bands who traded in furs with the fur companies were numerous spreading outland and inland of Lake Superior and the political center was at Rainy Lake.

The Ojibwa were not the original inhabitants of Grand Portage, nor were the British the original fur companies but by 1763 through war and constantly changing political alliances between Europeans the indigenous people of the Great Lakes region these two groups were to control the fur trade. While there is an enormous amount of conflict between the overall effects of the fur trade, for the purposes of this project. I would like to focus on the relationship between the Europeans and the Ojibwa during the boom years of Grand Portage.

Starting in the 1760s the British attempted to establish trade with the Ojibwa however, this was not a simple matter for the Ojibwa viewed trade not just an exchange of merchandise but as a bonding between people. The Ojibwa and other tribes had been trading with the French in the region since as early as the 1650s. The British had won the war with the French to control the territory, but had not negotiated peace with the Ojibwa whom still saw the French as family. The British traders soon came to realize that not only would they need to rely on the French-Canadians to act as traders (North man) and laborers but would need to treat the Ojibwa as an independent nation.

The Ojibwa would soon come to accept the British as trading partners due to both the British learning to bond with the Ojibwa and through the intervention of the French-Canadians or North man of whom many had Native American wives. In these early years, there were no company monopolies, the British were largely financers, and the North man were still profiting greatly from these expeditions. The truth is that without the indigenous people’s desire for the European goods there would have been no fur trade.
Another reason for a positive relationship with both French and British Europeans was that neither had a desire to change the Ojibwa lifestyle. While they might have found many aspects of the culture objectionable, they treated the Ojibwa decently. The Europeans of course brought priest but made no demands the Ojibwa convert. Just as important the Europeans never assumed that permission to trade gave them land rights and recognized for the most part the sovernty of Native American Nation.

The way that the indigenous people did business was at first more baffling to them then the language. The culture of the Native American was not based upon material wealth and in fact, possessions hindered their lifestyle. A clan might move to as many as six areas through out the year depending on the season and families needed to be as unencumbered as possible. The attractiveness of the European goods was for the convenience they offered.
The Native American people did not need to base their self-esteem on tangible possessions, as the family structure was deep and rich. Parents through the oral tradition nurtured self worth in their offspring as their stories fostered each person’s individuality as well as their interdependence. The family structure placed immense value on grandparents as well as aunts and uncles.

Europeans had products that were very desirable to the Ojibwa obviously the first were the European weapons and the supplies to make them effective. The Ojibwa themselves had found themselves advanced to their current geography by possession of firearms. The Ojibwa were originally only guest of the Dakota and served as intermediaries in exchange for occupancy and hunting rights. This agreement, which started in late 1680s, worked well for both nations. The Dakota preferred to farm, this left little time for hunting, and traveling to trade, the Ojibwa received a place to thrive and were able to collect some trade goods. Eventually the weapons would shift the balance of power from the Dakota to the Ojibwa.

Guns were not the only trade good that had value, as items such as clothing, steel knifes and kettles, flint and thread all offered the indigenous people freedom from some of the tediousness of manufacturing comparable items. The time saved proved to better feed and interact with family members. Relationships were in higher regard then wealth as it was common for those considered rich by native standards to hold ceremonies and give away all they had to other clan members.

One item that would be a deterrent to the Ojibwa was of course alcohol. The North American natives had never produced alcohol, which makes the culture unique in world history. While at first the French and later the British realized the advantage this gave them, most early traders and companies could see that it might also spell disaster to the fur trade as a whole. This does not mean that all traders were as scrupulous or had the foresight too limit alcohol as trade goods. However most Europeans saw it as bad for the fur trade overall, and life at that time was satisfactory for the Ojibwa; this did not make alcohol as attractive.
Alcohol held no great attraction to most Ojibwa in these early years of European interaction because of the importance of the indigenous people’s spirituality. The Ojibwa had deep-rooted spiritual beliefs and traditions that integrated seamlessly in their everyday life. Every child was instructed in mino-bimaadiziwin or the good life by not only parents but by grandparents and the parent’s siblings, who were viewed as equally important in child nurturing. These spiritual values based on love of life and respect for all life shielded the Ojibwa from emotional problems readily found in European cultures. This was a major reason that the gender psychology was without black and white roles as found in the European culture. Women in the indigenous cultures held great value as the bearers of life and in fact, the drum used in most ceremonies was a constant reminder of that fact. The Drum is much like the heartbeat heard within the womb where all life springs.

Trading as earlier mentioned not simply an exchange of goods to the Ojibwa or a quick affair. The Ojibwa as with most indigenous people saw trading as a pact of loyalty and friendship. Agreeing to be trading partners meant that both parties had obligations to each other, which could even include aiding each other in conflict. A good example of this is during the Euro American war with the British, while the colonies never approached the Grand Portage the British army did. They enjoyed the full support of the Ojibwa whom they lavished with British flags and medallions. These symbols of allegiance were of such importance to the Ojibwa we could view items donated by Ojibwa families to the Minnesota Historical Society as late as the late 1970s.The Ojibwa provided canoes and food to the redcoats as well as acted as guides along with the voyageurs. The Euro-American revolution would also increase trade in the area as the war pushed trading north.

The Ojibwa took this obligation very seriously; the winterers were dependent on the indigenous peoples for food, canoes guidance, and shelter. If it were not for the willingness of the clans to accommodate them the winterers never could have even survived let alone allowed the fur companies to profit. The indigenous peoples never thought twice and considered it a responsibility to support all aspects of the traders care and welfare. The Ojibwa guided them interpreted for them if need be. They picked sites for their post and even provided snowshoes and moccasins. This of course was in addition to hunting trapping and curing the skins for which they would trade to the North man. This obligation also had a positive side for the Ojibwa as the Northman was isolated and the all news came from the clans. The Ojibwa dispensed news of fur prices fluctuations at the clan’s pleasure. This interdependence kept the scales balanced for several decades.

Besides Furs, canoes proved a constant need and brought the natives close to one hundred dollars hard currency. Cash allowed the indigenous people more buying power then furs. While the Rainy Lake bands supplied most of the twenty-five foot birch bark canoes the grand portage bands supplied quite a few. Food could also be sold to the fur companies while the Grand Portage Ojibwa supplied wild rice; the Ojibwa on Lake Michigan sold the company ships enormous quantities of corn, maple sugar and beans.

The early 1780s brought a tip in the scales to this delicate balance to the Europeans favor as the worst small pox epidemic moved across North America. An estimated two thirds of the indigenous people died because of this tragedy. The disease in Minnesota spread the Red River to Rainey Lake then on too Grand Portage. The impact was devastating as the political structure collapsed with the death of the elders. Families were left with out providers and the women were left out numbering the men. Tribal histories and spiritual leaders were also lost, creating a whole society that suffered from what we would now term Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The Ojibwa would never recover, as it was a society that depended on the grandfathers. the next generations would find themselves faced with social problems that until that time were rare including domestic violence. Alcoholism grew much more common and would continue to grow as Europeans and Euro Americans encouraged it.
The second change came from the Europeans as the North West Company reorganized to resemble our modern day corporations. This with the decreasing number of quality furs shifted the balance again toward the Europeans. The new concept of business even alienated the winterers and they were replaced with clerks. Interrupters and canoemen accompanied the clerks, this not only replace Ojibwa as the trade language but also ended the bond between the fur traders and Ojibwa. Other changes also darkened the relationship, such as the increased use of liquor for trade. The early 1800s would see the fur companies ship over forty thousand gallons of liquor into Grand portage.
The real death of the Grand Portage as a fur trading post of course was the Euro-Americans asserting their boarder rights. By the time, the last rendezvous was held at the Grand Portage in 1802 it was also clear that number of quality fur the region could produce had dwindled. While the North West Company moved across the Canadian, border and would continue trading for a few more years. The Ojibwa were already starting to resume their previous way of life.

Waasa inaabidaa by Thomas Peacock, published by the Afton historical press, 2002
Author : Peacock, Thomas D.

The Grand Portage Story by Carolyn Gilman, Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, c1992 Author : Gilman, Carolyn,

Grand Portage Chippewa: Oral histories of the Grand Portage Band, published by the
Grand Portage tribal council and the Sugarloaf Interpretive Center Association , 2000