Ojibwa survival: a study of five decades among the bands I have known and their history.
Ojibwa history in the land of the Great Lakes began when their ancestors followed the herds of large animals into the region as the glaciers retreated northward.
Archaeologists have studied the culture of those who lived in the region of the great ice age lakes. and have given names to the cultures they have found in the region. I will use these records to describe the changes in the environment and the adaptive cultural changes the Anishinabeg made to survive those changes.
The cultures of those people who first entered the region of the great lakes following the retreat of the last ice age are called Paleo-Indian in the academic records. If anyone had lived there before the ice came the evidence was destroyed by the scraping and bulldozing of the ice sheets of ice.
As the climate and the environment changed in the region so did the cultures.
The next group of cultures are called the Archaic which in turn were followed by the Woodland cultures.
It would be the Late-Woodland culture of the Ojibwa that would adapt and integrate material culture from the Euro-Africa-Asian cultures of the old world during the so called fur trade period.
This study is not an apology for Ojibwa culture. They are here today, that is testimony enough to its success and viability. If, however, there are among my readers those who should still believe that the Indian mind was not as capable of invention as the minds that created Euro-African-Asian culture; then let them consider the following: The Indian " beasts of burden ", the dog and the llama, were best suited to both the terrain and the culture that developed in that environment. Therefore while the wheel was invented by Indian people it was only useful on pull toys for their children.
In their environment the Ojibwa used the dog and the toboggan in winter and during the summer they used that most perfectly designed water craft the canoe.
While iron was not used extensively (an iron bell has been discovered to date) for the manufacturing of tools copper was used. Other metals used were gold, silver, tin, platinum and lead In Peru Indian metal workers made bronze by melting copper and tin in the same furnace. Indian metal workers could weld, solder and cast metal.
Where it was required in the heavily populated agricultural societies of America, writing and accounting systems were developed, as were water pumps for irrigation and beam scales for measuring the weight of produce.
The many domestic produce of the Indians are now so well known that it is no longer necessary to count them here. But what may not be known is that Bees were domesticated for honey, and chocolate was made.
Furthermore among the types of corn that was developed was popping corn. In the region south east of the Great Lakes the people poured maple syrup over the popped corn to make the concessionary we know today as "crackerjack". To day, however, artificial caramel flavouring has replaced the real maple syrup.
Not every Indian culture used all of these inventions. For example the Aztecs used a writing system while apparently the Incas did not, yet both of their cultures were city state cultures. People either invented or adapted what they considered to be the most essential to their survival. Much of Ojibwa history unfolds in what were the drainage basins of the great ice-age lakes. That now includes those regions of north central North America from the present Great Lakes westward into the Red and Assiniboine valleys
Scientists call the last ice age the Pleistocene. In North America names have also been given to the times during the Pleistocene when the great ice sheets grew larger and spread out over the continent. The last time the ice sheets grew larger is called the Wisconsin glaciations. This period lasted for thousands of years and during that time the climate was cooler and wetter than it is today.
The Wisconsin ice formed up in great piles called ice caps. One formed in what is now northern Quebec. This was the Labrador ice cap. The other formed north of what is now Manitoba. This was called the Keewatin ice cap. There were other ice caps during the Wisconsin but it is these twins that interest us. At their greatest, together, they contained 21,600,000 cubic kilometres of ice.
`The weight of the two great piles of ice was so great that they began to squeeze out all around the bottom edges like pie filling when you push down on the top crust with a fork. This caused the southern edge of the ice to move further and further away from the centre of the ice caps. At their greatest extent the twins covered about 9,000,000 square kilometres. At that time they covered almost all of the Greater Ojibwa homelands. Therefore the Ojibwa ancestors were somewhere else at that time among the hunting people of North America.
During an Ice age there were three things that could occur at the edge of the ice sheet. In order to understand these three possibilities I had to remember that due to the great weight of the ice that there was always a constant flow of ice outward from the centre of the ice caps. At the very edge of the ice, however, it was the weather that determined what happened there. If the weather was at the cold stage and there was no melting of the ice at the edge then the melting of the ice was less than the flow and the edge of the glacier ice moved forward. This forward motion of the ice is called an "advance".
During this advance the ice pushes down everything in front of it like a great bulldozer. All the plants and topsoil is removed and the animals had to retreat or perish.
The next stage is a medium stage when, because of a warmer temperature, the amount of ice melting into water at the southern edge is equal to the flow of the ice southward. Then the edge of the ice does not move.
The ice, however, continues to flow, carrying south the rock and dirt it has been picking up This rock, gravel and dirt, is all mixed together on the way and when the ice melts at the edge it is left in long piles along the edge of the glacier. These are called moraines and can still be seen in places today as long ridges generally running in an east-west direction.
Finally there is the warm stage when the temperature is high enough to melt the ice faster than it can flow south. During this stage the edge of the ice moves northward or "retreats" as it is called.
Now the melting ice drops its rock and gravel debris in rough piles everywhere. This is called "drift". Soil analysts call it "till", farmers call it stony ground. As you can imagine there had to be great changes in the climate of North America and the whole world for the ice caps to have formed in the first place and again for them to have melted. But these changes occurred over thousands of years. In most cases no individual human being would have really noticed any change in a lifetime. But perhaps some changes would be noticeable over three or four generations and, therefore, within "living" memory. Because these changes were spread over long periods of time it was possible for the people to adapt and consolidate any cultural changes that needed to be made.
At the beginning of this process of change was climate. Climate determined the type of plant life, plant life influenced the type of animals in a region, and ultimately the kinds of plants and animals used by the people determined the types of tools they needed and made.
Because particular trees and other plants tend to have a limited range were they will grow which is determined either by cold, or by heat, they tend to grow in wide vegetation belts that generally run in an east-west direction along average temperature lines on the continent.
These belts or biotic zones generally overlap creating a transitional zone between them containing plants from both zones.
I will discuss the plants in these zones shortly but first let me consider what happened to all the zones with the advent of the ice caps As the temperature dropped in the northern section of the biotic zone the seeds of the plants would no longer germinate. The mature trees would live out their life cycle but there would be no new growth. In the southern section the opposite would be the case. as more seedlings would grow in the warmer climate there.
Thus over a generation or two of that particular plant its zone would shift south as the glacier ice slowly inched south. Year after year, generation after generation, the process continued until the average temperatures began to shift again to a warmer one. Then the incredibly slow march would begin north again.
Sometimes the ice would retreat for awhile only to begin an advance again. This destroyed the new growth that had followed the ice's retreat but the changes were always slow enough for the majority of the species to shift their biotic zone and survive.
There are thousands of species of life in each of the biotic zones. Therefore we will only use a few to characterize each zone. For example in the coldest biotic zone are found the tundra grasses, in the next zone are the spruce forests, then the pine forests, followed by the deciduous forests and finally the hot dry-land grasses.
As we have noted, between these zones there are belts of transition. An excellent example of a transition zone is the Parklands of the west where both prairie grasses and aspen bluffs grow together.
These transition zones were prime habitations for Indian people as they contained species of plants and animals from both biotic zones, thus increasing the variety of food sources. For example, both moose and bison were hunted on the parkland hunting territory.
While the general trend to cooler temperatures moved the biotic zones southward, there was also a trend to wetter weather and, therefore, the southern grasslands tended to have a more luxurious growth than they have now.
On the North American continent, the Rocky Mountains have another impact upon the biotic zones. Because they run north and south and are so high, these mountain ranges break up the weather patterns. Therefore, as the biotic belts move from east to west when they reach a point south west of the Great Lakes the influence of the mountains begins to be felt and the belts shift dramatically to the north west. This change is so dramatic that some of the hardwood trees of the pine and deciduous biotic zones cannot survive north west of the Great Lakes.
In some places only the hardy poplars can survive in any number between the grasslands and the spruce forests. This shift also allowed the great grasslands of the Plains to reach northward to the very banks of the North Saskatchewan River.
During all these shifts some species did not survive
Of all the Pleistocene animals that have not survived to the present the largest were from among the elephant species.
`Of these the woolly mammoths fed upon the grasses of the tundra, the mastodon fed in the spruce forests and the Jefferson mammoths lived upon the luxuriant warm land grasses of the south. The southern edge of the Wisconsin ice caps began to retreat north about 12,000 BC or 14,000 years ago. The first vegetation to enter the region vacated by the retreating ice were the tundra grasses and sedges. When there was enough to eat the grazing animals followed; animals like the mammoths, the barren grounds caribou and the musk-ox.
By 11,000 to 9,000 BC the average temperature had become warmer but it was still some 8 to 15 degrees colder than today. By this time, however, black spruce, white spruce, willow, alder, birch, and larch seedlings were able to sprout in the low swampy areas where the tundra vegetation had once dominated.
The hardy grasses still covered the high ground and the grazers fed there. But now browsers like the mastodon entered the region from the south.
The great weight of the ice cap had pushed down parts of the continent much in the same way as a child pushes down soft ice in the spring by standing on it. Now, as the ice melted the water gathered in these basins to form lakes. Sometime after 10,000 BC the ice had retreated to a point north of the Straits of Mackinac, freeing the Great Lakes basin of ice. Then, as the eastern outlets to the sea became ice free the water levels in the basin fell by hundreds of feet.
This was a phenomenon the people could observe as the water levels fell year after year.
Further shifts in the biotic zones took place as the black spruce, jack pine, white spruce and a few maple trees took over the grassy uplands, forcing the grazing herds to move northward. Now the mammoth and barren-ground caribou were gone and mastodon, moose and woodland caribou were the dominant species.
Other species lived in the region of this biotic environment; a giant species of beaver and another of moose, as well as smaller species of beaver and moose along with elk, deer, bear and wolves, Furthermore, because the eastern outlet was so open to the sea walrus, and three species of whales had entered the lower Great Lakes.
The earliest evidence of human occupation discovered to date in the region of the ancient great lakes is about 10,000 BC (Quimby 1960). These were the hunters who used Clovis points.
Then about 9,000 years ago the weather changed to cold again for awhile and the ice began to advance again for the last time. In North America this advance is called the Valders advance. Once more the ice crossed the Strait of Mackinac and destroyed the forest that had grown up since the end of the previous advance. This Valders advance filled the eastern outlet with ice once more and when it stopped and the ice began to melt the melt water filled the basins again to depths of hundreds of feet The basins of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan filled and spilled out to form one great lake called Lake Algonquian. The records date this lake at about 8,500 BC to 7,000 BC. This was also a phenomenon the Clovis people could watch as the land was flooded higher and higher, year after year. The name Clovis is given to the fluted points the hunters used to kill big game animals including the mammoths and mastodon.
The Clovis point is usually from three to four inches long. They are chipped out of suitable stone but there is little retouching done to sharpen the edges. However, the edges around the base of the point are ground down so that they will not damage the leather lashings that were used to fasten the point to the spear shaft.
The unique characteristic of the Clovis point is the flute or hollow channel made, usually on both sides, of the point blade. These channels began at the base and ran up the centre of the point, leaving a hollow to accept both sides of a split or notched spear shaft. Because of the shape of the point and this fluting there was nothing to catch on the animal's flesh or hide. Thus the hunter was able to withdraw the shaft and allow bleeding and use the spear for a second strike. This is a distinctly different technique of hunting from the barbed point which is designed to remain in the flesh.
To date no Clovis campsite has been discovered in the region of the Ojibwa homelands, just the points themselves. We do know, however, that the Clovis hunters did kill the mammoths of the southern grasslands.
It took both organization and skill to bring down a Pleistocene elephant, even a young one. There was more than one hunter involved in the kill. As many as eight points have been discovered among the bones of a single animal The basic techniques used appear to have been much the same as those used to spear moose during the winter.
As the climate was wetter then the grasslands were full of marshes and shallow alluvial lakes. In the initial stages of the hunt the animal was slowed down by stampeding it into the mud of a marsh or lake. Then the spear men could hope to get close enough to make a kill. As in the case of the moose hunt the band would have been led by an experienced elder hunter. With him would be a number of his sons, perhaps his younger brothers, or his sons-in-law and their eldest sons.
Once the animal was mired the elder would have divided his force into spear men and distracters. As the entire force approached the animal the elder would have judged the state of its strength. He would send a number of the fastest and strongest closer to see how well it was mired. Then he would have his band of distracters begin a frontal attack on the animal. Once the animal was concentrating on this attack the leader shifted the animal's focus to one side so that the beast's vision was turned without it moving its body. This was the "ideal" position for the Clovis attack.
Only one hunter attacked at a time, as there was little room for error. The spear was jabbed through the hide and forced as deep as possible in a single thrust. Then the hunter retreated as the animal turned to defend itself.
The hunter had to get a point through four to six inches of fat and muscle, past the rib bones, and into the vital organs. Then if possible, when the animal was distracted by the frontal attack, withdraw the shaft to allow the wound to bleed. It was a long and dangerous battle, but the return in meat was great.
At the great feast that followed honour would have been done not only to the bravery of the hunters but also to the great beast that died to feed them all.
The circumstances required to make such a kill could not have been easily discovered, therefore, the people followed the herds while the elders' experienced eyes and their hunting medicine sought out the right time and place for the next hunt.
The Clovis hunters were not the only hunters who followed the great Pleistocene herds. Huge dire wolves and an American lion similar to the African and Asian species also hunted then, as well as the sabre-toothed cat and the great bears. It was an age of plenty for the hunter and it was an age of courage and strength. But it was an age drawing to a close.
At the end of the Valders advance the temperature continued to rise, the pine forests replaced the spruce and the mastodon disappeared from the region of the Great Lakes. As the entire continental climate shifted the weather changed from cool and moist to hot and dry. There was less cloud cover and under the direct sunshine evaporation increased. In the southwest and central regions the huge but shallow alluvial lakes dried up. In time only the hardiest species of grassland vegetation survived.
With the loss of the rich stands of vegetation for fodder the Pleistocene grazers were reduced in numbers and were forced into smaller and smaller areas of sufficient moisture. Now hunting became easier for awhile for both man and beast but not for long. Herd animals like the grazers need large numbers to survive. Reindeer, the European Caribou, for example, need at least two to three hundred individuals in a herd for that herd to flourish at all. As the drying trend continued more and more herds of the Pleistocene animals dropped below their viability number and died out. While there may have been many small herds scattered over the continent towards the end of a species they were isolated from each other and the species became extinct. Without the great masses of meat provided by the large Pleistocene kills many of the large meat eating animals could no longer raise their young and soon they too became isolated individuals and finally became extinct. Smaller meat eaters survived and so did the bears because they were capable of eating a variety of foods, as was mankind.
In response to the changing availability of animals to hunt tool-makers began to experiment with new techniques and styles. By about 7,500 years ago the mammoths and mastodon were gone and so too were the Clovis points.
On the great plains the people had turned to hunting the giant big-horned bison and in the Great Lakes regions there were still giant moose and giant beaver to hunt.
The various types and styles of points that developed out of and after the Clovis types are classified under the name Plano. The Brohm archaeological site, found near the north west end of Lake Superior, is a Plano culture occupation site.
Some time between 7,000 and 6,000 BC or about nine thousand years ago (Quimby 1960) the people made their camp on an ancient beach which was then above the present level of Lake Superior
Some of the points the hunters were using were of the long narrow lancelate style, while others were a broader leaf shape. Two types have been named, they are called Plain View and Milnesand, and have been recognized elsewhere on the continent. The tool-makers also manufactured blades, scrappers, and bi faced (two sides chipped) choppers out of stone called taconite, flint, and quartzite.
The knife blades were used for all manner of cutting. Scrappers were used to prepare hides as well as shaping wood and bone tools. The large bi face chopper was a common household tool used to break up large mammal bones, primarily to remove the marrow but also to obtain pieces of bone for tool-making.
Because of the acidity of the soil in sites like the Brohm Site, the bone did not last long, therefore, there is little or no evidence of what the people were hunting. We can only assume that it was the large mammals of the lake-shore forest. During the generations of the Plano culture the temperature continued to rise year upon year until it was hotter and drier than it had been in 20,000 years. In this great drought the last of the Pleistocene animals would die out as would the sea mammals from the Great Lakes.
What must it have been like to live in those final days of the Pleistocene giants? While it is true that the overall changes took hundreds of thousands of years the last animal to die in a region died during some hunter's lifetime. Then it was a grandchild, then a father and finally a grandfather, who had seen the last great beast. How many generations hunted for them in vain? How long did they remain part of the mythology of the people? Perhaps even longer than the great floods and the great fires of the age that was to follow? Are these great beasts now still part of Ojibwa culture in the folklore? Listen to those tales and you will find out.
This was the end of the age of the Paleo-Indian cultures. Soon the people would learn to live in the new environment in the ages of the Archaic cultures.
The age of the Archaic cultures was the age of the great droughts. Because some of the ice caps still remained near the twin centres it is called the period of terminal glaciations and lasted from about 6,000 BC to 3,000 BC (Quimby 1960). This was also the time of the greatest dryness, it is called the Altithermal, and lasted from 5,500 BC to 3,000 BC (Buchner 1980). during the height of the Altithermal temperatures averaged 5 F higher than today.
This drought drove the grazers and the hunters, including mankind, from the high plains. It was an age when great firestorms swept the grasslands and the forests. It was these fires that burned out the last stands of spruce from the southern parts of the Great Lakes regions.