A Regional State of Affairs

Monday, June 15, 2015

Roland and I just returned from a research trip for my current work-in-progress. This is another middle-grade historical novel, and it tells about the Indian boarding school experience in the late 19th century. But my protagonist is Chippewa (or Ojibwe, as discussed below), and the story starts before she leaves home. So we travelled throughout Chippewa country in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to visit museums and reservations.

I already knew, of course, that different tribes had different customs and ways of life. But I didn’t know that a few hundred miles could make a difference within a tribe.

The main elements were the same at each location. Every exhibit we saw referred to the Chippewas’ seasonal way of life: collecting maple syrup in the spring, fishing and berrying and planting gardens in the summer, harvesting wild rice in the fall, and hunting in the winter. Families moved from one place to another for these seasonal activities but tended to return to the same spot every spring, every summer, every fall, and every winter. In all regions, the members of the tribe also had the same clan system (although not always the same clans) and the same teachings passed down through their oral history.

But they didn’t all live in the same type of birch-bark housing.

Before we left, I thought the earlier Chippewas always lived in birch-bark wigwams with the rounded shape shown in the first picture. On this trip, I learned that the construction materials varied somewhat depending on the season. Woven mats covered the frame under the birch-bark in the hot summer months, which allowed the birch-bark to be raised so that air could circulate through the lower part of the walls. In the winter the walls were insulated with moss and the floors used a radiant heating system. This picture shows how the winter home was constructed.

All of that was helpful new information, and none of it surprised me.
What did surprise me was that the Minnesota Chippewas used a birch-bark teepee during the winter. We saw no evidence of this in Michigan or Wisconsin, where winter dwellings were built using the wigwam shape.
Grand Portage National Monument has a reproduction of a trading post, which only operated for a few weeks during the winter. The birch-bark-covered structure in the next picture shows how the Chippewa Indians lived while they stayed there to trade. A guide at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, also in Minnesota, told us that the teepee shape keeps the dwelling warmer. (Since heat rises, the smaller air space near the ceiling would keep more of the heat down by the floor.) During the warmer months, there were no regional differences—all dwellings were built as wigwams. But the winter shape seems to have been modified as members of the tribe moved farther west and closer to the plains Indians, who lived in animal skin teepees.
There were also differences in how the groups describe themselves. Although Chippewa is the legal name of the tribe, most prefer to call themselves Ojibwe, or even the original name of Anishinabek (or Anishinaabeg). Since the name Chippewa is easier for my audience to pronounce than Ojibwe is, I’ll have to think that through before making a final decision.
But one thing is clear. Regional differences exist, and a careful writer will reflect them.
I certainly will.
I took the first picture at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabek Culture and Lifeways at Mount Pleasant, Michigan; the second at the Ojibwe Museum & Cultural Center at Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin; and the third at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota.


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