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The largest and most important tribe north of Mexico, numbering some 30,000 souls, about equally divided between the United States and Canada. The popular name is a corruption of Ojibwa, a name of uncertain etymology, but generally supposed to refer to the "puckered up" appearance of the seam along the front of the tribal moccasin. They call themselves Anishinabag, "original men", and on account of having formerly had their principal residence at Sault Sainte Marie , at the outlet of Lake Superior, they were known to the French as Saulteurs . The Ojibwa belong to the great Algonquian stock and are closely related to the Ottawa and the Cree. According to their own tradition they came from the east, advancing along the Great Lakes and had their first settlement in their present country at Sault Sainte Marie and at Shaugawaumikong (French Chegoimegon ) on the southern shore of Lake Superior, about the present Lapointe or Bayfield, Wisconsin. Their first mention in history occurs in the "Jesuit Relation" for 1640. Through their friendship with the French traders they were able to procure guns and thus to prosecute most successfully their hereditary wars with the Sioux and Foxes on their west and south, with such result that the Sioux were driven out from the Upper Mississippi region, and the Foxes forced down from Northern Wisconsin and compelled to confederate with the Sauk. By the end of the eighteenth century the Ojibwa were the almost unchallenged owners of nearly all of the present Michigan, Northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River country and west-ward to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, together with the entire northern shores and drainage of Lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side. They have never been removed as have been so many other tribes, but by successive treaty sales they are now restricted to reservations within this home territory, with the exception of a few families resident in Kansas.
Notwithstanding their importance as a tribe the Ojibwa are not prominent in colonial history, owing chiefly to their remote situation. In conjunction with the French they had greatly reduced the formidable Foxes early in the eighteenth century, and finally crushed them, single-handed, in a decisive battle about 1780. At a much earlier period they had turned the westward march of the conquering Iroquois. The hereditary war with the Sioux continued until within the past half-century, in spite of repeated efforts of the Government to bring about peace. In common with most of the western tribes they were allies of the French throughout the colonial period, but joined the side of England against the Americans in the Revolution and again in 1812, being especially active in the latter war. They first entered into treaty relations with the United States in 1785.
Although to a certain extent a sedentary people, the Ojibwa were not agricultural, their country being too cold for profitable farming by the rude Indian method, but depended for subsistence upon fishing, hunting, and the gathering of wild rice. Their territory abounded in lakes and clear streams well stocked with fish, with vast fields of wild rice in the quieter waters. They also gathered cranberries and manufactured maple sugar, the latter being itself an Indian discovery. Their pottery was rude and unimportant, but they were expert in basket and mat weaving, and in the manipulation of birch-bark for houses, canoes, boxes, and other purposes. Their dwellings were either rectangular, round-topped structures of poles covered with mats or bark, or were of tipi or tent shape and covered usually with bark. They were much upon the water and were noted for their skill in making and handling their beautiful birch-bark canoes. Living in a timber country they travelled and fought on foot, except when going by water, and had but little acquaintance with either the buffalo or the horse. Physically and intellectually they ranked high among the tribes.
In their system of government each band was practically independent of the others, although according to their tradition it had been more centralized in ancient times, when the tribe had dwelt within a smaller compass. They had the clan system with some twenty clans, the exact number being a matter of controversy owing to the wide dispersion of the bands. Each clan had its own special precedence in war, deliberation, ceremonial function, etc. They buried in the ground, leaving articles of property and food offerings at the grave, as was the almost universal Indian custom. They had the usual multiplicity of gods, but there were no great ceremonial tribal gatherings such as were found among the agricultural and the buffalo-hunting tribes, the religious and ceremonial observances being in the keeping of various societies, of which the Mide (Meda) secret society was the dominant one and preserved the sacred tribal tradition. Despite centuries of missionary effort these societies still flourish and the majority of the tribe continues pagan.
The mission history of the Ojibwa begins in 1660, when the Jesuit René Menard established himself about Keweenaw Bay in Upper Michigan. Five years later another Jesuit, Father Claude Allouez , founded the mission of Saint-Esprit at Chegoimegon (Bayfield, Wisconsin ), the principal gathering-place for all the bands south of Lake Superior. Other missions were soon after begun at Sault Sainte Marie and Mackinaw. The work continued under Jesuit auspices down nearly to the end of the eighteenth century when it was taken up by secular priests. Within the last few years a large share of the labour has again devolved upon a Jesuit worker stationed at the Sault, the only priest in Upper Michigan who knows the language. Chief among the later missionaries may be mentioned the well-known philologist, Bishop Frederick Baraga who, beginning in 1830, devoted thirty-six years of his life to the Ojibwa and Ottawa, chiefly at L'Anse on Keweenaw Bay. The narrative of his career is one long record of heroic sacrifice. His great grammar and dictionary is the accepted standard upon the Ojibwa language. Another noted worker in the Red River country, was Father George Belcourt, 1831-1846, author of another dictionary which still remains in manuscript. Of more recent period is the Franciscan, Father Chrysotom Verwyst, stationed at Bayfield, Wisconsin, who has also given much attention to the language. Protestant effort in the tribe was inaugurated in 1823 in Ontario on the Canada side, by the Wesleyan Methodists, followed the next year by the Baptists at Sault Sainte Marie. In 1827 the Congregationalists began work at Mackinaw, and about 1830 the Episcopalians established themselves at the Sault. The majority of the Christian portion of the tribe is Catholic.