History of the Ojibway Nation/Chapter 2

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History of the Ojibways, based upon Traditions and Oral Statements by William W. Warren
Chapter II



A description of the Totemic System—Tradtion of its origin—List of the different Totemic badges—The A-wause-e, or "Great Fish" clan—Its subdivisions—Physical characteristics—Tradition of the Awause—Present position and numbers of this clan among the O-jib-ways—Bus-in-as-e, or Crane Totem clan—Their position in the tribe—Physical characteristics—Names of their most noted chiefs—Ah-awh-wauk, or Loon Totem clan—Position and claims—Their principal chiefs—Noka, or Bear Clan—Their numbers and position in the tribe—Physical characteristics—The war chiefs—The Wolf Totem—Its position and origin—Chiefs—Mousoneeg, or Moose and Marten Totem—Their origin, and names of most noted men—Tradition accounting for their coalition—Addik, or Reindeer Totem—Totemic system deserving of more research.

There is nothing so worthy of observation and study, in the peculiar customs and usages of the Algic type of the American aborigines, as their well-defined partition into several grand clans or families.

This stock comprises a large group of tribes, distinct from each other, not only in name and locality. but also in the manner of uttering their common generic language. Yet this division, though an important one and strong!y defined, is but a sub-division, which has been caused by domestic quarrels, necessity, or caprice, and perpetuated by long and wide separations and non-intercourse. These causes are related in their traditions, even where the greatest variance is found to exist between tribes. The separation does not date many centuries back. The first grand division is that of blood and kindred, which has been perpetuated amongst the different tribes by what they call the Totemic System, and dates back to the time "when the Earth was new."

Each grand family is known by a badge or symbol, taken from nature; being generally a quadruped, bird, fish, or reptile. The badge or Dodaim (Totem, as it has been most commonly written), descends invariably in the male line; marriage is strictly forbidden between individuals of the same symbol. This is one of the greatest sins that can be committed in the Ojibway code of moral laws, and tradition says that in former times it was punishable with death.[1]

In the present somewhat degenerated times, when persons of the same Totem intermarry (which even now very seldom occurs), they become objects of reproach. It is an offence equivalent among the whites to the sin of a man marrying his own sister.

In this manner is the blood relationship strictly preserved among the several clans in each tribe, and is made to extend amongst the different tribes who claim to derive their origin from the same general root or stock, still perpetuating this ancient custom.

An individual of any one of the several Totems belonging to a distinct tribe, as for instance, the Ojibway, is a close blood relation to all other Indians of the same Totem, both in his own and all other tribes, though he may be divided from them by a long vista of years, interminable miles, and knows not even of their existence.

I am not possessed of sufficient general information respecting all the different groups of tribes in America, to enable me to state positively that the Algics are the only stock who have perpetuated and still recognize this division into families, nor have I even data sufficient to state that the Totemic System is as rigidly kept up among other tribes of the Algonquins, as it is among the Ojibways, Ottaways, and Potta-wat-omies.

From personal knowledge and inquiry, I can confidently assert that among the Dakotas the system is not known. There are a few who claim the Water Spirit or Merman as a symbol, but they are the descendants of Ojibways who have in former times of peace intermarried with them. The system among the Winnebagoes, which somewhat resembles this, they have borrowed or derived from the Ojibways during their long intercourse with them while residing about Green Bay and other portions of the present State of Wisconsin.

From these and many other facts which shall be enumerated, the writer is disposed to consider, and therefore presents, the Totemic division as more important and worthy of more consideration than has generally been accorded to it by standard authors who have studied and written respecting the Indians.

The Ojibways acknowledge in their secret beliefs, and teachings to each successive generation, five original Totems. The tradition in which this belief is embodied, is known only to their chief Medas, or priests. It is like all their ancient traditions, vague and unsatisfactory, but such as it is, I will here present it—verbatim—as I received it.

"When the Earth was new, the An-ish-in-aub-ag lived, congregated on the shores of a great salt water. From the bosom of the great deep there suddenly appeared six beings in human form, who entered their wigwams.

One of these six strangers kept a covering over his eyes, and he dared not look on the An-ish-in-aub-ag, though he showed the greatest anxiety to do so. At last he could no longer restrain his curiosity, and on one occasion he partially lifted his veil, and his eye fell on the form of a human being, who instantly fell dead as if struck by one of the thunderers. Though the intentions of this dread being were friendly to the An-ish-in-aub-ag, yet the glance of his eye was too strong, and inflicted certain death. His fellows, therefore, caused him to return into the bosom of the great water from which they had apparently emerged.

The others, who now numbered five, remained with the An-ish-in-aub-ag, and became a blessing to them; from them originate the five great clans or Totems, which are known among the Ojibways by the general terms of A-waus-e, Bus-in-aus-e, Ah-ah-wauk, Noka, and Monsone, or Waub-ish-ash-e. These are cognomens which are used only in connection with the Totemic system.

Though, according to this tradition, there were but five totems originally, yet, at the present day, the Ojibway tribe consists of no less than fifteen or twenty families, each claiming a different badge, as follows:—

1. Uj-e-jauk, Crane.
2. Man-um-aig, Catfish.
3. Mong, Loon.
4. Muk-wah, Bear.
6. Waub-ish-ash-e, Marten.
6. Addick, Rein Deer.
7. Mah-een-gun, Wolf.
8. Ne-baun-aub-ay, Merman.
9. Ke-noushay, Pike.
10. Be-sheu, Lynx.
11. Me-gizzee, Eagle.
12. Che-she-gwa, Rattlesnake.
13. Mous, Moose.
14. Muk-ad-a-shib, Black Duck or Cormorant
15. Ne-kah, Goose.
16. Numa-bin, Sucker.
17. Numa, Sturgeon.
18. Ude-kumaig, White Fish.
19. Amik, Beaver.
20. Gy-aushk, Gull.
21. Ka-kaik, Hawk.

I have here given a list of every badge that is known as a family totem among the Ojibways throughout their widespread villages and bands.

The crane, catfish, bear, marten, wolf, and loon, are the principal families, not only in a civil point of view, but in numbers, as they comprise eight-tenths of the whole tribe. Many of these Totems are not known to the tribe in general, and the writer has learned them only through close inquiry. Among these may be named the goose, beaver, sucker, sturgeon, gull, hawk, cormorant, and white-fish totems. They are only known on the remotest northern boundaries of the Ojibway country, among the Musk-keeg-oes and "Bois Forts."

The old men of the Ojibways whom I have particularly questioned on this subject, affirm that all these different badges are only subdivisions of the five great original totems of the An-ish-in-aub-ag, who have assumed separate minor badges, without losing sight or remembrance of the main stock or family to which they belong. These divisions have been gradually taking place, caused in the same manner as the division into distinct tribes. They are easily classed under the five great heads, the names of which we have given.

Aish-ke-bug-e-coshe, the old and reliable head chief of the Pillager and Northern Ojibways, has rendered me much information on this subject. He is the present living recognized head of the great A-waus-e family. He says that this clan claim the Me-she-num-aig-way (immense fish) which, according to their description, is equivalent or analogical, to the Leviathan mentioned in the Bible. This being is also one of the Spirits recognized in their grand Me-da-we rite. This clan comprises the several branches who claim the Catfish, Merman, Sturgeon, Pike, Whitefish, and Sucker Totems, and in fact, all the totems of the fish species may be classed under this general head. This family are physically noted for being long lived, and for the scantiness and fineness of their hair, especially in old age; if you see an old Indian of this tribe with a bald head, you may be certain that he is an A-waus-e.

Tradition says that many generations ago, all the different clans of the tribe, with the exception of the Ah-ah-wank, formed a league and made war on the Aw-aus-e with the intent to exterminate them. But the Aw-aus-e family proved too strong for their united brethren and prevailed against their efforts, and ever since this event, they have claimed a certain pre-eminence over them in the councils of the tribe. They also claim, that of the six beings who emerged from the great water, and originated the Totems, their progenitor was the first who appeared, and was leader of the others.

Of nine thousand of the Ojibways who reside within the limits of the United States, about the shores of Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi, full one thousand belong to the Aw-aus-e family.

The Bus-in-as-see, or Crane family, are also numerous, and form an important element of the Ojibway tribe. They reside mostly on the south shores of Lake Superior and toward the east in the Canadas, though they have representatives scattered in every spot where the Ojibways have set foot and lighted their fires. The literal meaning of their totemic name is, "Echo-maker," derived from the word Bus-wa-wag, "Echo," and pertaining to the loud, clear, and far reaching cry of the Crane. This clan are noted as possessing naturally a loud, ringing voice, and are the acknowledged orators of the tribe; in former times, when different tribes met in councils, they acted as interpreters of the wishes of their tribe. They claim, with some apparent justice, the chieftainship over the other clans of the Ojibways. The late lamented chief Shin-ga-ba-wos-sin, who resided at Sault Ste. Marie, belonged to this family. In Gov. Lewis Cass's treaty at Prairie du Chien in 1825, he was the acknowledged head chief of his tribe, and signed his name to that treaty as such. Ah-mous (the Little Bee), the son of the late worthy chief of Lac du Flambeau, Waub-ish-gaug-aug-e (or White Crow), may now be considered as head or principal chief of this family.

The old war chief Ba-be-sig-aun-dib-ay (Curly Head), whose name is linked with the history of his tribe, and who died on his way returning home from the Treaty of Prairie du Chien above mentioned, was also a Bus-in-aus-e, and the only representative of his clan amongst that section of his tribe, who so long bravely struggled with the fierce Dakotas for the mastery of the western banks of the Mississippi, which now form the home of the Winnebagoes. He was the civil and war chief of the Mississippi Ojibways. Hole-in-the-day 1st, of later notoriety, and his brother Song-uk-um-ig (Strong ground), inherited his chieftainship by his dying request, as he died childless. Weesh-e-da-mo, son of Aissance (Little Clam), late British Ojibway chief of Red River, is also a member of this family. He is a young man, but has already received two American medals, one from the hands of a colonel of our army, and the other from the hands of the Governor of Minnesota Territory. He is recognized by our government as chief of the Pembina section of the Ojibway tribe.

These facts are stated to show the importance of this family, and its wide extended influence over the tribe. It can be said of them that wherever they have planted their wigwam on the widespread territory of their people, they have been recognized as chieftains.

They also boast the names of Keesh-ke-mun, chief of the Lac du Flambeau section; Che-suh-yauh and Waub-ij-e-jauk (White Crane), of La Pointe, Shaug-a-waum-ik-ong, all noted chiefs during their first intercourse with the white race.

The small clans who use the eagle as their Totem or badge, are a branch of the Bus-in-aus-e.

The Ah-ah-wauk, or loon totem, also form an important body in the Ojibway tribe; in fact, they also claim to be the chief or royal family, and one of their arguments to prove this position is that nature has placed a color [collar?] around the neck of the loon, which resembles the royal megis, or wampum, about the neck of a chief, which forms the badge of his honor. This dignity, however, is denied by the Cranes and other totems, who aver that the principal chiefs of the Ah-ah-wauk are descended from individuals who were on a certain occasion made chiefs by the French at Quebec, as will be related in the course of the following history. This family do not lack in chiefs who have acted a prominent part in the affairs of the tribe, and whose names are linked with its history.

Ke-che-waish-keenh (Great Buffalo), the respected and venerable chief of the La Pointe band, and principal chief of all the Lake Superior and Wisconsin bands, is the acknowledged head of this clan, and his importance as an individual in the tribe, strengthens the position of the Ah-ah-wauk. The chief of Sandy Lake on the upper Mississippi is also of this family. The Goose and Cormorant Totems are its subdivisions. The No-ka or Bear family are more numerous than any of the other clans of the Ojibways, forming fully one-sixth of the entire tribe.

In former times this numerous body was subdivided into many lesser clans, making only portions of the bear's body their Totems, as the head, the foot, the ribs, etc. They have all since united under one head, and the only shade of difference still recognized by them is the common and grizzly bear. They are the acknowledged war chiefs and warriors of the tribe, and are keepers of the war-pipe and war-club, and are often denominated the bulwarks of the tribe against its enemies.

It is a general saying, and an observable fact, amongst their fellows, that the Bear clan resemble the animal that forms their Totem in disposition. They are ill-tempered and fond of fighting, and consequently they are noted as ever having kept the tribe in difficulty and war with other tribes, in which, however, they have generally been the principal and foremost actors. They are physically noted, and the writer has observed the fact, that they are possessed of a long, thick, coarse head of the blackest hair, which seldom becomes thin or white in old age. Young Hole-in-the-day (son of the great war-chief of that name), the recognized chief of the Ojibways of the Mississippi, numbering about twelve hundred, is now [A. D. 1852] the most noted man of the No-ka family. Ka-kaik (the Hawk), of Chippeway River, and Be-she-ke (Buffalo), of Leech Lake, have extolled influence as war chiefs.

The Mah-een-gun, or Wolf totem family, are few in number, and reside mostly on the St. Croix River and at Mille Lac. They are looked upon by the tribe in general with much respect. The Ojibways of this totem derive their origin on the paternal side from the Dakotas. Na-guon-abe, the civil chief of Mille Lac, may be considered the principal man of this family. Mun-o-min-ik-a-she (Rice-maker), who has lately removed from the St. Croix to Mille Lac with his band, is a man of considerable importance amongst his fellows.

The Waub-ish-a-she, or Marten family, form a numerous body in the tribe, and is one of the leading clans. Tradition says that they are sprung from the remnant captives of a fierce and warlike tribe whom the coalesced Algic tribes have exterminated, and whom they denominate the Mun-dua. The chiefs Waub-ish-ash (the Marten), of Chippeway River, Shin-goob (Balsam), and Nug-aun-ub (Sitting-ahead), of Fond du Lac, are now the principal men of the clan. The celebrated Ke-che-waub-ish-ash, of Sandy Lake, Sha-wa-ke-shig, of Leech Lake, and Muk-ud-a-shib (or Black Duck), of Red River, were members of this family. In their days they conduced greatly towards wresting country from the Dakotas, and driving them westward. All three died on battle-fields—the first at Elk River fight, the second at Rum River massacre, and the third fell fighting on the western prairies against immense odds; but one out of forty, who fought with him, escaped a warrior's death.

Under the generic term of Mous-o-neeg, the families of the Marten, Moose, and Reindeer totems are included. Aish-ke-bug-e-coshe, the old Pillager chief, related to me the following tradition, accounting for the coalition or close affinity between the Moose and Marten totems:—

"The family of the Moose totem, denominated Mous-o-neeg, many centuries ago, when the Ojibways lived towards the rising sun, were numerous and powerful. They lived congregated by themselves in one great village, and were noted for their warlike and quarrelsome disposition. They were ill-tempered and proud of their strength and bravery. For some slight cause they commenced to make war on their brethren of the Marten totem. Severely suffering from the incursions, and unable to cope singly with the Mous-o-neeg, the Martens called together the different clans of the tribe to council, and called on them for help and protection. A general league was made between the different totems, and it was determined that the men of the obnoxious and quarrelsome family of the Moose badge should be exterminated.

"The plan for their sudden and total destruction was agreed upon, and a council lodge was ordered to be built, which was made narrow and just long enough to admit all the warriors of the Mous-o-neeg. The poles of this lodge were planted firmly and deep in the ground, and close together, and lapping over the top they were strongly twisted and fastened together. Over this frame were tied lengthways, and worked in like wicker-work, other green poles, and so close together that a man's hand could scarcely pass through any part of the frame, so close and strong was it constructed. Over this frame, and from the inside, leaving but a long narrow aperture in the top, was fastened a thick covering and lining of dried grass.

"When this lodge had been completed, runners were sent to the village of the Moose Totem family, and all their chiefs and warriors solemnly invited to a national council and feast. This summons was made in such a manner that they could not refuse, even if they so felt disposed; and on the day fixed, the chiefs and all the men of war of the refractory clan arrived in a body at the village of their mortal foes (the Martens), where the council-lodge had been built and made ready.

"They were led into the lodge, where the old men and chiefs of the tribe had collected to receive them. The Mous-o-neeg entered unarmed, and as their great numbers gradually filled the lodge, the former inmates, as if through courtesy, arose and went out to give them room. Kettles full of cooked meat were brought in and placed before them, and they were requested to eat, after the fatigues of their journey. They entirely filled the long lodge; and when every one had left it but themselves, and while they were busy feasting on the good things that had been placed before them, the doors at each end were suddenly closed and fastened on them. A chief of the Marten Totem then addressed them in a loud voice, repeating over all the acts of blood and wickedness which they had enacted, and informing them that for these things the national council had decreed to sweep them from the face of the earth which they polluted. The lodge was surrounded by the warriors of the Marten, who acted as executioners; torches were applied to the thick and dry covering of grass, and, struggling in the flames unable to escape, the men of the Moose Totem were dispatched with barbed arrows shot through the narrow openings between the lodge-poles that confined them. In this fearful manner were the men of this wicked clan destroyed. Their women and children were captured by the Marten family, and adopted into their clan. In this manner the close consanguinity of these two Totems commenced, and at this day they are considered as one family."

The Reindeer family, which is a branch of the Mous-o-neeg, are few in number, and they reside mostly on the north coast of Lake Superior. The celebrated Ojibway war-leader Waub-o-jeeg (White Fisher), whom Mr. Schoolcraft has noticed in his writings at some length, was a member of this family, descended from a branch who emigrated from the Grand Portage near the mouth of Pigeon River to La Pointe, Shag-a-waum-ik-ong, where he and his father, Ma-moug-e-se-do (Big-foot), flourished nearly a century ago as war-leaders and chiefs of their people.

The other badges or totemic symbols which I have enumerated, form inconsiderable families, and are but branches of the principal clans whom I have noticed in the foregoing pages.

It will be difficult, till a minute insight is obtained into the totemic history and organization of all the Algic tribes, to decide fully the number of generic or grand Totems which are recognized among them, and the numeric strength of each.

This subject is deserving of close research and study. I consider it a most important link in solving the deep mystery which covers their origin. Even with the imperfect insight which has been given on this subject by different writers, an analogy cannot but be noticed existing in many respects between the totemic division of the Algics, and the division of the Hebrews into tribes. And the remarkable purity with which the system has been kept up for ages, finds no other parallel in the history of mankind.

  1. In the Iroquois Book of Rites edited by {{subst:al|Horatio Hale}}, Number 2 of Brinton's Library of Aboriginal American Literature, there is the following statement, pp. 51, 52, as to the clan system.

    "There are many indications which seem to show that the system is merely an artificial arrangement instituted for social convenience. It is natural, in the sense, that the desire for association is natural to man. The sentiment is one which manifests itself alike in all stages of society. The guilds of the Middle Ages, the Masonic and other secret brotherhoods, religious organizations, trade unions, clubs, and even political parties, are all manifestations of this associative instinct. The Indian clan was simply a brotherhood or aggregate of persons, united by a common tie. What the founders of the Iroquois league did, was to extend this system of social alliances through the entire confederacy. The Wolf clans-man of the Caniengas is deemed a brother of the Wolf clans-man of the Senecas, though originally there may have been no special connection between them."–E. D. N.