Ojibwa - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. For the Ojibwa the supernatural world held a multitude of spiritual beings and forces. Some of these beings and forces—Sun, Moon, Four Winds, Thunder, and Lightning—were benign, but others—ghosts, witches, and Windigo, a supernatural cannibalistic giant—were malevolent and feared. Presiding over all other spirits was Kiccimanito, or Great Spirit, although this belief may have been a product of European influence. Ojibwa religion was very much an individual affair and centered on the belief in power received from spirits during dreams and visions. For this reason, dreams and visions were accorded great significance and much effort was given to their interpretation. The power obtained through them could be used to manipulate the natural and supernatural environments and employed for either good or evil purposes. Missionization by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches began during the nineteenth century, but conversion and Christian influence were limited prior to the twentieth century. In the mid-twentieth century the religious orientation of many Ojibwa was a mixture of Christian and traditional native elements.
Religious Practitioners. In their vision quests, some young men received more spiritual power than others, and it was they who in later life became shamans. Several different types of shamans existed, the type being determined by the sort of spiritual power received.
Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremony for the Southeastern Ojibwa and the Southwestern Chippewa was the Midewiwin, or Medicine Dance, of the Medicine Lodge Society. The Midewiwin ceremony was held semiannually (in the late spring and early fall among the nineteenth-century Wisconsin Chippewa) and lasted for several days. The Northern Ojibwa did not practice the Midewiwin Ceremony, although the Plains Ojibwa did. Among the latter, however, it was exceeded in importance by the Sun Dance, performed annually in mid-June in order to bring rain, good health, and good fortune.
Arts. Ojibwa music was individualistic. Musical instruments included tambourines, water drums, rattles, and flutes. Songs were derived from dreams and had magical purposes, such as ensuring success in hunting and other economic activities, invoking guardian spirits, and curing sickness. Among the Southwestern Chippewa porcupine quill work employing a floral motif was an important technique in the decoration of buckskin clothing and leather bags. After European contact glass beads replaced quills in decorative applications, although the floral motif was maintained.
Medicine. Disease and illness were thought to be caused by sorcery or as retribution for improper conduct toward the supernatural or some social transgression. Curing was performed by members of the Midewiwin, or Medicine Lodge Society, into which both men and women were inducted after instruction by Mide priests, payment of fees, and formal initiation. Shamans, with their powers derived from dreams and visions, were curers of sickness, but so, too, were others knowledgeable in the use of medicinal plants.
Death and Afterlife. Upon death the corpse was washed, groomed, dressed in fine clothing, and wrapped in birchbark before burial in a shallow grave. Following death, the soul of the deceased was believed to journey westward for four days to an afterlife in the sky. Among the Southwestern Chippewa the deceased was also painted prior to burial and lay in state in a wigwam. The funeral ceremony was attended by friends and relatives and was conducted by a Mide priest, who talked to the deceased and offered tobacco to the spirits. After the ceremony was concluded the body was removed through a hole in the west side of the wigwam to the grave site, where it was buried along with personal possessions. The door of the wigwam was not used when removing the deceased for fear that the departed soul would return through the door. In later times a long, low, gabled plank house was constructed over the grave. The Plains Ojibwa also employed the gabled grave house and left offerings of food and water at the grave house for four days after burial for the soul's subsistence on its journey to the afterlife.