Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community

Brenda J. Child
Amazon book (Link)

Over the holidays, I've been rereading this superb book. 

This from the chapter on Women of the Great Lakes and Mississippi:

"Historically, Ojibwe gardens developed in microclimates where water along the Lake of the Woods and Rainy River worked to prevent early frost.  These sites comprised a fertile belt of islands where corn had been planted for generations beyond memory.  Though nineteenth-century rhetoric downplayed the prevalence of indigenous agriculture in an attempt to bring Indians into line with Western ideas about yeoman farming, in fact, it was Ojibwe farmers who sold seed potatoes to the new European settlers arriving in Anishinaabewaki.  This was at a time when Canadian officials remarked on "magnificent" Objibwe fields of potatoes and corn.  The Ojibwe and other Anishinaabeg in the Great Lakes region may have farmed even more during the years of the fur trade, because their surplus could be used in the market as women sold and exchanged food and supplies to fur traders and lumbermen.

"Microhabitats produced small fruits that were a priority to Ojibwe women.  Gathering strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, low- and high-bush cranberries, and other ground vegetation was another significant summer economic activity essential to year-round nutrition and survival, since these foods could be easily dried and stored.  As important as berries were to Ojibwe subsistence, stories associated with certain plants always gave priority to their life-giving and spiritual essence over their nourishment.  Berry season was such an essential and pleasant time for Ojibwe families and communities that summer months were named after the berries that ripen within those days.  The heart berry, ode'imin, or strawberry was first to mature, and many Ojibwe identified June as the heart berry moon for its shape.  Depending on the area of the Great Lakes region, July or August was considered miinikegiziis, the blueberry moon.  Surplus fruits were increasingly a source of income, because they could be sold or bartered to traders, lumbermen, and settlers who arrived in Anishinaabewaaki.

"One early lumberman in central Minnesota was impressed by the sheer extent of wild rice-related labor taking place as he passed through six miles of lake where women had bound the crop before harvesting, forcing him to take his canoe ashore.  Prior to harvest, women went out to the rice lakes in small canoes and tied the stalks into sheaves with strips of basswood fiber, marking their territory, protecting the crop from high winds and birds, and creating paths for canoes.  Indigenous people have harvested wild rice for a thousand years or more in the Great Lakes region, where it grows naturally in gentle, mineral-rich lakes and river headwaters.  Ojibwe people called wild rice manoomin, "the good seed that grows in water," and the seasonal grain was sacred food as well as a dietary staple.  The work of harvest began early in the spring with the selection of the Oshkaabewisag, community ricing committees whose members carefully observed water levels and the weather for signs that the wild rice was ripening.  These men and women signaled the beginning of the fall harvest.

"The wild rice harvest was the most visible expression of women's autonomy in Ojibwe society.  Binding rice was an important economic activity for female workers, who within their communities expressed prior claims to rice and a legal right to use wild rice beds in rivers and lakes through this practice.  Ojibwe ideas about property were not invested in patriarchy, as in European legal traditions.  Therefore, when early travelers and settlers observed indigenous women working, it would have involved a paradigm shift for them to appreciate that for the Ojibwe, water was a gendered space where women held property rights.  Perhaps Ojibwe women's ceremonial responsibility for water derives from these related legal traditions and economic practices.  Men held a ceremonial responsibility for fire.  Men traveled with their wives and female relatives to set up seasonal rice camps near the water, but they later departed to take part in the complementary occupation of hunting waterfowl or fishing."

Ojibwe women harvesting wild rice, 1853 (Link)

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