Ojibwe culture is not matriarchal in the anthropological sense. We trace our clan affiliation through our fathers rather than our mothers. Traditionally our hereditary chiefs have been men.
Hearing these facts, an outsider might get the idea that Ojibwe women are not in the forefront of our communities. Even the thought of expressing such a notion to the strong Ojibwe women in my immediate family makes me shiver a bit with fear.
My mother Bernice and my famous Aunty Pat were tiny ladies, barely 5 feet tall, but had the ability to make even the biggest, toughest male a little weak in the knees with fright once they began dressing them down for failing to meet their duties.
When I think of Aunty Pat, I see her sitting in her easy chair in the cramped living room of her little HUD home, where she held court. At first glance, one could mistake her for a child sitting in that enormous chair. But when she was riled, she had a way of drawing herself up and rooting her little rear end into that chair that made you want to run for cover. Even in the waning moments of her 85-plus years, she could make my cousins jump up suddenly at her commands to fetch a tray for a visitor’s bologna sandwich.
I recall that my Uncle Don used to call her “Jaws.”
Ojibwe men are easily identified by the notorious flatness of their rear ends. According to my mother, those butts got that way because of the enthusiastic verbal skills of Ojibwe women. She didn’t mean this as a criticism but rather as recognition for our women’s tenacity in keeping our families together and defending the land and water against all threats, both inside and out.
My mother described Uncle Don as a “flamboyant” character. Like many of the men in my family, he was loud, funny and outrageous, seemingly immune to responsibility and public criticism. I recall the time he went to early mass one Sunday morning in the little church in Bad River. Still tipsy from the previous night’s debauch, he swayed as he stood in the pew. He hadn’t been to church in a long time and was surprised when the man next to him turned and shook his hand, offering him the peace blessing.
“Peace be with you,” the man said.
“Well, pleased to meet you too,” Don roared.
Haw-hawing around the rez, he retold the story for days to approving audiences. He made the fatal mistake, however, of visiting Aunty Pat’s house. After hearing his tale, she took the opportunity to remind him of his family duties left undone. When he left her house, he looked several inches shorter and his rear end seemed nearly non-existent.
Many of the Ojibwe women of my youth were often bitter, quick-tempered creatures who could unleash an acid tongue or a crack upside the head if one got too close at the wrong time. These women are the ones who survived poverty, brutal men, sexual violence, Indian boarding schools and everything else the white world dished out to Indian women in the 20th century. Those prickly exteriors, however, camouflaged a capacity for deep love of family and culture and tenderness as soft as a mouse’s belly.
As Brenda Child of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe notes, older women in our tribe are called mindimooyenh, or “one who holds things together.” Child, Ph.D and professor in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author of Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community.
Holding things together is not a wordy or showy endeavor for Ojibwe women. Life lessons and spiritual teachings are embedded in doing even the most humble tasks, such as preparing food and helping others get ready for ceremony.
Dora Mosay Ammann, 76 of the St. Croix Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin is a mindemooyenh. She describes her duties as a woman. “We were put here to keep our ceremonies alive,” she says. Ammann, whose Ojibwe name is Ashazhawaagiizhig, or Crossing Sky Woman has been part of traditional spirituality her entire life.
“If I am feeling bad, I try to help someone else. The work takes away my worry,” she says.
“I meet the spirits early in the morning each day and find out what they have in store for me. This is what sustains me.”
She adds, “Without our spirituality we have nothing! So this is what I try to teach the young people.”
Babette Sandman, of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, agrees. “Nothing could happen without our spirituality.”
Sandman, whose Ojibwe name is Makade Miigwan, or Black Feather, marvels at how Ojibwe culture and spirituality saved her life. “As a young woman, I was so filled with rage over the injustices in the white man’s world, but our ways helped me transform that anger into strength and the ability to get things done,” she recalls.
“I learned that in order to survive, women must work for the people and pass along the same strength that enabled our ancestors to keep these ways alive for us today.
“Sometimes I wonder where Ojibwe women’s strength comes from. How is it we’ve survived and kept our ways and identity even when the federal government outlawed our religion? Then I remember that the ancestors taught us that there is some kind of energy that comes right out of the earth, into our feet and into our hearts if we take time to put down our tobacco and listen,” she says.
In Ojibwe culture, spirituality is the bedrock for all aspects of life; women have traditionally played a central role in forwarding this philosophy and practice.
For instance, in her book, Child describes the essential role Ojibwe women historically held in the daily life and fabric of society and the great regard with which the tribe and family held them.
“Women inhabited a world in which the earth was gendered female, and they played powerful roles as healers. They organized labor within their community and held property rights over water, making decisions and controlling an essential part of the seasonal economy. Ojibwe women lived in a society that valued an entire system of beliefs associated with women’s work, not just the product of their labor,” she writes.
“Women performed an indispensable role in passing on cultural values and attitudes about labor across generations. Elderly women were granted considerable power and authority in their society,” she continues.
For instance, women were considered to be especially powerful when giving birth. Their skills in midwifery and healing made them sought after figures in tribal life. Traditional Ojibwe teaching stories describe Nokomis’s (grandmother) special power and knowledge of healing plants that were invaluable to the community.
Child further notes that in traditional Ojibwe society, men did not gain the right to direct a woman’s life or resources after marriage. “Women continuously worked and otherwise interacted with relatives and the roles of daughter, sister, mother and aunt were important mantles of responsibility,” she writes.
Child also describes the crucial role that Ojibwe women played in negotiating treaties and relationships with European settlers.
“Ojibwe ideas about property were not invested in patriarchy as in European traditions,” she observes.
For instance, she describes how collectives of women controlled the social organization of the wild rice harvest, an essential dietary and spiritual staple for Ojibwe who used the food in ceremony as well as for sustenance.
Child further opines, “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.”
This notion of water as a gendered space may contribute to the relationship between Ojibwe women and water. We are taught that it is our duty as women to care for the water. The most important and essential element of life, water encircles our young in the womb and influences all life on earth.
In the end, Ojibwe women have survived European attempts to undermine our role as “one who holds things together.”
Our resilience and determination to know whom we are, how to pray and make ceremony and pass this knowledge along to our children and community, this is our enduring strength.
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