Uncovering the History of Ojibwe Women


For Brenda Child, researching Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community (Viking, 2012), a history of Ojibwe women that stretches across four states and several centuries, was something of a treasure hunt.

Holding Our World Together uses individual stories to illustrate the changing roles of Ojibwe women before and after reservation life. Chair of the University of Minnesota’s department of American Indian Studies, Child was commissioned to write the book as part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History series. But while she is adept at using historical sources, locating material for the volume was easier said than done. Women, she found, rarely made major appearances in early Ojibwe documents.

“That was the real challenge of writing the book—finding reliable sources that discuss women’s lives,” Child, Red Lake Ojibwe, told Indian Country Today Media Network in a telephone interview. (See book review.)

Still, she did find their stories—often buried and frequently surprising. “Sometimes the sources that you find talking about women’s lives are embedded in other historical records.”

For instance, there was the coming-of-age story of Bear Woman as told by her grandchildren, which Child found while researching postwar Ojibwe life. Bear Woman’s experiences in the mid-1800s uncloaked the spiritual rites and respectful treatment of girls entering puberty, dispelling prevailing notions that in traditional Indian society, girls of that age were ignored or shunned.

Child also dug up racism and fraud while interviewing an Ojibwe World War II veteran. At first, the veteran merely recalled a lack of racism in the military. But during the interview, he recounted how non-Indians had shunned his grandmother. He also remembered a store owner who defrauded her and other Ojibwes by encouraging them to accumulate store debt, then claiming their land as payment after they died.

“Here I was expecting to read a veteran’s story,” Child said.

For early history, Child found many letters and journals from missionaries, loggers or other 18th century and 19th century Europeans who rarely understood what they were seeing: “The trouble with documents is that they were very biased. There was a tendency in historical sources to trivialize women and even question their moral character.”

Back then, Europeans looked askance at Ojibwe women’s work.

“?‘What’s wrong with all these Indian people? They don’t work or live like us. Women perform hard labor outdoors,’?” Child said. “Indian families were constructed very differently from those of Western Europe.”

But what looked like forced labor actually painted a picture of a labor force that women controlled.

Child saw this lack of understanding in the writings of a 19th century logger whose canoe trip down Minnesota’s Rum River was blocked by six miles of wild rice bound into sheaves. To the lumberjack, the presence of the rice was an inconvenience. To Child, it showed the economic power of Ojibwe women. The rice was a bartered commodity, and the sheaves indicated the role of women in its harvest, apportionment and distribution.

“Lose the Eurocentric observations,” Child said, “and it shows how much of the work [women] did, and then how much of the economy they therefore controlled.”

At her talks about Ojibwe women’s history, she’s been intrigued by the questions from mostly non-Indian audiences. She was once asked what role a childless woman had in traditional Ojibwe society.

“In western society,” said Child, “motherhood was so important to a women’s identity. But it’s hard to imagine, almost, a childless Ojibwe woman … because of the construction of the family before reservations.”

An Ojibwe woman without her own children would be a “mother” to her siblings’ children and other children in the community, Child explained. “It was nearly impossible for an Ojibwe woman to be ‘childless.’ ”

The role of elders was also misunderstood, she found.

“Older people in Ojibwe society are not put out to pasture; they are really honored,” Child said, adding that she had seen that homage in her family and her community.

“I grew up with a grandmother who really was the heart and soul of our family," Child said. "I grew up understanding that women in society were respected, men and women were respected and that respect grew with their age."

In working on both this and on her first book, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998), Child reveled in discovering individual stories that illuminated the culture of the time.

“I like to write about family life and community life,” she said. “I wanted to do the human story.”