In this thread I plan to post whatever interesting-seeming things related to Ojibwe culture or language I feel like. So let’s get on with it.
Ojibwe1 is an Algonquian language, most closely related to Potawatomi, spoken mostly around the Great Lakes of North America by an unknown number of people. Ethnologue’s estimate of 5,000 speakers in the US is off by about an order of magnitude (the real number is closer to 700-1000, or around 0.6% of Ojibwe people in the US); the number of speakers in Canada is probably something like 25,000. It may still be viable and being learned by children in a few isolated Canadian reserves, but for the most part, despite having among the most speakers of any indigenous North American language, it’s facing rapid attrition like the rest of them.
Ojibwe constitutes a dialect continuum, and not all dialects are mutually intelligible. Several clearly-defined dialects can be identified, in particular Oji-Cree (aka “Severn Ojibwe,” often referred to, confusingly, as “Cree” by its speakers), Algonquin (/ælˈɡɑnk(w)ɪn/), Nipissing (/ˈnɪpɪsɪŋ/, confusingly also called “Algonquin” by its speakers), and Odawa (/oʊˈdɑwɑ/~/oʊˈdɑwə/, aka “Ottawa”). Among the other dialects that have been identified, although they are less distinct and blend more smoothly into one another, are Southwestern Ojibwe, Eastern Ojibwe, Northern or Northwestern Ojibwe, and Saulteaux (/ˈsoʊɾoʊ/) or Plains Ojibwe (see map below).2 Two broad groupings can be identified: northern dialects (Oji-Cree and Algonquin, which share a number of features) and southern dialects (all the rest).
Odawa and Eastern Ojibwe share a phonological rule, which diffused from Potawatomi beginning in the late 19th or early 20th century, that syncopates all unstressed vowels and makes these dialects very difficult to understand for other Ojibwe speakers; in other respects, however, Eastern Ojibwe is very similar to Southwestern Ojibwe, while Odawa is quite distinctive grammatically and lexically. Many of you will likely be familiar with Rand Valentine’s grammar covering these two dialects, which he groups together as “Nishnaabemwin.”
Ojibwe has 17 consonants, given here in the (most) standard orthography: p t ch k ’, b d j g, s sh, z zh, m n, w y. Obstruents are divided into two series, “fortis” <p t ch k s sh> and “lenis” <b d j g z zh>. Except in Nishnaabemwin, fortis consonants cannot appear word-initially except in a handful of particles where an initial vowel was irregularly lost (e.g. (i)sa, a discourse particle, or (a)pane “always”), so the two series essentially only contrast medially and finally. The phonetic realization of the contrast varies between dialects, but most commonly the distinctive feature is length: <p t ch k s sh> = [pː tː ʧː kː sː ʃː]; <b d j g z zh> = always [b d ʤ ɡ z ʒ] intervocalically and often finally, and often but not always [p t ʧ k s ʃ] initially. In some northern dialects and western Saulteaux, the fortis stops are preaspirated instead (though I’ve also heard recordings of southern speakers with sporadic preaspiration), and in at least some Algonquin communities the fortis series are simplex voiceless, while the lenis series are voiceless initially and finally (thus falling together with the fortis series finally) but still voiced intervocalically. Probably due to English influence, some speakers outside Algonquin have a simple voiceless-voiced contrast, while some speakers on the north shore of Lake Superior pronounce the fortis stops as post-aspirates. (As far as I know, in all dialects that pre- or post-aspirate the fortis stops, the fortis fricatives are still [sː ʃː].)
Most Saulteaux speakers, and some Oji-Cree speakers, have lost the contrast between s~sh and z~zh due to Plains Cree influence. The glottal stop ’ of the southern dialects is instead a glottal fricative /h/ in Oji-Cree and Algonquin. It is also written <h> in the Nishnaabemwin and Saulteaux orthographical traditions, though still pronounced as a glottal stop. Even in those dialects which retain the glottal stop pronunciation, however, a handful of interjections and expressive/extra-linguistic words occur with [h], e.g. ahaaw “okay!”.
Outside of Nishnaabemwin, permitted consonant clusters are sk, shp, sht, shk, mb, nd, nj, ng ([ŋɡ], which many speakers realize word-finally as [ŋ], as in English), ns, nsh, nz, nzh, as well as any consonant (except w or y) or cluster + w. Clusters cannot appear word-initially, and the only permissible word-final clusters are shk, nd, nj, ng, ns, nz, and nzh.
There are three short oral vowels i a o, four long oral vowels ii e oo aa, and four long nasal vowels iinh, enh, oonh, aanh. (IMPORTANT: Note that because there is no short counterpart to long e /ɛː/, it is written <e> instead of <ee>.) The short vowels are also laxer than their longer counterparts, being pronounced [ɪ], [ə]~[ɐ], [o]~[ʊ]. oo (and its nasal counterpart) varies between [oː]~[uː], and aa varies between [aː]~[ɑː]. The nasal vowels are marginal, occurring only in some interjections/expressive words (e.g. enh “yes”) and in the contemptive suffix—which has, however, become lexicalized (as more of a cutesy diminutive) in a large number of animal names and kin terms. Before clusters of /n/+fricative, the /n/ drops and the preceding vowel (long or short) is allophonically nasalized. Thus, e.g. banzan “singe it!” = [bə̃zən]. In the standard analysis, reflected in the orthography, this also applies to n+’ and n+y (e.g., mindimooyenyag “old women” = /mintimoːjɛːnjak/ = [mɪ̃ndɪmoːjɛ̃ːjəɡ̊]), but I prefer to analyze these as true phonemic nasal vowels followed by /ʔ/ or /j/ (thus /mintimoːjɛ̃ːjak/).
I won’t get into all the phonological processes of Ojibwe here, except to note there are at least two morphophonemes |N| (appearing as surface n, zh, or fortition of a following plosive) and |S| (appearing as surface s or sh), palatalization processes involving d and t, and a rule that inserts epenthetic -i- to break up most (but not all) illegal clusters across morpheme boundaries.
Basic Grammatical Concepts
I’ll discuss various interesting aspects of Ojibwe grammar later. For now I’m just going to cover the basic concepts needed to understand the general organization of Ojibwe morphosyntax.
The most important word class in Ojibwe, as in other Algonquian languages, is the verb. They are (usually) the only obligatory member of a clause, containing full person marking of participants, and are much more common than nouns in discourse. A verb word is made up of a verb stem, optional preverbs, and inflectional affixes, discussed in a moment. First, though, it will be useful to note that verbs can be divided into:
Verb stems are traditionally analyzed as having a tripartite structure, consisting of Initials, Medials, and Finals.
Medials consist of incorporated noun roots or classificatory morphemes (such as -aabiig-, specifying that the action involves a stringlike object, e.g. ozhaawashkwaabiigad- “to be blue/green (of stringlike objects)”, bakidaabiigisid- “to lay (something stringlike) over the top of something,” etc.), and are not required to create a well-formed verb stem. A maximum of one Medial can occur per verb stem, but some of these Medials may be internally complex, consisting of an identifiable root plus obligatory but apparently semantically empty extensions. For example, the free noun goon “snow” has the incorporated form -gon-3 but always appears with the semantically empty augments aa- and -ag (both of which also occur with a number of other incorporated noun roots). Thus, the Medial for “snow” is -aagonag-, as in ishpaagonagaa “it is deep snow,” ozhaashaagonagaa “there is slippery snow,” animaagonagii “s/he goes away (in the opposite direction) through the snow,” etc.
Finals are obligatory on (almost) every verb,4 and indicate at minimum the verb’s class (as VAI/VII/VTA/VTI). In many cases “Finals” are “complex,” involving a string of two or more separate Final morphemes. The last Final in such cases is always the verb class marker. The verb-classifying Finals that follow other Finals form a fairly small set (“abstract Finals”), basically bleached of any but the most basic semantic content, and are usually paired (AI:II or TA:TI), for example, -zo “AI” : -de “II” (cf. wiin-ichigaa-zo = dirty-be.made.so-AI wiinichigaazo “s/he is (made) dirty, polluted” vs. wiin-ichigaa-de = dirty-be.made.so-II wiinichigaade “it is (made) dirty, polluted”—where -ichigaa- represents a string of other Finals [which I have not segmented] preceding the final abstract Final) or -i “AI” : -in “II” (cf. mashkaw-ad-i = hard-freeze-AI mashkawaji “s/he freezes” vs. mashkaw-ad-in = hard-freeze-II mashkawadin “it freezes”—both with the preceding concrete Final -ad- “freeze”).5 Other Finals, in addition to providing the verb class (though many concrete Finals which always precede an abstract Final do not mark verb class), also have valence adjusting roles such as causative, applicative, benefactive, antipassive, reflexive, etc.; or mark instrumental notions (“by chopping/ax,” “by pulling,” “by heat,” “by mouth/speech,” “by thought/perception/feeling,” etc.), orientation (“fall/lie,” etc.), environmental descriptors (“river flows,” “wind blows,” “rain,” “cloud(s),” etc.), and motion or movement type (“run,” “crawl,” “fly,” etc.), among others. Some Finals serve simply to derive one verb class from another (e.g. the very common Final -d, which is added to VTAs to create VTIs: waabam- “to see (TA)” —> waaband- “to see (TI)”). The valence- and class-adjusting/derivational Finals are always added to bases that already consist of an Initial(+Medial)+Final(s), in a process of “secondary derivation,” and this process can be repeated iteratively, with a valence/class/derivational Final added to the new stem.
Initials are obligatory on every verb, and generally provide the main semantic content of the verb, often specifying things like motion/direction/source (“begin, start,” “move about, motion here and there,” “rise,” “out of water, ashore,” etc.), the result of the action (“break in two,” “used up, depleted,” “shut up, tied together,” etc.), adjectival-type notions (“red,” “long/tall,” “disordered,” “useful,” “good,” etc.), and many prosaic verbal meanings (“find,” “fetch” “hit,” “eat,” etc.). Noun stems can also serve as verb Initials when used with Finals of “being” and some others (e.g. inini “man” + AI Final “be(come)” -:wi = ininiiwi “he is/becomes a man”; aagim “snowshoe” + AI Final “manufacture/obtain” -ike = aagimike “s/he makes a snowshoe”; ishkodewaaboo “alcohol” + AI Final “smell” -:w-imaagw-izi = ishkodewaaboowimaagozi “s/he smells like booze”).
A few examples should make clear the richness of vocabulary that such combinations can offer. First, a list of words formed with the TA Final -ga’w “cause by chopping/ax”:6
bajiishkiga’w- “chop AN[=aninamate object] to a point” (initial bajiishk- “pointed”)
bakwega’w- “chop a piece off of AN (wooden)” (initial bakwe- “missing a piece”)
baasiga’w- “chop AN into small pieces” (initial baas- “cracked, shattered”)
bigishkiga’w- “chop AN into pieces” (initial bagishk- “break up, crumble, mash”)
biisiga’w- “chop AN into kindling, split AN into small pieces” (initial biis- “fine, small particles”)
bookoga’w- “chop AN in two” (initial bookw- “break in two”)
dakwaakoga’w- “hew AN (sticklike/wooden) short” (initial dakw- “short,” medial -aakw- “sticklike/wooden object”)
daashkiga’w- “split AN by chopping, cleave AN” (initial daashk- “split lengthwise”)
gagwediga’w- “test AN with an ax” (initial gagwe-d- “test, try”)
ginwaakoga’w- “chop AN (sticklike/wooden) so it is long” (initial ginw- “long,” medial -aakw- “sticklike/wooden object”)
giishkiga’w- “chop AN off with an ax” (initial giishk- “severed”)
maajiga’w- “start chopping AN” (initial maad- “start, begin”)
ozhiga’w- “hew AN to shape; tap AN (a tree) to get sap” (initial oN- “arrange, form”)
Now, a list of forms with the Initial nabag- “flat”:7
nabagada’w- TA : nabagada’- TI “pound object flat (using a stick or sticklike tool)” (final -ad-a’-w/-ad-a’-Ø “cause by stick or something with a handle”)
nabagizi- AI : nabagaa- II “be flat” (final -izi/-aa “be, have property”)
nabagaabide- AI “have flat teeth” (medial -aa-bid “tooth,” final -e “have (used with incorporated nouns)”)
nabagaabikizi- AI : nabagaabikad- II “be flat (something mineral), be a flat rock, be a sedimentary rock” (medial -aabik- “rock, metal, inorganic solid,” final -izi/-ad “be, have property”)
nabagaabiigizi- AI : nabagaabiigad- II “be flat (string/cordlike object)” (medial -aaby-ag- “stringlike object,” final -izi/-ad “be, have property”)
nabagaakokoN- TA : nabagaakokod- TI “carve object flat” (medial -aakw- “sticklike/wooden object,” final -iko-N/-iko-d “cause by blade/knife”)
nabagaakwad- II “be flat (sticklike/wooden object)” (medial -aakw- “sticklike/wooden object,” final -ad “be, have property”)8
nabagaashi- AI : nabagaasin- II “be blown flat” (final -aaS-i/-aaS-in “wind blows, caused by wind”)
nabagi’- TA : nabagit- TI “make object flat” (final -’-Ø/-’-d “causative”)
nabagidiye- AI “have a flat butt” (medial -diy- “butt,” final -e “have (used with incorporating nouns)”)
nabagijiishin- AI “have a flat tire” (medial -jii- “three-dimensional, soft, hollow object,” final -shin “fall/lie”)
nabagikoozhe- AI “have a flat bill [e.g. a duck]” (medial -koozh- “bill, beak,” final -e “have (used with incorporated nouns)”)
nabagin- TA,TI “flatten object by hand” (final -in “cause by hand”)
nabagise- AI,II “go flat suddenly” (final -se “fly, fall, happen suddenly”)
nabagishin- AI : nabagisin- II “lie flat” (final -shin/-sin “fall/lie”)
nabagishkaw- TA : nabagishk- TI “flatten object by foot/body” (final -shk-aw/-shk-Ø “cause by foot/body”)
nabagishkaa- AI,II “flatten, go flat” (final -shkaa “move, go, happen”)
nabagishkooN- TA : nabagishkood- TI “flatten object by weight/pressure” (final -shkoo-N/-shkoo-d “cause by weight/pressure”)
nabagishkoozo- AI : nabagishkoode- II “be flattened by weight/pressure” (final -shkoo-zo/-shkoo-de “caused by weight/pressure”)
nabagizide- AI “have flat feet” (medial -zid- “foot,” final -e “have (used with incorporated nouns)”)
nabagiingwe- AI “have a flat face” (medial -iingw- “face,” final -e “have (used with incorporated nouns)”)
There are also a number of nouns with the same initial, e.g. nabagaatig “flat piece of wood” (final -aa-tigw “stick, wood” <— noun mitigw- “tree, stick”), nabagakizin “flip flops” (final -akizin “shoe” <— noun makizin “shoe”), nabagashk “cattail, blue flag” (final -ashkw “stalk, reed”), nabagidaabaan “toboggan” (final -idaabaan “vehicle” <— noun odaabaan “vehicle”), etc.
The full verbal word (minus inflections, which are addressed below) is made up of the verb stem plus any optional preverbs. Preverbs are essentially anti-clitics (I don’t know of a better term): they are morphosyntactically part of the verbal word, but are phonologically separate words. As the name suggests, they precede the verb stem. In the practical orthography they are written with trailing hyphens; I’ll follow this usage here, except in glosses, where I will mark them with equals signs. Preverbs cover a wide range of notions, including TAM, adverbials, location, direction and motion, descriptive/adjectival senses, and more. Many can be freely formed from noun or verb roots by adding the preverb derivational suffix -i. Many preverbs have a verbal and/or nominal Initial counterpart, and the rules governing when to use a preverb versus an equivalent Initial are somewhat complex. In Ojibwe discourse most verbs have at least one preverb, and many have two or three; in theory there is no limit to the number of preverbs although in practice there are few verbs with more than three or four. However, as an extreme example, consider the following:9
Ojibwe verbs can be inflected in one of three different “Orders,” or conjugational patterns. The Imperative order is marked with suffixes only, and is used for commands—both immediate and delayed, and both positive and negative (i.e. “prohibitive”): waabandan! “look at it (2sg>inansg)(now)!”; gego waabandangen! “don’t look at it (2sg>inansg)(now)!”; waabandamookan! “look at it (2sg>inansg) later!”.
The other two orders, the Independent and Conjunct, are more complex. The Conjunct, like the Imperative, is marked with suffixes only, while the Independent is marked with both prefixes and suffixes. Both orders also distinguish positive and negative polarity, as well as four “modes”: the neutral (unmarked), preterite (marking some past completed events, though I’m unsure of its precise semantics and proper use—it is not very common in texts), dubitative (marking the speaker’s uncertainty regarding the event), and preterite-dubitative (speaker’s uncertainty regarding a past completed event, and most common in traditional narratives).
The Conjunct is used in dependent clauses (including complement clauses, temporal subordinate clauses, etc.), in Wh-questions, to form participles, in a connective use marking temporal immediacy with the preceding clause, and, in running discourse, is common in eventline clauses (the clauses that are the “backbone of the story,” as opposed to those carrying background or parenthetical information). The Independent is used elsewhere, including frequently in verbs of speaking/quoting. In some cases, a Conjunct verb undergoes “initial change,” an ablaut of the first vowel in the verb word; this occurs in Wh-questions, in participles, possibly to mark completive aspect, and when the verb contains a “relative root” (which I will discuss at another time). One example can serve as the use of the Conjunct in dependent clauses. In the example below,10 the only marker of subordination of the clause gii-shaagooji’igod iniw omindimooyenyiman is the verb’s inflection as Conjunct:
Gii-paapichigaazo niitaawis gii-shaagooji’igod iniw omindimooyenyiman.
“They laughed at my cousin when his old lady over-powered him.”
gii’=baapi-’-d-igaa-zopast=laugh-caus:TA-TI-undergo.action-AI n-iitaawis1-male’s.male.cross.cousin gii’=zhaagood-’-igw-dpast=overpower-caus:TA-inv-3conj iniwthat.obv o-mindimooyenh-im-an3-old.lady-possd-obv
Ojibwe and other Algonquian languages have a hierarchical morphosyntactic alignment. VTAs and VTIs contain an inflectional slot immediately following the verb stem where one of several suffixes can occur, known as “themes.” In VTIs the themes (primarily -am~-aa and -oo) are lexically specified for that particular verb, don’t vary, and don’t carry any meaning. In VTAs, however, the theme is important in marking which of the two participants indexed on the verb is subject and which is object, as discussed below.
In the Independent order, VTAs take a person prefix, either ni- 1, gi- 2, o- 3, or Ø- unspec (i.e., an unspecified participant, unmarked for person/number/animacy/etc.). The prefix specifies only person, not whether the person indexed is the subject or object.11 That information is provided by the theme. The VTA themes (with one complication I’m going to ignore) are -i 1obj; -iN 2obj; -aa 3obj; and -igw “inverse.”12 The inverse theme is used whenever the object outranks the subject on the following prominence hierarchy (“prox” and “obv” stand for “proximate” and “obviative,” which will be defined shortly):
1/2 > unspec > 3prox > 3obv > inan
Otherwise—when the subject outranks the object or when (in the case of only first and second persons being involved) the subject and object are not ranked relative to one another—the appropriate object theme is used.
The choice of person prefix is also determined by a hierarchy, although a slightly different one: 2 > 1 > unspec > 3. That is, if any participant is a second person, the prefix gi- is used; if not, but there is a first person participant, the prefix ni- is used; and so on. Ojibwe distinguishes inclusive and exclusive first person plural; the inclusive triggers the use of the second person prefix gi-, while the exclusive takes the first person prefix ni-.
Consider the following examples:
niwaabamaa = 1-see.TA-3obj = “I see him/her.” The verb involves a 1st and 3rd person; 1 > 3 on the prefix hierarchy so the prefix is ni-; the action is in the expected direction based on the prominence hierarchy (1 > 3), so the 3obj suffix is selected.
niwaabamig = 1-see.TA-inv = “s/he sees me.” The verb involves a 1st and 3rd person; 1 > 3 on the prefix hierarchy so the prefix is again ni-; however, now the action is against the expected direction based on the prominence hierarchy (3rd person acting on 1st person against the prominence hierarchy 1 > 3), so the inverse suffix is selected.
giwaabamin = 2-see.TA-2obj = “I see you.” The verb involves a 1st and 2nd person; 2 > 1 on the prefix hierarchy so the prefix is gi-; 1st and 2nd person are not ranked relative to one another so the 2obj suffix is selected.
owaabamaan = 3-see.TA-3obj-obv = “s/he (prox) sees the other one (obv).” The verb involves a proximate 3rd person and an obviative 3rd person; since no 1st or 2nd person is involved, the prefix is o-; the action is in the expected direction based on the prominence hierarchy (3prox > 3obv), so the 3obj suffix is selected.
owaabamigoon = 3-see.TA-inv-obv = “the other one (obv) sees him/her (prox).” The verb involves a proximate 3rd person and an obviative 3rd person; since no 1st or 2nd person is involved, the prefix is o-; however, now the action is against the expected direction based on the prominence hierarchy (obviative acting on proximate against the prominence hierarchy 3prox > 3obv), so the inverse suffix is selected.
waabamaa (i.e. Ø-waabam-aa) = unspec-see.TA-3obj = “(someone) sees him/her; s/he is seen.” The verb involves an unspecified and 3rd person; unspec > 3 on the prefix hierarchy so the prefix is Ø-; the action is in the expected direction based on the prominence hierarchy (unspec > 3), so the 3obj suffix is selected.
The use of the theme signs in VTA Conjuncts is far more complex; they occur in some person combinations but not others, and the circumstances in which they are used are somewhat different from their use in the Independent.
Ojibwe nouns have a binary gender system, distinguishing Animate versus Inanimate nouns. Animate nouns include all humans, animals, supernatural beings, and most but not all plants, as well as some notionally inanimate objects (there are some patterns to these, e.g. celestial bodies and some traditional items and items of human manufacture are animate). Other nouns, including some plants, are inanimate. Animacy is not overtly marked on singular nouns, but plural suffixes differ for animates and inanimates, and as we’ve seen, the choice of verbs (VTA vs. VTI and VAI vs. VII) are sensitive to the animacy of the absolutive participant.
Nouns are also distinguished as Proximate or Obviative. Basically, only one third person in any clause may be proximate—the proximate noun is generally the most discourse-salient (third person) participant, the one the section of discourse is “about.” All other third persons in the clause are obviative. In addition, a proximate noun cannot be possessed by an obviative noun; in any possessive relationship, the possessum must be obviative (the possessor can either be proximate or obviative, depending on the number of third persons in the given section of discourse). In some Ojibwe dialects, obviation is not marked on inanimate nouns, while in others it is;13 in all Ojibwe dialects, obviative animate nouns are overtly marked with a suffix (which is homophonous with the inanimate plural suffix).
Ojibwe is strongly head-marking, so nouns also mark possession on the possessum, using both prefixes and suffixes, e.g. ninikaminaanig = 1-goose-possd-1pl-pl.possd = “our (excl.) geese.” They can also inflect for locative case (very common, and used in more situations than the name would imply), preterite (marking deceased individuals or former objects, e.g. niwaaka’iganiban “my former house”), preterite-dubitative (like the preterite, but with the status of the person/object unknown to the speaker), plural vocative, diminutive (also very common), pejorative, and contemptive (despite the name, the contemptive is less strong than the pejorative, e.g. ininiinh “just some guy”). Some kinship terms and a few other nouns also have irregular vocative forms.
While many nouns are monomorphemic, many others, like verbs, can be analyzed as consisting of Initial + Final. A few examples have already been given above in the discussion of the initial nabag- “flat.” Many noun Finals are themselves derived from independent noun roots. Noun Initials tend to be descriptive/adjectival, though this is not always the case. Furthermore, just as verbs can take preverbs, nouns can take prenouns, which are morphosyntactically part of the noun word while being phonologically separate words (essentially creating the equivalent to compound nouns).
Nouns can be modified by demonstrative pronouns which agree with them in number and animacy as well as marking distance from the speaker and listener. The demonstratives are exceedingly common, and are probably better analyzed as articles or as something between articles and demonstratives.
History and Culture
At the time of first contact, Ojibwe-speaking peoples were located on the northern shore of Georgian Bay west to Sault Ste. Marie (/su seɪnt məˈɹi/, “the falls/rapids of St. Mary”—the rapids are also known as “the Sault”), and a bit inland—as well as specifically Odawa, Nipissing, and Algonquin speakers further east (this stage of the Algonquin dialect, attested in Jesuit writings, is referred to as Old Algonquin). See map below. The Ojibwes did not constitute a coherent tribe or nation at the time, and the name “Ojibwe” (“Outchibous”) was only applied to one band or group out of many—others mentioned by the early explorers and Jesuits are the Noquet/Roquai, Marameg, Amikoüai, Achiligouan, Ouasouarini, Outchougai, Nikikouek, Missisauga, Outurbi, Nopeming, Mantouek, and Baouichtigouirin/Saulteurs (named because at the time they lived around the Sault; note that some of these groups may actually have been Odawas or Algonquins, or possibly even Crees).14 These Ojibwe groups generally had good relations with Odawa, Algonquin, and Nipissing groups, some other Algonquian-speakers to their west, and the Siouan-speaking Winnebagoes; their traditional and most dangerous enemies were the Five Nations Iroquois to their east, whom they called Naadowe(siwa)g “rattlesnakes.”15
These Ojibwe-speaking groups were subdivided into relatively small bands, probably consisting of a hundred or so people, though they might join together in larger groups during certain periods, to harvest maple sugar in the spring or catch whitefish at the Sault in the summer. During the winter, bands broke up into smaller family hunting units. There was probably only limited political power exercised over any bands/groups, and no hereditary chiefs. The pre-contact Ojibwes were hunter-gatherers who perhaps did some limited gardening, but not agriculturalists like some Algonquian and Iroquoian groups to the south and east. Deer, moose, bear, beaver, and fish were among the most important game. As noted, they tapped maple trees (ininaatigoog, Acer saccharum) in the spring, and used the sugar (ziinzibaakwad) in a wide variety of dishes. They also ate numerous roots, tubers, berries, and other plant products. Among the most important natural product for them was the bark (wiigwaas) of birch trees (Betula papyrifera), which they used to cover their lodges, as canoe skins, to make various containers, and to produce works of art and scrolls featuring mnemonic illustrations describing the content of sacred songs or other magical or religious texts.
I’ll cover Ojibwe religious beliefs in more detail at another time. For now I’ll simply note that the Ojibwes were polytheists, believing in a number of gods (manidoog, anglicized “manitous” and traditionally translated “spirits”), of greater or lesser power, who controlled all aspects of the world. The most powerful included the underwater manitou Mishi-Bizhiw (the “Underwater Panther,” literally “Great Lynx,” a large, horned, dangerous manitou with both feline and serpentine characteristics — sometimes paired with an additional being, Mishi-Ginebig, the “Great Snake”), the great enemies of the underwater manitou(s) the Thunderbirds (binesiwag), the four winds, the “owners” of each species of animal, and the giant winter cannibal monsters wiindigoog (anglicized windigos or wendigos). There was also a supreme creator god Gichi-Manidoo “Great God” (traditionally translated “the Great Spirit”), but he is likely a post-contact development. The culture hero-slash-trickster Nanabush (whose name varies considerably among different Ojibwe communities: Wenabozho, Nenabozho, etc.) was very prominent in traditional myths, establishing Indian institutions and important plants like tobacco, forging relationships between the manitous and the Indians, and showing by (comically negative) example what behavior was proper. Nanabush was also the protagonist of the Ojibwe origin myth cycle, in which, after numerous adventures, he creates the current earth from a small piece of mud after a great flood.
The first Europeans the Ojibwes (and other Ojibwe-speaking groups) encountered were French explorers and Jesuit missionaries in the early 1600s. A demand for fur in Europe—particularly beaver fur—soon led to an influx of French traders into New France wishing to profit off the bountiful furs of the region. They initially used, primarily, the Hurons, Mohawks, and other Iroquoian groups to obtain furs, but later expanded to using the Odawas and various Algonquian groups as well, including the Ojibwes. Traders would supply the Indians with guns, ammunition, and metal traps, which the Indians would use to obtain pelts for the traders the following spring. In exchange, they received valuable European trade goods including various metal tools and implements (kettles, axes, knives, etc.), beads, cloth, tobacco, weapons, and liquor.
Competition among the tribes participating was fierce, and ultimately led to the Iroquois or Beaver War of the mid- to late-1600s, in which the Five Nations Iroquois virtually obliterated the Hurons and their allies in 1648-916 but did not vanquish Ojibwes or many other Algonquian groups, who gradually assumed a more prominent role in the trade. As the century progressed, and especially in the 1700s, the Ojibwes began to push north-, south- and westward along with the French in search of more fur hunting grounds, driving out other tribes before them. By about 1690, the Ojibwes had reached Chequamegon, Wisconsin (Zhaagawaamikong “at the sand bar”) and the neighboring Madeline Island (and its later fort/town of La Pointe, Mooningwanekaaning “where there are many northern flickers [Colaptes auratus]”), which were to become one of their spiritual and political centers in the coming centuries.17 In Wisconsin and especially Minnesota, the Ojibwes also encountered wild rice (manoomin, Zizania aquatica and Z. palustris) in abundance, which quickly became a staple of their diet.
Up to this point, the Ojibwes had served as middlemen in the trade for tribes to their west, including one of their traditional enemies the Dakotas, with whom they had established an alliance in 1679. The Ojibwes would collect the western tribes’ furs and deliver them to the French, and provide the westerners a cut of the trade goods in exchange. Beginning in the 1730s, however, the French began trading directly with the Dakotas and supplying them with firearms, trapping equipment, and trade goods, undercutting the Ojibwes’ valuable position as middlemen as well as potentially altering the military balance of power in the region. Warfare between the two groups was renewed, and pursued viciously and incessantly for more than a century (the last battle occurred in 1858), primarily centered on modern northern and central Minnesota, which featured not only valuable hunting grounds but also important wild rice fields. In these wars the Ojibwes were generally the victors, and continued their westward push, gradually driving the Dakotas out of Minnesota and onto the western plains.
In addition to drawing Ojibwe-speakers far from their original homeland, the fur trade had other important effects on their society. The concentration of the trade around a relatively small number of specific posts and forts led to larger congregations of Indians and eventually more cohesive political units. It was during the 18th century that the “Ojibwes” emerged as a distinct tribe, and that the leaders of individual Ojibwe bands gained significant political and military power, leading to hereditary chiefdoms, which (as noted) the evidence suggests did not exist in the pre-contact period.
In the 1700s the French and British battled for control of the North American fur trade, culminating in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The French were defeated, and Britain gained control of the region and the trade, but many French/French-Canadian traders and other civilians remained, and continued to live in the region and serve as traders, guides, and voyageurs. The late 1700s introduced a new conflict with the American Revolution; almost all Indian tribes allied with the British, who were defeated and (eventually) forced to surrender their forts in the new United States, although they held onto Canada.
The United States took a far more aggressive colonial expansionist policy than the previous French and British administrations, and large numbers of settlers began moving into the Great Lakes region. Settlers were partly encouraged by the expansion-friendly federal government, but many also took it upon themselves to acquire new land, in numbers that the government was essentially unable to prevent even if it wanted to. At the same time, the Americans were aware of the bountiful natural resources of the region, particularly timber and minerals like copper and iron, which they were eager to obtain. The result was a long series of treaties in which tribes sold off portions of their land to the US, only to sign a new treaty a few years later as settlers continued their encroachment (or as part of surrender terms following a failed Native uprising or attack on settlements). Many tribes in the region eventually either fled to Canada or were relocated to other parts of the US, although the Ojibwes managed to successfully remain in the region on a number of reservations.
Meanwhile, in the early- to mid-1800s, the fur trade was collapsing as the beavers were hunted close to extinction. By this point this Indians had become completely dependent on the trade; they had abandoned many of their old practices and survival strategies, their political organization was significantly altered, and they no longer used wooden or stone tools, bows and arrows, or other traditional implements, instead depending on firearms, metal axes, weapons, and tools, etc. With the loss of both the majority of their land and its resources (including game and fish to hunt) and European goods from the fur trade, most Ojibwes became severely impoverished (and now dependent on the distribution of rations from the federal government), a situation from which they have never fully recovered. Many tribes in the US also lost additional portions of land through the (sometimes forced) sale of “allotments” of tribal land by individuals, as a result of the Dawes Act of 1887—halted only in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act—which also caused many reservations to become significantly fragmented.
By the end of the 1800s, the governments of both Canada and the US aimed to “civilize” the Indians by teaching them farming, Christianizing them, and otherwise assimilating them to white society. This was accomplished, among other means, by the banning of traditional Native religious practices and forcing children to attend boarding schools where they underwent forced labor, were taught the ways of white society, and were (violently) forbidden from speaking their traditional languages. Thousands of the students died from abuse, starvation, and inadequate healthcare. The use of such boarding schools continued in some areas into the 1970s.
Though the Ojibwes and their relatives continue to face numerous problems—especially high suicide and violent crime rates, alcoholism, and extreme poverty—on a more positive note aboriginal religious practices are now legal (and indeed quite widely-practiced among the Ojibwes), Indians are citizens of their larger countries but (in the US at least) reservations maintain significant internal political autonomy as “domestic dependent nations,” and both federal governments in recent decades have made genuine efforts to abide by treaty rights.
Background knowledge, course books, etc.
Articles in the Handbook of North American Indians, vols. 6 and 15.
The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary: https://ojibwe.lib.umn.edu
The Freelang Ojibwe Dictionary: https://www.freelang.net/dictionary/ojibwe.php
Rand Valentine’s site on Ojibwe: http://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/ais301/grammar.html
Eid, Leroy V. (1979). “The Ojibwa-Iroquois War: The War the Five Nations Did Not Win.” Ethnohistory 26.
Fairbanks, Brendan (2008). “All About Mii.” Papers of the 39th Algonquian Conference.
Fairbanks, Brendan (2009). Ojibwe Discourse Markers (PhD. diss.)
Goddard, Ives (1990). “Primary and Secondary Stem Derivation in Algonquian.” IJAL 56.
Moose, Lawrence Leonard et al. (2009). Ojibwe Vocabulary Project.
Nichols, John & Earl Nyholm (1995). A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe.
Oxford, Will (2014). “Variation in TA Theme Signs.” Presentation given at 46th Algonquian Conference
Rhodes, Richard A. (2006). “Ojibwe Language Shift: 1600-Present.”
Slavin, Tanya (2006). “Some Issues in the Ordering of Preverbs in Severn Ojibwe.” Proceedings of the 2006 annual conference of the Canadian Linguistic Association
Valentine, J. Randolph (1994). Ojibwe Dialect Relationships (PhD. diss.).
Valentine, J. Randolph (2001). Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar.
Vecsey, Christopher (1983). Traditional Ojibwe Religion and Its Historical Changes.
1. Pronounced /oʊˈʤɪbweɪ/ in English. Alternate but now less common spellings/forms are “Ojibwa” (originally pronounced the same as “Ojibwe” but now usually given the spelling pronunciation /oʊˈʤɪbwə/) and “Chippewa” /ˈʧɪpəwɑ/. Despite valiant efforts to think of one, the meaning of the name Ojibwe is unknown. Most Ojibwe speakers refer to themselves in Ojibwe (and increasingly in English) as Anishinaabeg, etymologically “ordinary men,” and their language as Anishinaabemowin.
2. One error: the map should show all of northeastern Michigan as Odawa territory, rather than split between Odawa and Eastern Ojibwe.
3. There are several phonological processes that apply to noun or verb roots when they enter into combinations, including deletion of certain initial consonants, shortening certain vowels, etc. Some are regular while others are idiosyncratic.
4. There are a handful of verbs which lack an identifiable Final and contain only an Initial, such as nibo “to die.”
5. You might notice that -i causes a preceding /t/ to palatalize, while -in does not. Historically, -i derives from Proto-Algonquian (PA) *-i, which induced palatalization, and -in derives from PA *-en (with short /ĕ/, which merged in Ojibwe with /i/), which did not.
6. This is composed of a concrete Final -g(a) “by chopping/ax” a (more) abstract Final -a’ “causative by tool” and an abstract Final -w TA. I’ve intentionally selected a Final with relatively few words, to avoid overloading the page. These examples are mostly culled from the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary.
7. This does not exhaust the list of verbs with nabag- that can be found in dictionaries; I’ve provided a reasonably thorough selection.
8. There is no AI equivalent listed in any dictionary I’ve checked, but it would presumably be nabagaakozi-.
9. From a paper on Oji-Cree by Tanya Slavin; I’ve respelled the example to use the southern Ojibwe orthography.
10. Taken from the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary.
11. It also does not specify number—that is expressed in further verbal suffixes.
12. This is somewhat different from the traditional Algonquianist approach to the theme signs, in which -aa is viewed as the “direct,” paralleling the inverse, rather than simply a marker of 3rd person object. Some older analyses also viewed the 2obj and 1obj forms as “local direct” and “local inverse” respectively, although my impression is most Algonquianists have realized this is an untenable analysis. Also, I should note that the 1obj theme sign is -ish(i) or -izhi in some northern dialects (borrowed from the Imperative order), rather than -i.
13. Even in those dialects that lack obviative suffixes on inanimate nouns, however, it is possible for a verb associated with an (underlying) inanimate noun to be inflected as obviative.
14. Many of these names are similar or identical to later clan/totem names, which is probably not a coincidence, but that’s a discussion for another day.
15. This was the general Ojibwe term for unfriendly speakers of non-Algonquian languages, also applied to the Dakotas to their west. Etymologically, the “rattlesnake” sense is probably secondary, the original meaning being literally “speaker of a foreign language.” In any event, in an abbreviated form [Naadowe]siw it was borrowed by the French as the name “Sioux.”
16. Some of the surviving Huron refugees fled west and settled among the Odawas and Ojibwes, as well as other Great Lakes Algonquian tribes, eventually merging with Petun refugees to become the modern Wyandot tribe.
17. There is also some evidence—admittedly based primarily on oral traditions—that in this same period (ca. 1700), partly spurred on by Hurons still bitter over their defeat in the Iroquois War decades earlier, a combined force of Ojibwes, Odawas, Algonquian allies, and Hurons advanced into Iroquois territory by several routes simultaneously and smashed the Five Nations armies in a series of engagements, completely driving them out of southern Ontario (which was resettled by the Mississaugas, possibly other Ojibwes, and Odawas) and forcing them to sue for peace.
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