survived European attempts to undermine their role as 'one who holds
Sandman, White Earth Ojibwe (photo by Mary Annette Pember)
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.
Mosay Ammann, 76, St. Croix Ojibwe, boss lady (photo by Mary
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
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.
Orie, 18, (left) and Memengwaa Paap, 13, both of Lac Courte
Oreilles Ojibwe Wisconsin (photo by Mary Annette Pember)
"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,"
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.
Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by
Brenda J. Child
In this well-researched and deeply felt account, Brenda J. Child,
a professor and a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe, gives Native
American women their due, detailing the many ways in which they
have shaped Native American life. She illuminates the lives of women
such as Madeleine Cadotte, who became a powerful mediator between
her people and European fur traders, and Gertrude Buckanaga, whose
postwar community activism in Minneapolis helped bring many Indian
families out of poverty. Moving from the early days of trade with
Europeans through the reservation era and beyond, Child offers a
powerful tribute to the courageous women who sustained Native American
communities through the darkest challenges of the past three centuries.