Hunting and Trapping

Great Lakes Indian people depended on the food secured by hunting and trapping, and these foods formed a considerable part of their diet.

Deer and moose were hunted as well as several kinds of fox -- red, the black, and silver gray. Timber wolves, a large prairie wolf, and a smaller prairie wolf that was not considered very good eating were also hunted. The bear was not killed without a special ceremony and apology, for this animal was greatly revered.


Traditionally, hunting was done with chipped stone-tipped wooden spears and bows and arrows. The bow was most common, and animals were stalked and shot at close range. Bows were flat, with a simple curve, and made of well-seasoned hickory, ash, elm, hemlock, or white oak. They were about four feet long, two inches wide at the center, tapering off toward each end, and rectangular in cross section. Bows were often decorated, sometimes with a scallop design carved along one side of the lower half and the opposite side of the upper half. To make a bow, a tree was felled and a block larger than bow size was removed, noting the grain of the wood. The bow was shaped and finished with a crooked knife, smoothed with a scraper, and left to season. The Menominee rubbed their bows with bear grease right after the smoothing operation. Bowstrings were made of sinew, nettle fiber, or the skin from the neck of the snapping turtle.

Arrow shafts was made from cedar or pine and were fletched with three sections of eagle, hawk, or turkey feathers which were then tied on with sinew. Traditionally, arrows were tipped with side-notched chipped stone points tied on with sinew, but bone and antler were also used. The Menominee and the Ojibwe had a special arrow for use in battle which was tipped with the spike-like claw of the turtle. Additional power was derived from the turtle spirit. Arrows with a knobbed or blunted end were used to hunt small game, including birds. When Europeans arrived, iron arrow points soon replaced stone points. Later, guns replaced the bow, although bow and arrow may still have been used for hunting birds into the 20th century.

Techniques for Success

To guarantee success, a hunter fasted and sacrificed before going into the forest. Hunters also carried certain charms in what were called "hunting bundles," which included charms shaped like animals, medicines, and other items. While they were hunted, men smoked powdered roots as charms, and different hunters preferred various charms. For instance, one such charm lured a deer toward the hunter because the smoke smelled like a deer's hoof. Hunters also used non-magical techniques, such as moose and deer calls that imitated the sounds that fawns make, but this could be dangerous if a wolf or wildcat came instead of the doe. Deer were also hunted at night, when they came to the stream or lake for water and to eat the pads and stems of water lilies. For this, they used a jacklight,  a torch or lantern set on a special wooden platform in the front of a canoe with a darkened backstop. Later, "shining deer" was outlawed by the U.S. government, except for Indians on federal reservations.

Indian hunters also drove deer. In the "drive," a group of hunters chopped down trees, leaving a V of trees remaining. Then they used dogs to run or drive the deer toward the apex of the V, where several hunters were waiting. Solitary hunters sometimes set a snare with a slip noose in the deer trail. If there was snow on the ground, hunters carried the game home on small toboggans or trussed it up and carried it home on their backs. The load was steadied by using a "tumpline," a wide strap that passed under the load and across the man's chest or forehead. Tumplines could also be use to drag the toboggan. Dogs also assisted in tracking and locating animals, especially bears.

How Dogs Came to Live With the Indians (a Menominee oral tradition)

We often hear the saying that the dog is man's best friend. But before the dog came to live with humans, it belonged to the dog family, and there, among the wolves, the dogs had to do all the errands. One cold day, the wolves ordered the dog to go to a man's wigwam to get fire. This was the only place that the wolves knew that they could get fire, but it was very dangerous for any wolf to go there. The wolves had often gone to Indian villages to get fire, but they would always drop the coals and the humans would get the fire back. Or as they carried a burning stick, it would burn brighter and they would have to drop it, or otherwise be singed by the flames.

The dog knew all this and decided that it would be a very difficult job to get fire from humans. So the dog decided that he would just pretend to try to steal fire from humans but not really go through with it. But the dog knew that if he failed in the mission to get the fire, life with the wolves would be unbearable, and instead, he decided he would just leave the wolves and go live with the humans.

The dog left the wolves' country and went through the forest to the Indian village. He saw smoke coming out of the smokeholes of the wigwams and went toward one of the houses. He stood in the doorway and looked inside, and realized that the hunters were not home: Only the women and children were there. The people had always feared the wolves, so the dog decided that it would be good to show that he himself was afraid of the humans. So he lowered his tail and his head and looked up at the people with his eyes wide to show that he was afraid of them and crept over to the fire and lay down.

The dog was lucky, because the man who lived in the wigwam had often dreamed of wolves, and had in fact dreamed that he would receive a gift from the wolves. In his hunting, he had also appealed to the Wolf spirit and been assisted by it to feed his family. When he returned to the wigwam and saw the harmless wolf dog lying there by his fire, he decided to make friends with him. Remembering his dreams, the Indian man told the dog that they would be brothers forever, and, to prove this, he would take the dog as his companion when he went hunting for his family and share the meat that they got together.

(Adapted from Phebe Jewell Nichols as told by Chief Reginald Oshkosh, n.d., Tales From An Indian Lodge: Menominee Indian Reservation, Wisconsin.)

Bear Ceremonialism

Bear ceremonialism is traditionally common in northern parts of the world, including the Great Lakes region. Among the Menominee, Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, the bear commanded considerable respect and played a substantial part in their religion, notably in the Medicine Dance.

When they were hunted, bears were shot, trapped in deadfalls, and occasionally captured in pitfalls. They could be lured to these traps using apples, pork, beaver musk, or other sweet-smelling or oily substances, but magic lures were also essential. Traditionally, hunting bear was a way a young man could prove his bravery, especially if he ventured into the cave in the spring and killed the bear by hand.

After a hunter had killed a bear, the head and the hide were laid out on a mat. Foods that bears are known to like, including maple sugar and berries, were laid out for it. If it was a male, a fine, beaded man's costume was arranged next to the hide; if a female, a woman's costume was used. A slice of the tongue was hung up for four days. The body was carefully disjointed with a knife rather than chopped up to show the respect for the animal. People were invited to the feast and, along with other foods, everyone also ate some of the bear meat. During the feast, a speaker talked to the bear village, pointing out the excellent treatment that the Indians had accorded the bear visitor and that other bears would be similarly and respectfully welcomed. After the feast the bones were gathered up and piled together: They were never left scattered about or disposed of where dogs could get at them, because that would show a lack of respect for the animal.


Winter was a busy time for the men as they checked their traps, removed the animals, moved the traps to new places, watched for fresh tracks, and studied the habits of the animals. They trapped small animals including otter, beaver, mink, marten, and lynx, and birds such as partridge. Before steel traps came into use, deadfalls were arranged and various nooses and nets were contrived out of nettle fiber and basswood-fiber twine.

Cooking and Preserving Meat

Much of the meat was boiled, either in pottery vessels or later in metal containers. Meat could also be stone-boiled in the stomach of a freshly killed animal or in a birchbark container. Filling the stomach or birchbark container with water, Indian people suspended it from a tripod over a low fire using a wooden hook and heavy basswood fiber cord. Heated stones were added to heat the water. As the rocks cooled, they were removed and replaced with hot rocks so the water could be kept boiling. These types of containers were only good for cooking for a short while, such as when men were on the trail without ceramic pots or kettles.

Meat was roasted as well as boiled. It was also cut into thin slices, dried over a slow fire, and then pounded with a small stone on a larger, flat stone, and stored in birchbark containers. Tallow rendered from the fat was stored in the large intestine and bladder of the animal and then made into soap. Grease was used to season berries and wild rice. Even bones were pounded to a powder and mixed with dried meat and grease to be eaten later. The debris from each day's meals was scattered around to be cleaned up by the dogs.

Traditionally, Native people used spoons made of wood, clam shells, and birchbark scoops for eating. If the food was too hot for the fingers, it was fished out of the stew with pointed sticks. Marrow was highly prized and was scooped out of the bones with a narrow willow stick. In general, Indian people ate two meals a day. Later, when they had contact with the Whites through logging camps, cranberry camps, and boarding schools, they adapted to the idea of eating three times a day.