Life Stages

Pregnancy, Birth, and Infancy

The Great Lakes tribes observed specific taboos during pregnancy which extended to both parents. Both expectant parents, but particularly the mother, were warned not to look at deformed animals or people for fear it might harm the child. Eating or looking at turtles or rabbits could cause the baby to develop the jerky motion of a turtle or rabbit-like fits. If a pregnant mother happened to see an animal that was taboo, she saved a bit of the hair or flesh and later put it into hot water, in which she bathed the baby and thus nullified any harm that might have occurred.

Among most Woodland tribes, a child was born in a special hut away from the main camp; the blood connected with birth was considered unclean, as was menstrual blood. Assisted by a few experienced women, a woman in her final labor knelt on a reed mat padded with a blanket or hay with her chest against a smoothed pole two or three feet long set about two feet above the ground on crotched posts. Once the baby was born, the umbilical cord was tied and a portion of it was saved so that later it could be sewn into a deerskin packet, generally diamond shaped, which was hung on the hoop of the cradleboard. The baby was bathed in a hot solution containing aromatic herbs and charred pieces of wood from a tree that had been hit by lightning.

All through infancy, the child was kept close to its mother, and the daily relationship was extremely close. To protect it from the spirit of Death, the baby was given tiny moccasins with holes in the soles. Then, if Death tried to lure the child away, it would be able to say, “But I can’t come with you. See, my moccasins have holes in them!”

Almost immediately after birth, the baby was fastened to a cradleboard, a cedar board about two feet long, 10 inches wide, and three-eighths of an inch thick. A foot brace was fastened at one end, and a hickory hoop was fastened near the other to protect the head. Sphagnum moss, in a shallow birchbark tray, served as both a cushion and diaper. When necessary, the entire tray and its moss was discarded and a fresh one installed. The moss -- commonly found in cranberry bogs -- was dried to kill any insects, then pulled apart until it was soft and light. To guard against chafing, finely ground powder from rotten oak was dusted on. In winter, the baby’s feet were wrapped in rabbitskin with the hair inside, or in soft cattail down. The infant was placed on the padding and securely bound with two wrappers, either of deerskin or cloth, each wrapper being slipped through a thong attached to the edge of the board, then wound around both the board and the baby and tied with deerskin strips or woven yarn strips about an inch wide. The wrappers were decorated by the mother in floral designs of quillwork, beadwork, or ribbonwork. The baby was completely bound, with only its head showing, but later its arms were freed. Binding the baby to the cradleboard was said to keep the baby warm, out of trouble, and tended to hold the back, arms, and legs straight, which was considered important to physical development.

The cradleboard served as a bed as well as a baby carriage. When the mother went on a journey, she slung it on her back and held it in position by means of a deerskin tumpline across her forehead or chest. When she worked around the wigwam or the camp, she placed the cradleboard against a tree. Should the board accidentally fall over, the hoop protected the baby’s head. The child could watch its mother at work and, in addition, gaze at playthings hanging on the hoop. There were usually three kinds: those intended solely for amusement (small shells or birchbark cones); gifts given by the person who had named the baby; and the pouch containing the umbilical cord. There were many reasons for maintaining this cord; a child gained wisdom by keeping the cord near him or on his person. If the child did not guard it, it was said that s/he would always be searching for something, and some said s/he would “become foolish” without it. If a baby died, the mother often kept the pouch and treasured it for years. Some pouches were decorated with a butterfly design, the symbol of childish play.

Periodically during the day, the baby was removed from the cradleboard for cleaning and exercise. Usually, the child was kept on the cradleboard until it was nine months to a year old. When ropes and blankets became common, a small hammock was fashioned for the baby by slinging a blanket between ropes and putting a wooden crosspiece at either end. These were used outdoors as well as in the lodge.

Usually at about the age of two, the baby was weaned. As contact with Whites grew, and with the advent of canned milk, the length of time spent nursing was shortened and babies were nursed from six months to a year. The baby was weaned on wild rice boiled in fish broth until it was very soft.


A child received a name or names in several ways. Dreams were extremely important to the Woodland Indians and they played an integral part in the naming. Generally the parents called in a paid namer, who was a person whose dreams had given him power. A small group of friends and relatives offered tobacco and food to the spirits, then feasted. Then the namer took the child on his lap and named him. The name carried no special power for the child, but it was meant to place the child under the protection of the namer's guardian spirit. Occasionally, mention of the name itself was even omitted during the ceremony, but the important thing was that the child receive some advantage from the dream and the naming ceremony. A special relationship existed between the child and his namer: Each called the other "my namesake." For instance, the namer would give a boy a little drum or a tiny set of bow and arrows. These articles, which were among those hung on the cradleboard, were referred to by a special term and were kept throughout the owner's life and honored at feasts. When the boy grew older, he took the sacred objects to a War Dance or special feasts and laid them out on the floor with food. This was the only time they would be used. If the child became ill at any time, the namer gave a feast and used his own curing power. Later, when a youth had his own vision as a result of his puberty fast, he acquired a new name taken from incidents which had occurred in his dream. However, this name was seldom used in public.

Parents often gave their child a "namesake name," perhaps one they had dreamed, but it was not done ceremonially, and the name possessed no power. It was usually a nickname or common name, and the name by which that person was known throughout their life. These names were often based on incidents during the child’s early years such as the name of an animal (marten or lynx) or of a person who came into the wigwam shortly after birth. Sometimes, the child was given the name of a bird whose movements were similar to those of the baby. These names often carried an element of humor or suggested obvious physical characteristics.

As contact with Whites increased, many Indian people took English and French names. Since Indian languages often did not include the same sounds as European languages, these names could be transformed: Margaret became Magid and Sophia became Sope. Whites were also responsible for literal English translations of Indian names, like Hole-in-the-Sky, Little Bear, and Crotched Tree. In many instances, surnames were acquired as the result of the need for a name on the payroll records in the lumber camps. Indian children often took their parents' names as surnames, so Indian Jim's children became known as Charley and Pete Jim, while others bore the surnames of Frank, George, Mike, and Andy. Other surnames were devised from such Indian names as Manomen, Nahbahkah, Weewasin, and Kesick (Geezhik), or Indian people took the surnames of Whites they knew, such as Johnson, Smith, and Williams. Many Indian women acquired their surnames through marriage to White men.


All through childhood, Indian boys and girls learned from their parents, their doting grandparents, their brothers and sisters as well as respected older members of the tribe. Children were treated well and frequently indulged. Parents seldom raised their voices to reprimand a child, and corporal punishment was equally rare. What might be treated as a major event by a White parent was regarded with calmness by Indian parents. This lack of tension on the part of Indian parents contributed to the child’s personality and encouraged them to face minor problems without upset.

At an early age boys and girls learned how to recognize plants, how to gather and dry them, and which ones had medicinal value. They were also warned not to disturb birds' nests or the young of animals and instead were encouraged to observe animal behavior and learn from it. On the whole, fathers taught boys to fish and trap, and their roles as hunters were conditioned from infancy. A miniature bow and arrow was often tied on the hoop of a boy's cradleboard, and, shortly after he learned to walk, he was given a small but operational bow. When a boy killed his first game, his parents gave a Feast of the First Game. A few prominent old men were invited to an unpretentious meal, perhaps a bit of rice and some blueberries together with the rabbit or bird the boy had killed. The old men then talked to the manidog, the spirits, and asked that the boy and his family be granted certain favors.

While fathers taught their sons how to live, mothers were equally solicitous in raising their daughters. Girls learned how to make a wigwam, chop wood and carry it back to camp, gather berries and roots, make birchbark vessels, and prepare deerskin, sew it into clothing, and decorate it. Dolls were made from a variety of materials: slippery elm or birchbark leaves, roots of the bulrush tied with basswood fiber, bunches of grass or tufts of pine needle, or willow twigs. Later, cloth was fashioned into dolls and then stuffed with soft moss. Dolls were not only playthings, but were essential in helping Indian girls learn tribal customs. A girl made deerskin or cloth dresses, leggings, and moccasins for her doll, and decorated these with beaded and quilled decorations herself.

Fright was exploited as a common device to train children. For instance, at night, small children were told the owl would carry them away if they did not go right to sleep or if they did not behave themselves. An owl mask effectively intimidated young children, and most Ojibwe children still fear the owl. A man called the frightener was dressed in ragged clothes, used a cane, and wore either an ugly mask with a big nose or a birchbark mask, which -- on late summer evenings -- looked very pale. With this, he scared the children into leaving their play and returning to their wigwams. Ugly or frightening forms were placed near areas considered too dangerous for the children to play in, and these were effective in keeping youngsters near home.

Some villages had a sort of "town crier" who went through the camp after dark telling the young men who were courting that it was time to go home. He recited moral precepts for young people and announced what would take place the next day. If he knew some of the youths had misbehaved, he spoke of the mischief without mentioning names and suggested that they mend their ways. He warned against stealing and against the use of alcohol, and advised them to be moderate in smoking tobacco, to be respectful to women, and to obey their parents. Women were cautioned not to quarrel with each other.

Children were expected to fast while they were still quite young so they would be prepared and receptive to their fasting and vision quest at an older age. They were encouraged to dream and to relate their dreams to understand what to look for and how to recognize a vision when it appeared. Fasting also prepared children for difficult times when there was little food available. When men were on a hunt, they asked their children at home to fast on their behalf, for this assured good luck. Children were warned not to gaze longingly at food being eaten by others or peek into other wigwams. They were encouraged to be cheerful, keep busy at useful occupations, respect their elders, be gentle and quiet so as not to disturb others in the crowded wigwam at night. It was also imperative that children who were frightened or under threat of danger be able to remain perfectly still and quiet.


About the time of puberty, a boy was encouraged to go into the forest for several days at a time, fast during the day, and dream at night. For the morning meal, he was offered either food or charcoal: if he chose to fast, he took the charcoal and rubbed it on his cheeks to indicate that he was on a vision quest. The fast was either a complete one or one with very little water. After sundown, a small amount of food could be eaten, but some even forswore this. Most informants said that fasting “cleared the mind" after several days, so they were able to see a vision or hear a new name or song and remember it. To stay out for four days in a row was highly desirable. On the first day, the father often went to help his son prepare a small shelter or a nest in a tree. Many fathers went back periodically to ensure their son’s safety. There were few examples of failure, although a youth might have to fast several times before he had a real vision.

The fasting dream, or vision quest, was of the utmost significance to the individual. The dream gave him a guardian spirit to guide and protect him for life. In some cases, equipped him with the power to cure, the ability to prophesy, and a supply of songs and names. The guardian spirit was painted on his personal drum. Among the Ho-Chunk, one acquired a guardian spirit from his first fast and perhaps, in addition, a name. Other favors were gained through the years by additional fasting. Favors received through fasting involved obligations on the part of the recipient: He was expected to honor his guardian spirit with frequent offerings of food and, particularly, tobacco. Maintaining good rapport with one’s guardian spirit and other spirits was always important in protecting one from illness, accident, or hunger.

When the girl was ready for her first menses, she stayed at least four days and nights in a small wigwam her mother had built away from the main camp. Fasting was also part of this experience: In her puberty hut, she was allowed almost no food, taking only a little water and occasionally a little food after dark. If she had a vision it was considered a special blessing. Ordinarily, a girl asked the manidog to reward her with a long life, a good husband, and many healthy children. The girl was not supposed to scratch herself with her hands, but to use a stick provided for the purpose. Seclusion was practiced because a menstruating woman was regarded as a contaminating influence which could cause illness in others.

When the girl returned to her parents' lodge, a feast was held. Among some tribes, she was not allowed to taste any fruit or berries gathered during the summer until she had gone through the proper ceremony. A small amount of fruit was placed before each person, the Midewiwin priest and other guests, but the girl could not touch hers. After drumming and singing, the Mide priest put some to her mouth, but withdrew it as she started to take it. He repeated this, not allowing her any fruit until the fifth time. This ceremony and the underlying practice were intended to teach patience and self discipline. All through the first summer following a girl's initial menstrual seclusion this ritual was followed with the first of all natural products, including wild rice.

Courtship and Marriage

Ordinarily, marriages were arranged by the family of the young man, but this does not mean that love was not taken into account. Although marriage within the clan was banned, cross-cousin marriage (marriage between the children of a brother and his sister) was practiced by nearly all the Woodland groups traditionally. After contact with Whites, this practice generally died out, but cross-cousin relationships remained strong, as was evidenced by kinship terms, joking relationships, and gift-giving between cross-uncles and their nieces. Most marriages were monogamous, but polygyny was allowed for important men, who could have two or, rarely, three wives. Co-wives were often sisters because this usually made for easier relationships between the women. The sororate -- the custom of a man marrying a sister of his deceased wife -- was also practiced.

Woodland Indian girls were modest in their relations with young men, for they were closely watched by their mothers and grandmothers. When a young man began to show interest in a girl, he spoke first to people living near her family. From them, he gained an assessment of her abilities and whether or not she possessed the qualities he was seeking in a wife. When he called on the girl in the evening, he always talked to her in the middle of her lodge with all the adults nearby. If the call was a late one, the mother or grandmother would stir up the fire and sit nearby, smoking a pipe, and the young people were always conscious of being watched. “Courting flutes" were popular: A young man composed a tune and played it to let a girl know that he was thinking of her. Its sound carried so well that the young men were able to withdraw to the edge of the village to serenade the girls of their choice. However, the girl could not leave her lodge when she heard one being played.

As the youth grew serious in his pursuit of the girl, he brought her parents a deer or some other animal he had killed --  an indication of his ability to provide for a family. If he was asked to stay and share the meal, he was assured of the parents' approval and could come and visit more freely. The Potawatomi youth brought the girl a blanket, and, if she allowed him to put it over her shoulders, it meant that she agreed to marry him. Gifts were often exchanged between the couple’s parents: clothing and finery for the women, a horse and occasionally, in later times, a buggy for the bride's parents.

Marriage involved no formal ceremony. Instead, the couple merely went off by themselves for a few days. After their return, they lived, at least for a while, with the girl's parents. Occasionally, a young married couple lived with the husband's parents. Once they had made or accumulated all the things they would need for their own home, they would build a wigwam of their own.

Separations were easy, for if a couple could not agree, the woman merely returned to her father's lodge. Bachelorhood or spinsterhood was infrequent -- in fact, almost unheard of -- and many people were married two or three times. During the early 20th century, the Indian Bureau began recognizing traditional Indian marriages as common-law marriages: If a man and a woman lived together as man and wife, the union was recognized as legal by the Bureau and was recorded as "marriage by Indian custom."

Old Age

Some old people lived by themselves, while others lived with their married offspring, especially if they were widowed. It was an advantage to a younger couple with children to have a grandparent or two living with them, for the woman could help with the children, the clothing, and other craft work and some household tasks, while the man could teach the younger boys. Since older people were often great storytellers and knew many tribal traditions, strong bonds could exist between children and grandchildren in these situations.

Death, Burial, and Mourning

When a person died, the hair was braided and the body was washed and dressed in that person’s best clothing and decorations and wrapped in sheets of birchbark or, later, cloth. If the person belonged to the Midewiwin, his or her medicine bag was tucked under one arm. Sometimes the Ojibwe painted the face, moccasins, and blanket with paints made of a brown fungus and vermilion. A round spot of brown went on each cheek with a red line drawn through it horizontally. This custom apparently began after a woman recovered from a trance during which she visited the land of the northern lights, which she said were finely dressed dancing ghosts of men and women whose faces were painted with the brown fungus.

Since the land of the dead was located to the west, a section of the wigwam wall was removed so that the body could be taken out to the grave. It was never taken out the door because the soul, still hovering nearby, might snatch someone else to carry away in death. After Indian people began to live in houses instead of wigwams, the corpse was laid in a simple coffin which was carried out a west window. Articles that the person had especially valued were placed with the corpse. Men might be buried with a gun, tobacco pouch, flint and steel, or matches. A woman might have a favorite ax, needles, or a pack strap buried with her. Even small children had tobacco pressed into each tiny fist. The journey to the afterlife took four days, and in all cases, essentials such as a kettle, dish, and spoon suited to that journey were arranged next to the body.

The funeral ceremony depended on the society to which the deceased had belonged. The Peyote society, the Drum Dance society, and the Midewiwin society each had their special ritual, but some elements were common to them all. Certain songs and speeches were delivered by the priests and addressed directly to the spirit of the deceased, since the spirit stayed near its body for some time. Although it took four days for the soul to traverse the "road of souls," interment was done as soon as possible after death.

After the deceased had been warned of the dangers on the four-day journey, the body was carried away from the main camp to the spot where a grave about four feet deep had been prepared. It was interred and covered with dirt and more bark, which was pinned down with heavy stones to protect the body from animals. Logs were sometimes used as a protective cover. In historic times, a low wooden house about five feet long and two or three feet high was erected over the grave. The grave itself was always oriented along the east-west axis. A small opening was cut in the west end for the soul to escape. Under this hole was a shelf for holding food-maple syrup, wild rice, and fruits-and tobacco, which would be needed by the soul during its four-day journey. Children and people who did not have much to eat were allowed to help themselves to this food.

The Midewiwin priest carved a grave marker with the clan totem of the deceased: an animal, bird, or fish carved or drawn upside down to denote death. A "brave-stick" was placed on some graves; this was a stick about three feet long with four areas whittled so that the shavings projected upward. Between the whittled areas were four red stripes representing blood. The brave-stick was a sign to those warriors who had already passed into the afterlife to protect and help the soul on its journey.

On the first day of the four-day journey, the soul was confronted by a quaking log laid across a stream; some said the log was really a snake, the dreaded Water Monster. If the soul addressed the log as "grandfather" and threw tobacco into the water, the log would stop trembling and the soul could cross in safety and meet his escort to the afterlife. This escort -- called Chibia'bos by the Potawatomi -- was the younger brother of the Woodland culture hero (Wi'ske in Potawatomi, Wenebojo among the Ojibwe, and Manabush by the Menominee). Chibia'bos lives in the West, while the culture hero resided in the East. Each evening the soul would have to stop, prepare a fire with matches provided by his relatives, and eat some of the food. Deceased warriors who were escorted by warriors from the afterlife were assisted by them. Meanwhile, each evening around sundown a fire was built at the graveside to symbolize that the bereaved family and friends were joining the soul in a meal. The actual feast, however, was not held until the fourth evening. At the end of the fourth day, the soul entered the other world to join the souls of relatives and friends who had already passed on. Chibia'bos informed the newly passed souls that they could stay forever where there was no trouble or sickness and where everyone was happy.

For the bereaved, the first mourning was often accompanied by wailing and sometimes laceration of the flesh with flint knives. Regular mourning was observed for about a year and then terminated by a ceremony. While they were in mourning, men could not handle medicines or weapons and often painted their faces black. A widowed woman also painted her face black and could not to marry until after the charcoal had worn off. Pine resin was usually added to the ashes, making them last longer. Sometimes the hair above the forehead was cropped short and women usually let their hair hang loose during the mourning period. The bereaved wore old clothes and refrained from going to public places. No one in mourning could go to the wild rice fields for fear of offending the spirits. A person in mourning was not allowed to touch a child under after the mourning had been removed by a specific ceremony because this could cause the child's illness or death. The ceremony for "restoring the mourners" was held once a year, and all those who had lost relatives were publicly comforted, presented with bright shawls and ornaments, and then ceremoniously fed. After that, they could eat as usual and mingle with everyone.

Keeping a "spirit bundle" was another way of showing respect for the dead, but this was not practiced by everyone. Soon after death, a lock of hair was cut from the back of the deceased's head and, wrapped in birchbark, it became the nucleus of the spirit bundle. Relatives built a special fire on the first night and talked to the spirit bundle, continuing this for four consecutive nights. The mother of a dead child sometimes made a spirit bundle, carried it around with her, and placed food before it. A widow would place food before her deceased husband’s spirit bundle and lay it next to her at night. Throughout the year of mourning, she added to the bundle by wrapping it with new beadwork, cloth, or blankets. At the end of the year, she took this bundle to her husband's people and asked them to release her from her mourning. If they felt she had been flighty or insincere in her mourning, they could require her to carry the bundle even longer. However, if they agreed to release her, they held a feast and the articles in the bundle were distributed among the husband's relatives. They, in turn, washed her, gave her new clothing, painted her face, and declared that she was free to marry again if she chose. The levirate, or marriage of a widow to her husband's brother, was the preferred custom. The lock of hair that had formed the bundle's nucleus was buried, still in its birchbark wrapping, next to the grave of the deceased. Men sometimes carried a spirit bundle for a deceased wife, but a much smaller one. A man with two wives seldom carried a spirit bundle, but the wife's mother would carry it for her daughter, the goods being supplied by the husband.