Religious and Ceremonial Life

Religion was primarily an individual matter for Woodland Indian people, and one that permeated everyday life.

The world of the Great Lakes Indians was filled with a host of spirits (manido; plural manidog), which inhabited trees, plants, birds, and animals. Cosmic phenomena were also considered spirits, including the sun, the moon, thunder, lightning, the four winds, and the thunderbirds. Offerings of tobacco were made constantly to protect the peoples’ health, assure their safety in storms, request help from the manidog, or express their gratitude for past favors.

In addition to the benign spirits, their world was peopled by more fearsome ones, including ghosts, the Water Monster, and the Windigo, a cannibal giant who stalked the winter woods in search of people to devour. In another category, there was the culture hero and demigod, Wenebojo (the Ojibwe term; called Manabush by the Menominee, and by other names in other Algonkian languages). His was the dual role of trickster and bringer of good things. It was he who taught the Indians about maize, tobacco, and medicinal plants, and his exploits form a major portion of Woodland mythology.

The World of Spirits

Guardian spirits -- a helpful personal spirit acquired during youths’ vision quests -- were also important. Certain people, particularly shamans and priests, were recognized as possessing extraordinary individual spiritual power. The shaman nearly always was the most feared and respected individual in the community, for he had power to produce both good and evil.

Missionaries have been active in the Woodland area for over 400 years, and today, many Indian people are Christian. However, many have also forsworn Christianity for a return to Native ceremonies and religious practice or combine these with various forms of Christianity.

The Midewiwin or Medicine Lodge

The Midewiwin was the primary ceremony of the Medicine Lodge Society, to which membership was obtained by preliminary instruction and formal initiation. The major religious ceremony, the Medicine Dance (Midewiwin in Ojibwe) was held only once or twice a year. The curative function of the Midewiwin was based primarily on the supernatural, but included traditional medical treatment and education in traditional medicines. It is an exceedingly complex series of rituals and, out of respect for its religious importance and intricacy, can only be sketched here.

Initiations were held done at one of the semi-annual meetings held in late spring and early fall. The instructions and ceremony were under the leadership of a number of recognized priests who were often shamans. It was held in a long, semi-cylindrical lodge that had been constructed for the purpose. The lodge was built or repaired the day before the ceremony began and consisted of an open pole framework. Cedar boughs were placed along the sides and up to a height of two or three feet.

A candidate for the ceremony was one who had been ill or who had dreamed that he should go through the Midewiwin rituals. He held a feast to announce his intentions, to which he invited his friends and a Midewiwin priest. If the priest agreed that he was a suitable candidate, the individual began by buying blankets and pails needed for the initiation fee. The candidate then received a cowrie shell (mi'gis) on a thong, which had to be worn around the neck until the initiation. During this period, the candidate also gave a series of feasts, to which sponsors and the priest were invited.

The priests decided when and where the initiation ceremony would occur, and candidates received invitations in the form of tobacco. In a wigwam built on the dance grounds, candidates participated in a sweat bath, were given secret preliminary instructions, advised about their conduct during the ceremony, and were taught those songs, meanings, and secrets of the Society related to the "degrees" they were taking.

The ceremony was directed by the priests, who did the speaking and the singing, and directed the dancing, the feasting, and the rituals. The major ceremonial objects included the mi'gis, medicine bags, water drums, gourd rattles, and birchbark scrolls with incised characters, which served as mnemonic aids to the Midewiwin priests. An essential feature of the public initiation was the magical "shooting" of the shells into the bodies of the candidates. Holding high their medicine bags, the sponsors pointed them at the candidates. The mi'gis, full of a mystic vital force, would drive out the sickness and renew life. During this procedure the initiate received a medicine bag, which was made from the skin of an animal. Through successive initiations at later times, individuals could advance in gaining degrees of knowledge, which were symbolized by the type of animal-skin bag they carried.

The Brave Dance

The Brave Dance (also called the Chief Dance) was a religious ritual in which the guardian spirits of a number of people were enlisted to assist individuals or the entire community. Originally, the ceremony held before a war party was sent out. A group of people entreated their guardian spirits to protect the warriors and to insure their success in battle.

The ceremonial pattern consisted of the invitation, tobacco (which was carried by a runner), and dedication of food and tobacco to the manidog. This was done by a speaker who was recognized for his ability and his rapport with the spirit world. A feast, singing, and dancing followed. Participants voluntarily recited their war exploits and enlisted the aid of their own guardian spirits on behalf of the warriors or the community. More recently, Brave Dances have been held because a sick man dreamed that he should hold one to recover or because someone dreamed that sickness was about to descend upon the community. The Brave Dance can also be held to ask protection for a young person going into the armed forces, to ask for a bountiful harvest of wild rice, or to avert inclement weather such as a particularly severe winter.

The Drum Dance or the Dream Dance

The Drum Dance was not part of traditional precontact Native culture in the Great Lakes, but was introduced from Plains tribes during the 19th century. The Drum Dance, also called the Dream Dance, originated on the Plains. According to oral tradition, a young Sioux girl was trapped near her village after a battle between her people and White soldiers. During that time, she received instructions about the Dream Dance from a manido. Certain ethical instructions were also given to her at that time. The sacred drum became the central element in the ceremony of the "drum religion." Peace, good moral conduct, obedience to law, responsibility, and assisting others were intrinsic values to be learned and upheld by the members. The Sioux presented a Dream Drum to the Minnesota Ojibwe and taught them the rites; they, in turn, introduced the new religion to the Wisconsin Ojibwe during the 1870s.

The ceremony itself revolved around a number of sacred drums made from wooden washtubs, each supported off the ground by means of four stakes. They were covered with calf hide and elaborately decorated with paint, beadwork, and other symbolic decorations. Each drum had an organization of members attached to it and they were spoken of as "belonging" to a certain drum. Each member had a particular place at the dance ring or around the drum, and there were specific duties for each: speaker, singer, drum beater, pipe tender, and heater of the drumhead. The calumet, or peace pipe, was also an intrinsic part of the ceremony. Women could belong to a drum, but they had no explicit duties; they accompanied the men by humming and they joined in the dancing.

Throughout the year, small home meetings were held for a drum, but the main ceremony was ideally a four-day event held twice a year. These gatherings generally followed the Midewiwin. All the drums in the community were assembled for the ceremony, which was held in a special lodge or in an outdoor area surrounded by benches or low fencing. There were openings on two sides. At the ceremony the speakers thanked everyone for coming, and acknowledged the aid given the assembly by the drum spirit. The major portion of the ceremony consisted of singing and dancing. Only designated members, seated around the drum in the center of the ring, did the singing and drumming. There were many songs to memorize, for each member had his own. When it was sung, he would get up and dance, and after that, others could join in. When his song was finished, the member gave a gift to a fellow member of his choice. This presentation of gifts was an indispensable feature of the dance.

Like the Brave Dance, the Dream Dance ensured social cohesion and was carried out for special events such as marriage, divorce, and removal of mourning. More recently, it has become more of a social occasion, in which the cohesive aspects consist of singing, dancing, feasting, and visiting with friends and relatives. However, prayers and invocations of prosperity, good health, and brotherhood still accompany the ceremony.

The Origin of the Dream Dance (a Menominee oral tradition)

Some Sioux people lived at the edge of a lake. While they lived there, some soldiers came to fight them. To escape them, a woman took her child on her back and ran down to the lake to hide in the water. There were many reeds at the edge of the lake, and she went there and hid in the water. She lay for four days in the water while her people were killed and she hid from the soldiers. The soldiers were camped by the shore of the lake, and she could get nothing to eat. At night, she nursed her child to keep it from crying, and by day she could only keep their mouths above water to prevent the soldiers from finding them.

After four days in the water, a Spirit came to her. It told her to get out of the water and go among the soldiers and eat. The Spirit made sure that the soldiers would not see her. She got out of the water and went to the place where the soldiers were eating. She sat down and ate with them and they did not see her. When she was finished eating, she went outside. A metal washtub was lying by the door.

The Spirit told her to take the washtub back to her people and to instruct the men to kill a deer and prepare the hide to use as a drum head. It also told her that when the drum was completed, the men should dance together around it while the women could sing along but not dance and prepare food so the men could eat after the dance. The Spirit told her that if the people were faithful to the drum and did not fight the soldiers, then they would live. The same peace that they kept with the soldiers they should keep with each other, and from that point forward there should be no fighting among the different Indian tribes who followed the Dream Drum.

(Adapted from Leonard Bloomfield, 1928, “Menomini Texts,” Publications of the American Ethnological Society Vol. XII, 105-107.)