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Cultural Overview - Introduction & Woodland Ways of Living

Intro & Woodland Ways | Believing and Lifeways | Impact of Reservations | Culture in Transition, Today, & Annual Events


The cultures of Native Americans on this continent have had an impact on America. Some aspects of the lifeways and cultures of native peoples have been adapted by contemporary American society. Native peoples contributed foods, medicines, and languages to the Europeans with whom they came into contact. Pumpkins, squash, wild rice, and pemmican are examples of foods which were introduced by Native Americans. Animal names such as chipmunk, muskrat, raccoon, and caribou are all Algonquin in origin adopted by American society. Many lakes, rivers, mountains, and states have Native American names.

Traditionally, the Chippewa people were primarily a hunting and gathering society. They hunted various animals for food and clothing. They gathered berries, nuts, roots, vegetables, fruits, and wild rice for food and medicinal purposes. The Chippewa have a legend about mun-dam-in (Corn) which indicates that they were sedentary to a degree. They coexisted in harmony with nature and had a special relationship to animals evident in the structure of tribal society which centered around the clan system. Each clan is symbolized by animals. Their legends describe nature’s phenomena.

There are many factors that facilitated the transition and evolution of the Turtle Mountain people into the unique culture that exists today. The transition of the people from the woodlands to the plains vastly influenced the culture of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Food, transportation, clothing, and housing were all adapted to meet the needs of the people and the tribe. In addition, the blending of other cultures greatly impacted their language and lifeways from social structure and language to customs and dance.

Woodland Ways of Living


Ojibway fisherman
Ojibwe Fisherman. This man is
spearfishing from his birch bark canoe.
(Photo courtesy of the State Historical
Society of North Dakota, 0573-04)

For the Chippewa situated along the Great Lakes, the Minnesota lakes and rivers, and the Turtle Mountain lakes, fish were an abundant source of protein. Fishing was often done at night by canoeing the shallow waters and spearing fish. Torches, made of spruce pitch, lit the night waters for the fisherman and attracted the fish to the canoe. On summer nights the torches of the fishermen reflected upon the lakes and glowed for miles. Fish were trapped with basket traps, snares, wires, gill nets, and dip nets. Fish hooks were made of willow twigs. Strips of fish and meat along with berries were dried in the sun. The catch was then stored in six foot deep pits lined with dried grass and timbers. Filled with fish and other meats these pits, or caches, provided provisions for winter.


The making of Woodland bows and arrows required a lot of time, patience, skill, and craftsmanship. Arrow shafts were made out of different types of wood depending on what was being hunted. For example, arrows that were used for the waterfowl were made of cedar because they would float. The stalks of Juneberry bushes were used mainly for making arrows. For the fetching of the arrow, feathers were utilized. Each warrior decorated his own arrows with individual markings so anyone would recognize another hunter’s arrow. Bows were made from branches of ash trees, usually four-feet long in length. The fiber used for the bowstring was made of the Stinging Nettle plant or from a material found in the neck of a snapping turtle. A perfected bow made of these materials was capable of driving an arrow completely through an animal as large as a moose.


While living in the woodlands, the most useful form of transportation was the canoe. The Chippewa were expert craftsmen at building canoes. Birch bark was used as the outside covering for canoes. The frame was usually made from small strips of cedar wood. The outside lining of birch bark was sewed together with the root of pine trees, and covered with pitch derived from pine or balsam trees. Most traveling was done on foot through the woods, and the canoe was portaged (balanced and carried on the shoulders) from one lake to another.


Chippewa bandolier
Chippewa Bandolier. Warriors
wore the bandolier across
the shoulders and used
the pockets to carry
ammunition. (Photo courtesy
of the State Historical
Society of North Dakota
Museums Division, 870)

Many articles of clothing were made from the soft tanned hides of deer. The women wore dresses which were designed in two pieces. Women wore leggings that came to the knee. Jewelry was made from small pieces of leather and beads. Most dresses and other clothing articles were intricately decorated with floral designs or diamond shapes. Dyed porcupine quills were often used to decorate belts or jewelry. The women wore braids, and tied the ends with leather strips. Moccasins worn by women were similar to that of men, in that they were often decorated with quills or beadwork. During the 1800s, contact and trade with the U.S. army was established, and women began using trade blankets and calico to make dresses.

Men wore tanned hide breech clothes, leggings, moccasins, and tanned robes. The men’s leggings were worn from the ankle to the hip with a belt-type strap used to secure the leggings. The robe was replaced by army blankets when trade with the U.S. government began. Men often wore braids and fastened the ends with leather ties. The women designed ornamented buckskins for their men with beading and quill work. The tanning of hides was a task performed by the women.


While the tribe was basically stationary, homes varied with the season. The homes they built in the spring were made from birch bark and called wigwams. In the winter, the structural designs of the homes were dome-shaped. The exterior was insulated with snow. The floors of the wigwam were layered with woven mats of balsam branches and covered with furs.

Family Life

The people lived together in extended family units. Each group would settle in an area where their needs were best supported by the environment around them. The land was not owned, but collectively shared by those within a tribal group. The forest was always a source of game for hunting and gathering of berries or plants.

Their daily lives were guided by the seasons. With each change of the climate, a different phase of economic activity occurred. In the spring, those who had spent the winter together would set up camp near maple forests. The springtime work included the activity of maple camp or sugar making. These camps were enjoyed by all those involved in the processing and continue to operate in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario. Other nearby wintering groups would meet up and cooperate in these festive springtime activities.


The Chippewa respect the cycle of seasons. In the fall, the tribe again split into extended family groups. Each group, consisting of about sixteen members, would hunt for a large quantity of food needed to be prepared for the winter’s rations. On these hunts, spiritual leaders went along with family groups to pray for the success of the hunt.

The winter months were spent in wigwams. Snowshoes were imperative for winter travel. But often, the blizzards, deep snow, and cold temperatures confined the families to their homes for weeks at a time. These long hours of winter darkness were spent telling stories, repairing clothes, making fish nets, preparing children for rituals, and long hours of warm, peaceful rest. (MacDonald, 1991, pp. 28-32)

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