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OTTISSIPPI: CHAPTER 13 Indian Culture And Lifeways, Part I – Religion, Tribal Structure, Roles, And Responsibilities

By Cheryl Morgan

“Our Native races had often been misinterpreted in the history books, and they are much misunderstood today” (Nicholas Plain, 1950, former Chief of the Sarnia Chippewa).


In the beginning of time, the creator had five sons: A Red son given the gift of taking care of Mother Earth and all our relations on the earth and all it entails. The Yellow son was to give, the gift of patience. The Black son, was to give the gift of strength, to share with the World. The White son was to give the gift of fire to be shared with all. The fifth son had no color because he turned away and called himself God; we don’t talk about him, he has no meaning, and he is shunned. (Joe Greaux, Traditional Ojibwe teaching).

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“Nature taught of the Supreme Being, all powerful, all wise, his great goodness. Men learned to love and reverence him. They sought him and worshipped him. He was Gitchi Manito, “The Great Spirit” (Handsome Lake). God taught them to hunt, build fire, and the good and evil.

Gezho Monedo means “merciful spirit”, revered term for the Great Spirit. Creator – Wazhea’ud, means “Maker”, and Universal Father is Waosemigoyan. Matchi Manitou means “evil spirits”.

The Indian regards the coming of the White Man as fulfilling the prophesy of their own priests – Holy Men. Indian history is often disguised under symbolic forms. The Sun – Giisis – was a symbol of divine intelligence – The Great Spirit. Even the Dobeka – Moon – reflects that fire at night. Fire was a symbol of purity; it also designated periods of time, or eras, and places where the people lived.

They believe in universal acceptance after death (Schoolcraft, “Travels in Minnesota and Wisconsin”, 1821).

“Medicine is the name for everything held sacred and good. No payment was received for it. Later greed led to the demoralizing practice of payment for medical assistance and other good Medicines. The Medicine bag was like an alter; it was carried across the chest.

The Great Spirit was the Supreme Ruler. Upon his will depends everything that happens. Nothing is undertaken without a prayer to the Great Spirit for assistance, his favor sought by prayer, sacrifice, a kindly life, knowledge of him, discipline, fasting, and lonely vigil, and with that knowledge will come his guidance. At times, inspiring or using animals, weather, mountains, men, or things, hence the source of the saying, “The Indian bowed to wood and stone”. The chief end of man is to attain manhood, the just development of every part and power, and the full enjoyment of the same. He must achieve manhood in the body way, the knowledge way, the spirit way, and the tribal way. He must then consecrate that manhood to the service of his people, be a good provider, a brave protector, a kind and helpful neighbor, and defend his family, his camp, or his tribe from a foreign foe. When his time comes to die, he should remember he is going to the Next World and should not be afraid to die; he should rest assured, he has done his best with the gifts that were his.

All these beliefs and practices were before the White Man, and the Indian was worshipping the Creator in a religion of spiritual kindness and truth.

The culture is spiritual; the measure of success is; “How much service have I rendered to my people?” His every thought, act, and life are approached with complete realization of the spirit world. The Noble Red man is of lofty character and greatness of mind, sharpened by environment and communion with the Great Spirit by worship, knowledge gained through communion with the Great Spirit in his community.

The Indians believed the Great Spirit was watching from all nature. Their language was free from all swear words. Every day was a holy day. Believing that all life in the whole universe is sustained by God and is given by him to the human race for sustenance. The Indians worked for the good of the tribe. If a member of the tribe was in want, it was because the whole tribe was, all for one and one for all. The land belonged to the whole tribe, not the individual. The Indian is never known to kill wantonly, for sport (Chief Nicholas Plain, “History of Chippewa of Sarnia”. 1950).

The Indian is colorblind – all men are created equal; there is no racism among them.” Racial and religious prejudices of others stand in the way of his true understanding. Strange customs and ceremonies are symbolism; they have inner meaning, hidden from the observer. They are then branded as Pagen, and devil-worshippers. Physical worship was wholly symbolic. He no more worshipped the sun than the Christian the cross. He had a reverence and love for plants, the earth, and the sun. The spirit pervades all creation; every creature has a soul in some degree and is an object of reverence. There are miracles in every hand in life.

He is a religious man from his mother’s womb, taught silence, love, and reverence. The Trinity of First Lessons, later she adds generosity, courage, and chastity. He is a blood brother to all living creatures of the Great Mystery.

The Indians had a total lack of greed; they were generous, fair, and honest. They are strangers to frugality, sharing everything like the early Christians.

There is one God of the lettered and unlettered. All men were created sons of God. Nature was his cathedral (Charles Eastman, “The Soul of the Indian”).

It pleases him to see his people live together in harmony and quiet. All things are the gift of the Great Spirit, and thank must be returned. He alone acknowledged as the Giver. Give thanks for each day, and all things in everything. You are not your own makers, or builders of your future. Speak evil of no one, be given to hospitality, never steal, reverence old age (Handsome Lake). “We have a religion to be thankful, united, to love one another; we never quarrel about religion” (Red Jacket).


“The Mide were spiritual leaders. The Midewiniwin or Midewiwin Lodge (the Heartways) was the group of spiritual leaders for the tribe, our spiritual society. The Mide are keepers of the Medicine Lodge secrets. Teaching, guiding, spirituality – traditional values, morals, and ethics.

They record important events, including births, deaths, and marriages. The sacred teachings are passed from generation to generation; oral traditions convey spiritual and timeless meanings of complex content, only completely understood by fluent speakers of the Anishinabe, the English language cannot fully express it.

Anishinabe words are words that have many layers of metaphoric meaning that describe sacred concepts. Our language was a gift from the Creator.

Our healers are well-versed in plants, roots, barks, and other natural materials and all their properties.

Tobacco was used as an incense for meditation, and prayers were sent up with the smoke to the Great Spirit this way. Tobacco was a gift from Gitchi Manito, a sort of offering. Used in council, and solemn agreements, and requests, incense made a binding agreement. It was an essential part of making a treaty. It was used as a thank offering in daily life and asking for blessing and requests. It was used to express thanks and gratitude.  

Tobacco was called Kinnickinick and Semaa. It was a blend of sacred plants, dried and ground up for smoking. Sage, cedar, sumac, nicotiana (tobacco), red or spotted willow bark, aster novae, bearberry, pine, rose petals, red clover, and other plant materials were used for tobacco, and dry cedar chips with flint were used to light the pipe. Cedar was used in rituals and ceremonies.

We were to follow the creator’s instructions, walk the earth, and name all the animals, plants, hills, and valleys” (Kevin Callahan, UMN).

The spirit world is all of creation, a reciprocal relationship. Tobacco is offered and prayers of Thanksgiving are given to the Spirit of every plant or animal that is taken. A constant dialogue, with tobacco and prayers to the spirits in heaven, earth, water, and fire, is remembered daily and at seasonal ceremonies (Flocken, 2013).

The spirits were never objects of worship. They were unseen assistants and executors of the Great Spirit’s will. The power of truth reached some of the most important conclusions of philosophy and drew down from Heaven some of the highest truths of revelation. The people believed in the constant superintending care of the Great Spirit, who ruled and administered the world and affairs of men. The creator, ruler, preserver, all powerful. God reveals himself in nature and is innately written on the minds of men. 

In knowledge of the Supreme Being, they rose far above the highest conceptions of ancient philosophy, the foundation of their religion. The Indians’ inferior spiritualists fell below the creators of ancient mythology. Faith was enlarged by White ideals in harmony with their creed (beliefs); peace, hospitality, charity, friendship, religious enthusiasm, and domestic affection. 

The genius of learning and Christianization changed society and cast an artificial garment over it. The Indian walked the highest virtues of civilized and Christianized man. In the rarest traits of human character surpassed beyond him. All excellences of character are ascribed to faith in the Great Spirit. The one Supreme Being, who created and preserved them” (Lanmar, Red Book).

Native people viewed animals as Helper Beings, having their own spirits and purpose. Dog was sacrificed and eaten on every solemn occasion. They were kept as sheep.

Dreams are very significant and affect the behavior and actions of the Anishinabe. In dreams people are given knowledge to heal the sick, how to teach the children, and for everything. The good knowledge was shared to help others.

 There are four types of dreams: a generic meshing of current experiences, a premonition, or a dream of future events. The Traveling Dream is where a person will fly or transport to different places and times to learn about things. And the Power Dream is where you are gifted by an animal or spirit (A. Lossier). All wisdom came to them in dreams (Densmore, 1979).

All the created world, is seen as alive and filled with spiritual power, including each human being. The interrelationship of all creation, is a profound knowledge to science and spirituality in the modern world (George Tinker, Osage School of Theology).

Plant cures were revealed and prescriptions to the Medicine Lodge. Warnings were given to keep the people safe from harm. Sometimes dreams needed to be interpreted.


At puberty, the youth are sent on a vision quest to seek their Guardian Spirit. They fast and pray for several days, others are praying for them too. They are seeking Gitchi Manito through their vision, they are many times given a Vision or Dream. Their dream is then interpreted by older men (Medicine Men). the Guardian in the dream given was the grandfather for life to guide and help. Direct communication with the Creator was too powerful for any person. Animal spirits were the intermediaries for the Creator. Like an icon in the Catholic Church.

The Anishinabe may never speak of their guide or vision; it is very personal and very private.

Spirits would give spiritual powers to the Anishinabe, such as medical, spiritual leadership abilities and responsibilities. Gifts were to be used to benefit the community. The spirits share their power with humans, who in turn help each other with these spiritual gifts. The unwritten scripture, a living bible, sowed as precious seed. The whole created universe a sharer of the Great Spirit of the immortal perfection of its Maker. Tobacco is Thanksgiving to the Great Spirit. Flocken, 2013, UMN).

The vision quest calls for fasting and prayer apart from the community over several days. Others pray throughout the time for the individual. By engaging in this ceremony, the person acts on behalf of and for the good of the whole community. The goal is to receive a vision to guide development for life and also a Guardian Spirit, who will be a close supporter for life (George Tinker, Osage School of Theology).

A man’s health or sickness were from the spirits; if offended for any reason it was attributed to Illness. Success in hunting, fishing, planting, and war were dependent upon the spirit’s good favor. A constant communication was made with the spirits of all creation.

Sweet grass is used in prayer and in a smudge like an incense for cleansing and purifying. It has tons of uses as a medicinal. It is the hair of Mother Earth; we braid it and it is to remind us the earth is our Mother – Sustainer – giving all we live on, given by, Gitchi Manito”, The Great Spirit. The waters are the blood of the earth – life-giving, given by The Great Spirit.

“The idea that we have many gods is totally false; it is one of the greatest lies that have been told. The non-Indian never bothered to learn the truth. We worship everything; it is of the spirit of the Creator. There are male and female trees. In the swamp and woods are medicines to heal cancer. There were trees of tremendous size, food and medicine everywhere. The non-Indian has a lot to learn about and from us. We live in peace” (Eddie Benton Benai, Ojibwe History, 2001, www

“We look seven generations into the future, what we do in our lives affects the future.

Sacred bundles – Medicine bundles – are used as teaching reminder, tools to teach the Four Directions and other sacred teachings. Medicine bundles are a collection of objects to heal disease and ward off enemies. Which symbolize a spiritual path symbols of power. Sometimes they are herbs, stones, bone, teeth, and feathers” (Ziibiwing).


The Medicine Wheel is a very sacred symbol; it brings all core values and beliefs together into one symbol. In it you can see the Great Spirit, who has no beginning and no end. The Four Directions are represented by the Cross. Very often Eagle feathers are attached to each direction as messengers of the Creator. The circle represents all my family my relatives, the great prayer which expresses the reality of interrelated beings. A simple expression but very profound to those who understand. There is the immediate family, then the wider circle of relatives, and finally, the entire nation, population, and creations. There is great respect for all things created.

The pipe was used as an oath between parties before “The Great Spirit”. It was held sacred. No one was to lie; it was like swearing on the Bible at court to tell the truth. To smoke together was to talk, reason, and solve problems. This is what the “Great Spirit” told us to do.


Pow Wow – Bow Wow, also Pau-Wau – was a healing ceremony. It later turned into any Indian gathering. Now there is more of a festival feel with dance, religious ceremonies, arts and crafts, food, and wares ( www). Pow Wows were family reunions, open to everybody, and everybody comes from all over (Joe Greaux). At most all Indian reservations, Pow Wows are held every summer.

They drew near to God and offered thanks for unnumbered blessings strewn on their path. They asked for protection and continued watch care. Their approaches to the truth rise infinitely above the other races, which originated independently of revelation. They were seekers desiring to fully comprehend the marvelous perfection of the deity, The Great Spirit, simple unpretending scheme of theology of the Children of the Forest, sustaining faith and simple worship (Lanmar, Red Book).

A traditional Pow Wow is rooted in centuries-old beliefs, ceremonials, and religion, unique to Indian culture. Pow Wows vary by tribal custom and the event being celebrated. Each part of a Pow Wow has special meaning and significance: the attire, reverence for life and nature, foods, and all that is said. Gift giveaways are common. Honoring veterans, flags, the disease-ravaged, women, girls, boys, men, elders, hunters, the Great Spirit, and many more thanksgiving celebrations.

The first Blue Water Indian Pow Wow was held in 1995, near the Bluewater Bridge at Port Huron, Michigan. It was a sacred gathering of many nations. The dancing was beautiful. Since that first one in modern times, there have been many held on the grounds North of Black River at the east side of Wadham’s Bridge.

Dances are the appropriate mode of worship, the outward ceremony of thanksgiving to the Great Spirit. The belief prevailed that the custom was of divine origin. There is a distinction between their proper religious exercise and their amusements between ancient and modern. The moccasined feet were like soft rain. Some dancers wear feathers, wings, mirrors, shells, beads, fur, teeth, claws, bells, and fringe, all telling stories to celebrate life (Pow Wow www). Women’s jingle dresses are worn as an individual expression. These dresses have tin cones that jingle with short steps. Reverence, pride, and grace are exhibited in all dance competitions.

The drums are the heartbeat, calling up the past, the present, and future. They tell of love, loss, eagle, deer, Mother Sky, Father Sky, days gone by. The eagle represents the Thunderbird, messenger of the Creator. The Flag song is always sung at the start of the ceremonies. We honor many flags.

Some of the dances performed were

• Men’s Grass Dance: reminiscent of flowing grasses, an expression of the harmony of the Universe

• Men’s Fancy Dance: very elaborate costumes and exuberant dancing

• Men’s Traditional: graceful, dignified

• Women’s Traditional: beautiful, dance of honor as Givers of Life

The Buffalo Dance is a celebration of the Buffalo. The buffalo was a banquet for the people. It gave up its own flesh and life to feed them. It provided for every need they had. It sheltered them, clothed them, as well as made shoes – moccasins. It gave them tools, utensils, needle, thread, hoes, and fuel, a true relative, God’s creation to sustain life and make life possible. The symbol of the buffalo and skill is present in the sacred rituals. A thanksgiving and a reminder of the Great Animal that gives completely of itself for others. A symbol of self-sacrifice, it gives until there is nothing left. It was imitated by the people in their lives. To be generous and give what you have, to others in need or to honor them, is one of the most highly respected ways of acting and being (From the Original Pow Wow Booklet, 1995, Blue Water Pow Wow).


The drum is a very important symbol to Native people; the circular shape represents unity of Native peoples, a full circle. It is treated with the highest respect for what it represents. Women are not allowed near the drum. Drums are usually large, being three to four feet across. Many men can sit about it and play the music. The drum is like our heartbeat, the essence of Mother Earth and our nations. It tells stories, hymns, prayers, and regulates ceremonies that tie our people together with the Creator and the universe of which we are a part (Joe Greaux, Metis Peace Chief, Black River Woodland Tribe).

The drum music is a spiritual connection to God and the Holy Spirit (Charles Rivers). It sets the tempo and order of songs and dances. The pitch is controlled by warming the hide near a small fire. The elders say that, when the drums are sung, they are heard in the spirit world.

There is a head singer, who leads the songs. Many songs are requested, the host must be ready. They are chosen because of their skill and reputation in drumming and singing. Singers are held in high regard by the people as keepers of our songs, our history, and our culture.

To blend all the various tribal languages gathered together, vocables (words with certain sounds that enabled all to join and share) were used so all could join in. Some songs are still sung in our Native language, some are very old. Some are newly composed. Many are of a serious nature, such as veterans and honor songs. Some are humorous and make us laugh at ourselves. The 49 and Round Dance songs bemoan the trials of being in love. Songs such as these remind us to not take life so seriously. Bravery, love, and friendship are a few favorite themes.

The songs are carried in the singer’s memories and not written down for quick reference. A young boy will usually be sitting in a drum with older singers. Training begins young for learning and remembering songs. Women do not sit at the drum, they do sing with the drum an octave higher than the men.


The Sun Dance epitomizes spirituality. The Sun Dance was a thank offering to God for sparing life. It honored women; the cut on the chest was figurative of death. The dance for a day and night. It has lost all meaning in recent times, abused and perverted and became a horrible exhibition and was prohibited by the government. With exaggerated and distorted tortures, the loss of all meaning came under demoralizing additions (C. Eastman).

The Sun Dance was a replay of the original creation; it gave thanks to the Creator. Prayers were made for the renewal of the People and Earth to promote health and honor women (George – John, Copeway).

The Sun Dance is held in June or July during the first full moon closest to summer, when the sun was at its highest. It lasted 16 days, the first eight spent in preparation. The performance is four days. Then 4 days of abstinence. A time for renewal and healing. A sweat lodge was built, purification ceremony was before and after. Participants fasted during the dance around the sun pole. Prayers for life, the world, renewal, and thanksgiving were made. Healing ceremonies were included.

It was a fresh remembrance of our position on Earth and continuous obligation to walk this Earth, in accordance with the sacred ways. There is utmost respect in speaking few words about it, and only Natives are a part of it.

The eagle feather is worn at Pow Wows, only by veterans of combat or by people awarded eagle feathers by combat veterans. A dropped feather is danced over by the veteran who first sees it, then a Brave Man song is sung, he retrieves the feather and returns it to the owner. He then receives a gift of appreciation for the service performed.

The eagle, flies high; the closest creature to the Great Spirit, he is the Thunderbird – messenger – that delivers prayers to God. He is courageous, swift, strong, has great foresight, and knows everything. In an eagle, there is all the wisdom of the world. His feather can cure illnesses (George Tinker, Osage School of Theology).


In 1832, Mr. and Mrs. Brakeman, early traders and pioneers at Marine City, attended a Medicine Dance on Harsens Island. A healing ceremony for a sick woman, Mrs. Jacob Harsen, who was an Indian woman. Her bed was set in the center of a large tent for the occasion. It was in the evening. The tent was lighted up by building up places with short pieces of logs and putting earth over the top of them, having fires burning on that. The men were all on one side, and the women on the opposite side, an Indian beating a drum, which was made of a hollow log with a dressed deer skin drawn over the top and down the sides far enough to be tied down. When he began his drumming, the company began their dancing, a sort of shuffling of their feet. The men by themselves and the women alone. A sort of shuffling of the feet moving very slowly around the sick woman. Every man carried a Medicine pouch which are made of a small animal skin filled with medicine, as each man came to her, he would shake it at her, uttering chugh chugh. The women did not carry medicine and kept silent. Mrs. Harsen recovered her health and lived many years after (Mrs. Nancy Brakeman, papers, MI Room, St. Clair County Library, Port Huron, MI).

They won first prize in the world. The first night at a competition recently. They didn’t even know there was a contest. They won the “Best and most Unusual Performance in the World”. The group grew up and moved away and went to college or are working. Brian and I started this, were the only ones left of the original group” (Joe Greaux, Peace Chief, Woodland Metis, 2014).

The White Cloud Singers – Drummers – are local men who play Indian music together. The Black River Pow Wow Natives are our ancestors they were all here in Michigan and Ontario, the Anishinabe. Song – Creator – I will not leave your path. “Way I Ya, Way I Ya Way, Yah Way, I Ya Ho.”


The Pokagon – Bodewadmi or Pottawatomie – are featured on a great website that explains many cultural ways. The following sweat lodge information is from this site – Pokagon Bodewadmi.

The sweat lodge is to re-purify and find the way back to the Great Red Road, the Right Road, The Good Way, traditional ways of living. Without corruption of evil vices, to repair damage done to the spirits, minds and bodies. It is a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing. A place to get answers and guidance from spiritual leaders, counselors, the Creator, and Mother Earth for needed wisdom and power. A new spiritual beginning day. It is also used when meditating on an important future event, feeling depressed or negative about your surroundings, or having been around sickness.

There is an alter to place sacred items upon. Anything unnatural is not allowed in the sweat lodge. A smudge of sage, sweet grass, or cedar smoke is used for a ritual cleanse – purification. The dried plant materials were bound together and laid in a shell to smudge, a feather is used to fan the medicines. Mshkwadewashk, common sage, is used in smudging rituals; it is antibiotic, astringent, antifungal, and antispasmoid. Kishig, white cedar, is sacred and has many uses. Pine and lavender are also used. Sweet grass, a sweet, holy-smelling grass was used in many ways.

Houses were also cleansed by smudging usually before a meeting or Grand Entry to a ceremonial. It is a symbol to help, bring peace and prosperity to the users.

Medicine – Mshkiki – is strength from the Earth, plants, song, story, and art. The Anishinabe were given these gifts of medicine from the Creator. Tobacco – Asayma – given as a gift, we gain knowledge and grow spiritually. Pokagon, Bodewadmi – Pottawatomie.

A sweat lodge purifies the participants and readies them for the lengthy fasting, and dancing. It generates hot moist air like a sauna, hot rocks are splashed with water to create steam. It is used for renewal and healing education of youth. All Indians use sweat lodges.

A sacred peace pipe is used in prayer, that the participant may know and speak the truth in their supplication. The smoke from the tobacco carrying your requests to the Great Spirit, asking guidance or forgiveness.

Healing begins here for disease, physical, emotional, directional, and spiritual needs.

A sweat is typically four rounds or sessions, each lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Prayers are made, meditation, learning, and healing (Bodewadmi).

“We need to unite all of the races and both sexes, if we are going to be strong and the Sacred Hoop is to be mended. Turning towards each other, instead of away from one another” (Barefoot Wind Walker).

“There were no buses, there was a path to the neighbors. People watched out for each other. The path was worn smooth. Now all weeds grown over. We always shared. Pamape – Someday we will meet again” (Frank Bush 1992).

Indian spirituality is private and entirely cultural. It is not evangelistic; it is not sold. It is misunderstood, maligned, it is very complex socially and philosophically, not easily described or represented. The whole culture is and was infused with spirituality that cannot be separated from the rest of the community life at any point. All things were accompanied by prayer and ceremony, hunting, war, birth, death, and marriage.

Respect for life and the decision to go to war required ceremony lasting days, allowing time to reconsider and consecrate lives that may be lost as a result.

Offerings of tobacco, furs, etc. were used, often individually.

Gift-giving was an important part of every important ceremony to honor any person or event. The gesture is more important than the value of the gift. It is an honor to both give and receive a gift. It was common to give to utter impoverishment, in simplicity gives all he has especially to the poor and aged. Orphans and aged were cared for by the whole clan. Natives believe there is little merit in amassing material wealth. Far more prestige comes to those who shared surplus property.

Gift giving was also a ritual to build alliance and obligations between families, communities, and nations.

Lying was a great offense. The deliberate liar is capable of any crime, cowardly untruth, and double dealing (C. Eastman).

Cheryl will be back in two weeks with Ch. 13, part 2 of Indian Culture And Lifeways.



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This book came about after a visit to the library where I could not find local Indian History. I grew up in the St. Clair and Black River area of Michigan, fishing on all the area waters with my father and brothers. I loved books, libraries, horses and puzzles; I was not a tech person. I love to cook, garden, travel, and camp. I was determined to find and share the truth. This has been a difficult journey in every way. I give you, the reader, the truth and blessings I also reaped. Cheryl Morgan

Cheryl Morgan lives near Port Huron, Michigan with her husband Tom and dog Fred.

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