Blue Water Healthy Living

OTTISSIPPI Ch. 13, part 5: Indian Culture And Lifeways cont.

By Cheryl Morgan


Wampum, strings of shells, are usually referred to as “Indian money”. Wampum was a charm to protect the one who surrendered goods from evil influence that might be incident to the transfer. The handing over of the property was a gift, and the wampum received in return was accepted as a protective medicine. The term “value received” had no meaning to the Indians. 

Wampum belts were made and given to record significant events. They told of transactions made between parties; they were used as written legal documents and kept as evidence to prove what was agreed to between parties involved. 

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Wampum and the calumet pipe were very important items. Belts or strings of wampum were made of strung shell on deerskin that were pictorial documents. They were used in making solemn agreements, and the belts were kept for records. White and black or purple beads were used to tell the story, being perfectly understood by the parties. War belts were painted red. When a belt was received, a council was held by the chiefs and principal men. If the message was accepted, the bearer was invited to the council house to smoke the pipe. The promise to observe the terms of the agreement being pledged in the smoke rising to Gitchi Manito – The Great Spirit. The pipe bearer was the keeper of the pipe to care for and provide it as needed. 

Belts of white and purple shells were given at treaties as seals of their friendship. The art of making them obtained from the Dutch. They were a hand width by two feet, some much longer. Strings or belts could be interpreted, or talked, laws enacted, the exact law or transaction of which it was made at the time, the sole evidence. The only visible record, a secret record. The promise or assurance of a foreign power was of little importance unless the belt or strings were given to preserve it in recollection. Sachems were keepers of wampum and versed in the interpretation. It was a letter or bond (Lanmar, Red Book).

Michigan Indians never wore the tall bonnets of feathers portrayed in movies. Those were the ceremonial headdress of the Sioux and others West of Michigan. 


Every tree, bush, and plant was a gift from Gitchi Manito and had a use for mankind. Many leaves, fruits, and roots were used for foods and medicine. 

The tribal members were nomadic with the seasons: the beach in summer, the forest in winter, the planting ground, sugar camp, the hunting ground, the best fishing spring and fall. They were frequently found in various places within 100 miles of the St. Clair River. The Ojibwe planted, hunted, fished, and gathered each season in different places.    

The people worked cooperatively , together, to store food for the winter, many hands making the work enjoyable. The whole community contributed to the well-being of the whole. Conflict and arguments were detracting from the well-being of the people, these activities were always avoided. 

Water was carried in bags of tripe or pericardium, bladders of game, or birch bark pails.  

Akeeks were clay cooking vessels. 

All of the Indians were farmers to some extent, growing corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tobacco. Each family had a plot used by consent, all sharing the land. 

Hills were made about four feet apart, or raised beds were made. The Indians had great fields cleared for growing corn, their mainstay. 

Pemmican is pounded dried meat; fresh chokecherries were pounded, pits and all, and mixed with the jerky, then melted suet was poured over all and mixed into balls or stored in cases of bladder or rawhide with melted suet poured over to seal completely. This was travel food. 

Vitamin-rich teas were favorite drinks, juniper, sassafras, and wintergreen and many more. 

Salt was unknown to the Indian in cooking. The Indians had a no-salt added diet. They were less bothered by mosquitoes.


Mundahmin, corn, is the most valued and useful food of the Indian fields.  

The legend is told by Chief Netahgawinene of Coldwater: “Many winters ago, the Great Spirit appeared to one of our wise forefathers and showed him a plant of the mundahmin or Indian corn on which grew two ears. The Great Spirit then told him to preserve the two ears until the next spring when he was to plant them. He was further commanded to preserve the whole crop and send two ears to each of the surrounding nations with the injunction that they were not to eat of it until the third crop. The wise Indian did as he was commanded. His corn grew and brought forth much. The next summer, he planted all his seed, which yielded bountifully. He then sent two ears to each surrounding nation of tribes with proper directions, which they observed, and by this means that the corn was distributed among all American Indians.” It is considered by them the best grain in the world because the Great Spirit gave it to them for their bread. 

Pounded parched corn and pemegun is the celebrated food for warriors and travelers in the Western and Northern countries (Peter Jones, The History of the Ojibwa). Pemekun is made of dried berries. Usually the choke cherry, is pounded up, seeds and all, then mixed with fat and dried meat. This is very nutritious sustenance for long travels. It is stuffed into casings of cleaned intestinal tubes. It will keep a very long time. Cornmeal was mixed with meat or fish and cooked for meals; it was called sagamite.  

Much time was spent grinding corn, it was done on a flat stone, or metate, and a grinding stone called mano. The Indians also used a mill made of a piece of log which was burned and hollowed out, a wooden tamper was used to crush the kernels. 

The Great Spirit about this time also gave the Indians the tobacco plant. That he might smoke the Pipe of Peace with his fellows to cause the smoke of the calumet to ascend to the Great Spirit as a sweet incense.   

There are more than 60 types of corn, all have different uses. There are many beautiful colors: pink, blue, green, white, multicolor, popcorn, dent corn, pod corn, with each kernel having a husk. The large kernel field corn was pounded very fine and was called nokeg and hokeg. The English called it hoe cake, being the pronunciation of the Indian name, though surely people have cooked a corn cake on a metal hoe. Corn flour was carried in a pouch for travel and was mixed with water in the hand and eaten or mixed and cooked on a hot stone. This was “fast food”. 

The hominy corn is used by soaking the kernels in a lye solution made from wood ash until the hull loosens and is washed off. The Indian soup called corn soup is made using this type of corn. It is eaten at almost every gathering and is simply made with a piece of smoked meat to flavor it. It was also served with maple syrup or maple sugar. The hominy is used in soups and stews and is served with meat broth.

Green corn was cooked for fresh roasting ears, simply dipped in water and placed on the fire or buried in hot sand and cooked.  

Parched corn was always a quick snack and easy travel food.

Corn for meal made fresh had a rich flavor, with the germ still in it being even more nutritious. Corn meal mush was made by boiling the meal in water or sap; it was served with marrow fat, maple syrup, or both.

Succotash was made with corn, beans, herbs, and other vegetables sometimes. It was flavored with meat or salt pork. The cobs were added for flavor and removed later. The beans were used fresh or dried.  

Corn was dried off and on the cob. The silk was saved and dried to use as a thickener in many dishes. Sometimes wood ash was used for flavoring. Maple sugar was also used freely to season foods, including meat. Herbs were used extensively for flavor. 

Squash and pumpkins were sliced into a long string-like form, being cut in a circular way. They were then hung on a pole to dry. Sometimes the strips were woven and dried looped on a stick. The fruit was used in stews and soups and many other ways. Squash and pumpkins were also baked whole in the ground oven.

Many berries were collected and dried: blueberries, whortleberries, huckleberries, service berries, chokecherries, rose hips, wild plums, apples, pears, elderberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, and raspberries.   

When first traded frying pans, some young and old used them for sleds, sliding down hills on them.  

Indian Fry bread is a new phenomenon. It is delicious, light, and tasty. The bread is mixed up with baking powder, made into a flattened ball, and fried in hot fat or oil. Indian tacos are made with the fry bread, using a sort of thick chili and toppings over whole or torn up bread. The bread is served with honey or maple syrup. Yummy. 

Reginald and Glady’s Laubin, the Indian Tipi, was the reference for the paragraphs on corn.

A coarse bread from corn was called semp. 

Peter Jones writes in The History of the Ojibewa about more fruits that were gathered: black currents, wild grapes, and marsh cranberries. He also mentions other plants used for food: the ground nut root and the swan potato found in bogs or marshy soil. It is boiled and eaten in extreme cases of hunger. Another root, called oduhpin, is long, white, and tender and has a warm, pungent taste. 

Corn husks made good bedding material. Corn cobs were used to make pegs and pipes.  

Cornmeal must be fresh ground or kept refrigerated. 

A recipe for corn bread would be: 1 quart of meal, 1 tsp. salt, 1 pint, warm water. Stir together until light. A couple eggs may be added. Some people use milk instead of water. This batter can be baked as one flat loaf on a greased shallow pan in a reflector oven or in a Dutch oven. Use moderate heat and bake 45 minutes. Indians sometimes added nut meal to this batter. Pumpkin or sunflower seed meal could also be used.   

This bread can be baked in hot ashes and is called ash cake. It can also be baked on a hot flat rock. If the dough is rolled into little cylinders and fried, it is called corn dodgers. 


Wild rice is not a true rice: it is “Zizania Aquatica” or manomin, meaning “good fruit” or “good berry”. It is called psina by the Sioux. It is a choice food for people and waterfowl. It is found in Lake St. Clair and countless small lakes, ponds, and streams. It grows in mud bottom waters, not sand. 

The stalks are one inch in diameter. The plant grows from four to twelve feet tall, four feet above the water. It is an annual and grows in water depths of between one and eight feet. It is gathered in the autumn (Albert Ernest Jenks, 1901, “Wild rice Gatherers”, www and in William Warrens, “History of the Ojibwe”).

Wild rice keeps indefinitely. 

Many of the small lakes yield plentiful supplies of wild rice, which the Indians gather in great abundance in the autumn and made into soup (Jones). Many wild foods were gathered in the field, forest, and swamp. 

The cattail was a very useful plant; the white shoots in early spring were cooked and eaten. The young green spikes were also eaten. Fresh roots were used to treat burns or wounds. The dried root was good for stomachaches. The yellow pollen on the tails was used as flour, as was young tails. The cattails were collected and dried for diapering infants in their cradle boards. The long flat leaves were very useful in making mats and baskets. The mats served as rugs in their home and as a covering in the summer on the walls. This allowed cool breezes to flow into the structure.  

Acorns and hickory nuts were collected and used like flour, some were roasted, ground, and dried to be used as a drink like coffee. Walnuts and chestnuts and many other types of nuts were collected, even trading with the chipmunks and squirrels for their supply. Mushrooms and other fungi were known and eaten. 

Milkweed was collected when it blossomed and eaten like asparagus. It was used in soups or mixed with cornmeal. A tea was made from milkweed roots and was used in medicine. Plantain was a useful plant; it was used as an antiseptic band-aid wrapped around a cut and tied with a piece of grass – medicine and band-aid all in one (Jackie Praeter). White sage is an effective remedy when bandaged over bed sores (Joe Greaux). Cattail was a very useful plant for diapering, tinder, food source, mats, and arrows from the stalk. Sweet grass was used in prayer for smoke smudge cleansing; it has many uses, such as to treat gall stones, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, and for tea. Other grasses had many uses, such as for tying and fastening items, making toys, making roof and wall materials, making mats and baskets, cleaning whisks, tinder, and many more uses. 

Each season was anticipated with joy for the harvest of good things from Mother Earth. 

The Mide Medical Society had their own powerful formulas used as medicinals. They were highly effective when other methods failed. Today over 1,000 medicines are from Indian pharmaceuticals. Roots, barks, seeds, leaves, corms – every nuance was known to the Mide.

Herbalists were trusted healers. There were medicine men and women.

In the wigwam, there were hidden pits in the floor covered with mats where food was stored in baskets along with other items. Nuts, seeds, sugar, rice, corn, beans, dried apples and potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga were stored for cooking meals. 

Blankets, a stock item in trade and annuities, was an important article of dress. Men wore their blanket over one shoulder and under the other arm, the lower part of the blanket being drawn closely around the waist. They took much pride in the arrangement of the blanket to a graceful folding across the arm. The blanket was usually worn over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm free, but if a man were left-handed, he wore the blanket over his right shoulder. The women usually wrapped the blanket around the limbs like a tight skirt and fastened with a belt; the upper part of the blanket was then thrown loosely around the arms and shoulders, affording warmth and yet leaving the arms free for work. A woman could put her babe in the blanket between her shoulders or, if desired, she could drop the upper part of the blanket entirely, drawing it around the waist. The blanket also served as a portable bed, for whenever night fell, he could roll up in it, preferably before a fire, and sleep (Emmert, MHC vol. 47).

Dog stew was made in every way imaginable. It was a delicacy and was served for ceremonial feasts and other gatherings. The village had many dogs they kept as sheep and were also used as a sacrifice offering to the Great Spirit. Every man had a dog for hunting. Dogs were a great protection from wolves and other wildlife. The dog was akin to the sacrificial lamb (Kevin Callahan, UMN).

Pit ovens were used as a secret concealment place. 

Garden beds were often made in raised ridges eighteen inches high. The fields were often very large and many acres. Sometimes the beds were in mounded circles. With the poor drainage in the area, this was the reason to raise the planting beds. It also warmed the soil much earlier for planting. 

When the soil became depleted of nutrients, a new area was chosen, and the trees were burned off, the fertile soil planted. This was one reason to move occasionally, about every 10 or 20 years. Fish entrails were used as fertilizer, as were many other plant and animal refuse. Fertilizer literally fell from the sky in the excrement of the thousands of pigeons and other birds and water fowl of the air, which were thickly populated. 

The passenger pigeon dwindled; the females laid only one egg per year, the last disappeared in 1906.

Women worked hard in her accepted role. They were strong and healthy from a very active life. 

Meal times varied with each clan. Some ate early, others late or whenever hungry or convenient. 


Before the 1730 – 1740s, it was women’s work to erect and dismantle the wigwam when moving to the other seasonal camps. Dogs were used with a travois, two saplings laid across with a covering to carry the household items, bark rolls for the wigwam, and other necessities. Sometimes the babies were piled on with the loads. The travois was attached to the dogs, and the end of the two poles dragged behind. 

Women have been the vital link, holding tradition and keeping the family together. The Indian people are very family-oriented (Joyce Reid, Indian Women 2014, Deckerville, MI). The home was the woman’s; she was boss at home. Her husband was a guest in the wigwam. The women preserved man from soul-killing materialism by owning what few possessions they had, branding possession as feminine. The moral salvation of the race (C. Eastman).

Tepees were used mainly for a temporary lodge in the Great Lakes by travelers. A large tipi was 24 feet across. They often had a lining inside the outside covering which was made of skins, rolled bark, or mats made of rushes. There was a ground cloth for the floor, or mats were used as a rug. In cold weather, the lining would be stuffed with straw or dried grass, making it very snug and warm with a fire in the center of the structure. The space between the lining was also used for storage. Warm furs and robes were used to make a bed upon. Guests were always welcome. The families slept with their feet toward the fire. The fire was made on a raised hearth to cook upon and in. Three or four large stones were used to set cooking vessels on so that the coals might be pushed beneath and around them. A strip of hard dry ground surrounded the fire in the center of the dwelling. It was swept clean with a broom of cedar boughs. 

Mats were used in the summer to allow cool breezes; they could be rolled up as a window vent. In the winter, boughs and snow were packed against the outside wall to keep cold and wind away. 

Tepees were easily put up and taken down quickly; light poles are used, they are fastened together at the top, the poles set into the ground for stability.

The bags stored along the walls were used as pillows. 

A big fire was kept in the middle of the camp at times and was shared for cooking. Smaller fires were made in the wigwam at night for warmth. A big rack for drying meat was over the fire. At night, the rack was moved and the men dried their clothing, smoked, and talked (Densmore, Chippewa Customs).

Each member of the family had a particular place, in the wigwam. The bedding consisted of blankets and hides and was placed at night upon a base of cedar boughs and rush mats. During the day, it was rolled up and placed along the walls (Emmert, MHC, vol. 47).

Wigwams – Nuh Gak O Gumigk, or a dome-shaped bark dwelling. They are built of basswood and other available species of wood. The roof was made of strips seven to eight feet wide and tied down with pliable inner bark made into thin strips. Saplings were driven into the earth, and bent to the center, and secured with strips of bark. The logs were split into slabs two or three inches thick and laid horizontally, lapping over to seal the gap and to make it weatherproof. In the center was an opening for the smoke to exit, following the sloped walls. The floor was covered in fur rugs or mats of wide grasses and other plant materials. A stone fireplace was in the center for heating and cooking. The entrance always faced east. The size was made to accommodate the number of people to live within. The Ojibwe were expert builders, knowing the precise pitch of the roof for the draft to draw the smoke out at the center of the dwelling.  

Birch bark was also used to cover the structures. In the spring, it was easy to cut a long sheet to strip the trees’ one-inch thick bark and roll it up. The bark was sewed together and attached to the poles. Pitch was used to seal the seams. The birch bark was durable, lasting about 10 years. When the people moved, they rolled up the bark and carried it to the new site for the seasonal harvests. In the winter, snow was banked on the walls to insulate the dwelling. 

In hunting or traveling in winter, men made a bank of snow on the windward side and a fire on the other side to sleep between. A fire where he wished to sleep was made, and the embers were scraped away, then he wrapped in a blanket on the warm ground. 

Furniture was made of small limbs tied with gut (Ziibiwing).

Torches of rolled bark and pitch were used as lights at night for errands, work, and in hunting. Deer were attracted by the light. Deer tallow was also used. Sticks were pounded to crush the fibers and dipped in tallow, wrapped in cloth, and dipped again. Hazel brush made this way would burn all night.  

Signal fires were used for messages across wide expanses of water. 

Pipe stems were made of any wood with a pith; it was split open, the pith removed, and glued back together. Glue from sturgeon was commonly used. Sometimes pitch was used. The mouth end was slightly flattened. The bowl was of many types of materials. They were made of stone, wood, corncob, etc. Two types of stone were found on the Cass River in the thumb of Michigan.

The Seasons 

The people worked night and day, making the best use of materials at hand. A stick was used to count the days, a long stick to last a year. A new stick was begun in the fall. A big notch for the first day of a new moon, a small notch for the other days. 

The blossoms of pumpkins and squash were dried along with corn silk used to season and thickening for stews. The grained sugar was used as a seasoning. Wild ginger, bearberry, mountain mint, and wood ash were used as well. 

Water was boiled and leaves or twigs were added to flavor it, and was drank hot or cold. Some additions were wintergreen, raspberry, spruce, snowberry, twigs of wild cherry, labrador tea leaves, and choke cherry. 

Acorns were gathered and cooked in several ways. Sometimes the flower of the milkweed, root of bulrushes, sap of aspen, birch, basswood, and moss from white pine were eaten. 

Apples and grapes were gathered and stored. 

Dyes were of vegetable substance for color and a mineral substance to set it. Items were dipped, boiled, or painted on. Some of the colors came from plum, alder, sumac, butternut, oak, dogwood, and bloodroot. Minerals were grindstone dust, red substance (vermillion) near certain springs, and black earth near certain springs (Nodinens/Dunsmore).


These recipes are shared from the Booklet of Recipes Past and Present, Deckerville, Historical Museum/Reid, J.

Sunflower Seed Oil

Extracted by bruising and boiling the seeds, then skimming the oily residue off the broth.

Sunflower Seed Butter

The ground paste is made by bruising and boiling the seeds and retaining the natural oils for a fine butter.

Acorn Flour

Boil the acorns with wood ashes, dry the acorn meats, and grind into flour after removing from the shell or hull. 

Nut Oil

Pound the nuts into flour, then boil in water with maple wood ashes, then skim the oil off. The flour is retained and used in baking breads and cereals. 

Nut Milk

Pound the dried meats, then boil in water and strain, reserving the oily part of the liquid, which is rich like fresh cream. 

Wood Ashes

Wood ashes of distinctive woods, such as cedar, juniper, hickory, etc. were used as flavorings and cleansing agents. Spoon fresh ashes out of a fireplace, stove, or campfire for use in the recipes. 

Buttered Nettles

1 scallion, 2 quarts young nettle* tops, ½ cup boiling water, sunflower oil or butter. Saute scallion, add nettles and water, simmer covered 20 min. Serve with broth. 

*Cooking destroys the nettles’ stinging properties. 

Fried Squash Blossoms

½ cup flour, 1 cup milk, salt, ½ tsp. chili powder, oil, 1 quart, squash blossoms. Heat oil, mix the 4 ingredients and dip the blossoms in the batter, fry until crisp. 

Daylily Blossoms

Daylily blossoms are used in stews. 

Wild Spring Greens

Dandelion, milkweed, lamb’s quarters, or wild lettuce.  

Corn Dumplings

2 cups cornmeal, fine. 1 cup nut milk, 1 tsp. crushed dried mint leaves, 2 tbsp. nut oil. Blend all together and drop by spoonful onto steaming stew broth. Cover and steam 15–20 min. 

Clover Soup

2 cups clover blossoms and leaves (fresh or dried), 2 small wild onions, chopped. 4 tbsp. sunflower seed butter, 1 quart, water, 3 medium potatoes, chopped dill weed to taste, spicebush berries, dried and grated to taste. Saute clover and onions in butter. Add water, potatoes and seasonings. Simmer covered 20 min. 

Hickory Nut Corn Pudding

1 ½ cup cooked corn, 2 beaten eggs, ½ cup chopped dried hickory nuts, 2 tbsp. honey, 2 tbsp. nut butter, 2 tbsp. fine cornmeal, ¼ cup goldenrod blossoms. Combine all and pour into a well-greased dish, sprinkle top with additional nut meats. Bake in 350° oven 1 hr. Seeds, raisins, other edible blossoms may be substituted for goldenrod blossoms. 

Acorn Bread

1 cup, acorn meal, ½ cup cornmeal, ½ cup whole wheat flour, 3 tbsp. oil, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tbsp. baking powder, ¼ cup honey, 1 egg, 1 cup milk. Grind acorn meats, mix dry ingredients. Combine honey, egg and milk, add to dry ingredients. Mix and pour into greased 8×8 pan, bake 350° for 20-30 min. Makes 1 loaf. For a sweet loaf, add sugar and nutmeg. 

Indian Fry Bread

A favorite at Pow Wows and family meals.

3 cups flour, 1 tsp. salt, 3 tsp. baking powder, 1 cup milk, ¼ cup warm water, hot oil in deep fryer or pan. Combine dry ingredients, slowly add milk and warm water as needed to moisten dry ingredients. Cover and let dough rest for 15 to 30 min. Pinch off fist-size pieces and flatten with the hand or a rolling pin. Fry in hot oil about 5 min. until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. 

Fry Bread Dinner Favorites: use as a taco shell; cut up and serve with your favorite dip; roll warm fry bread in sugar, add cinnamon; break up and serve with chili and taco toppings; top with honey, peanut butter, cream cheese, jelly (Terri Jean, 365 Days of Walking the Red Road)

Rose Hip Tea

Dry rose hips, grind to a powder, use 1 tsp. to a cup of boiling water, let steep 1-2 min. 

Blackberry Wine

6 quarts, berries, 6 cups water, 2 cups sugar to each qt. of juice, 1 cake yeast, 1 slice rye bread. Mix berries and water, boil gently 15 min., press out juice. Add 2 cups sugar to each qt. Pour into large jar or crock. Spread toasted bread with yeast cake and float on top of juice. Cover for one week. Carefully pour off wine into gallon jug and stuff opening with a wad of cotton. Keep in a cool place until wine clears and shows no sign of fermentation. Carefully decanter into sterilized bottles and tightly cap. Let it age at least until the weather gets cold.



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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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