By Cheryl Morgan
“The forest was a cathedral; it was home, it was protection. Mother Earth was very fruitful, providing everything the indigenous people needed. The Great Spirit was worshipped and adored in his magnificent creation.
Bark and trees for home building, canoes for travel – many, many useful items were made from the forest. Sap for sugar, pitch for glue, fiber for bags and clothing, wildlife for sustenance. Roots for sewing and medicine. The Native was very thankful for the Great Spirit’s benevolence. The forest floor was park-like, the towering trees, the wildflowers, the wildlife paths, the Native traveling through the trails which led in all directions.
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In the winter, the forest was much warmer than out in the open, winds were blocked by the trees, firewood was readily available. A nearby stream provided water.
To fell trees, a fire was used to burn the wood at the bottom, mud was applied on the upper portion to keep the whole tree from burning.
When new planting fields were needed, fire was used to clear the land in preparation.
The virgin soil was very fertile. Planting fields were used for about 20 years before moving to a new section. The healthy bird and waterfowl population applied natural fertilizer, fish entrails were buried in planting rows to decay and add fertility.
Michigan and Ontario had a great variety of trees. Some of them are alders, apple, ash, basswood (tilia americana or tilia canadensis), or whitewood, beech, birch, blue beech, bush cranberry, buttonwood (sycamore), bush cranberry, butternut, cedars, cherry, crabapple, dogwood, elder, elm, hazel, hemlock, hickory, ironwood, larch, maples, mountain ash, oaks, pear, pine, poplar, plums, sassafras, slippery elm, spruce, tamarack, walnut, and willows. This list is not exhaustive; there are probably more Native trees these are the most well-known” (Plain/Jones).
“Black ash was used for splint to make baskets and was plentiful. Hickory made bows and arrows. White ash for paddles and spear poles and many other useful articles. Pounding mills were made of black birch, about a foot in diameter, the center of which was burnt out with live coals and finished with sandstone to make it smooth, and when it was completed, it made a good pounding mill to make corn flour for the community.
They made their kneading bowls out of soft maple and ladles for every purpose also rolling pins” (Nicholas plain, “History of the Chippewa of Sarnia”, 1950).
“Snowshoes were made many ways: the round snowshoe, the snowshoe with a tail, and the, turned up toe snowshoe. All had a wooden frame with a net across the opening. A wooden sort was used with a thong across the toes. They are usually made of Ash the wood being bent by heating it. Rawhide strips were often used for the netting. Horsehide was a favorite, as it does not shrink or stretch when wet. Intestines and sinew were also used. The round shoe was like a bear print. Emergency snowshoes were made of unpeeled branches laced with basswood fiber” (Densmore, Chippewa Customs).
The Algonquins were the experts of canoe men on the continent, in both building and using them. Villages had large numbers of canoes, especially those who were traders.
Some were designed for speed and others for safety. Nanabozho had taught them, to make canoes as well as bows, arrows, and all other useful things.
Ojibwe canoes were of many kinds and sizes, some small, others massive.
“Indian canoes were 15 feet long and used for visiting between villages. The north canoe was 25 feet long and was the canoe used in long distance travel and for warriors. This canoe held eight men, plus supplies and weaponry. The Montreal canoe was 36 feet; it was used for trading freight. It held 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of furs” (David Plain).
“Dugout canoes were made of a single tree, a very large tree. They were made of basswood, cottonwood, and soft maple. The wood is soft, porous, and very buoyant. The average dugout was 12 to 16 feet long. To dig it out, crosswise cuts are made a foot apart, and the wood is split off lengthwise between the cuts. Then a small pick axe is used to carve out the interior, leaving a four to six inch, outer wall; a chisel was used to smooth the walls. On the outside, a draw knife or ordinary knife was used to shape the bow, and stern, keel, and the top edge. In primitive times, bone knives and sharp clam shells were used. Fire may be used to dry and polish the wood.
For bark canoes, the bark is cut away in one long strip. In early spring is the best time when the sap is flowing to gather bark. The bark is thick, about a thumb’s width, and very durable. Though rolled patch materials and pine tar pitch are carried for repairs. A man sits on the bottom of the canoe, not on the cross bracing, or a seat is slung across with a braided rope to sit on.
Another way to seal the canoe and make it waterproof is by using glue made of sturgeon blubber, horn or hooves, or rawhide boiled down to a glue. Charcoal is added to make it set up” (C. Eastman, Indian Boyhood, main reference).
In 1950, Nicholas Plain, Chief of Sarnia Chippewa, gives this description on canoe-making:
“First was to find a white birch tree large enough to provide a sheet of bark large enough to cover the widest part of the framework of the canoe to be built – that is, from rim to rim. When the tree is found, a scaffold is put up against the tree, and one of the men goes up with a sharp tool and cuts the bark straight down, and the bark is peeled off the tree and rolled in a bundle to be carried to the camping ground where it is unrolled on a level ground with the inside of the bark under, and the framework which is built by thin pieces of cedar is put on the bark which is stretched on the ground, and the bark is brought up to the frame and sewed on with cedar rootlets. And when the canoe is finished, it is made waterproof by a formula composed of pitch and other gummy substances of herbs. The lightness of the canoe makes it more suitable to carry heavy loads on the water than the dugout canoes made of basswood”.
Toboggans were very useful.
Amaug was a fishing place.
“We had fish lines made of hemp, sinew, or horsehair. Fish were caught with lines, snared, speared, or shot with a bow and arrow. We tickled them with a stick in fall and quickly threw them out. We dammed brooks, and they were driven into a willow basket made for that purpose” (Eastman).
“Hatchet, nettle fiber, basswood strips, and horsehair were also used in fishing. Hooks were made of bone, shaped twigs, and other materials.
Fishing was carried on all through the year. Nets, seine, hook, hatchets, spears, and weirs were used. Weirs are a kind of dam that leaves a channel for the fish to go through, and they are easily caught. Weirs were made with stone, sand, and logs.
Weirs – kagun yoke – are built of logs, saplings, cord, rocks and sand, or mud. The weir is like a funnel, sometimes made to angle to a very narrow opening. Usually a person could walk along the top of the weir to use nets and spears to collect the catch.
During the runs of spring and fall, the men would go out into the rapids – Sauk or Sohk, meaning the outlet of a river or lake – and float down in canoes with long poles with a net on the end and scoop large quantities. This required great dexterity, standing in the canoes. The fish was then dried on racks and sometimes powdered by the women and children and stored for later use” (D. Plain).
In the fall, the fish came near the shore in great numbers in November. Sein nets, spearing at night, with a torch, traps, bait and hook, and by trolling were the methods used to harvest the fish.
The nets were thoroughly washed and sometimes dipped in a concoction of sumac in water to disinfect them.
For ice fishing, a hole was chopped in the ice to the water, a hole was made. Sometimes a man would cover his head and short spear with a blanket to keep the light out. A frame was used like a large basket, which was covered with a blanket, decoy fish were near the surface of the water. The spear when thrown or shot loosened itself from the handle but was attached to a strong line which was drawn out. Covering the hole caused it to be illumined and, like an aquarium, the quiet water under the ice is very clear and the fish are easily seen as they swim into the baited hole.
Nets were also used in ice fishing.
“Spearing by torchlight, flambeau, was done at night along the shorelines of the waterways. A rolled bark torch was held over the bow – front of the boat – on a pole, the light lured the fish to be seen and speared by a long-pronged harpoon spear.
The canoe was navigated by two Indians, usually a man and a boy, the darkest nights being the most successful. The man in front directs the boy to steer from the rear – stern. The catch of catfish, pike, and perch was plenteous, fifty or more lights moving upon the smooth lake in every direction” (John Rutherford, Indian captive, narrative at what is now Pine Grove Park and Lake Huron, Port Huron, MI. 1763).
Lake trout were also ice-fished or any other species that appeared in the hole.
WHITEFISH – ADDIKUMAIG OR ATTICAMEG – THE DEER OF THE WATER
Whitefish were the main catch. They were abundant at Aamjiwnaang – “The Spawning Stream”, St. Clair River, Sarnia, Port Huron, Fort Gratiot on Lake Huron, and throughout the Strait. The people dried tons of fish. They would gather in great numbers during the spring runs and through the summer and fall runs. The drying racks were stacked eight feet tall near the beach at the foot of Lake Huron.
Michilimackinac was also a wonderful place to catch whitefish. Sault Ste. Marie, on the St. Mary’s River at the foot of the falls, was fish central for the Northern tribes.
The fish was dried and packed for storing in cache pits for later use. When used, it was usually finely crumbled and cooked with corn and in many other ways.
A scoop net was used to catch whitefish. They averaged three pounds; some were six to nine pounds. They had the mouth of a sucker with firm white flesh. There were very few bones when boiled, they were also grilled, battered and fried in butter, or chowder or in a pie (Schoolcraft 30 years Among the Indians).
STURGEON – NAMAI OR KABASSAK
Lake sturgeon are bottom feeders. Most adults weigh 200 pounds and are about seven feet long. The females are the larger. They like a warm water temperature and return to spawn in streams. The males live to about 55 years, and females can live to 100 years. They spawn every four to five years.
White men considered them “trash fish” and killed them when they damaged nets.
Sturgeon, were plentiful. They were huge, sometimes weighing 100 to 300 pounds and were six to eight feet long at maturity.
In 1889, four million pounds of fish were harvested with 4,000 pounds of caviar. Detroit was the center for sturgeon buying and selling.
Lake trout commonly weighed 50 pounds.
The Ottissippi (St. Clair River) was the spawning stream where the sturgeon and many other kinds of fish laid their eggs, and spawn.
In Saginaw Bay every spring, they swam in large numbers to lay their eggs in shallow water near shore. They were easy prey. Wading into the water, the fisherman speared them, stunned them with a club, or picking them up, threw them on shore to be killed with knives by the women and children.
There are over 70 varieties of fish in the waters of the Strait – Detroit, St. Clair River, and Detroit River. Sturgeon, whitefish, pickerel, quansig or walleye, perch, bass, catfish, sunfish, smelt, crappie, herring, salmon, trout, pike, bullhead, and blue gill, to name a few.
Turkeys, partridges, grouse, pheasants, and pigeons were plentiful.
All the fowl flying about created natural fertilizer over the land, creating a very fertile growing place. The great Mississippi and Atlantic flyway passing through the area made for lots of fertilizer without cost. Many birds could be a nuisance to crops, but a great harvest was still collected and stored.
The passenger pigeon was in such great numbers that it would be in flock’s miles long and wide, the great numbers creating a shadow upon the ground as they passed. The pigeons were caught in nets in great numbers and eaten, cooked in myriad ways. These pigeons persisted into the 1900s.
As a child, I remember seeing many pigeons. Many of the boys in those days were encouraged to shoot the birds, like blackbirds, as being a nuisance.
Ducks were killed in countless numbers, their noise like the roar of heavy thunder. They were so thick, they had to part for the canoe to make a path through them.
This area is part of the great Atlantic and Mississippi flyway. Untold thousands of waterfowl pass through the area, the marshes and waterways supplying food in abundance for them. They follow the lakes’ and rivers’ paths on to their winter grounds.
The Indians used decoys to lure fowl in close at times. Decoys were made of the skins of ducks and geese; they were dried and stuffed with hay, the feet attached to a plank which floats around the hut of grass. They drew wonderful numbers.
Swans were once very plentiful in the area waterways.
Canadian geese are abundant, and some, make the area their home year round.
The feathers and other parts of fowl were not wasted; the bills were used for maple sugar molds for pacifiers.
The loon is a waterfowl of the penguin species, the size of a goose. It is black and white; having a white ring around its neck, the back and neck are spotted black on white. Their skins are used by the Natives as pouches. The loon lives on small fish. When pursued, it will dive under water for a long time.
Wild rice was also known as “Zizania Aquatica, or mano min, meaning good fruit or berry. Psina is the Sioux name. Folle avoine, the French name. Wild, mad, or false oat or wild kick were other names for it.
Wild rice – wild oats – is the choice for waterfowl, fish, and Indians, who harvest great quantities of it for consumption. It is used in soups and stews and parched for travel.
Stalks are one inch in diameter, it grows four to twelve feet above the surface of the water, and it is an annual, the rice falling to the bottom of a muddy water and producing every year. It was once abundant in Lake St. Clair, Georgian Bay, Lake Erie, and throughout the Bluewater area and North America. It grew in countless small ponds and streams.
It is harvested in autumn, when the sugar trees are as red as the robin breast. It is narrow, a quarter by one inch long, and is gathered by canoe after having been tied in bundles to prevent the flocks from eating it. It is then bent over and left to ripen for two to three weeks, making collecting it easier and marking out the territory to others. It also protects it from rain and wind. There is a one-month harvest; the women pound out the rice into the canoe with a stick. The rice is then dried in the sun or a slow fire, the hull then rubbed off by shaking it in a blanket or treading on it, winnowing by the wind, or fanning by trays of birch bark, in the old way. There is great celebration of this harvest with festivities and ceremony.
Minnesota is the large production area for wild rice. It takes a bit longer to cook than other rice. It is not a true rice. It is highly nutritious, having much protein in it. The rice swells to 3 or 4 times its size. It is eaten extensively among Indians and was a cause for many wars over the rice beds” (Albert Ernest Jenks, “Wild Rice Gatherers”, was the main source).
Wild Rice can also be popped (like popcorn) and is delicious. Barb Barton
Rice fields in many lakes are threatened by homeowners wanting to eradicate it. Wild rice is a protected species. There are people, who are reintroducing wild rice in Michigan and other places.
All wildlife, were respected as members of the Great Spirit – God’s creation; they had a spirit and purpose in creation and were never killed for sport, but a necessary sustenance. It was always accompanied with ritualistic ceremony, offerings, fasting, and prayer. It was very serious to take and use something from Mother Earth. Thanksgiving offerings were always made to the spirit (essence or life power) of any harvest, a part of the creation family. They were part of the universal relatedness of all things.
Careful consideration of the effect of their actions was always in the forefront of hunting, fishing, and gathering practices. All were gifts given by the Great Spirit; they were not seen as being entitled to the gifts of Mother Earth, and they were thankful for everything given to them by Gitchi Manito – The Great Spirit.
Conservation has always been the way for Anishinabe to live. They always left animals to repopulate what was taken and used for food, for the future wellbeing of the animals or plants and the people themselves.
The social life of the Anishinabe included games played by the family or larger groups. Games of chance and those of skill were the favorites.
The moccasin game was popular and widespread. Some small object, a stone or piece of bone was hidden under one of a number of moccasins, by a player. The other contestant was to choose the correct placement. Bets were laid on the outcome. It was not unusual to discover, losing a gun, tobacco, pipe, and clothing.
A sort of dice game was played with marked wood; these were tossed up into the air and matching the pieces of marked wood.
Wrestling and other athletic contest running, racing, catching an object with a bag or hoop, shooting, and throwing for accuracy or distance, were common. Water games and canoe games were always fun, small family groups played for fun.
In larger groups, a spirit of rivalry was strong. In the game of lacrosse, large teams played a sort of soccer. It was a great contest, like a football game: village against village.
To purchase a copy of Cheryl’s book, Ottissippi, click here.
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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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