Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760–1845
In recent years an unparalleled wave of work by Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg scholars studying and defining Anishinaabeg cultures, communities, and lifeways has emerged to push Native [End Page 123] American studies in exciting and provocative directions. Academic texts such as Michael D. McNally’s Honoring Elders: Aging, Authority, and Ojibwe Religion (Columbia UP, 2009), Scott Lyons’s X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (U of Minnesota P, 2010), and Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) and edited collections such as A. Irving Hallowell’s Contributions to Ojibwe Studies, 1934–1972 (edited by Jennifer Brown and Susan Gray, U of Nebraska P, 2010), Richard Wagamese’s One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), and Basil Johnston’s Think Indian: Languages Are Beyond Price (Kegedonce, 2011) are just a few examples. This is not to forget the important oral and written intellectual work being done in Anishinaabeg lodges, living rooms, and board rooms—much of which illustrates a diverse and expressive culture invested in social, spiritual, and political sovereignty and syncretism. Indeed, these and other critical and creative works by Anishinaabeg authors, speakers, and leaders have joined to create a field now known as Anishinaabeg studies. Anishinaabeg studies adopts as its predominant tenet the notion that Anishinaabeg are a dynamic and enduring set of people, nouns, characterized by an equally complex set of actions, verbs. Anishinaabeg are “spontaneous people,” historian William Whipple Warren writes in his 1885 book History of the Ojibway People, people who have traditionally defined and will continue to define themselves.
This is evidenced brilliantly in Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760–1845, a sharp and complex study by University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee historian Cary Miller. In this book spanning some of the most tumultuous years in Anishinaabeg history, Miller paints a remarkably rich and nuanced picture of Anishinaabeg existence from the Seven Years War to 1845. Focusing on the community processes and traditions that created ogimaag, leaders in Anishinaabeg society, Miller challenges anthropological and social science theories that Anishinaabeg communities were “marked by weak and/or fluid leadership,” instead arguing that they were “highly organized and deliberate” (3–4). This is predominantly due to the “the symbiotic nature of religious and political authority in Anishinaabeg life,” [End Page 124] she argues, which created resilient, multidimensional, and interconnected cultural systems of selecting leaders across spectrums of Anishinaabeg life—and particularly in the civil, military, and spiritual spheres (5–6).
Miller’s book is as a virtual encyclopedia of Anishinaabeg cultural traditions, taken from a plethora of published and unpublished historical sources, meticulously cited in order to show how Anishinaabeg inherited, accepted, and self-identified themselves as leaders (her endnotes, in particular, are worth a read on their own). Focusing on the village, the “largest and most meaningful social, political, and economic entity” in Anishinaabeg communities (40), she describes how Anishinaabeg notions of power combined cultural, spiritual, and political elements and embodied facets of everyday life. The first chapter, “Power in the Anishinaabeg World,” examines how self-determination and self-reliance was understood by Anishinaabeg to be a marker of power: “In the Ojibwe world the clearest demonstration of power was lack of dependence for food, safety, health, and material goods” (23). While animals, plants, and other relations of the Anishinaabeg illustrated this ability, it was manidoog—spiritual beings and the incorporeal plane of reality they inhabited—that Anishinaabeg sought to emulate, form relationships with, and receive blessings from. This formed a platform in which ogimaag sought and gained power, as connections with manidoog resulted in strength and autonomy not only for the individual but for one’s community as a whole. The relationships between ogimaag and manidoog therefore formed a model in which Anishinaabeg asserted power, shaping the ways they interrelated, forged ties with the environment, and devised societal systems (such as the clan system). This communal system of leadership making therefore involved not only men and women of all ages but also nonhuman entities, resulting in power being thought of as something shared, universal, communal, and reciprocal. This chapter features some of Miller’s best work, as she shows how processes such as gift giving, storytelling, and horticultural activities made Anishinaabe leadership an inherent form of relationship and community building. [End Page 125]
The next three chapters all fascinatingly examine a different facet of how Anishinaabeg became leaders in specific spheres of Anishinaabeg society: ogimaag, or hereditary leaders, primarily administered communities, dealt with foreign powers and adjudicated intervillage conflicts; mayosewininiwag, or military leaders, followed the direction of communities in their disputes with others but also acted as community protectors, peacekeepers, and initiators of youth; gechi-midewijig, or Midéwiwin leaders, led ceremonial rites of the ancient Grand Medicine Society, maintained traditional stories and histories, and initiated community citizens into the Midéwiwin—therefore sharing specific and sacred medicinal, literary, and educational practices. The final chapter is a divergence from the rest of the book, “The Contest for Chiefly Authority at Fond du Lac,” and explores the specific ways Anishinaabeg leadership and community unity was challenged at Fond du Lac after a mission station was built there in 1834 and leaders clashed with—and eventually expelled—a missionary. Here, Miller’s description repeats some of the field of history’s most discomforting tendencies in her assumptions of the particular psyche and mindsets of her subjects, and she sometimes defaults to claims that undermine the complexity her research suggests. Still, her research is extremely impressive, and she succeeds in locating the work of ogimaag in tangible, concrete ways for the reader.
This final chapter also highlights an issue with the text as a whole (and indeed an emerging issue within Anishinaabeg studies): a primary focus on Anishinaabeg communities south of the forty-ninth parallel. The book, in fact, might be better subtitled: “Anishinaabeg Leadership South of the Great Lakes.” Anishinaabeg leaders and communities north and east of her focus (in what is now Ontario and Manitoba) are peripherally mentioned, and while Miller does make use of some work that references these areas (specifically by George Copway and John Tanner), for the most part areas outside of her focus areas are neglected. One wonders how the complex experiences of Anishinaabeg in these different contexts would challenge, diversify, and perhaps even illustrate better points of her study. I imagine, for instance, that the life of missionary Peter Jones, [End Page 126] Kahkewaquonabay, who became one of three ogimaag for the Mississauga at Credit River in 1829 and spent his entire life dedicated to Anishinaabeg (and who was crucial in advocating for and stabilizing his community after decades of colonial invasion and forced land secession agreements) would make for an excellent examination. Or a study of the complex leadership abilities of the ogimaag Peguis at the Red River settlement throughout the early nineteenth century would be very interesting, as he made many controversial choices (including selling allotments to settlers, permitting alcohol in his community, baptizing into the Anglican church, and rejecting the Midéwiwin) but still maintained popularity and power in his community his entire life.
Overall, however, no book can do everything, and Miller’s Ogimaag is a powerful and dynamic portrayal of Anishinaabeg life and leadership at a critical time in North American history. It is, simply, a must read for historians, Native studies scholars and students, and anyone interested in Anishinaabeg culture and history. It sets a new standard for Anishinaabeg studies and is a fascinating illustration of the makeup of nouns and verbs that encapsulate Anishinaabeg existence. Miigwech for this landmark contribution.
Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is Anishinaabe, originally from St. Peter’s (Little Peguis) Indian Settlement. He is an assistant professor in the Departments of English and Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, and his essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in books and journals throughout Turtle Island. In 2009 he coedited (with Renate Eigenbrod) a double issue of the Canadian Journal of Native Studies (29. 1/2), and in 2011 he was a featured author in The Exile Book of Native Canadian Fiction and Drama, edited by Daniel David Moses. His upcoming book Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water (coedited with Warren Cariou) is an anthology of Manitoba Aboriginal writing from the past three centuries (Portage & Main P, forthcoming 2012). Another book, Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World through Stories (coedited with Jill Doerfler and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark), is a collection of critical and creative works on Anishinaabeg story (Michigan State UP, forthcoming 2012). He currently lives in Winnipeg, where he is completing his PhD in Anishinaabeg literatures and narrative expression.