Canada – The Culture of the Eastern Woodland

By | December 25, 2021

In its purest aspect, the culture of the forest Algonquians is perhaps shown in the Ogibways of Lake Superior, who around 1640 still lived together with the Potawatomi and Ottawa at Sault Sainte-Marie. They constitute one of the most numerous tribes in North America and still number 35,000 individuals, of which 15,000 live in Canada and the remainder in the United States. Some of them had appropriated the culture of the Prairie Indians. The nucleus of the tribes who lived on Lake Superior (Kitchi – Gami “Great Water”), did not accept the cultivation of maize practiced by the Iroquois: in September (which from which it took its name) instead gathered on the marshy land of the lake the wild aquatic rice (Zizania aquatica), beating the stems with wooden clubs (which were previously tied in bundles to protect them from birds), so that the seeds fell into the canoe. In the summer, fruit was harvested as a side dish: for this reason the month of June was called the month of strawberries, the month of July the month of raspberries, the month of August the month of blueberries. In spring, by making carvings, the sweet juice was extracted from the maples, which was also transformed into intoxicating drinks. But more than anything else they lived off hunting, which was practiced on caribou, deer, moose, bears, beavers, and fishing, which was done with nets, hooks, harpoons; a special method was that of killing fish with harpoons in the light of torches; they also tried to attract swarms of fish with fake fish. For Canada culture and traditions, please check

Hospitality was regarded as a great virtue. Several times one hears the story of an Indian told among these populations, who had not repaid a white man with the same measure, who had chased him out of his door, when this white man had presented himself in front of him hungry and lost. “Ce sont des gens d’un coeur grand”, the forest travelers said with admiration of these “savages”. Their clothing was made of skins; for decoration they used above all colored porcupine bristles. As tools they used bones, stones, wood, especially birch wood, mainly used for the construction of houses. The house had the shape of a dome and was made of poles planted in a circle in the ground and tied together at the top, wigwam). Copper was found on the southern shore of Lake Superior, but it was rather an object of worship and was often placed in medicinal bundles. The weapons consisted primarily of the bow and the ax or tomahawak. The skinning and torture of prisoners was practiced. Sometimes pieces were cut from the corpse of an enemy and swallowed, or carried for a long time his fingers and his arms cut off. In addition to loom or tablet snow shoes, they used toboggan and above all the canoe, elegantly shaped, made of birch peel, which with its minimum weight easily passed over the numerous streams of rivers. The birch rind was also used as paper, for the figurative writings that were engraved on it and that were of private, religious or mythological content: in this way the whole process of initiation in the Midas society was figured. Due to their sociable character, the Indians delighted in numerous games and above all in that of the ball. They did not have a strong political organization: a meeting formed of adult men elected the leader in each population group, generally the son of the previous leader; for the war there were special leaders, generally two. There were no superior leaders, who commanded different groups. The word totem comes from the Ogibways, with whom it meant kinship in the circle of a gens. The people were divided into a large number (between 20 and 40) of gentes or totemic groups, with paternal descent (as between the Abnaki and the Ottawa). The largest were: crane, bear, duck, weasel, wolf. There is no mention of an ancestry from the totem animal, but it was believed that members of the gens had similarity with it. Thus, p. for example, the “Bears” had a warlike character like the bear, and therefore they had assumed the defense against the enemies, the custody of the war pipe and the sacred war club. Alongside this type of totemism there was also the individual one: every boy who reached the age of 13-14 (sometimes even girls) retired into solitude to fast; until his protective spirit was manifested to him in a dream or a vision. After this he made his “medicine”: a bundle, in which he tied the memory and the instrument of his grace for his whole life: a nail, a feather, etc. Dreams and visions played a large part in times of war as well as in times of peace: the newborn child was generally given the name in relation to the dream he had from his father; the lucky hunters and warriors saw in a dream the place where they could find the game or the enemy. Polygamy was regarded as honorable; a lucky hunter had a hard time defending himself from so many women who offered themselves. In cases of death, the body was carried out of an opening made in the back of the house, and this was destroyed. The dead was then interred. The souls wandered on the Milky Way “the way of the dead”, directed towards the west, and had to face various dangers. Sacrifices (especially of dogs), prayers, sweat baths, music (drum) and above all the ceremonial of smoking tobacco played a large part in the cult. Alongside the simple thaumaturges (wabeno) there were also prophets (Jessakid), who, possessed by spirits in true séances, foretold the results of hunts and wars. Of great importance was the Mide society, where both men and women were welcomed: it was made up of four degrees, in which one subsequently entered by means of a certain payment, and had to attend, in addition to the care of the sick, to the veneration of the its founder, the hero Menabošo. The Pantheon of those peoples contained a certain number of divinities of nature, all of which were called manido, that is, marvelous, mysterious essences. The first place they gave to the god of the upper sky, the god of the earth and the essences of the four parts of the sky. It is false what was often claimed, that these divinities were conceived as manifestations of the mysterious Manido force: they are true mythological figures, with whom the sky was populated. Alongside the somewhat vague figure of the “evil spirit” inhabiting the earth (matchi – manido), which perhaps was colored by Christianity, which had penetrated here for a long time, the god of the upper sky, Kitche – manido, was also recognized by these populations., the “great Mysterious”. He has under him, but in a fairly independent position, the other divinities to which men generally turned. The mythology reports the invention of cultural heritage, that is boats and nets, the subdivision of the tribes, the foundation of the Mide society and more, to the hero Menabos (the big rabbit), whose figure appears under various names in most part of the Algonquians and often also with the grotesque deformation of his personality (Gluscap at the Micmacs).

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