Algonquian, the term Algonkin has gained its notoriety as being the largest native language group in North America. Lost in the enormity of its definition, many do not realize that there was actually an Algonkin tribe, or that all Algonquian speakers do not belong to the same tribe. Algonquian is a family of related languages. It has many dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. Algonquian speaking people dominated most of northeastern North America with the exception of Iroquian speakers of New York, northern Pennsylvania and southern Ontario. Their range extended from Hudson Bay southward along the Atlantic coast to North Carolina and west to the Mississippi River. Algonquian speakers of the Great Plains include the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Gros Ventres, Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway. Some historians also suggest that the Wiyot and Yurok in northern California speak a distant form of Algonquian. The dialect of the Algonquian themselves is closely related to that of the Ojibway, Ottawa, and Potawatomi thus making them the easternmost speakers of this group. Although there is some variation between the different Algonkin bands, the commonality among them is that they still prefer to speak their tradition language rather than French or English. In the first half of the seventeenth century French explorers and missionaries entered the land of the Ojibway. They documented some of their earliest vague historical accounts. These men reported a community of Indians living near the falls of the St. Mary’s River (“Sault Ste. Marie”). The French called them “Saulteurs” or “People of the Falls.” Most of the bands of Ojibway in this area visited Sault Ste. Marie in order to fish and meet friends and relatives. Already being a traditional gathering place, Sault Ste. Marie soon became a trading center where goods were exchanged for furs.
From 1650 to 1680, trades, warfare and migration greatly affected the homeland and way of life for the Ojibway people. The fur trade with Europeans introduced tools, weapons and liquor into Ojibway customs. Newly acquired reliance on foreign commodities gradually forced the Ojibway to spend more time and energy securing and preparing the furs necessary for trade. Many other activities were quickly crowded out such as: pottery making, basket weaving, quills, embroidery, and birch bark work. The traditional balance of Ojibway life was altered and whole bands had a greater dependence on the exchanging of the white man’s fur for their livelihood.
Trade rivalries among the French, Dutch and later the British led to allies with different Indian groups on the eastern seaboard. As fur-bearing animals in high demand by Europeans became scarce, each tribe needed new and larger hunting grounds. The pressure for acquiring hunting territory led to wars among the tribes. French, Dutch and British allies encouraged these wars. The effects reached far into the interior of North America, especially for the Ojibway.
The Ojibway were the largest and most powerful tribe east of the Mississippi, and quite possibly the most powerful in North America. The meaning or origins of the name “Ojibway,” by which they are known to others, is uncertain. Two distinct meanings have been generally attributed to the origin of the word. One theory has it translating from the Ojibway word for “puckering up,” referring to the puckering style of their moccasins. The other theory suggests that the translation stems from the early history of warfare between the Anishinabe and their enemies. The Ojibway allegedly had a reputation for roasting their enemy captives until they “puckered up.” Since European contact, the word “Ojibway” has had many different written spellings. Depending on how it sounded to French and English speaking people, it has been written as “ Otchipwe,” “Ojibewa.” “Ojibwe,” “Chippeway,” or “Chippewa.” In the language of the Ojibway they use “Anishnabe” to identify themselves. “Anishnabe” means one of the people, “original people,” or “original man.”
Today, most of the Ojibway people still live on their pre-contact ancestral land. That land base, however, has been drastically reduced. The original homeland of the Ojibway was immense, stretching from the northern reaches of the plains to the southeastern shores of the Great Lakes. In Canada it extended from Central Saskatchewan to southern Ontario. In the United States it included the northern corner of North Dakota, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, most of Michigan and part of Northern Ohio. The Ojibway regarded their land as a gift from the Great Spirit to their people, and it belonged to everyone in the tribe. They lived upon it, loved it and resisted anyone who tried to drive them from it.
Today, there are four main groups of Ojibway people that have been distinguished by location and their adaptation to varying conditions. They are the Plains Ojibway, the Southeastern Ojibway, the Northern Ojibway, and the Southwestern Ojibway or Chippewa. The Plains Ojibway live in Saskatchewan, Western Manitoba, North Dakota, and Montana. Although they were originally a woodland people, this group of Ojibway changed their way of life when they moved into the open plains. They speak a central Algonquian language closely related to their allies the Cree. The Plains Ojibway were lured west by the fur trade and eventually took up life on the plains. Like the Cree, many remained on the edge of the parkland, venturing onto the prairie only to hunt buffalo.