A classic book in Ojibway history, William W. Warren’s “History of the Ojibway People,” presents the contemporary reader with a stirring account of the Ojibways from their mythic origins through mid-19th century.
Warren, of Ojibway ancestry on his mother’s side, lived in Minnesota in the 19th century. He spoke Ojibway fluently, and knew many tribal leaders in the Great Lakes region.
He wrote the book while serving as a member of the Minnesota Legislature. At 27, he journeyed to New York with the manuscript, hoping to find a publisher. He also sought help for his failing health. Neither objective was accomplished. The publishers wanted money to publish the book. The doctors failed to offer a cure. He died in Minnesota the following year of a hemorrhage.
The Minnesota Historical Society published his book in 1885. The original title was “History of the Ojibways, based upon Traditions and Oral Statements.” This title explains much of the book’s content. Of the 35 chapters, several are devoted to items not strictly historical in the academic sense, such as: “Origin of Ojibways,” “The Totemic Division of the Ojibways,” and the “Emigration of the Ojibways from the Shores of the Atlantic Ocean.” These chapters present traditions and beliefs of the Ojibways concerning their unique identity among the Native people of America.
Warren discusses the traditional religion of the Medewin, their beliefs of their creation after a great flood, their location in the Great Lakes after a presence on the Atlantic coast, their belief in the Megis (seashell) that led the group to its present location. While the author is careful to indicate that, even among the Ojibways, there are variants in beliefs, a reader can savor the richness of these traditions.
Several chapters concern the Ojibways relations with neighboring tribes such as the Sioux and the Iroquois. These chapters focus on the skirmishes and victories among the groups. Warren recounts one Ojibway father who offered himself when he learned his son was about to be burned at the stake by a group of the Fox Tribe. The Fox accepted the offer.
Much of the book describes the settlement of the Ojibways in present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota. Warren writes sparingly of the Michigan Ojibways except for his passing mention of the trading post at Michilimackinac and the Sault Ste. Marie settlement. More discussion relates to the explorations by the Ojibways along the upper Mississippi.
Several chapters explain the Ojibway relationships with the French and British governments; early relationships centered on the profitable fur trade. Later, the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War changed who the Ojibways had to deal with. Many Ojibways were loyal to the French. During the Revolutionary War, they were essentially neutral.
Throughout all of these European changes, the Ojibway people suffered grievously. Their forests became devoid of game, their areas of hunting and fishing were restricted by Canadian and U.S. boundaries in the northern edge of their traditional territory. The U.S. started to negotiate treaties in areas of the present-day states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Disease and poverty decreased the Ojibway population.
Throughout this 19th century of turmoil, young Warren wrote this respectful book as a tribute to his mother’s and his own people. He knew as he wrote that the bulk of established writings about the Ojibways, depicted in the chronicles of the fur traders, the government agents and adventurers, portrayed them as depraved, ignorant people. He expressed his fear that the people would soon disappear.
Contrary to his fears, the Ojibways are still here. A bibliographic inquiry for the term “Ojibway people” shows more than 300 titles.
This book is standard reading for any scholar who writes about the Ojibways in the Great Lakes region. Ojibways will read the book to see if their tribal village is mentioned. They will also read it to see if the information presented agrees with what they know of their own history and traditions. Students of Ojibway history in the 19th century will also find rich material.