In some dialects, Anishinaabe means people “made out of nothing”, as were believed to be created spontaneously. Join us in an exploration of the rich cultural history of this First Nation inhabiting Northeastern Ontario.
According to one of the Anishinaabe stories of creation, Nookmis Dibik Giizis (Grandmother Moon), N’mishoomis Giizis, (Grandfather Sun), and Shkagamik-Kwe, (Mother Earth) were a family that preceded humankind. They were created by Gitchi-Manitou, (the Creator). Fish swam in the sea, animals roamed the Earth, and birds traveled through clear skies. With water as lifeblood, all things on Shkagamik-Kwe (Mother Earth) had physical and spiritual powers.
Once all parts of life lived in harmony, Gitchi-Manitou took the Four Sacred Elements (fire, land, air, water) and created man with a breath of fresh air. From this original man, the last form of life placed on Earth, came the Anishinaabe people.
One oral tradition from the Bear Clan of the Ojibwe holds that the Anishinaabe originally lived on the Northeast coast of North America, the turtle-shaped island. One day, seven prophets came to them and warned that they would face certain destruction if they did not leave. Seven prophecies were made regarding the future of the Anishinaabe and outlined the path to follow.
The Ojibwe Daybreak people, or Wa-bun-u-keeg’, stayed in the Northeast. However, the rest of the Anishinaabe people listened to the prophecies and migrated toward the Great Lakes area over 500 years. Once colonizers arrived, the Wa-bun-u-keeg’ peoples were exterminated. The Anishinaabe came to occupy the place we now know as the Great Lakes between Canada and the United States.
The Richness of the Anishinaabe’s Cultural Traditions
Anishinaabe consists of three First Nations: the Algonquin, the Cree, and Ojibwe. They share a similar language and cultural base, including Chippewa, Odawa, Potawatomi, Nipissing, and Mississauga First Nations.
As semi-nomadic hunters, fishers, and gatherers, the Anishinaabe moved with nature’s cycles. They trapped and hunted in the winter and harvested and processed helpful plants in the growing season. To them, identity is closely connected to the land and its various elements. Teachings, history, and traditions are passed on through storytelling, helping the younger generations better understand their relationship with the world around them. The land not only provides sustenance but helps sustain heritage from one generation to the next.
Like other Indigenous peoples, the Anishinaabe suffered the consequences of assimilationist colonial policies, such as the Indian Act and residential schools. Customs such as the jingle dance, considered a healing dance, and other traditions (even speaking their own language) were prohibited by the Indian Act in 1895 and weren’t made legal until the mid-20th century. Even some of the hunting, fishing, and harvesting activities were affected.
Today, the Anishinaabe work diligently to preserve their culture. Elders are instrumental in ensuring that traditions are maintained, teaching younger members of the community traditional language and stories.
Traditional art forms such as crafting birchbark, basket making, beading, regalia making, and designing boxes made of porcupine quills are being revived. And the importance of meeting, celebrating meaningful events—pow wows—brings back to life the long traditions of drumming, flute making, and singing.
A Tour Through the Anishinaabe’s Ancient Grounds
Since the late 17th century, the Anishinaabe have occupied various regions, from Niagara and the Great Lakes to the Ottawa River valley and the plains of Saskatchewan. Located in southern Ontario, the Anishinaabe people’s traditional lands were a long peninsula named “Mnisiing,” now called the Toronto Islands. These connected sand spits held spiritual significance for the Anishinaabe. They were considered a place of healing, used for ceremonial purposes, including childbirth and burials.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Anishinaabe culture while visiting Ontario, visit Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. The Ojibwe Cultural Foundation there keeps the Anishinaabe culture and traditions alive. Its onsite museum includes artwork by Indigenous artists, traditional sweetgrass baskets and carvings, as well as early scrolls of Anishinaabe’s spiritual knowledge.
For the Anishinaabe, plants carry a deep spiritual and cultural meaning and provide nearly all life’s essentials. As nature is a sanctuary, the plants found growing from this sacred ground reflect traditional Anishinaabe knowledge and cultural beliefs. Plants like the Four Sacred Medicines (sweetgrass, tobacco, sage, and cedar) are widely used for medicinal purposes, holding deep cultural, ecological, and historical value.
Thanks to this deep connection to the natural and supernatural realms, the Anishinaabe culture survives through songs, dances, ceremonies, and stories. These practices serve as reminders of the strong ties binding people and nature together, embodying the communities and connections that are so fundamental to Anishinaabe life.
According to the Anishinaabe, wellness depends on the awareness and protection of this human-nature relationship. Everything is connected because everything has a spirit. Living a good life in the Ojibwe/Anishinaabe way means to follow the Seven Grandfather Teachings of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth.
Take to the trails and walk on the ground of the Anishinaabe people, letting each step bring you closer to understanding their deep connection with nature. For a deeper perspective on this sacred land, read our Northeastern Ontario Travel Guide.