Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin

Article excerpt

Michael Angel, Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin, Manitoba Studies in Native History 13 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002), xiv + 274pp. Cloth. £55. ISBN 0-8875-5173-4. Paper. $24.95. ISBN 0-8875-5657-4.

The Midewiwin is the religion of the Ojibwa peoples (more precisely, the Anishinaabe) living to the north, west and south of Lake Superior. There is evidence that some such belief system existed when the French began exploring the region in the seventeenth century. Yet the exact nature of the Midewiwin has continued to be shrouded in mystery and controversy. Some authorities believe it to be the traditional religion of the Ojibwas, whereas others have argued that it is a crisis cult that originated as a reaction against the intrusions of Euro-Americans. Even the meaning of the name is unclear. Ake Hultkrantz in The Religions of the American Indians (1979) treats it in a few paragraphs only, yet it is mentioned in early travel literature, many nineteenth-century manuscripts, and a considerable corpus of secondary literature. (Michael Angel's detailed endnotes and impressive bibliography occupy more than one quarter of the text.)

This is an 'historiographical study of ... the Midewiwin, as it was described by Euro-Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' (viii). It attempts to 'identify and correct major misconceptions and instances of misinformation in the documents, and to trace the changing role played by the Midewiwin in Ojibwa society as portrayed by these documents' (viii). Deliberately avoiding 'the ahistorical approach of postmodernism', it does, however, employ some of the techniques of a 'post-colonial approach ... in bringing voice to a subjected people through an analysis of the colonial processes and constructions of knowledge that have muted their voices' (ix). …