Ojibway Ceremonies

Ojibway Ceremonies

Ojibway Ceremonies

Ojibway Ceremonies


The Ojibway Indians were first encountered by the French early in the seventeenth century along the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior. By the time Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized them in The Song of Hiawatha, they had dispersed over large areas of Canada and the United States, becoming known as the Chippewas in the latter. A rare and fascinating glimpse of Ojibway culture before its disruption by the Europeans is provided in Ojibway Ceremonies by Basil Johnston, himself an Ojibway who was born on the Parry Island Indian Reserve.

Johnston focuses on a young member of the tribe and his development through participation in the many rituals so important to the Ojibway way of life, from the Naming Ceremony and the Vision Quest to the War Path, and from the Marriage Ceremony to the Ritual of the Dead. In the style of a tribal storyteller, Johnston preserves the attitudes and beliefs of forest dwellers and hunters whose lives were vitalized by a sense of the supernatural and of mystery.


The book Ojibway Ceremonies came about in the following way.

As guest editor of Tawow, a magazine devoted to Native issues and themes and published in Ottawa, Canada, I met Ernest Willey, a Kwakiutl Indian, then residing in Toronto, Ontario, while I was scouting for writers for my projected theme, Native World Views.

After hearing Mr. Willey speak on his tribe to an audience at the Canadian Indian Centre in Toronto in 1976, I asked him to write an article on some aspect of his tribe's culture and heritage. He declined, giving as his reason his inexperience in writing. However, he was willing to tell me about one tribal ceremony in which he took part as a principal and let me write the text.

Before Mr. Willey described the ceremony he explained that, though it was popularly known as the Cannibal Dance outside the Kwakiutl tribe, it had nothing to do with the eating of human flesh and that it was not a dance but an enactment that appeared like a dance to strangers. His tribe called it Hah-Mah-Tsa, an initiation.

Prior to the ceremony, the initiate was regarded in a formal sense as outside society but connected to it by virture of his dependence upon it for his nourishment, guidance, and growth. Following the ceremony, the initiate was a full member of the Kwakiutl society, no longer a dependent or a recipient but a contributor and a benefactor. Only when a person could contribute as a chanter, dancer, hunter, and fisherman could he be admitted formally and actually into tribal society.

But physical abilities and skills in hunting, fishing, chanting, and dancing are not alone enough to qualify a person for admission into society. The initiate must understand himself and his relationship to the other members of the community and to society in general.

When the elders of the community deemed that a young person had reached the age of understanding and was ready to be inducted, they gave him and his parents notice of their intent to initiate him . . .

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