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TEACH: Native Peoples of the Region

2 | Livelihood of Native Peoples: Fishing, hunting, farming

Fishing was indispensable to the Native Peoples and fur traders as a primary source of food. One reason for Native villages at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and at certain other places on the Great Lakes was the fact that the fisheries were good at those places. For example, the Native Peoples were the first to discover the bountiful fishing banks along the south shore of Lake Erie and the archipelago to Point Pelee. The Native Peoples regularly crossed Ohio from the Ohio River to the lake over the paddle-and-portage routes (up the Miami River and down the Maumee River) to these fishing grounds. Sturgeon, lake trout and whitefish were popular catches.

Tribal fishermen harvested fish using large birch bark canoes and seine nets (later gill nets) constructed from twisted and knotted strands of willow bark, among others. They also speared through the ice and fished with hand carved decoys. As Europeans pushed into the Great Lakes region, the Native Peoples used fish to trade with French and English outposts and fish soon became one of the mainstays in the diets of the early fur traders.

Fish leftovers were either dried over racks to preserve them for a short time or, when taken late in the fall, they were hung from racks of poles and allowed to freeze quickly. Frozen fish and cranberries, often used by the Lake Superior tribes, seem to be an early form of the frozen foods of convenience today!

See also: Photo essay: Powdering fish using traditional Native methods
TEACH The history of fishing on the lakes

Birch bark canoes
Building birch bark canoe. Click for larger image.Native Peoples around the Great Lakes perfected the fine art of canoe building out of tree bark and branches. Canoes allowed the Native Peoples to fish and navigate long distances on the region's lakes and rivers while toting supplies to be traded. Native Peoples could paddle distances of 300 miles in 15-16 days.

Of course, the canoe was always at the mercy of violent weather on the Great Lakes, and tragedies could occur if canoes ventured too far from land and a sudden storm arose. At one time the Winnebago (present-day Ho-Chunk) Indians, on the western side of what is now Lake Michigan, were at war with the Foxes on the eastern side of the lake. The Winnebagos sent an army of 500 braves, but they all perished while making the Lake Michigan crossing. It is said that the Fox Indians were so moved by the disaster that they ceased making war on those who remained.

Food gathering
By Ojibwe tradition, it was time to hunt deer (waawaashkeshi) when they began to see fireflies making small sparks in the night air. In addition to deer and elk, the Native Peoples hunted bear and smaller fur-bearing animals such as rabbits, beaver and fox.

Native Peoples overall were known to be excellent farmers, although some tribes, especially in the northern regions, actually showed a dislike for farming and had little opportunity to improve their skills due to shorter growing seasons and hilly terrain. Common crops grown in the Great Lakes region included corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, and Jerusalem artichokes. Maple sugar and wild berries also were diet staples of the tribes.

Also important was the traditional harvest of wild rice ("manoomin" in Ojibwe), a term derived from "Manitou," meaning Great Spirit and "meenum," meaning delicacy. The "food that grows on water," was an important part of the diet of Ojibwe people. The August, or Rice Making, Moon signaled the harvest season, which was a time for celebrations of thanksgiving. Sensitive to weather conditions and water levels, the abundance of wild rice could vary greatly from year to year.

Rice waters. Click for larger image.Manoomin had great importance to early European explorers as well. Their journals contain many references to the plant they found growing on the lakes and riverways they traversed. As a staple food of the Voyageurs, it helped the regional fur trade flourish. Wild rice is still harvested extensively by tribes in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Photos: Building birch canoes (c.1895), Minnesota Historical Society; aerial view of rice waters in northern Minnesota, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.


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