On the Shores of the ‘Great Water’: The Ojibwe people’s migration to Gichigamiing

A 17th Century French map outlining the Great Lakes // Image courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society

A 17th century French map of the Great Lakes // Image courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

To the Ojibwe people, Lake Superior is “Gichigamiing”—the “great water” or “sea.” Today, Ojibwe communities are scattered around the northern and southern regions of Gichigamiing, including throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. The Ojibwe have a culturally and historically significant relationship to Gichigamiing going back hundreds of years, when they first migrated to the region. 

The Ojibwe Migration 

The Ojibwe have a story of migration to the western Great Lakes region that explains their origins and the spiritual significance of places around Gichigamiing. About 1,500 years ago, the ancestors of the Ojibwe were living in the northeastern part of North America and the region along the Atlantic coast. Ojibwe people often refer to themselves as Anishinaabe, a term which generally translates to “Indian,” but has specific historical ties to the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa peoples. That’s because in the 16th century these three groups who had been collectively known as the Anishinaabeg, separated and went their own ways. Yet, a common identity as Anishinaabeg endures today for the Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe peoples. (After English contact with the Ojibwe, their name was corrupted by the English into Chippewa. As a result, the U.S. government has designated them Chippewas in all their formal dealings, and many Ojibwe communities still maintain this label.) 

The region’s dense indigenous population was greater than all of Western Europe at the time. The increasingly crowded conditions led to clashes for power as different groups vied for territory and resources. At about this time, according to Ojibwe oral history, seven prophets visited the people and instructed them to move westward to the land where the food grows on water. The prophets warned, “If you do not move, you will be destroyed.” 

Some left, some stayed. The Anishinaabeg who chose to leave began a slow migration westward in small groups over a period of hundreds of years. They traced a path from the St. Lawrence River to the central Great Lakes. This history is traced through Ojibwe oral history and preserved in maps of birch bark, as well as confirmed by the archaeological record. It wasn’t until the 1720s that Ojibwe families landed on the western shore of Lake Superior and began moving into northern Minnesota. By this time, Ojibwe communities were located on all sides of Gichigamiing, as well as around Lake Huron, the Georgian Bay, and the northern side of Lake Ontario.

Throughout this journey, the Ojibwe stayed closely connected to the water. They sustained their families by fishing more than hunting. They also cared for one another by organizing their families within the clan system. Ojibwe people accepted roles in society based on their clans and were groomed for certain jobs—politics, medicine, or the military, for example. By the mid-1900s, Ojibwe people in the Gichigamiing region had around 20 clans, and most people were members of the Crane, Catfish, Bear, Marten, Wolf, or Loon families.

Boweting (Sault Ste. Marie)

Fishing on Saint Mary's river in 1901 near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Sault Ste. Marie International Railroad Bridge can be seen in the background // Photo in the public domain

Fishing on Saint Mary’s river in 1901 near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Sault Ste. Marie International Railroad Bridge can be seen in the background // Photo in the public domain

During the migration of the Anishinaabeg ancestors hundreds of years ago, the Ojibwe parted from their Potawatomi and Odawa relatives at Michilimackinac. The “Great Turtle” was an island with a prominent, mounded form in the straits of Mackinac, a narrow waterway that connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, separating Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. For some time, the main body of the migration stayed on this island, rejoicing in the abundance of pike, sturgeon, and whitefish in the clear, cold waters. The Ojibwe were guided by their prophecy to move on, however, and soon settled at Boweting (“the rapids”), the outlet of Gichigamiing. This site was later referred to by French settlers as Sault Ste. Marie. The Crane clan made the distinctive claim of having been the first to find and build homes at Boweting. Ojibwe families flourished in the abundance of resources and held powerful ceremonies here. Nineteenth century historian William Warren noted that at this place, “Their village occupied a large extent of ground, and their warparties numbered many warriors who marched eastward against the Naudoways [Iroquois, or Six Nations of New York], and westward against the Dakotas, with whom at this point they first came into collision.” Boweting served as a summer gathering place for the Anishinaabeg and they broke up into family units for the winter. When the French encountered the Ojibwe village at Boweting they named them “the Saulteaux” because of their residence at the “waterfalls” or the “sault.”

The Migration Splits

From Boweting, two large groups of the Ojibwe people continued westward in the early 1600s and traveled separate routes around Gichigamiing. The smaller, northern division trekked along the northern coast of Lake Superior. Families along this route were primarily composed of the Reindeer, Lynx, and Pike clans. 

“They proceeded gradually to occupy the north coast of Lake Superior, till they arrived at the mouth of Pigeon River (Kah-mau-a-tig-wa-aug),” Warren noted in 1852. “From this point they have spread over the country they occupy at the present day along the British and United States line, and north, far into the British possessions. A large band early occupied and formed a village at Rainy Lake.”

A larger group of Ojibwe, which consisted primarily of families of the Crane, the Bear, the Catfish, the Loon, and the Marten and Moose clans, blazed a path westward along the southern shores of Lake Superior. They stopped at Grand Island, near the Pictured Rocks, and again at L’Anse Bay, until they finally made their way to Chequamegon Bay in present-day Wisconsin. Once again, the Crane families claimed the honor of having been the first families to pitch their wigwams at the new site and to proudly light the fire for the rest of the Ojibwe. 

Mooningwanekaaning (Madeline Island)

When the Ojibwe reached Mooningwanekaaning (“place of the golden-breasted woodpecker”), later known as Madeline Island, it was embraced as the last stopping place as envisioned by the prophecies for the westward journey. This was the land of manoomin, wild rice, a food which grows on water. 

The new homeland, however, was not an empty place. This was Dakota country. As the newcomers to the southern shores of Lake Superior, the Ojibwe formed an alliance with the Dakota in 1679 at Fond du Lac. This peace agreement granted the Ojibwe and the Dakota better military protection and both peoples made economic gains. The Ojibwe gained La Pointe, Chequamegon Bay, Keweenaw Bay, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, and Fond du Lac as Ojibwe possessions. As a trade-off, the Ojibwe brokered Dakota-French trade and kept the Dakota well supplied with guns, knives, kettles, and other trades goods as they sold Dakota furs to the French.

Mooningwanekaaning was established as the epicenter of the Ojibwe Nation at the end of the 1690s. The town covered a space about three miles long and two broad, comprising the western end of the island. Ojibwe society flourished, led in council by the Crane and Loon families and protected by the warriors of the Bear family. 

At Mooningwanekaaning, Ojibwe families thrived on fishing and cultivated gardens of pumpkins, squash, and corn. They also gathered wild vegetables and berries, had maple camps, and hunted moose, bear, elk, and deer on the nearby lakeshore. Warren also noted, “The buffalo, also, are said in those days to have ranged within half a day’s march from the lake shore, on the barrens stretching towards the headwaters of the St. Croix River. Every stream which emptied into the lake, abounded in beaver, otter, and muskrat, and the fish which swam in its clear water could not be surpassed in quality or quantity in any other spot on earth.” 

The Ojibwe Today

The Chequamegon Bay and Madeline Island region was the heart of Ojibwe country for years and the center of powerful spiritual ceremonies. Today, Madeline Island remains a potent spiritual and cultural symbol for all Ojibwe. It is the site of a treaty made in 1854, which retained hunting, fishing, gathering, and other rights on ceded lands for the Ojibwe people, while opening some Lake Superior regions to non-Native settlement. After the historic negotiations, reservations were established for the Lake Superior Ojibwe, including four Wisconsin reservations, at Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Lac Courte Oreilles, and three Minnesota reservations at Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, and Bois Forte. 

The Anishinaabeg from these communities and more maintain a strong and meaningful connection to Gichigamiing by keeping the oral history of the migration alive. The story of this long and arduous journey creates a powerful sense of belonging that nurtures Ojibwe families today. The Ojibwe author of the Mishomis Book, Edward Benton-Banai shares this story as a way to teach about Anishinaabe resilience, noting, “We descendents of these great people can gather strength from their strength. We can gather courage for our lives today from their courage of yesterday.”