In this paper I have assembled evidence, chiefly from my own field
work on a branch of the Northern Ojibwa, which supports the inference that in
the metaphysics of being found among these Indians, the action of persons
provides the major key to their world view.
It is hard to overestimate
the importance of this article. It is exemplary in paying careful attention to
the worldviews and knowledges of the researcher’s hosts. It led the way in
challenging the stress on the ‘supernatural’ character of Native American (and
all other) religions.1 Hallowell’s coining of the term
‘other-than-human persons’ has not only been central to both previous points,
but also enriched discussion of indigenous environmentalism, and of notions of
respect, sacrality, and power. It is important to the work of, among others,
Kenneth Morrison (1992 and 2000) and Terri Smith (1995). Again, these writers
stress the Western (largely Christian) reference of words like ‘spirit’, and
note that a study of religion rooted in this language-world will be
misdirected. In fact, of course, much of the study of religions has continued
to operate with the assumption that beliefs are central to, or definitive of,
religion - particularly beliefs about transcendent (non- or super-human)
beings. A more recent trend has arisen in the study of ritual and reinstated
what should have been obvious all along: religions are complexes of actions in
which people engage. Some powerful examples of this kind are included later in
this volume (e.g. Turner and Drewal).
Hallowed also provides
important material for a reconsideration of the term ‘animism”. This is taken
up by Nurit Bird-David (reprinted in this volume) and discussed there more
Rather than extract shorter
portions of Hallowell’s work that make points relevant to these issues. I have
chosen to include his entire article so that readers can appreciate the way
issues are raised and discussed. In fact, there are plenty of connections to be
made between Hallowell’s work and other material in this volume.
M.1992. ‘Beyond the
Supernatural: Language and Religious Action’, Religion 22: 201-5.
Morrison, Kenneth M.
2000. The Cosmos as Intersubjective: Native American Other-than-Human Persons’,
in Graham Harvey (ed.). Indigenous Religions: A Companion. London andNew York: Cassell, pp. 23-36.
Saler, Benson. 1977. “Supernatural
as a Western Category’, Ethnos 5: 31 -53.
Smith, Theresa S.
1995. The Island of the Anishinaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in theTraditional Ojibwe Ufe-World. Moscow: University of Idaho
* * * * *
Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior and World
Alfred Irving Hallowell
It is, I believe, a fact that future investigations will
thoroughly confirm, that the Indian does not make the separation into personal
as contrasted with impersonal, corporeal with impersonal, in our sense at all.
What he seems to be interested in is the question of existence, of reality; and
everything that is perceived by the sense, thought of, felt and dreamt of,
It has become increasingly
apparent in recent years that the potential significance of the data collected
by cultural anthropologists far transcends in interest the level of simple,
objective, ethnographic description of the peoples they have studied. New
perspectives have arisen; fresh interpretations of old data have been offered;
investigation and analysis have been pointed in novel directions. The study of
culture and personality, national character and the special attention now being
paid to values are illustrations that come to mind. Robert Redfield’s concept
of world view, ‘that outlook upon the universe that is characteristic of a
people,’ which emphasizes a perspective that is not equivalent to the study of
religion in the conventional sense, is a further example.
‘World view’ [he
says] differs from culture, ethos, mode of thought, and national character. It
is the picture the members of a society have of the properties and characters
upon their stage of action. While ‘national character’ refers to the way these
people look to the outsider looking in on them, ‘world view’ refers to the way
the world looks to that people looking out. Of all that is connoted by ‘culture,’
‘world view’ attends especially to the way a man, in a particular society, sees
himself in relation to all else. It is the properties of existence as
distinguished from and related to the self. It is, in short, a man’s idea of the
universe. It is that organization of ideas which answers to a man the
questions: Where am I? Among what do I move? What are my relations to these
things?... Self is the axis of ‘world view.’1
In an essay entitled ‘The
Self and Its Behavioral Environment,’ I have pointed out that
self-identification and culturally constituted notions of the nature of the
self are essential to the operation of all human societies and that a
functional corollary is the cognitive orientation of the self to a world of
objects other than self. Since the nature of these objects is likewise
culturally constituted, a unified phenomenal field of thought, values, and
action which is integral with the kind of world view that characterizes a
society is provided for its members. The behavioral environment of the self
thus becomes structured in terms of a diversified world of objects other than
self, ‘discriminated, classified, and conceptualized with respect to attributes
which are culturally constituted and symbolically mediated through language.
Object orientation likewise provides the ground for an intelligible
interpretation of events in the behavioral environment on the basis of
traditional assumptions regarding the nature and attributes of the objects
involved and implicit or explicit dogmas regarding the “causes” of events.’2
Human beings in whatever culture are provided with cognitive orientation in a
cosmos; there is ‘order’ and ‘reason’ rather than chaos.
There are basic premises
and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously
formulated and articulated by the people themselves. We are confronted with the
philosophical implications of their thought, the nature of the world of being
as they conceive it. If we pursue the problem deeply enough we soon come face to
face with a relatively unexplored territory - ethno-metaphysics. Can we
penetrate this realm in other cultures? What kind of evidence is at our
disposal? The forms of speech as Benjamin Whorf and the neo-Humboldtians have
thought?1 The manifest content of myth? Observed behavior and
attitudes? And what order of reliability can our inferences have? The problem
is a complex and difficult one, but this should not preclude its exploration.
In this paper I have
assembled evidence, chiefly from my own field work on a branch of the Northern
Ojibwa,4 which supports the inference that in the metaphysics of
being found among these Indians, the action of persons provides the major key
to their world view.
While in all cultures ‘persons’
comprise one of the major classes of objects to which the self must become
oriented, this category of being is by no means limited to human beings.
In Western culture, as in others, ‘supernatural’ beings are recognized as ‘persons,’
although belonging, at the same time, to an other than human category.5
But in the social sciences and psychology, ‘persons’ and human beings are
categorically identified. This identification is inherent in the concept of ‘society’
and ‘social relations.’ In Warren’s Dictionary of Psychology ‘person’ is
defined as ‘a human organism regarded as having distinctive characteristics and
social relations.’ The same identification is implicit in the conceptualization
and investigation of social organization by anthropologists. Yet this obviously
involves a radical abstraction if, from the standpoint of the people being
studied, the concept of ‘person’ is not, in fact, synonymous with human being
but transcends it. The significance of the abstraction only becomes apparent
when we stop to consider the perspective adopted. The study of social
organization, defined as human relations of a certain kind, is perfectly
intelligible as an objective approach to the study of this subject in any
culture. But if, in the world view of a people, ‘persons’ as a class include
entities other than human beings, then our objective approach is not adequate
for presenting an accurate description of ‘the way a man, in a particular
society, sees himself in relation to all else.’ A different perspective is
required for this purpose. It may be argued, in fact, that a thoroughgoing ‘objective’
approach to the study of cultures cannot be achieved solely by projecting upon
those cultures categorical abstractions derived from Western thought. For, in a
broad sense, the latter are a reflection of our cultural subjectivity. A
higher order of objectivity may be sought by adopting a perspective which
includes an analysis of the outlook of the people themselves as a complementary
procedure. It is in a world view perspective, too, that we can likewise obtain
the best insight into how cultures function as wholes.
The significance of these
differences in perspective may be illustrated in the case of the Ojibwa by the
manner in which the kinship term ‘grandfather’ is used. It is not only applied
to human persons but to spiritual beings who are persons of a category other
than human. In fact, when the collective plural ‘our grandfathers’ is used, the
reference is primarily to persons of this latter class. Thus if we study Ojibwa
social organization in the usual manner, we take account of only one set of ‘grandfathers.’
When we study their religion we discover other ‘grandfathers.’ But if we adopt
a world view perspective no dichotomization appears. In this perspective ‘grandfather’
is a term applicable to certain ‘person objects,’ without any distinction
between human persons and those of an other-than-human class. Furthermore, both
sets of grandfathers can be said to be functionally as well as terminologically
equivalent in certain respects. The other-than-human grandfathers are sources
of power to human beings through the ‘blessings’ they bestow, i.e., a sharing
of their power which enhances the ‘power’ of human beings. A child is always
given a name by an old man, i.e., a terminological grandfather. It is a matter
of indifference whether he is a blood relative or not. This name carries with
it a special blessing because it has reference to a dream of the human
grandfather in which he obtained power from one or more of the other-than-human
grandfathers. In other words, the relation between a human child and a human
grandfather is functionally patterned in the same way as the relation between
human beings and grandfathers of an other-than-human class. And, just as the
latter type of grandfather may impose personal taboos as a condition of a
blessing, in the same way a human grandfather may impose a taboo on a ‘grandchild’
he has named.
Another direct linguistic
clue to the inclusiveness of the ‘person’ category in Ojibwa thinking is the
term windigo. Baraga defines it in his Dictionary as ‘fabulous
giant thatlives on human
flesh; a man that eats human flesh, cannibal.’ From the Ojibwa standpoint all windigowak
are conceptually unified as terrifying, anthropomorphic beings who, since
they threaten one’s very existence, must be killed. The central theme of a rich
body of anecdotal material shows how this threat was met in particular
instances. It ranges from cases in which it was necessary to kill the closest
of kin because it was thought an individual was becoming a windigo^ through
accounts of heroic fights between human beings and these fabulous giant
monsters, to a first-hand report of a personal encounter with one of them.6
The more deeply we penetrate the world view of the Ojibwa the more
apparent it is that ‘social relations’ between human beings (dnicindbek) and
other-than-human ‘persons’ are of cardinal significance. These relations are
correlative with their more comprehensive categorization of ‘persons.’
Recognition must be given to the culturally constituted meaning of ‘social’ and
‘social relations’ if we are to understand the nature of the Ojibwa world and
the living entities in it.7
Linguistic categories and
Any discussion of ‘persons’
in the world view of the Ojibwa must take cognizance of the well known fact
that the grammatical structure of the language of these people, like all their
Algonkian relatives, formally expresses a distinction between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’
nouns. These particular labels, of course, were imposed upon Algonkian
languages by Europeans;8 it appeared to outsiders that the Algonkian
differentiation of objects approximated the animate-inanimate dichotomy of
Western thought. Superficially this seems to be the case. Yet a closer
examination indicates that, as in the gender categories of other languages, the
distinction in some cases appears to be arbitrary, if not extremely puzzling,
from the standpoint of common sense or in a naturalistic frame of reference.
Thus substantives for some, but not all - trees, sun-moon (gizis), thunder,
stones, and objects of material culture like kettle and pipe - are classified
If we wish to understand
the cognitive orientation of the Ojibwa, there is an ethno-linguistic problem
to be considered: What is the meaning of animate in Ojibwa thinking? Are such
generic properties of objects as responsiveness to outer stimulation -
sentience, mobility, self-movement, or even reproduction - primary
characteristics attributed to all objects of the animate class irrespective of
their categories as physical objects in our thinking? Is there evidence to
substantiate such properties of objects independent of their formal linguistic
classification? It must not be forgotten that no Ojibwa is consciously aware
of, or can abstractly articulate the animate-inanimate category of his
language, despite the fact that this dichotomy is implicit in his speech.
Consequently, the grammatical distinction as such does not emerge as a subject
for reflective thought or bear the kind of relation to individual thinking that
would be present if there were some formulated dogma about the generic
properties of these two classes of objects.
Commenting on the analogous
grammatical categories of the Central Algonkian languages with reference to
linguistic and nonlinguistic orders of meaning, Greenberg writes: ‘Since all
persons and animals are in Class I (animate), we have at least one ethnoseme,
but most of the other meanings can be defined only by a linguiseme.’ In
Greenberg’s opinion, ‘unless the actual behavior of Algonquian speakers shows
some mode of conduct common to all these instances such that, given this
information, we could predict the membership of Class I, we must resort to
purely linguistic characterization.’9
In the case of the Ojibwa,
I believe that when evidence from beliefs, attitudes, conduct, and linguistic
characterization are all considered together the psychological basis for their
unified cognitive outlook can be appreciated, even when there is a radical
departure from the framework of our thinking. In certain instances, behavioral
predictions can be made. Behavior, however, is a function of a complex set of
factors - including actual experience. More important than the linguistic
classification of objects is the kind of vital functions attributed to them in
the belief system and the conditions under which these functions are observed
or tested in experience. This accounts, I think, for the fact that what we view
as material, inanimate objects - such as shells and stones - are placed in an ‘animate’
category along with ‘persons’ which have no physical existence in our world
view. The shells, for example, called wigis on account of the manner in
which they function in the Midewiwin, could not be linguistically categorized
as ‘inanimate.’ ‘Thunder,’ as we shall see, is not only reified as an ‘animate’
entity, but has the attributes of a ‘person’ and may be referred to as such. An
‘inanimate’ categorization would be unthinkable from the Ojibwa point of view.
When Greenberg refers to ‘persons’ as clearly members of the animate
grammatical category he is, by implication, identifying person and human being.
Since in the Ojibwa universe there are many kinds of reified person-objects
which are other than human but have the same ontological status, these, of
course, fall into the same ethnoseme as human beings and into the ‘animate’
Since stones are
grammatically animate, I once asked an old man: Are all the stones we
see about us here alive? He reflected a long while and then replied, ‘No! But some
are.’ This qualified answer made a lasting impression on me. And it is
thoroughly consistent with other data that indicate that the Ojibwa are not
animists in the sense that they dogmatically attribute living souls to
inanimate objects such as stones. The hypothesis which suggests itself to me is
that the allocation of stones to an animate grammatical category is part of a
culturally constituted cognitive ‘set.’ It does not involve a consciously
formulated theory about the nature of stones. It leaves a door open that our
orientation on dogmatic grounds keeps shut tight. Whereas we should never
expect a stone to manifest animate properties of any kind under any
circumstances, the Ojibwa recognize, a priori, potentialities for
animation in certain classes of objects under certain circumstances.10
The Ojibwa do not perceive stones, in general, as animate, any more than we do.
The crucial test is experience. Is there any personal testimony available? In
answer to this question we can say that it is asserted by informants that
stones have been seen to move, that some stones manifest other animate
properties, and, as we shall see, Flint is represented as a living personage in
The old man to whom I
addressed the general question about the animate character of stones was the
same informant who told me that during a Midewiwin ceremony, when his father
was the leader of it, he had seen a ‘big round stone move.’ He said his father
got up and walked around the path once or twice. Coming back to his place he
began to sing. The stone began to move ‘following the trail of the old man
around the tent, rolling over and over, I saw it happen several times and
others saw it also.’11 The animate behavior of a stone under these
circumstances was considered to be a demonstration of magic power on the part
of the Mide. It was not a voluntary act initiated by the stone considered as a
living entity. Associated with the Midewiwin in the past there were other types
of large boulders with animate properties. My friend Chief Berens had one of
these, but it no longer possessed these attributes. It had contours that
suggested eyes and mouth. When Yellow Legs, Chief Berens’s great-grandfather,
was a leader of the Midewiwin he used to tap this stone with a new knife. It
would then open its mouth, Yellow Legs would insert his fingers and take out a
small leather sack with medicine in it. Mixing some of this medicine with
water, he would pass the decoction around. A small sip was taken by those
If, then, stones are not
only grammatically animate, but, in particular cases, have been observed to
manifest animate properties, such as movement in space and opening of a mouth,
why should they not on occasion be conceived as possessing animate properties
of a ‘higher’ order? The actualization of this possibility is illustrated by
the following anecdote:
A white trader, digging in
his potato patch, unearthed a large stone similar to the one just referred to.
He sent for John Duck, an Indian who was the leader of the wdbano, a
contemporary’ ceremony that is held in a structure something like that used for
the Midewiwin. The trader called his attention to the stone, saying that it
must belong to his pavilion. John Duck did not seem pleased at this. He bent
down and spoke to the boulder in a low voice, inquiring whether it had ever
been in his pavilion. According to John, the stone replied in the negative.
It is obvious that John
Duck spontaneously structured the situation in terms that are intelligible
within the context of Ojibwa language and culture. Speaking to a stone
dramatizes the depth of the categorical difference in cognitive orientation
between the Ojibwa and ourselves. I regret that my field notes contain no
information about the use of direct verbal address in the other cases
mentioned. But it may well have taken place. In the anecdote describing John
Duck’s behavior, however, his use of speech as a mode of communication raises
the animate status of the boulder to the level of social interaction common to
human beings. Simply as a matter of observation we can say that the stone was
treated as if it were a ‘person,’ not a ‘thing,’ without inferring that
objects of this class are, for the Ojibwa, necessarily conceptualized as
Further exploration might
be made of the relations between Ojibwa thinking, observation, and behavior and
their grammatical classification of objects but enough has been said, I hope,
to indicate that not only animate properties but even ‘person’ attributes may
be projected upon objects which to us clearly belong to a physical inanimate
The ‘persons’ of Ojibwa
The Ojibwa distinguish two
general types of traditional oral narratives. 1. ‘News or tidings’ (tdbdtcamowin),i.e.,
anecdotes, or stories, referring to events in the lives of human beings (anicindbek).In content, narratives of
this class range from everyday occurrences, through more exceptional
experiences, to those which verge on the legendary. (The anecdotes already
referred to, although informal, may be said to belong to this general class.)
2. Myths (dtiso’kanak),i.e.,
sacred stories, which are not only traditional and formalized; their narration
is seasonally restricted and is somewhat ritualized. The significant thing
about these stories is that the characters in them are regarded as living
entities who have existed from time immemorial. While there is genesis through
birth and temporary or permanent form-shifting through transformation, there is
no outright creation. Whether human or animal in form or name, the major
characters in the myths behave like people, though many of their activities are
depicted in a spatio-temporal framework of cosmic, rather than mundane,
dimensions. There is ‘social interaction’ among them and between them and anicindbek.
A striking fact furnishes a
direct linguistic cue to the attitude of the Ojibwa towards these personages.
When they use the term dtiso’kanak, they are not referring to what I
have called a ‘body of narratives.’ The term refers to what we would call the
characters in these stories; to the Ojibwa they are living ‘persons’ of an
other-than-human class. As William Jones said many years ago, ‘Myths are
thought of as conscious beings, with powers of thought and action.’14
A synonym for this class of persons is ‘our grandfathers.’
The dtiso’kanak, or ‘our
grandfathers,’ are never ‘talked about1 casually by the Ojibwa. But
when the myths are narrated on long winter nights, the occasion is a kind of
invocation: ‘Our grandfathers’ like it and often come to listen to what is
being said. In ancient times one of these entities (Wisekedjak) is
reputed to have said to the others: ‘We’ll try to make everything to suit the anicindbek
as long as any of them exist, so that they will never forget us and will
always talk about us.’
It is clear, therefore,
that to the Ojibwa, their ‘talk’ about these entities, although expressed in
formal narrative, is not about fictitious characters. On the contrary, what we
call myth is accepted by them as a true account of events in the past lives of
living ‘persons.’15 It is for this reason that narratives of this
class are significant for an understanding of the manner in which their
phenomenal field is culturally structured and cognitively apprehended. As David
Bidney has pointed out, ‘The concept of “myth” is relative to one’s accepted
beliefs and convictions, so that what is gospel truth for the believer is sheer
“myth” and “fiction” for the non-believer or skeptic ... Myths and magical
tales and practices are accepted precisely because pre-scientific folk do not
consider them as merely “myths” or “magic”, since once the distinction between
myth and science is consciously accepted, the acquired critical insight
precludes the belief in and acceptance of magic and myth.’16 When
taken at their face value, myths provide a reliable source of prime value for
making inferences about Ojibwa world outlook. They offer basic data about
unarticulated, unfor-malized, and unanalyzed concepts regarding which
informants cannot be expected to generalize. From this point of view, myths are
broadly analogous to the concrete material of the texts on which the linguist
depends for his derivation, by analysis and abstraction, of the grammatical
categories and principles of a language.
In formal definitions of
myth (e.g., Concise Oxford Dictionary and Warren’s Dictionary of
Psychology) the subject matter of such narrative often has been said to
involve not only fictitious characters but ‘supernatural persons.’ This latter
appellation, if applied to the Ojibwa characters, is completely misleading, if
for no other reason than the fact that the concept of ‘supernatural’
presupposes a concept of the ‘natural.’ The latter is not present in Ojibwa
thought. It is unfortunate that the natural-supernatural dichotomy has been so
persistently invoked by many anthropologists in describing the outlook of
peoples in cultures other than our own. Linguists learned long ago that it was
impossible to write grammars of the languages of nonliterate peoples by using
as a framework Indo-European speech forms. Lovejoy has pointed out that ‘The
sacred word “nature” is probably the most equivocal in the vocabulary of the
European peoples ... ‘17 and the natural-supernatural antithesis has
had its own complex history in Western thought.18
To theOjibwa, for example, gizis (day luminary, the
sun) is not a natural object in our sense at all. Not only does their
conception differ; the sun is a ‘person’ of the other-than-human class. But
more important still is the absence of the notion of the ordered regularity in
movement that is inherent in our scientific outlook. The Ojibwa entertain no
reasonable certainty that, in accordance with natural law, the sun will ‘rise’
day after day. In fact, Tcakabec, a mythical personage, once set a snare
in the trail of the sun and caught it. Darkness continued until a mouse was
sent by human beings to release the sun and provide daylight again. And in
another story (not a myth) it is recounted how two old men at dawn vied with
each other in influencing the sun’s movements.
The first old man said to
his companion: ‘It is about sunrise now and there is a clear sky. You tell the
sun to rise at once.’ So the other old man said to the sun: ‘My grandfather,
come up quickly/ As soon as he had said this the sun came up into the sky like
a shot. ‘Now you try something,’ he said to his companion. ‘See if you can send
it down/ So the other man said to the sun: ‘My grandfather, put your face down
again/ When he said this the sun went down again. ‘I have more power than you,’
he said to the other old man, ‘The sun never goes down once it comes up/
We may infer that, to the
Ojibwa, any regularity in the movements of the sun is of the same order as the
habitual activities of human beings. There are certain expectations, of course,
but, on occasion, there may be temporary deviations in behavior ‘caused’ by
other persons. Above all, any concept of impersonal ‘natural’ forces is
totally foreign to Ojibwa thought.
Since their cognitive
orientation is culturally constituted and thus given a psychological ‘set,’ we
cannot assume that objects, like the sun, are perceived as natural objects in
our sense. If this were so, the anecdote about the old men could not be
accepted as an actual event involving a case of ‘social interaction’ between
human beings and an other-than-human person. Consequently, it would be an error
to say that the Ojibwa ‘personify’ natural objects. This would imply that, at
some point, the sun was first perceived as an inanimate, material thing. There
is, of course, no evidence for this. The same conclusion applies over the whole
area of their cognitive orientation towards the objects of their world.
The Four Winds and Flint,
for instance, are quintuplets. They were born of a mother (unnamed) who, while
given human characteristics, lived in the very distant past. As will be more
apparent later, this character, like others in the myths, may have
anthropomorphic characteristics without being conceived as a human being. In
the context she, like the others, is an dtisd’kan. The Winds were born
first, then Flint ‘jumped out,’ tearing her to pieces. This, of course, is a
direct allusion to his inanimate, stony properties. Later he was penalized for
his hurried exit. He fought with Misdbos (Great Hare) and pieces were
chipped off his body and his size reduced. ‘Those pieces broken from your body
may be of some use to human beings some day,’ Misdbos said to him. ‘But
you will not be any larger so long as the earth shall last. You’ll never harm
Against the background of
this ‘historic’ event, it would be strange indeed if flint were allocated to an
inanimate grammatical category. There is a special term for each of the four
winds that are differentiated, but no plural for ‘winds.’ They are all animate
beings, whose ‘homes’ define the four directions.
The conceptual reification
of Flint, the Winds and the Sun as other-than-human persons exemplifies a world
view in which a natural-supernatural dichotomy has no place. And the
representation of these beings as characters in ‘true’ stories reinforces their
reality by means of a cultural device which at the same time depicts their
vital roles in interaction with other persons as integral forces in the
functioning of a unified cosmos.
Anthropomorphic traits and
In action and motivations
the characters in the myths are indistinguishable from human persons. In this
respect, human and other-than-human persons may be set off, in life as well as
in myth, from animate beings such as ordinary animals (awesiak, pi.) and
objects belonging to the inanimate grammatical category. But, at the same time,
it must be noted that ‘persons’ of the other-than-human class do not always
present a human appearance in the myths. Consequently, we may ask: What
constant attributes do unify the concept of ‘person’?, What is the essential
meaningful core of the concept of person in Ojibwa thinking? It can be stated
at once that anthropomorphic traits in outward appearance are not the crucial
It is true that some
extremely prominent characters in the myths are given explicit human form. Wisekedjak
and Tcakdbec are examples. Besides this they have distinctive
characteristics of their own. The former has an exceptionally long penis and
the latter is very small in size, yet extremely powerful. There are no
equivalent female figures. By comparison, Flint and the Winds have human
attributes by implication; they were born of a ‘woman’ as human beings are
born; they speak, and so on. On the other hand, the High God of the Ojibwa, a
very remote figure who does not appear in the mythology at all, but is spoken
of as a ‘person,’ is not even given sexual characteristics. This is possible
because there is no sex gender in Ojibwa speech. Consequently an animate being
of the person category may function in their thinking without having explicitly
sexual or other anthropomorphic characteristics. Entities ‘seen’ in dreams (pawdganak)
are ‘persons’; whether they have anthropomorphic attributes or not is
incidental. Other entities of the person category, whose anthropomorphic
character is undefined or ambiguous, are what have been called the ‘masters’ or
‘owners’ of animals or plant species. Besides these, certain curing procedures
and conjuring are said to have other-than-human personal entities as patrons.
If we now examine the
cognitive orientation of the Ojibwa towards the Thunder Birds it will become
apparent why anthropomorphism is not a constant feature of the Ojibwa concept
of ‘person.’ These beings likewise demonstrate the autonomous nature of Ojibwa
reification. For we find here a creative synthesis of objective ‘naturalistic’
observation integrated with the subjectivity of dream experiences and
traditional mythical narrative which, assuming the character of a living image,
is neither the personification of a natural phenomenon nor an altogether
animal-like or human-like being. Yet it is impossible to deny that, in the
universe of the Ojibwa, Thunder Birds are ‘persons.’
My Ojibwa friends, I
discovered, were as puzzled by the white man’s conception of thunder and
lightning as natural phenomena as they were by the idea that the earth is round
and not flat. I was pressed on more than one occasion to explain thunder and
lightning, but I doubt whether my somewhat feeble efforts made much sense to them.
Of one thing I am sure: My explanations left their own beliefs completely
unshaken. This is not strange when we consider that, even in our naturalistic
frame of reference, thunder and lightning as perceived do not exhibit the
lifeless properties of inanimate objects. On the contrary, it has been said
that thunder and lightning are among the natural phenomena which exhibit some
of the properties of ‘person objects.’19 Underlying the Ojibwa view
there may be a level of naive perceptual experience that should be taken into
account. But their actual construct departs from this level in a most explicit
direction: Why is an avian image central in their conception of a being whose
manifestations are thunder and lightning? Among the Ojibwa with whom I worked, the
linguistic stem for bird is the same as that for Thunder Bird (pinesi; pi.
pinesitvak). Besides this, the avian characteristics of Thunder Birds
are still more explicit. Conceptually they are grouped with the hawks, of which
there are several natural species in their habitat.
What is particularly
interesting is that the avian nature of the Thunder Birds does not rest solely
on an arbitrary image. Phenomenally, thunder does exhibit ‘behavioral’
characteristics that are analogous to avian phenomena in this region.20
According to meteorological observations, the average number of days with
thunder begins with one in April, increases to a total of five in midsummer
(July) and then declines to one in October. And if a bird calendar is
consulted, the facts show that species wintering in the south begin to appear
in April and disappear for the most part not later than October, being, of
course, a familiar sight during the summer months. The avian character of the
Thunder Birds can be rationalized to some degree with reference to natural
facts and their observation.
But the evidence for the
existence of Thunder Birds does not rest only on the association of the
occurrence of thunder with the migration of the summer birds projected into an
avian image. When I visited the Ojibwa an Indian was living who, when a boy of
twelve or so, saw pinesi with his own eyes. During a severe thunderstorm
he ran out of his tent and there on the rocks lay a strange bird. He ran back
to call his parents, but when they arrived the bird had disappeared. He was
sure it was a Thunder Bird, but his elders were skeptical because it is almost
unheard of to see pinesi in such a fashion. But the matter was clinched
and the boy’s account accepted when a man who had dreamed of pinesi verified
the boy’s description. It will be apparent later why a dream experience was
decisive. It should be added at this point, however, that many Indians say they
have seen the nests of the Thunder Birds; these are usually described as
collections of large stones in the form of shallow bowls located in high and
inaccessible parts of the country.
If we now turn to the
myths, we find that one of them deals in considerable detail with Thunder
Birds. Ten unmarried brothers live together. The oldest is called Miitcikiwis.
A mysterious housekeeper cuts wood and builds a fire for them which they
find burning when they return from a long day’s hunt, but she never appears in
person. One day the youngest brother discovers and marries her. Matcikiwis is
jealous and kills her. She would have revived if her husband had not broken a
taboo she imposed. It turns out, however, that she is not actually a human
being but a Thunder Bird and, thus, one of the dtiso’kanak and immortal.
She flies away to the land above this earth inhabited by the Thunder Birds. Her
husband, after many difficulties, follows her there. He finds himself
brother-in-law to beings who are the ‘masters’ of the duck hawks, sparrow
hawks, and other species of this category of birds he has known on earth. He
cannot relish the food eaten, since what the Thunder Birds call ‘beaver’ are to
him like the frogs and snakes on this earth (a genuinely naturalistic touch
since the sparrow hawk, for example, feeds on batrachians and reptiles). He
goes hunting gigantic snakes with his male Thunder Bird relatives. Snakes of
this class also exist on this earth, and the Thunder Birds are their inveterate
enemies. (When there is lightning and thunder this is the prey the Thunder
Birds are after.) One day the great Thunder Bird says to his son-in-law, ‘I
know you are getting lonely; you must want to see your people. I’ll let you go
back to earth now. You have nine brothers at home and I have nine girls left.
You can take them with you as wives for your brothers. I’ll be related to the
people on earth now and I’ll be merciful towards them. I’ll not hurt any of
them if I can possibly help it.’ So he tells his daughters to get ready. There
is a big dance that night and the next morning the whole party starts off. When
they come to the edge of Thunder Bird land the lad’s wife said to him, ‘Sit on
my back. Hang on tight to my neck and keep your eyes shut.’ Then the thunder
crashes and the young man knows that they are off through the air. Having
reached this earth they make their way to the brothers’ camp. The Thunder Bird
women, who have become transformed into human form, are enthusiastically
received. There is another celebration and the nine brothers marry the nine
sisters of their youngest brother’s wife.
This is the end of the myth
but a few comments are necessary. It is obvious that the Thunder Birds are
conceived to act like human beings. They hunt and talk and dance. But the
analogy can be pressed further. Their social organization and kinship
terminology are precisely the same as the Ojihwa. The marriage of a series of
female siblings (classificatory or otherwise) to a series of male siblings
often occurs among the Ojibwa themselves. This is, in fact, considered a kind
of ideal pattern. In one case that I know of six blood brothers were married to
a sorority of six sisters. There is a conceptual continuity, therefore, between
the social life of human beings and that of the Thunder Birds which is
independent of the avian form given to the latter. But we must infer from the
myth that this avian form is not constant. Appearance cannot then be taken as a
permanent and distinguishable trait of the Thunder Birds. They are capable of
metamorphosis, hence, the human attributes with which they are endowed
transcend a human outward form. Their conceptualization as ‘persons’ is not
associated with a permanent human form any more than it is associated with a
birdlike form. And the fact that they belong to the category of dtiso’kanak is
no barrier to their descending to earth and mating with human beings. I was
told of a woman who claimed that North Wind was the father of one of her
children. My informant said he did not believe this; nevertheless, he thought
it would have been accepted as a possibility in the past.21 We can
only infer that in the universe of the Ojibwa the conception of ‘person’ as a
living, functioning social being is not only one which transcends the notion of
person in the naturalistic sense; it likewise transcends a human appearance as
a constant attribute of this category of being.
The relevance of such a
concept to actual behavior may be illustrated by one simple anecdote. An
informant told me that many years before he was sitting in a tent one summer
afternoon during a storm together with an old man and his wife. There was one
clap of thunder after another. Suddenly the old man turned to his wife and
asked, ‘Did you hear what was said?’ ‘No,’ she replied, i didn’t catch it.’ My
informant, an acculturated Indian, told me he did not at first know what the
old man and his wife referred to. It was, of course, the thunder. The old man
thought that one of the Thunder Birds had said something to him. He was
reacting to this sound in the same way as he would respond to a human being,
whose words he did not understand. The casualness of the remark and even the
trivial character of the anecdote demonstrate the psychological depth of the ‘social
relations’ with other-than-human beings that becomes explicit in the behavior
of the Ojibwa as a consequence of the cognitive ‘set’ induced by their culture.
Metamorphosis as an
attribute of persons
The conceptualization in
myth and belief of Thunder Birds as animate beings who, while maintaining their
identity, may change their outward appearance and exhibit either an avian or a
human form exemplifies an attribute of ‘persons’ which, although unarticulated
abstractly, is basic in the cognitive orientation of the Ojibwa.
Metamorphosis occurs with
considerable frequency in the myths where other-than-human persons change their
form. Wisekedjak, whose primary characteristics are anthropomorphic,
becomes transformed and flies with the geese in one story, assumes the form of
a snake in another, and once turns himself into a stump. Men marry ‘animal’
wives who are not ‘really’ animals. And Mikittak, the Great Turtle,
marries a human being. It is only by breaking a taboo that his wife discovers
she is married to a being who is able to assume the form of a handsome young
The senselessness and
ambiguities which may puzzle the outsider when reading these myths are resolved
when it is understood that, to the Ojibwa, ‘persons’ of this class are capable
of metamorphosis by their very nature. Outward appearance is only an incidental
attribute of being. And the names by which some of these entities are commonly
known, even if they identify the character as an ‘animal,’ do not imply
unchangeableness in form.
Stith Thompson has pointed
out that the possibility of transformation is a ‘commonplace assumption in folk
tales everywhere. Many of such motifs are frankly fictitious, but a large
number represent persistent beliefs and living tradition.’22 The
case of the Ojibwa is in the latter category. The world of myth is not
categorically distinct from the world as experienced by human beings in
everyday life. In the latter, as well as the former, no sharp lines can be
drawn dividing living beings of the animate class because metamorphosis is
possible. In outward manifestation neither animal nor human characteristics
define categorical differences in the core of being. And, even aside from
metamorphosis, we find that in everyday life interaction with nonhuman entities
of the animate class are only intelligible on the assumption that they possess
some of the attributes of ‘persons.’
So far as animals are
concerned, when bears were sought out in their dens in the spring they were
addressed, asked to come out so that they could be killed, and an apology was
offered to them. 3 The following encounter with a bear, related to
me by a pagan Ojibwa named Birchstick, shows what happened in this case when an
animal was treated as a person:
One spring when I was out
hunting I went up a little creek where I knew suckers were spawning. Before I
came to the rapids I saw fresh bear tracks. I walked along the edge of the
creek and when I reached the rapids 1 saw a bear coming towards me, along the
same trail I was following. I stepped behind a tree and when the animal was
about thirty yards from me I fired. I missed and before I could reload the bear
made straight for me. He seemed mad, so I never moved. I just waited there by
the tree. As soon as he came close to me and rose up on his hind feet, I put
the butt end of my gun against his heart and held him there. I remembered what
my father used to tell me when I was a boy. He said that a bear always
understands what you tell him. The bear began to bite the stock of the gun. He
even put his paws upon it something like a man would do if he were going to
shoot. Still holding him off as well as I could I said to the bear, if you want
to live, go away,’ and he let go the gun and walked off. I didn’t bother the
These instances suffice to
demonstrate that, at the level of individual behavior, the interaction of the
Ojibwa with certain kinds of plants and animals in everyday life is so structured
culturally that individuals act as if they were dealing with ‘persons’ who both
understand what is being said to them and have volitional capacities as well.
From the standpoint of perceptual experience if we only take account of
autochthonous factors in Birchstick’s encounter with the bear his behavior
appears idiosyncratic and is not fully explained. On the other hand, if we
invoke Ojibwa concepts of the nature of animate beings, his behavior becomes
intelligible to us. We can understand the determining factors in his definition
of the situation, and the functional relations between perception and conduct
are meaningful. This Indian was not confronted with an animal with ‘objective’
ursine properties, but rather with an animate being who had ursine attributes
and also ‘person attributes.’ These, we may infer, were perceived as an
integral whole. I am sure, however, that in narrating this episode to another
Indian, he would not have referred to what his father had told him about bears.
That was for my benefit!
Since bears, then, are
assumed to possess ‘person attributes,’ it is not surprising to find that there
is a very old, widespread, and persistent belief that sorcerers may become
transformed into bears in order better to pursue their nefarious work.25
Consequently some of the best documentation of the metamorphosis of human
beings into animals comes from anecdotal material referring to cases of this
sort. Even contemporary, acculturated Ojibwa have a term for this. They all
know what a ‘bearwalk’ is, and Dorson’s recent collection of folk traditions,
including those of the Indian populations of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,
bears the title Blood-stoppers and Bearwalkers. One of Dorson’s
informants gave him this account of what he had seen:
When I was a kid, ‘bout
seventeen, before they build the highway, there was just an old tote road from
Bark River to Harris. There was three of us, one a couple years older, coming
back from Bark River at nighttime. We saw a flash coming from behind us. The
older fellow said, it’s a bearwalk, let’s get it. I’ll stand on the other side
of the road (it was just a wagon rut) and you stand on this side.’ We stood
there and waited. I saw it ‘bout fifty feet away from us - close as your car is
now. It looked like a bear, but every time he breathe you could see a fire
gust. My chum he fall over in a faint. That brave feller on the other side, he
faint. When the bear walk, all the ground wave, like when you walk on soft mud
or on moss. He was goin’ where he was goin’. 26
It is clear from this
example, and others that might be added, that the Indian and his companions did
not perceive an ordinary bear. But in another anecdote given by Dorson, which
is not told in the first person, it is said that an Indian “grabbed hold of the
bear and it wasn’t there - it was the old woman. She had buckskin bags all over
her, tied on to her body, and she had a bearskin hide on.’271 also
have been told that the ‘bearwalk’ is dressed up in a bearskin. All such
statements, of course, imply a skeptical attitude towards metamorphosis. They
are rationalizations advanced by individuals who are attempting to reconcile
Ojibwa beliefs and observation with the disbelief encountered in their
relations with the whites.
An old-fashioned informant
of mine told me how he had once fallen sick, and, although he took various
kinds of medicine these did him no good. Because of this, and for other
reasons, he believed he had been bewitched by a certain man. Then he noticed
that a bear kept coming to his camp almost every night after dark. This is most
unusual because wild animals do not ordinarily come anywhere near a human
habitation. Once the bear would have entered his wigwam if he had not been
warned in a dream. His anxiety increased because he knew, of course, that
sorcerers often transformed themselves into bears. So when the bear appeared
one night he got up, went outdoors, and shouted to the animal that he knew what
it was trying to do. He threatened retaliation in kind if the bear ever
returned. The animal ran off and never came back.
In this case there are
psychological parallels to Birchstick’s encounter with a bear. In both cases
the bear is directly addressed as a person might be, and it is only through a
knowledge of the cultural background that it is possible fully to understand
the behavior of the individuals involved. In the present case, however, we can
definitely say, that the ‘animal1 was perceived as a human being in
the form of a bear; the Indian was threatening a human person with retaliation,
not an animal. A question that I have discussed in Culture and Experience in
connection with another ‘bearwalk’ anecdote, also arises in this case.28
Briefly, the Ojibwa believe that a human being consists of a vital part, or soul,
which, under certain circumstances may become detached from the body, so
that it is not necessary to assume that the body part, in all cases, literally
undergoes transformation into an animal form. The body of the sorcerer may
remain in his wigwam while his soul journeys elsewhere and appears to another
person in the form of an animal.
This interpretation is
supported by an account which an informant gave me of a visit his deceased
grandchild had paid him. One day he was traveling in a canoe across a lake. He
had put up an improvised mast and used a blanket for a sail. A little bird
alighted on the mast. This was a most unusual thing for a bird to do. He was
convinced that it was not a bird but his dead grandchild. The child, of course,
had left her body behind in a grave, nevertheless she visited him in animal
Thus, both living and dead
human beings may assume the form of animals. So far as appearance is concerned,
there is no hard and fast line that can be drawn between an animal form and a
human form because metamorphosis is possible. In perceptual experience what
looks like a bear may sometimes be an animal and, on other occasions, a
human being. What persists and gives continuity to being is the vital part, or
soul. Dorson goes to the heart of the matter when he stresses the fact that the
whole socialization process in Ojibwa culture ‘impresses the young with the
concepts of transformation and of power’, malign or benevolent, human or
demonic. These concepts underlie the entire Indian mythology, and make sensible
the otherwise childish stories of culture heroes, animal husbands, friendly
thunders, and malicious serpents. The bearwalk idea fits at once into this
dream world - literally a dream world, for Ojibwa go to school in dreams.’29
We must conclude, 1
believe, that the capacity for metamorphosis is one of the features which links
human beings with the other-than-human persons in their behavioral environment.
It is one of the generic properties manifested by beings of the person class.
But is it a ubiquitous capacity of all members of this class equally? I do not
think so. Metamorphosis to the Ojibwa mind is an earmark of ‘power’. Within the
category of persons there is a graduation of power. Other-than-human persons
occupy the top rank in the power hierarchy of animate being. Human beings do
not differ from them in kind, but in power. Hence, it is taken for granted that
all the dtiso’kanak can assume a variety of forms. In the case of human
beings, while the potentiality for metamorphosis exists and may even be
experienced, any outward manifestation is inextricably associated with unusual
power, for good or evil. And power of this degree can only be acquired by human
beings through the help of other-than-human persons. Sorcerers can transform
themselves only because they have acquired a high order of power from this
Powerful men, in the Ojibwa
sense, are also those who can make inanimate objects behave as if they were
animate. The Midi who made a stone roll over and over has been mentioned
earlier. Other examples, such as the animation of a string of wooden beads, or
animal skins, could be cited.30 Such individuals also have been
observed to transform one object into another, such as charcoal into bullets
and ashes into gunpowder, or a handful of goose feathers into birds or insects.31
In these manifestations, too, they are elevated to the same level of power as
that displayed by other-than-human persons. We can, in fact, find comparable
episodes in the myths.
The notion of animate being
itself does not presume a capacity for manifesting the highest level of power
any more than it implies person-attributes in every case. Power manifestations
vary within the animate class of being as does the possession of
person-attributes. A human being may possess little, if any, more power than a
mole. No one would have been more surprised than Birchstick if the bear he
faced had suddenly become human in form. On the other hand, the spiritual ‘masters’
of the various species of animals are inherently powerful and, quite generally,
they possess the power of metamorphosis. These entities, like the atiso’kanak,
are among the sources from which human beings may seek to enhance their own
power. My Ojibwa friends often cautioned me against judging by appearances. A
poor forlorn Indian dressed in rags might have great power; a smiling, amiable
woman, or a pleasant old man, might be a sorcerer.32 You never can
tell until a situation arises in which their power for good or ill becomes
manifest. 1 have since concluded that the advice given me in a common sense
fashion provides one of the major clues to a generalized attitude towards the
objects of their behavioral environment -particularly people. It makes them
cautious and suspicious in interpersonal relations of all kinds. The
possibility of metamorphosis must be one of the determining factors in this
attitude; it is a concrete manifestation of the deceptiveness of appearances.
What looks like an animal, without great power, may be a transformed person
with evil intent. Even in dream experiences, where a human being comes into
direct contact with other-than-human persons, it is possible to be deceived.
Caution is necessary in ‘social’ relations with all classes of persons.
Dreams, metamorphosis, and
TheOjibwa are a
dream-conscious people. For an understanding of their cognitive orientation it
is as necessary to appreciate their attitude towards dreams as it is to
understand their attitude towards the characters in the myths. For them, there
is an inner connection which is as integral to their outlook as it is foreign
The basic assumption which
links the dtisd’kanak with dreams is this: Self-related experience of
the most personal and vital kind includes what is seen, heard, and felt in
dreams. Although there is no lack of discrimination between the experiences of
the self when awake and when dreaming, both sets of experiences are equally
self-related. Dream experiences function integrally with other recalled memory
images in so far as these, too, enter the field of self-awareness. When we
think autobiographically we only include events that happened to us when awake;
the Ojibwa include remembered events that have occurred in dreams. And, far
from being of subordinate importance, such experiences are for them often of
more vital importance than the events of daily waking life. Why is this so?
Because it is in dreams that the individual comes into direct communication
with the atisoikanak, the powerful ‘persons’ of the
In the long winter
evenings, as I have said, the atiso’kanak are talked about; the past
events in their lives are recalled again and again by anicindbek. When a
conjuring performance occurs, the voices of some of the same beings are heard
issuing from within the conjuring lodge. Here is actual perceptual experience
of the ‘grandfathers’ during a waking state. In dreams, the same
other-than-human persons are both ‘seen’ and ‘heard.’ They address human beings
as ‘grand-child.’ These ‘dream visitors’ (i.e., pawdganak) interact with
the dreamer much as human persons do. But, on account of the nature of these
beings there are differences, too. It is in the context of this face-to-face
personal interaction of the self with the ‘grandfathers’ (i.e., synonymously dtiso’kanak,
pawdganak) that human beings receive important revelations that are the
source of assistance to them in the daily round of life, and, besides this, of ‘blessings’
that enable them to exercise exceptional powers of various kinds.
But dream experiences are
not ordinarily recounted save under special circumstances. There is a taboo
against this, just as there is a taboo against myth narration except in the
proper seasonal context. The consequence is that we know relatively little
about the manifest content of dreams. All our data come from acculturated
Ojibwa. We do know enough to say, however, that the Ojibwa recognize quite as
much as we do that dream experiences are often qualitatively different from our
waking experiences. This fact, moreover, is turned to positive account. Since
their dream visitors are other-than-human ‘persons’ possessing great power, it
is to be expected that the experiences of the self in interaction with them
will differ from those with human beings in daily life. Besides this, another
assumption must be taken into account: When a human being is asleep and
dreaming his otcatcdkwin (vital part, soul), which is the core of the
self, may become detached from the body (miyo). Viewed by another human
being, a person’s body may be easily located and observed in space. But his
vital part may be somewhere else. Thus, the self has greater mobility in space
and even in time while sleeping. This is another illustration of the
deceptiveness of appearances. The body of a sorcerer may be within sight in a
wigwam, while ‘he’ may be bearwalking. Yet the space in which the self is
mobile is continuous with the earthly and cosmic space of waking life. A dream
of one of my informants documents this specifically. After having a dream in
which he met some (mythical) anthropomorphic beings (memengweciwak) who
live in rocky escarpments and are famous for their medicine, he told me that he
had later identified precisely the rocky place he had visited and entered in
his dream. Thus the behavioral environment of the self is all of a piece. This
is why experiences undergone when awake or asleep can be interpreted as
experiences of self. Memory images, as recalled, become integrated with a sense
of self-continuity in time and space.
Metamorphosis may be experienced
by the self in dreams. One example will suffice to illustrate this. The
dreamer in this case had been paddled out to an island by his father to undergo
his puberty fast. For several nights he dreamed of an anthropomorphic figure.
Finally, this being said, ‘Grandchild, I think you are strong enough now to go
with me.’ Then the pawdgan began dancing and as he danced he turned into
what looked like a golden eagle. (This being must be understood as the ‘master’
of this species.) Glancing down at his own body as he sat there on a rock, the
boy noticed it was covered with feathers. The ‘eagle’ spread its wings and flew
off to the south. The boy then spread his wings and followed.
Here we find the
instability of outward form in both human and other-than-human persons
succinctly dramatized. Individuals of both categories undergo metamorphosis. In
later life the boy will recall how he first saw the ‘master’ of the golden
eagles in his anthropomorphic guise, followed by his transformation into avian
form; at the same time he will recall his own metamorphosis into a bird. But
this experience, considered in context, does not imply that subsequently the
boy can transform himself into a golden eagle at will. He might or might not be
sufficiently ‘blessed.’ The dream itself does not inform us about this.
This example, besides
showing how dream experiences may reinforce the belief in metamorphosis,
illustrates an additional point: the pawdganak, whenever ‘seen,’ are
always experienced as appearing in specific form. They have a ‘bodily’ aspect,
whether human-like, animal-like, or ambiguous. But this is not their most
persistent, during and vital attribute any more than in the case of human
beings. We must conclude that all animate beings of the person class are
unified conceptually in Ojibwa thinking because they have a similar structure -
an inner vital part that is enduring and an outward form which can change.
Vital personal attributes such as sentience, volition, memory, speech are not
dependent upon outward appearance but upon the inner vital essence of being. If
this be true, human beings and other-than-human persons are alike in another
way. The human self does not die; it continues its existence in another place,
after the body is buried in the grave. In this way dnicindbek are as
immortal as atiso’kanak. This may be why we find human beings associated
with the latter in the myths where it is sometimes difficult for an outsider to
distinguish between them.
Thus the world of personal
relations in which the Ojibwa live is a world in which vital social relations
transcend those which are maintained with human beings. Their culturally
constituted cognitive orientation prepares the individual for life in this
world and for a life after death. The self-image that he acquires makes
intelligible the nature of other selves. Speaking as an Ojibwa, one might say:
all other ‘persons’ - human or other than human - are structured the same as I
am. There is a vital part which is enduring and an outward appearance that may
be transformed under certain conditions. All other ‘persons,’ too, have such
attributes as self- awareness and understanding. I can talk with them. Like
myself, they have personal identity, autonomy, and volition. I cannot always
predict exactly how they will act, although most of the time their behavior
meets my expectations. In relation to myself, other ‘persons’ vary in power.
Many of them have more power than I have, but some have less. They may be
friendly and help me when I need them but, at the same time, I have to be
prepared for hostile acts, too. I must be cautious in my relations with other ‘persons’
because appearances may be deceptive.
The psychological unity of
the Ojibwa world
Although not formally
abstracted and articulated philosophically, the nature of ‘persons’ is the
focal point of Ojibwa ontology and the key to the psychological unity and
dynamics of their world outlook. This aspect of their metaphysics of being
permeates the content of their cognitive processes: perceiving, remembering,
imagining, conceiving, judging, and reasoning. Nor can the motivation of much
of their conduct be thoroughly understood without taking into account the
relation of their central values and goals to the awareness they have of the
existence of other-than-human, as well as human, persons in their world. ‘Persons,’
in fact, are so inextricably associated with notions of causality that, in
order to understand their appraisal of events and the kind of behavior demanded
in situations as they define them, we are confronted over and over again with
the rolls of ‘persons’ as loci of causality in the dynamics of their
universe. For the Ojibwa make no cardinal use of any concept of impersonal
forces as major determinants of events. In the context of my exposition the
meaning of the term manitu, which has become so generally known, may be
considered as a synonym for a person of the other-than-human class (‘grandfather,’
atiso’kan, pawagan). Among the Ojibwa I worked with it is now quite
generally confined to the God of Christianity, when combined with an
augmentative prefix (k’tci manitu). There is no evidence to suggest,
however, that the term ever did connote an impersonal, magical, or supernatural
In an essay on the ‘Religion
of the North American Indians’ published over forty years ago, Radin asserted ‘that
from an examination of the data customarily relied upon as proof and from
individual data obtained, there is nothing to justify the postulation of a
belief in a universal force in North America. Magical power as an “essence”
existing apart and separate from a definite spirit, is, we believe, an
unjustified assumption, an abstraction created by investigators.’34
This opinion, at the time, was advanced in opposition to the one expressed by
those who, stimulated by the writings of R. R. Marett in particular, interpreted
the term manitu among the Algonkians (W. Jones), orenda among the
Iroquois (Hewitt) and wakanda among the Siouan peoples (Fletcher) as
having reference to a belief in a magical force of some kind. But Radin pointed
out that in his own field work among both the Winnebago and the Ojibwa the
terms in question ‘always referred to definite spirits, not necessarily
definite in shape. If at a vapor-bath the steam is regarded as wakanda or
manitu, it is because it is a spirit transformed into steam for the time
being; if an arrow is possessed of specific virtues, it is because a spirit has
either transformed himself into the arrow or because he is temporarily dwelling
in it; and finally, if tobacco is offered to a peculiarly-shaped object it is
because either this object belongs to a spirit, or a spirit is residing in it.’
Manitu, he said, in addition to its substantive usage may have such
connotations as ‘sacred,’ ‘strange,’ ‘remarkable’ or ‘powerful’ without ‘having
the slightest suggestion of “inherent power”, but having the ordinary sense of
With respect to the Ojibwa
conception of causality, all my own observations suggest that a culturally
constituted psychological set operates which inevitably directs the reasoning
of individuals towards an explanation of events in personalistic terms. Who did
it, who is responsible, is always the crucial question to be answered.
Personalistic explanation of past events is found in the myths. It was Wisekedjak
who, through the exercise of his personal power, expanded the tiny bit of
mud retrieved by Muskrat from the depths of the inundating waters of the great
deluge into the inhabitable island-earth of Ojibwa cosmography. Personalistic
explanation is central in theories of disease causation. Illness may be due to
sorcery; the victim, in turn, may be ‘responsible’ because he has offended the
sorcerer - even unwittingly. Besides this, I may be responsible for my own
illness, even without the intervention of a sorcerer. I may have committed some
wrongful act in the past, which is the ‘cause’ of my sickness. My child’s
illness, too, may be the consequence of my past transgressions or those of my
wife.36 The personalistic theory of causation even emerges today
among acculturated Ojibwa. In 1940, when a severe forest fire broke out at the
mouth of the Berens River, no Indian would believe that lightning or any
impersonal or accidental determinants were involved. Somebody must have
been responsible. The German spy theory soon became popular. ‘Evidence’ began
to accumulate; strangers had been seen in the bush, and so on. The
personalistic type of explanation satisfies the Ojibwa because it is rooted in
a basic metaphysical assumption; its terms are ultimate and incapable of
further analysis within the framework of their cognitive orientation and
Since the dynamics of
events in the Ojibwa universe find their most ready explanation in a
personalistic theory of causation, the qualitative aspects of interpersonal
relations become affectively charged with a characteristic sensitivity.3
The psychological importance of the range and depth of this sensitive area may
be overlooked if the inclusiveness of the concept of ‘person’ and ‘social
relations’ that is inherent in their outlook is not borne in mind. The reason
for this becomes apparent when we consider the pragmatic relations between
behavior, values, and the role of ‘persons’ in their world view.
The central goal of life
for the Ojibwa is expressed by the term pimadaziwin, life in the fullest
sense, life in the sense of longevity, health and freedom from misfortune. This
goal cannot be achieved without the effective help and cooperation of both human
and other-than-human ‘persons’, as well as by one’s own personal efforts. The
help of other-than-human ‘grandfathers’ is particularly important for men. This
is why all Ojibwa boys, in aboriginal days, were motivated to undergo the
so-called ‘puberty fast’ or ‘dreaming’ experience. This was the means by which
it was possible to enter into direct ‘social interaction’ with ‘persons’ of the
other-than-human class for the first time. It was the opportunity of a
lifetime. Every special aptitude, all a man’s subsequent successes and the
explanation of many of his failures, hinged upon the help of the ‘guardian
spirits’ he obtained at this time, rather than upon his own native endowments
or the help of his fellow anicinabek. If a boy received ‘blessings’
during his puberty fast and, as a man, could call upon the help of
other-than-human persons when he needed them he was well prepared for meeting
the vicissitudes of life. Among other things, he could defend himself against
the hostile actions of human persons which might threaten him and thus
interfere with the achievement of pimadaziwin. The grandfather of one of
my informants said to him: ‘you will have a long and good life if you dream
well.’ The help of human beings, however, was also vital, especially the
services of those who had acquired the kind of power which permitted them to
exercise effective curative functions in cases of illness. At the same time
there were moral responsibilities which had to be assumed by an individual if
he strove for pimadaziwin. It was as essential to maintain approved
standards of personal and social conduct as it was to obtain power from the ‘grandfathers’
because, in the nature of things, one’s own conduct, as well as that of other ‘persons,’
was always a potential threat to the achievement of pimadaziwin. Thus we
find that the same values are implied throughout the entire range of ‘social
interaction’ that characterizes the Ojibwa world; the same standards which
apply to mutual obligations between human beings are likewise implied in the
reciprocal relations between human and other-than-human ‘persons.’ In his
relations with ‘the grandfathers’ the individual does not expect to receive a ‘blessing’
for nothing. It is not a free gift; on his part there are obligations to be
met. There is a principle of reciprocity implied. There is a general taboo
imposed upon the human being which forbids him to recount his dream experiences
in full detail, except under certain circumstances. Specific taboos may
likewise be imposed upon the suppliant. If these taboos are violated he will
lose his power, can no longer count on the help of his ‘grandfathers.’
The same principle of
mutual obligations applies in other spheres of life. The Ojibwa are hunters and
food gatherers. Since the various species of animals on which they depend for a
living are believed to be under the control of ‘masters’ or ‘owners’ who belong
to the category of other-than-human persons, the hunter must always be careful
to treat the animals he kills for food or fur in the proper manner. It may be
necessary, for example, to throw their bones in the water or to perform a
ritual in the case of bears. Otherwise, he will offend the ‘masters’ and be
threatened with starvation because no animals will be made available to him.
Cruelty to animals is likewise an offense that will provoke the same kind of
retaliation. And, according to one anecdote, a man suffered illness because he
tortured a fabulous windigo after killing him. A moral distinction is
drawn between the kind of conduct demanded by the primary necessities of
securing a livelihood, or defending oneself against aggression, and unnecessary
acts of cruelty. The moral values implied document the consistency of the
principle of mutual obligations which is inherent in all interactions with ‘persons’
throughout the Ojibwa world.
One of the prime values of
Ojibwa culture is exemplified by the great stress laid upon sharing what one
has with others. A balance, a sense of proportion must be maintained in all
interpersonal relations and activities. Hoarding, or any manifestation of
greed, is discountenanced. The central importance of this moral value in their
world outlook is illustrated by the fact that other-than-human persons share
their power with human beings. This is only a particular instance of the
obligations which human beings feel towards one another. A man’s catch of fish
or meat is distributed among his kin. Human grandfathers share the power
acquired in their dreams from other-than-human persons with their
classificatory grandchildren. An informant whose wife had borrowed his pipe for
the morning asked to borrow one of mine while we worked together. When my
friend Chief Berens once fell ill he could not explain it. Then he recalled
that he had overlooked one man when he had passed around a bottle of whiskey.
He believed this man was offended and had bewitched him. Since there was no
objective evidence of this, it illustrates the extreme sensitivity of an
individual to the principle of sharing, operating through feelings of guilt. I
was once told about the puberty fast of a boy who was not satisfied with his
initial ‘blessing.’ He demanded that he dream of all the leaves of all the
trees in the world so that absolutely nothing would be hidden from him. This
was considered greedy and, while the pawagan who appeared in his dream
granted his desire, the boy was told that ‘as soon as the leaves start to fall
you’ll get sick and when all the leaves drop to the ground that is the end of
your life.’ And this is what happened.38 ‘Overfasting’ is as greedy
as hoarding. It violates a basic moral value and is subject to a punitive
sanction. The unity of the Ojibwa outlook is likewise apparent here.
The entire psychological
field in which they live and act is not only unified through their conception
of the nature and role of ‘persons’ in their universe, but by the sanctioned
moral values which guide the relations of ‘persons.’ It is within this web of ‘social
relations’ that the individual strives for pimadaziwin.
1. A similar point is
powerfully made by Saler (1977) and extended in most articles in a special
issue of Religion edited by Kenneth Morrison: 22 (1992), pp. 201-69.
1. Redfield 1952, p.
30; cf. African Worlds.
2. Hallowcll 1955, p.
91. For a more extended discussion of the culturally constituted behavioralenvironment of man see ibid., pp.
86-9 and note 33. The term ‘self is not used as a synonymfor ego in the psychoanalytic
sense. See ibid., p. 80.
3. See Basilius 1952;
Carroll in Whorf 1956; Hoijcr 1954; Fcuer 1953.
4. Hallowell 1955,
5. Bruno de
Jesus-Marie 1952, p. xvii: ‘The studies which make up this book fall into two
main groups, of which the first deals with the theological Satan. Here the
analysis of exegesis, of philosophy, of theology, treat of the devil under his
aspect of a personal being whose history -his fall, his desire for vengeance -
can be written as such.’ One of the most startling characteristics of the devil
‘ ... is his agelessness’ (p. 4). He is immune to ‘injury, to pain, to
sickness, to death ... Like God, and unlike man, he has no body. There are in
him, then no parts to be dismembered, no possibilities of corruption and decay,
no threat of a separation of parts that will result in death. He is
incorruptible, immune to the vagaries, the pains, the limitations of the flesh,
immortal’ (p. 5). ‘Angels have no bodies, yet they have appeared to men in
physical form, have talked with them, journeyed the roads with them fulfilling
all the pleasant tasks of companionship’ (p. 6).
6. Hallowell 1934b, pp. 7-9; 1936, pp. 1308-9;
1951, pp. 182-3; 1955, pp. 256-8.
7. Kelsen 1943, chapter 2, discusses the Social’
or ‘personalistic interpretation of nature’ which he considers the nucleus of
what has been called animism.
8. In a prefatory note to Ojibwa Texts, Part I, Jones (1919) says (p. xiii) that “Being” or “creature” would be a general rendering of the
animate while “thing” would express the inanimate.’ Cf. Schoolcraft’s (1834)
pioneer analysis of the animate and inanimate categories in Ojibwa speech, pp. 171-2.
9. Greenberg 1954, pp.
10. I believe that
Jenness (1935) grossly overgeneralizes when he says (p. 21): ‘To the Ojibwa ...
all objects have life ... ‘ If this were true, their inanimate grammatical
category would indeed be puzzling.
Within the more
sophisticated framework of modern biological thought, the Ojibwa attitude is
not altogether naive. N.W. Pine (1937) points out (pp. 184-5) that the words
‘life’ and ‘living’ have been borrowed by science from lay usage and are no
longer serviceable. ‘Life is not a thing, a philosophical entity: it is an
attitude of mind towards what is being observed.’
11. Field notes. From
this same Indian I obtained a smoothly rounded pebble, about two inches long
and one and a half inches broad, which his father had given him. He told me
that 1 had better keep it enclosed in a tin box or it might ‘go.’ Another man,
Ketegas, gave me an account of the circumstances under which he obtained a
stone with animate properties and of great medicinal value. This stone was egg
shaped. It had some dark amorphous markings on it which he interpreted as
representing his three children and himself. ‘You may not think this stone is
alive,’ he said, ‘but it is. I can make it move.’ (He did not demonstrate this
to me.) He went on to say that on two occasions he had loaned the stone to sick
people to keep during the night. Both times he found it in his pocket in the
morning. Ketegas kept it in a little leather case he had made for it.
12. Yellow Legs had
obtained information about this remarkable stone in a dream. Its precise location
was revealed to him. He sent two other Indians to get it. These men, following
directions, found the stone on Birch Island, located in the middle of Lake
Winnipeg, some thirty miles south of the mouth of the Berens River.
13. Cognate forms are
found in Chamberlain’s (1906) compilation of Cree and Ojibwa ‘literary’ terms.
14. Jones, 1919, Part II, p. 574n.
15. The attitude
manifested is by no means peculiar to the Ojibwa. Almost half a century ago
Swanton (1910) remarked that ‘one of the most widespread errors, and one of
those most unfortunate for folklore and comparative mythology, is the off-hand
classification of myth with fiction. ...’ On the contrary, as he says, ‘It is
safe to say that most of the myths found spread over considerable areas were regarded
by the tribes among which they were collected as narratives of real
16. Bidney 1953, p.
17. Lovejoy and Boas
1935, p. 12; Lovejoy 1948, p. 69.
18. See, e.g.,
Collingwood 1945, also the remarks in Randall 1944, pp. 355-6. With respect to
theapplicability of the
natural-supernatural dichotomy to primitive cultures sec Van Der l.ccuw
1938, pp. 544-5;
Kelsen 1943, p. 44; Bidney 1953, p. 166.
19. Krech and
Crutchfield 1948 write (p. 10): ‘clouds and storms and winds are excellent examples
of objects in the psychological field that carry the perceived properties of
mobility, capriciousness, causation, power of threat and reward.’
20. Cf. Hallowell
21. Actually, this was
probably a rationalization of mother-son incest. But the woman never was
punished by sickness, nor did she confess. Since the violation of the incest
prohibition is reputed to be followed by dire consequences, the absence of both
may have operated to support the possibility of her claim when considered in
the context of the Ojibwa world view.
22. Thompson 1946, p.
23. Hallowell 1926.
24. Hallowell 1934a,
25. Sorcerers may
assume rhe form of other animals as well. Peter Jones, a converted Ojibwa, who
became famous as a preacher and author says that ‘they can turn themselves into
bears, wolves, foxes, owls, bats, and snakes ... Several of our people have
informed me that they have seen and heard witches in the shape of these
animals, especially the bear and the fox. They say that when a witch in the
shape of a bear is being chased all at once she will run around a tree or hill,
so as to be lost sight of for a time by her pursuers, and then, instead of
seeing a bear they behold an old woman walking quietly along or digging up
roots, and looking as innocent as a lamb’ (Jones 1861, pp. 145-6).
26. Dorson 1952. p.
27. Ibid., p. 29. This
rationalization dates back over a century. John Tanner, an Indianized white man
who was captured as a boy in the late eighteenth century and lived with the
Ottawa and Ojibwa many years, refers to it. So does Peter Jones.
28. Hallowell 1955,
29. Dorson 1952, p.
30. Hoffman 1891, pp.
31. Unpublished field
32. See Hallowell
1955, chapter 15.
33. Cf. Skinner 1915.
p. 261. Cooper (1933, p. 75) writes: ‘The Manitu was clearly personal in the
minds of my informants, and not identified with impersonal supernatural force.
In fact, nowhere among the Albany River Otchipwe, among the Eastern Cree, or
among the Montagnais have I been able thus far to find the word Manitu used to
denote such force in connection with the Supreme Being belief, with conjuring,
or with any orher phase of magico-religious culture. Manitu, so far as I
can discover, always denotes a supernatural personal being ... The word Manitu
is, my informants say, not used to denote magical or conjuring power among
the coastal Cree, nor so I was told in 1927, among the Fort Hops Otchipwe of
the upper Albany River.’
34. Radin 1914a, p.
35. Ibid., pp. 349-50.
36. ‘Because a person
does bad things, chat is where sickness starts,’ is the way one of my
informants phrased it. For a fuller discussion of the relations between
unsanctioned sexual behavior and disease, see Hallowell 1955, pp. 294-5, 303-4.
For case material, see Hallowell 1939.
37. Cf. Hallowell
1955, p. 305.
38. Radin (1927, p.
177), points out that “throughout the area inhabited by the woodland tribes of
Canada and the United States, overfasting entails death.’ Jones (Part II, pp.
307-11) gives two cases of overfasting. In one of them the bones of the boy
were later found by his father.
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