02 - Totemic Division of the Ojibwe

Each grand family is known by a badge or symbol, taken from nature; generally a quadruped, bird, fish, or reptile. The badge or Dodaim (Totem, as it was most commonly written) descends invariably in the male line; marriage is strictly forbidden between individuals of the same symbol. This is one of the greatest sins that can be committed in the Ojibwe code of moral laws, and tradition says that in former times it was punishable with death.

In present somewhat degenerated times, when persons of the same Totem intermarry (which even now very seldom occurs), they become objects of reproach. It is an offense equivalent to the sin among the whites of a man marrying his own sister.

In this manner the blood relationship is strictly preserved among the several clans in each tribe, and is made to extend amongst the different tribes who claim to derive their origin from the same general root or stock.

An individual of any one of the several Totems belonging to a distinct tribe, as for instance, the Ojibwe, is a close blood relation to all other Indians of the same Totem, both in his own and all other tribes, though he may be divided from them by a long vista of years, interminable miles, and not even know of their existence.

I am not possessed of sufficient general information respecting all the different groups of tribes in America, to enable me to state positively that the Algics are the only stock who have perpetuated and still recognize this division into families, nor have I even data sufficient to state that the Totemic System is as rigidly kept up among the Ojibwe, Ottaways, and Potta-wat-om-ies.

From personal knowledge and inquiry, I can confidently assert that among the Dakotas the system is not known. There are a few who claim the Water Spirit or Merman as a symbol, but they are the descendents of Ojibwe who have in former times of peace intermarried with them. The system among the Winnebagos, which somewhat resembles this, is one borrowed or derived from the Ojibwe during their long intercourse with them, while residing about Green Bay and other portions of the present State of Wisconsin.

From these and many other facts which shall be enumerated, the writer is disposed to consider, and, therefore, present the Totemic division as important and worthy of more consideration than has generally been accorded to it by standard authors who have studied and written about the Indians.

The Ojibwe acknowledge in their secret beliefs and teachings to each successive generation five original Totems. The tradition in which this belief is embodied is known only to their chief Mides, or priests. It is like all their ancient traditions, vague and unsatisfactory, but such as it is, I will here present it -- verbatim-- as I received it.

"When the Earth was new, the An-ish-in-aub-ag lived, congregated on the shores of a great salt water. From the bosom of the great deep there suddenly appeared six beings in human form, who entered their wigwams.

One of these six strangers kept a covering over his eyes, and he dared not look on the An-ish-in-aub-ag, though he showed the greatest anxiety to do so. At last he could no longer restrain his curiosity, and on one occasion he partially lifted his veil, and his eyes fell on the form of a human being, who instantly fell dead as if struck by one of the thunderers. Though the intentions of this dread being were friendly to the An-ish-in-aub-ag, yet the glance of his eye was too strong, and inflicted certain death. His fellows, therefore, caused him to return into the bosom of the great water from which they had apparently emerged.

The others, who now numbered five, remained with the An-ish-in-aub-ag, and became a blessing to them; from them originate the five great clans or Totems, which are known among the Ojibwe by the general terms of A-waus-e, Bus-in-aus-e, Ah-ah-wauk, Ma-kwa, and Monsone, or Waub-ish-ash-e. These are cognomens which are used only in connection with the Totemic system.

Though, according to this tradition, there were but five totems originally, yet, at the present day, the Ojibwe tribe consists of no less than fifteen or twenty families, each claiming a different badge, as follows:

1. Uj-e-jauk, Crane

2. Man-un-aig, Catfish

3. Mong, Loon

4. Ma-kwa, Bear

5. Waub-ish-ash-e, Marten

6. Addick, Reindeer

7. Mah-een-gun, Wolf

8. Ne-baun-aub-ay, Merman

9. Ke-noushay, Pike

10. Be-sheu, Lynx

11. Me-gizzee, Eagle

12. Che-she-gwa, Rattlesnake

13. Mous, Moose

14. Muk-ud-a-shib, Black Duck or Cormorant

15. Ne-kah, Goose

16. Numba-bin, Sucker

17. Numa, Sturgeon

18. Ude-kumaig, White Fish

19. Amik, Beaver

20. Gy-aushk, Gull

21, Ka-kaik, Hawk

I have here given a list of every badge that is known as a family totem among the Ojibwe throughout their widespread villages and bands.

The crane, catfish, bear, marten, wolf, and loon are the principal familes, not only in a civil point of view, but also in numbers since they comprise eight-tenths of the whole tribe. Many of these Totems are not known to the tribe in general, and the writer has learned them only through close inquiry. Among these are the goose, beaver, sucker, sturgeon, gull, hawk, cormorant, and white fish totems. They are only known on the remotest northern boundaries of the Ojibwe country among the Musk-keeg-oes and "Bois Forts."

The old men of the Ojibwe whom I have questioned particularly on this subject affirm that all these different badges are only sub-divisions of the five great original totems of the An-ish-in-aub-ag, who have assumed separate minor badges, without losing sight or remembrance of the main stock or family to which they belong. These divisions have been gradually taking place, caused in the same manner as the division into distinct tribes. They are easily classed under the five great heads, the names of which we have given.

Aish-ke-bug-e-coshe, the old and reliable head chief of the Pillager and Northern Ojibwe, has rendered me much information on this subject. He is the present living recognized head of the great A-waus-e family. He says that this clan claim the Me-she-num-aig-way (immense fish) which, according to their description, is equivalent or analogical to the Leviathan mentioned in the Bible. This being is also one of the Spirits recognized in their grand Me-da-we rite. This clan comprises the several branches who claim the Catfish, Merman, Sturgeon, Pike, Whitefish, and Sucker Totems, and, in fact, all the totems of the fish species may be classed under this general head. This family is physically noted for being long lived and for the scantiness and fineness of their hair, especially in old age; if you see an old Indian of this tribe with a bald head, you may be certain that he is an A-waus-e.

Tradition says that many generations ago, all the different clans of the tribe, with the exception of the Ah-ah-wak, formed a league and made war on the A-waus-e with the intent to exterminate them. But the A-waus-e family proved too strong for their united brethren and prevailed against their efforts, and ever since this event, they have claimed a certain pre-eminence over them in the councils of the tribe. They also claim, that of the six beings who emerged from the great water and originated the Totems, their progenitor was the first who appeared and was leader of the others.

Of nine thousand of the Ojibwe who reside within the limits of the United States, about the shores of Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi, a full one thousand belong to the A-waus-e family.

The Bus-in-as-see, or Crane family, are also numerous and form an important element of the Ojibwe tribe. They reside mostly on the south shores of Lake Superior and toward the east in Canada, though they have representatives scattered in every spot where the Ojibwe have set foot and lighted their fires. The literal meaning of their totemic name is "Echo-maker" derived from the word Bus-wa-wag, "Echo" and pertaining to the loud, clear, and far reaching cry of the Crane. This clan is noted as possessing naturally a loud, ringing voice and are the acknowledged orators of the tribe; in former times, when different tribes met in councils, they acted as interpreters of the wishes of their tribe. They claim, with some apparent justice, the chieftanship over the other clans of the Ojibwe. The late lamented chief Shin-ga-ba-wos-sin, who resided at Sault Ste. Marie, belonged to this family. In Governor Lewis Cass's treaty at Prairie du Chien in 1825, he was the acknowledged head chief of his tribe and signed his name to that treaty as such. Ah-mous (the Little Bee), the son of the late worthy chief of Lac du Flambeau, Waub-ish-gaug-aug-e (or white crow) may now be considered as head or principal chief of this family.

The old war chief Ba-be-sig-aun-dib-ay (curly head) whose name is linked with the history of his tribe and who died on his way returning home from the above mentioned Treaty of Prairie du Chien, was also a Bus-in-aus-e and the only representative of his clan amongst that section of his tribe, who so long bravely struggled with the fierce Dakotas for the mastery of western banks of the Mississippi, which now form the home of the Winnebagoes. He was the civil and war chief of the Mississippi Ojibwe.

Hole-in-the-day I, of later notoriety, and his brother Song-uk-um-ig (Strong Ground), inherited Curly Head chieftainship by his dying request, since he died childless. Weesh-e-da-mo, son of Aissance (Little Clan), late British Ojibwe chief of Red River, is also a member of this family. He is a young man, but has already received two American medals, one from the hands of a colonel of our army, and the other from the hands of the Governor of Minnesota Territory. He is recognized by our government as chief of the Pembina section of the Ojibwe tribe.

These facts are stated to show the importance of this family, and its wide extended influence over the tribe. It can be said of them that whenever they have planted their wigwam on the widespread territory of their people, they have been recognized as chieftains.

They also boast the names of Keesh-ke-mun, chief of the Lac du Flambeau section; Che-suh-yauh and Waub-ij-e-jauk (White Crane), of La Pointe, Shaug-a-waum-ik-ong, all noted chiefs during their first intercourse with the white race. The small clans who use the eagle as their totem or badge are a branch of the Bus-i-aus-e.

The Ah-ah-wauk, or loon totem (mang), also form an important body in the Ojibwe tribe; in fact, they also claim to be the chief or royal family, and one of their arguments to prove this position is that nature has placed a collar around the neck of the loon, which resembles the royal megis, or wampum, about the neck of a chief which forms the badge of honor. This dignity, however, is denied by the Cranes and other totems, whoever that the principal chiefs of the Ah-ah-wauk are descended from, individuals who were on a certain occasion made chiefs by the French at Quebec, will be related to in the course of the following history. This family does not lack in chiefs who have acted prominently in the affairs of the tribe and are linked with its history.

Ke-che-waish-keenh (Great Buffalo), the respected and venerable chief of the La Pointe band, and principal chief of all the Lake Superior and Wisconsin bands, is the acknowledged head of this clan; his importance as an individual in the tribe strengthens the position of the Ah-ah-wauk.

The chief of Sandy Lake on the upper Mississippi is also of this family. The Goose and Cormorant Totems are its subdivisions.-The Ma-kwa or Bear family is the most numerous of the other clans of the Ojibwe forming fully one-sixth of the entire tribe.

In former times this numerous body was subdivided into many lesser clans, making only portions of the bear's body their Totems, as the head, the foot, the ribs, etc. They have all since united under one head, and the only shade of difference still recognized by them is the common and grizzly bear. They are the acknowledged war chiefs and warriors of the tribe keepers of the war-pipe and war-club, and often denominated as the bulwarks of the tribe against its enemies. It is a general saying and an observable fact amongst their fellows that the Bear clan resemble in disposition the animal that forms their Totem. They are ill-tempered and fond of fighting, and consequently they are noted as having kept the tribe in difficulty and war with other tribes, in which, however, they have generally been the principal and foremost actors:They are physically noted, and the writer has observed the fact, that they are possessed of a long, thick, coarse head of the blackest hair which seldom becomes thin or white in old age. Young Role-in-the-day (son of the great war chief of that name), the recognized chief of the Ojibwe of the Mississippi, numbering about twelve hundred, is not (A.D. 1852) the most noted man of the Ma-kwa family. Ka-kaik (the Hawk), of Chippeway River, and Be-she-ke (Buffalo), of the Leech Lake, have recognizable influence as war chiefs.


The Mah-een-gun, or Wolf Totem family are few in number and reside mostly on the St. Croix River at Mille Lacs. They are looked upon by the tribe in general with much respect. The Ojibwe of this totem derive their origin on the paternal side from the Dakotas. Na-guon-abe, the civil chief of Mille Lac, may be considered the principal man of this family. Mun-o-min-ik-a-she (Rice maker), who has lately removed from the St. Croix" to Mille Lac with his band, is a man of considerable importance amongst his fellows.

The Waub-ish-a-she, or Marten family, form a numerous body in the tribe, and is one of the leading clans. Tradition says that they are sprung from the remnant captives of the fierce and warlike tribe whom the coalesced Algic Tribes have exterminated, and whom they denominate the Mun-dua. The chiefs Waub-ish-ash (the Marten) of Chippewa River, Shin-goob, (Balsam), and Nug-aun-ub (Sitting Ahead) of Fond du Lac are now the principal men of the clan. The celebrated Ke-che-waub-ish-ash of Sandy Lake, Sha-wa-ke-shig of Leech Lake, and Mud-ud-a-shib (or Black Duck) of Red River were members of this family. In their days they conduced greatly towards wresting country from the Dakotas and driving them westward. All three died on battlefields, the first at Elk River fight, the second at Rum River massacre, and the third fell fighting on the western prairies against immense odds, but one out of forty who fought with him escaped a warrior’s death. Under the generic term of Mous-o-neeg, the families of the Marten, Moose, and Reindeer Totems are included. Aish-ke-bug-e-coshe, the old Pillager chief, related to me the following tradition, accounting for the coalition or close affinity between the Moose and Marten Totems.

"Many centuries ago the family of the Moose Totem, denominated Mous-o-neeg when the Ojibwe lived towards the rising sun, were numerous and powerful. They lived congregated by themselves in one great village and were noted for their warlike and quarrelsome disposition. They were ill-tempered and proud of their strength and bravery. For some slight cause they commenced to make war on their brethren of the Marten Totem. Severely suffering from the incursions, and unable to cope singly with the Mous-o-neeg, the Martens called together the different clans of the tribe to council and asked them for help and protection. A general league was made between the different Totems, and it was determined that the men of the obnoxious and quarrelsome family of the Moose badge should be exterminated."

"The plan for their sudden and total destruction was agreed upon, and a council lodge was ordered to be built which was made narrow and just long enough to admit all the warriors of the Mous-o-neeg. The poles of this lodge were planted firmly and deeply into the ground close together, and lapping over the top they were strongly twisted and fastened together. Over this frame were tied lengthways, and worked in like wicker-work, other green poles, and so close together that a man’s hand could scarcely pass through any part of the frame, it was constructed closely and strongly. Over this frame, and from the inside, leaving but a long narrow aperture in the top, was fastened a thick covering and lining of dried grass."

"When this lodge had been completed, runners were sent to the village of the Moose Totem family, and all their chiefs and warriors solemnly invited to a national council and feast. This summons was made in such a manner that they could not refuse, even if they felt so disposed; and on the day fixed, the chiefs and all the men of war of the refractory clan arrived in a body at the village of their mortal foes (the Martens) where the council-lodge had been built and made ready."

"They were led into the lodge, where the old men and chiefs of the tribe had collected to receive them. The Mous-o-neeg entered unarmed and as their great numbers gradually filled the lodge, the former inmates, as if through courtesy, arose and went out to give them room. Kettles full of cooked meat were brought in and placed before them, and they were requested to eat after the fatigues of their journey. They filled the long lodge entirely, and when everyone had left it but themselves, and while they were busy feasting on the good things that had been placed before them, the doors at each end were suddenly closed and fastened on them. A chief of the Marten Totem addressed them in a loud voice, repeating over all the acts of blood and wickedness which they had enacted, and informing them that for these things the national council had decreed to sweep them from the face of the earth which they polluted. The lodge was surrounded by the warriors of the Marten who acted as executioners; torches were applied to the thick and dry covering of grass, and, struggling in the flames unable to escape, the men of the Moose Totem were dispatched with barbed arrows shot through the narrow openings between the lodge-poles that confined them. In this fearful manner were the men of this wicked clan destroyed.

Their women and children were captured by the Marten family, and adopted into their clan. In this manner the close consanguinity of those two totems commenced, and at this day they are considered one family."

The Reindeer family, which is a branch of the Mous-o-neeg, are few in number, and they reside mostly on the north coast of Lake Superior. The celebrated Ojibwe war leader Waub-O-jeeg (White Fisher), whom Mr. Schoolcraft wrote about at some length, was a member of this family, descended from a branch who immigrated from the Grand Portage near the mouth of Pigeon River to La Pointe, Shag-a-waum-ik-ong, where he and his father, Ma-man-giz-id (Big Foot), lived nearly a century ago as war-leaders and chiefs of their people.




Last modified: Monday, July 23, 2018, 8:06 AM