Discordant voices, conflicting visions, Ojibwa and Euro-American perspectives on the Midewiwin

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Angel, Michael R.
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According to Anishinaabe tradition, the power to promote, restore and prolong life was a gift which had been given to their forefathers in times past by Nanabozho when he had taken pity on their sufferings. Mide elders with special healing powers passed on teachings concerning right living, the properties of special herbs and roots, and associated prayers, songs and dances to be used for ceremonies. Candidates were initiated into the Midewiwin society in a ritual drama which centred around the "shooting" of the initiate with a sacred shell or miigis. Mide leaders were respected and feared by other members of the Anishinaabeg since the powers thus obtained could be used both to aid and to harm other individuals. Euro-American accounts of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society, have focused primarily on the initiation rituals of the ceremony itself. The earliest surviving written accounts were created to impress audiences with the exotic nature of the rituals, which were often felt to be inspired by demonicforces. Succeeding generations of Euro-Americans documented the ceremonies in more detail, believing that such "primitive" practices would shortly die out as the Anishinaabeg became acculturated. Most Euro-American studies have focused on the Midewiwin as practiced at a particular time and place, rather than considering the Midewiwin within the wider context of Anishinaabe culture. This study demonstrates how the conflicting visions of Anishinaabe practitioners and Euro-American interpreters have resulted in widely divergent views of the same institution. The focus is on the Midewiwin as practiced by Ojibwa groups in the nineteenth century, since this was the formative period for Euro-American beliefs regarding the Midewiwin. However, the study also places the Midewiwin within the context of the broader Anishinaabe world-view, and traces some of the changes to the Midewiwin that occurred both among the Ojibwa and their Anishinaabe neighbours. Based on these analyses, it is clear that the Midewiwin is an Aboriginal institution, although over the years it has adopted some Euro-American concepts. These adaptations, along with other changes made to meet new situations, reflect new visions, and are consistent with the fact that its teachings have been non-exclusivist and oral in nature. Euro-American attempts to categorize only certain Midewiwin beliefs as "orthodox," or seek to identify some "true" Mide beliefs and practices, misunderstand the diversity that is at the very heart of the Anishinaabe world-view.