What was life like for Ojibwe women in 1800? How has their experience across the past two centuries reflected the vast changes in Ojibwe society? These are enormous questions without simple answers. Yet these are the questions that have inspired scholar Brenda J. Child’s book, Holding Our World Together.
The story Child tells is not straight-forward. We find no easy moral, here. Rather, Child, herself an enrolled member of the Red Lake nation, winds her readers through the years, meandering, stopping to gather stories like a woman harvesting wild rice along a river. Wild rice has long played a crucial role in Ojibwe life. Child reminds us that “Indigenous people have harvested wild rice for a thousand years or more in the Great Lakes region, where it grows naturally in mineral-rich lakes and river headwaters. Ojibwe people call wild rice manoomin, ‘the good seed that grows in water,’ and the seasonal grain [is] sacred food as well as a dietary staple” (24).
For many years, ricing was a gendered practice, governed by women. The entire cultural organization of gender relations differed before Euro-American colonization. Child notes that, “In Ojibwe society, men did not gain the right to direct a woman’s life or resources after marriage, and she maintained separate clan identity” (15). The new settlers and the U.S. government brought their own ideas about private property and gender relations, which they imposed through the establishment of reservations and, later, the system of land allotment. In the process, the lives of Ojibwe women changed, and so did their place as sole harvesters of the manoomin.
As some traditions change, new ones form. In the early 20th century, “Field matrons, teachers, and medical professionals hired by the Indian Office . . . condemned the Ojibwe for using natural herbs and medicines” (93). Ojibwe concepts of wellness were, thus, in a time of flux when the devastating Spanish influenza epidemic arrived at the end of World War One. A father, caring for his sick daughter, created a unique dress and asked her “to dance a few springlike steps in which one foot was never to leave the ground” (94). So began the tradition of the Jingle Dress Dance, still practiced today.
Child gathers stories that lead us toward our present moment. She follows the postwar movement of many Indian men and women to urban centers, such as Minneapolis, and emphasizes the role women played in organizing the American Indian Movement. She asks us to recognize the breadth and depth of Ojibwe women’s experience, as vast and varied as it is. She writes, “Mindimooyenh, the Ojibwe term for a female elder, best embodies how Ojibwe society has traditionally perceived women’s power. In the Ojibwe language, it literally refers to ‘one who holds things together.’” (63)