Religious Studies Research Paper on THE ROLE OF MIDEWIWIN IN OJIBWA CULTURE



In the Ojibwa culture, a Native American society, religion was characterized by a multitude of spiritual beings and supernatural forces, which included the sun, the moon, ghosts, witches, and a supernatural cannibalistic giant called Windigo. In addition, religion in this culture was majorly an individual initiative and it was founded on faith in powers that came to individuals as dreams and visions from the spirit world.[1] Other than numerous religious activities, the Ojibwa and other south-western cultures, such as Chippewa had a super secret medicine society, Midewiwin, which organized the most important ceremony in the society.[2] This ceremony was sometimes called the medicine dance. The name Midewiwin is a term derived from the Native Americans to mean the Grand Medicine Society. In the Ojibwa culture, the ceremony came into existence as a result of the actions by Mi” nabo’zo, the Great Rabbit who was a servant to Dzhe Man’ido, the Good Spirit when he witnessed the way the A-nish-in-a’-beg, the original people, were suffering and had the desire to provide a means by which they could protect themselves from hunger and diseases. [3]

The main objective of this paper is to find out the role of Midewiwin in the Ojibwa culture. This will be through a study on the roots of Midewiwin, the important role of it holds not only to the religion but also to the culture, the relationship between Christianity and Midewiwin, the importance of animals and cosmology. The study will also encompass the medicine and health practices involved in the Midewiwin culture.


The Roots of Midewiwin

            The Anishinabeg, the original people, were suffering from different calamities, such as hunger and diseases. It took the initiative of Mi” nabo’ zho, the Great Rabbit, a servant to the Dzhe man’ido to ensure that the original people had solutions to the problems that they were enduring. Mi”nabo’zho decided to talk to the people through the Otter, the sacred spirit of Midewiwin.[4] An Otter was always used as a medicine bag since it contained sacred items that were used for curing and performing healing rituals. Though the Great Rabbit, Otter was given a consecrated drum, rattle, and tobacco that could be used in the process of curing the sick. The Great Rabbit also gave this information to the Otter through a song that communicate the wishes of Dzhe Man’ido, the Good Spirit that the original people should never be allowed to suffer from diseases and hunger.[5] The Good Spirit provided solutions to their problems to enable them have longer lives. The Great Rabbit also relayed to the Otter, the secrets and mysteries of Midewiwin and by using the medicine bag, the Great rabbit shot sacred Migiis Shell into Otter’s body. The shell was white and it was to be considered as sacred in Midewiwin. Through the shooting of the shell, the Otter became immortal and had the ability to convey the secrets of Midewiwin to the original people.[6]

The role of Midewiwin to the culture and religion of the Ojibwa

The role of the Midewiwin among the Ojibwa emanated from the four stages of the ceremony in which a number of members of the society were initiated. In each stage of the ceremony, an initiate received a higher level of power. Every stage of the ceremony, however, had costs and it was not compulsory for every individual in the initiation process to advance to the next level. In fact, very few individuals made it beyond the first level. [7]

The initiation process of members of Midewiwin was essential in the religion and culture of the Ojibwa since it provided a platform of not only healing those considered to be suffering from different diseases, it also served the purpose of imparting moral teachings to the initiates who were taking part in the ceremony. During the ceremony participants advanced from one level to another by giving offerings to the older members that had already been initiated.[8]

Midewiwin, the Great Medicine Dance, in this culture initiated new priests who were to begin a new role as healers. The dance lasted for about five days and it attracted huge gatherings. As the new priests gave out their presents to outgoing priests, the rest of the community were treated to a feast and at the end of the feast the new priests were allowed to take up their positions as healers and the rest of the members sung and danced to the songs that had been transmitted to them form earlier generations. Midewiwin brought a religious mood in the community as it also emphasized the need to uphold Ojibwa’s cultural heritage through the songs and dances that had existed through different generations.[9]

The initiation process also involved leadership training to those who wanted to become members of Midewiwin, as spiritual healers and practitioners. Leadership training in this case involved teachings on morality and on the names of medicines and how they were used in curing diseases during the Midewiwin ceremony.  These instructions were of cultural and religious importance since the initiation process was an indication of the continuity of the practice as younger practitioners and medicine men were being trained to replace the older ones.[10] Religious importance in the initiation process was in the teachings of the initiates who were made to understand the origin of the ceremony, its essence and why it was the most important of all the ceremonies among the Ojibwa.[11]

Religious and cultural importance of the ceremony was also revealed in the instructions related to the mysteries of the Midewiwin. These mysteries encompassed the qualities of rare but important herbs and how to locate them. It also entailed the techniques that could be used in identifying and differentiating herbs from poison. In the Ojibwa culture, it was only the initiated members that were allowed to record Midewiwin details on birch-bark scrolls since they were taught the techniques of conducting such recordings.[12]

Midewiwin incorporated both cultural and religious aspects in the ceremony through the use of both religious and cultural songs in praising the Good Spirit and other spirits for the wonderful gift of Midewiwin. The ceremony helped the Ojibwa to develop a culture of healing by divine intervention. Every member of the Midewiwin owned a bag of medicine and an otter. The bag contained not only medicine but also other sacred objects that were considered essential in the ceremony. In the process of curing diseases or initiating practitioners, the patients, and initiates aware shot at using the bag of medicine that had sacred objects, such as the white shell. After the shooting, the patient had to spit the medicine out of his mouth and this signified the end of the ceremony as it was an indication that the supernatural powers of the Good Spirit had been carried into the bodies of the said patient. [13]


The relationship between Christianity and Midewiwin

When related to Christianity, it is possible to note that Midewiwin is not so much focussed on the worship of the Good Spirit, it is more concerned with the preservation of the knowledge of herbs that are essential in prolonging life. From the myth about the origin of the ceremony, one notices that the Good Rabbit had noticed that the original people were suffering from hunger and diseases, and so with the help of the Good Spirit, they Good Rabbit provided the Ojibwa with a technique they could use to eradicate suffering and live a happy and long life.[14]

The main idea behind the Midewiwin is that life can only be prolonged with proper lifestyle and the use of herbs that were deliberated for that function. The ethics of the Great Dance, therefore, teaches that righteousness of behaviour produces a longer life and that evil reacts as an enemy to a happy life. Just like Christianity, Midewiwin held that belonging to a society does not exempt an individual from the consequences. One can however undergo the healing process of the Great dance to ask for the intervention of the Good Spirit while in Christianity all it takes is repentance. Respect towards the Great Dance is emphasized, as it is both a cultural and religious process that guarantees respect to women, it also forbade activities such as engaging in lies, stealing another person’s property and the use of alcoholic drinks. These are also not allowed in Christianity.[15]

Just as priests and other religious leaders in Christianity are trained on their responsibilities to the members of the Christian family so are the priests and healers who are taken through four levels of training. As they advance from one level to another, they receive the necessary trainings and instructions from experienced members in the group. All candidates that are to be initiated are given both moral and religious instructions. This is similar to Christianity as morality is of great importance in the operations of priests and members of Christian fraternity.[16] In Christianity, however, morality is emphasized by teachings from the bible while in Midewiwin, moral teachings are based on cultural and religious values that have been passed down through generations.  In the passing of moral teachings, initiates are taught about the herbs they should be using. At a higher level, however, they are given instructions related to the mysteries of the Midewiwin, types of rare herbs, and types of poisons. Every level of training has a special song and the type of medicine bag that the new priests must carry.[17]

Other than the teachings on morality, the new healers were also trained on personal behaviour since as healers they had the responsibility of using either a herb or a poison on a patient. They were taught to be slow to anger and thoughtful before making any decision. In addition, they were also taught to be gentle, patient and respectful to not only the elders in the society but also all the other members.[18]

Christianity has a way by which its leaders can be easily identified. This can be in the way they dress or the sitting positions they are accorded. Different officials in Christianity dress in certain ways that make them easy to identify. This was also the case among practitioners of Midewiwin. All practitioners of different levels had unique designs painted on their faces. These designs were specific to the level they had attained in the stages of Midewiwin. All members of the society also carried medicine bags that were also level specific. The bag, just like the bible among Christians, was the most important possession. The difference between the medicine bag and the Bible was that the former was so essential to the individual to an extent that when any member of the Midewiwin died, he or she was buried with the bag.[19] The bag contained herbs, Migiis Shell, and other charms that were used in the shooting of new members or those who were to undergo the healing process.

One of the major points of conflict between Midewiwin and Christianity was the reference that was made to a deity. While missionaries insisted that the Ojibwa needed to pay homage to a single god, the Ojibwa, being a community that believed in spirits, made reference to many deities called Mide Manidong, which meant, Grand Medicine Spirits. They also had subordinate spirits in the form of animals. They were convinced that the Midewiwin was the perfect trend off worship as described in the parchment of birch back scrolls. Any form of distraction away from such tradition was in itself an evil attempt.[20] This was in agreement with Christianity, which asserts its beliefs on biblical teachings, and any foreign teaching that goes against the set doctrines is considered as evil.

The Importance of Animals and Cosmology in Midewiwin

Animals were believed to be essential beings in Midewiwin. The medicine bags that were considered as symbols of healing were made of animal skin. These bags were believed to be housing specific animal spirits. Animals constituted a major lithic representation based on the similarities and differences that existed between man and animals. There were certain animal representations that commanded economic benefits in terms of the value of different parts of their bodies, such as the flesh, the skin or even the bones of the said animal. There were also other animals that were a representation of totemic essence in their quasi conceptual appearances.[21]

The bear, for instance, was of great importance in the ceremonial life of the Midewiwin. This animal was considered as a guiding spirit. It provided a sense of direction throughout an individual’s lifetime, especially on issues related to the spirits. As the guardian in life, the bear provided an individual with the necessary insights on the right living; it was also a guide on how an individual could  access spiritual powers.  The bear was also considered as a guiding spirit in the death of an individual. Other than the provision of the necessary guidance in life, the bear was also regarded as a leader in numerous tasks in the Midewiwin ceremony. These included the provision of policing services, such as guiding the doorway to the ceremony and the provision of healing services. Other than the bear, the dog was also essential in Ojibwa culture. This was especially in the process of offering sacrifices to their spirits. [22]

Ojibwa’s religion and ceremonies, such as Midewiwin had beliefs that were mainly focussed on the spiritual world. These spirits were believed to inhabit the natural world. The spirits were those of the sun, thunder, the moon, lightning, and thunderbirds. These were considered as essential in their belief system. The cosmology among the Ojibwa was essential as it provided every individual with a guardian spirit to which attention was mandatory. The Ojibwa believed that the process of acquiring such a spirit was detailed as it required a spirit quest.[23] Upon the acquisition of the said spirit, the spirit could always be called upon to assist the individual in challenging situations. For communication to occur between an individual and his or her spirit, there was a need for the person to examine his or her dream as a way of identifying if there was any communication from the spirit world. As fundamental beings in the well-being of the Ojibwa, the spirits had to be honoured. This was achieved by burning tobacco and the smoke would signal them that the man was appeasing them. [24]

Other than their belief in spirits, the Ojibwa also believed in the four powers of the universe. These centres of power acted as resting places of the spirits. These powerful areas were located in the contemporary cardinal directions of west, east, north, and south. During the Midewiwin, the healers and priests were to appeal to the spirits from the four centres of power to intervene in the healing process. During the initiation ceremony of new priests, the older priests had the responsibility of appealing to every individual’s spirit to guide them throughout their duties as healers.[25]

Medicine and Health Practices Involved in the Midewiwin

In the Ojibwa culture, diseases and other illnesses were assumed to be a result of sorcery or sometimes as punishment resulting from disrespect to the spirit world. Curing was performed by healers who had been inducted after an initiation process. These healers had the ability of retrieving information by the spirits from their dreams and visions. This was combined with their knowledge of herbs that helped in curing diseases.

Prior to the Midewiwin, the priest was responsible for the patient and as a result, he was to use his knowledge of herbs to seek the swamp root.[26] This was medicine that was to protect the patient from ill intentions of bad medicine men, who could have wanted to shoot them when the rest of the members were shooting to invoke some healing. If such medicine was not prepared before the ceremony, the results of the healing process would be against Midewiwin’s teaching on health practices that could lead to prolonged life.[27] This was based on the possibility that bad medicine men had the ability to use their powers to cause illness or at times death to the sick patient.

Other than the swamp root that offered protection, there were other essential elements in the healing process, such as herbs. These herbs were to be ingested by the patient to induce vomiting to regurgitate the shell.[28]

The shell formed a very essential component in the healing process. Being the medicine arrow, the Migiis Shell was believed to be containing a spirit that could provide life. It was injected by members of the Midewiwin using their medicine bags. The smaller Migiis Shells were believed to be more powerful than the larger shells. Once the shooting had been performed, the patient became apparently unconscious. This is the healing process.[29]

Other than the herbal medicines and the spiritual assistance from the shell, members of Midewiwin stressed on the essence of correct living as perfect health practice to ensure that one lives a longer life. Healthy living entailed abiding by the existing laws to minimize an individual’s chances of annoying the spirits as it could attract punishment in the form of diseases. Healthy living also entailed living a life free of alcohol and other prohibited foods.[30]


Midewiwin referred to both the Great Medicine Society of healers and priests, and a dance, The Great Medicine Dance. Priests and healers of Midewiwin had the responsibility of providing curing and healing services to members of the cultural community. This process was aimed at upholding the cultural belief among the Ojibwa that one could only line a longer life through correct living. Any form of illness could be healed through participation in the Great Medicine Dance. Midewiwin was also a religious ceremony as it involved the powers of the spirit world that through the Migiis Shells and herbs healed an ailing member of the Ojibwa community. It is important to note that, as a secret society, members of the Midewiwin had to be initiated through a four-stage process that lasted for not more than 5 days. This ceremony provided knowledge on herbs, the spirits, and morality. Just like Christianity, Midewiwin had a set of rules that every member was to abide by, failure to which they could suffer the consequences.





Angel, Michael. Preserving the Sacred Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin.

Winnipeg [Man.]: University of Manitoba Press, 164- 165, 2002.

Brill, Charles & Charles, Brill. Red Lake Nation: Portraits of Ojibway Life.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Paper, Jordan, D. Native North American religious traditions: dancing for life.

Westport, Conn: Praeger, 83- 85, 2007.

Peers, Lynn, L. The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870. Winnipeg, Man: University

of Manitoba Press, pp. 164- 166, 1994

Pomedli, Michael, M. Living With Animals: Ojibwe Spirit Powers. 2014

Tannenbaum, Rebecca, J. Health and Wellness in Colonial America. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, 2012.

Vennum, Thomas. The Ojibwa Dance Drum: its History and Construction. St. Paul:

Minnesota Historical Society Press, pp. 10- 15, 180





[1]Thomas Vennum. The Ojibwa Dance Drum: its History and Construction. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 10, 2009.

[2] Venum, p. 11

[3] Ibid, p. 15

[4] Ibid, p. 15

[5] Ibid, p.15-16

[6] Ibid, p. 17

[7] Charles Brill & Brill Charles. Red Lake Nation: Portraits of Ojibway Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 100, 1992

[8]Charles & Brill, p. 100

[9] Ibid, p. 101

[10] Jordan Paper. Native North American religious traditions: dancing for life. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 83, 2007

[11] Charles & Brill, p. 100

[12] Paper, 83

[13] Ibid 84

[14] Venum, p. 180

[15] Ibid 84-85

[16] Laura Peers. The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780 to 1870. Winnipeg, Man: University of Manitoba Press, p. 164, 1994

[17] Peers, p. 164

[18] Ibid, p. 165

[19] Ibid, p. 166

[20] Ibid, p. 167

[21] Michael Pomedli. Living With Animals: Ojibwe Spirit Powers. P. 44, 2014.

[22]Pomedli, p. 44

[23] Ibid, p. 45

[24] Ibid, p. 45

[25] Ibid, p. 45-46

[26] Michael Angel. Preserving the Sacred Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin. Winnipeg [Man, 164, 2002.

[27]Angel, 164

[28] Angel, 164

[29] Ibid, 165

[30] Ibid, 164- 165