In the Ojibway language, Kitchi-Gami means Lake Superior. Johann Georg Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer, geographer, and ethnologist. In 1855, he spent six months visiting trading posts and missions in Ojibway country near Kitchi-Gami, mostly at the Apostle Islands off the north coast of Wisconsin, and at the settlements at the base of Keweenaw Bay, in northern Michigan.
Kohl’s book, Kitchi-Gami, was published in 1860. It presents a different perspective from John Tanner’s 1830 book, The Falcon. Tanner was a white man, kidnapped as a boy, who spent 30 years among the Ojibway, had a hard life, and described his many struggles. Kohl was a visitor from outer space who was fascinated by the Ojibway. He interviewed many, learned a lot about their culture, and discussed numerous subjects not mentioned by Tanner.
Kohl was eager to record as much as possible about the Ojibway, because it looked like Native Americans were rapidly dying off, and would soon be gone. At the same time, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were working to preserve remnants of the traditional culture of Germany, because the rustic folks who still remembered bits of it were also dying off.
Both the Ojibway and wild Germans were cultures that inhabited vast ancient forests, sacred places of magic, mystery, hungry wolves, and mystical little people (fairies). Kohl noted that the folktales of both had similar themes and lessons. Ojibway birch bark wigwams were of comparable quality to the huts of poor peasants in Lithuania, Ireland, or Polish Jews. Like Scandinavians, the Ojibway fished at night using torches. Germany had witches or sorcerers who could cause others harm by curses, charms, or spells. The Ojibway had Windigos, men or women possessed by evil spirits who were terribly common.
Kohl’s gift to us is a remembrance of the closing days of the wild frontier, when Ojibway country was relatively unmolested, except for its furbearing animals. The St. Mary’s River was the eastern outlet for Kitchi-Gami. Bears crossed it during seasonal migrations. In 1811, the migration lasted all summer, and 6,000 bears were killed, as many as 100 per night. Before Kohl arrived, the greedy fur mining industry in the region had peaked, sharply declined, and moved westward.
Near the St. Mary’s River was a settlement named Rivière au Désert, because it was a ghastly, hideous eyesore in the wilderness — scruffy patches of oats or barley planted amidst stumps. “Nature is here, at the outset, a pleasing wild forest garden; but when civilized man breaks into it, his axe and his fire produce a desert of half-carbonized tree stumps and skeletons.” French Canadians call these patches of cultivation “un désert.”
Kohl was fascinated by the spiritual life of the Ojibway. In Germany, the black robes commonly taught that the world is a hellish nightmare of demons, wickedness, and abominations. The Ojibway, on the other hand, loved their sacred land, and cared for it. Their culture was not fixated on the soul’s path in the afterlife. They had a vibrant spiritual connection to life in the here and now.
Unfortunately, the here and now was sharply different from the good old days. Kohl chatted with an old woman whose name meant “dawn.” He called her Aurora. The blitzkrieg of civilization had pushed the Sioux out of their forest homeland, and westward onto the prairie. Tribal warfare intensified. People no longer felt safe. Aurora had lost three brothers, and ten other close relatives. She said that the Ojibway were far weaker since the Long-knives arrived. They used to be healthier and stronger, able to go ten days without food and not complain. Their traditional culture was withering.
He was amazed to learn about the Ojibway vision quests, which were part of their rites of passage into adulthood. Nowhere in Europe did young boys or girls courageously “fast for days on behalf of a higher motive, retire to the most remote forests, defy all the claims of nature, and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters, that they fell into convulsions, and attained an increased power of perception, which they did not possess in ordinary life.” Sometimes it took ten days of fasting to have important dreams.
In Germany, Christian preachers taught their flocks to give away their wealth, and live a life of unconditional love. Native Americans were perplexed to observe that the teachings of the black robes often had no association with their behaviors. The aliens seemed to be possessed with a frantic desire to seize and hoard as much wealth as possible. They were arrogant, domineering, and impressively dishonest — the opposite of loving.
The Ojibway actually practiced what the Christians preached. “As a universal rule, next to the liar, no one is so despised by the Indians as the narrow-hearted egotist and greedy miser.” Voyageurs and traders regularly travelled through Indian country with valuable goods and full purses. There were no police or soldiers in the wilderness, but it was very rare for a trader to be attacked for the sole purpose of robbery. But the two big fur trading companies “often plundered each other’s posts, and employed the Indians for that purpose.”
Kohl was impressed by the charity of the Ojibway. “There are no rich men among them.” An Indian will not hesitate to share his last meal with a hungry stranger. The principle is “that a man must first share with others and then think of himself.” He was also impressed by their egalitarian society. No man, not even a cripple, considered another Indian to be his superior.
Kohl was not a hunter-gatherer in Germany, and he was not raised in an egalitarian society. He did not understand that hunting abilities varied greatly. In The Art of Tracking, Louis Liebenberg noted that among the San hunters aged 15 to 38, “70 percent of all the kudu kills were made by only 17 percent of the hunters, while almost half the hunters made no kudu kills at all.”
The “communist” Ojibway annoyed him with their absolute commitment to generosity. The poor hunter “is forced to give all his spoil away, industry is never rewarded, and the hard-working man toils for the lazy. A man often has to support others, without complaining. So, all are fed, and none ever get prosperous.” The heathens were more Christian than the Christians.
Liebenberg wrote a lot about persistence hunting — running after game until they collapsed from exhaustion (a practice that led to our ancestors becoming bipedal). Kohl noted that the Ojibway also did this. Horses were not ideal for hunting in a forest. Running down elk was easiest in the deep snows of winter, when the hunter travelled on snowshoes. Sometimes bears were chased down.
One day, when Kohl was in the Apostle Islands, “A warlike maiden suddenly appeared, who boasted of having taken a Sioux scalp, and she was led in triumph from lodge to lodge. I was told that a supernatural female had appeared to this girl, who was now nineteen, during the period of her great fasts and dreams of life, who prophesied to her that she would become the greatest runner of her tribe, and thus gain the mightiest warrior for husband.”
Women were healers, prophets, and enchanters. “It may be easily supposed that these squaws, owing to their performing all the work of joiners, carpenters, and masons, have corned and blistered hands. In fact, their hands are much harder to the touch than those of the men; and, indeed, their entire muscular system is far more developed, and they are proportionately stronger in the arm, for the men do not do much to bring out the muscle.”
Raised in rigidly strict Germany, Kohl was amazed by how loving Ojibway parents were. “Indians have an ape-like affection for their children. Even fathers are very kind to their sons, and never treat them with severity.” Europeans often exposed (abandoned) unwanted children, but the Ojibway never did. But when the elderly could no longer keep up with the band, they were left behind.
In Kitchi-Gami country, there were numerous locations named Lac du Flambeau (Torch Lake). In summer, when vast clouds of mosquitoes made life miserable, the deer waded into lakes and ponds, just keeping their heads above water. Hunters in canoes quietly moved toward them from downwind, with birch bark torches burning. The deer calmly stared at the light, and were easily killed.
So, dearest reader, there’s a sampler. Kohl also described their wigwams, canoes, diet, food preservation, sugar making, fishing, clothing, revenge killing, warfare, spells and magic, medicine, vision quests, dreams, ceremonies, stories, reverence for copper, symbolic drawings on birch bark paper, and on and on.
Kohl, Johann Georg, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860, Reprint, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1985.
NOTE: Early editions of this book refer to the Ojibway as Ojibbeway. These people are also known as the Chippewa and Anishinabe, in a variety of spellings.