The Indians in winter
March 13, 2011The Indians in Winter: How they survived -- and thrived -- in a frozen land
By Robert Downes
Have you ever wondered how the Indians of Northern Michigan lived through
the cruel, cold winter months just a few generations ago?
Today, we depend on natural gas, forced-air furnaces, electric blankets,
heated cars and expensive down jackets and still we complain of the cold
and yearn for Florida. By contrast, the Chippewa (also called the
Anishnabe and Ojibwa), along with the Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians of
pre-settlement days lived in homes built of bark and saplings, relying on
furs and open fires to keep themselves warm, and faced with the challenge
of hunting their own food in the wilderness with only primitive weapons.
Several years ago, a bestselling book, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer,
told the story of Christopher McCandless, an idealistic young white man
who starved to death in Alaska despite having a rifle to hunt game with
and the shelter of a trailer. By contrast, the thousands of Indians who
lived in our region 200 years ago had far less to work with. What they did
have, however, was woodcraft, endurance and wisdom that was hard-won over
centuries of struggle.
How did they survive? And what could they teach us today, in a world faced
by concerns over peak oil and climate change?
Since the Indians used the oral tradition to pass down their history and
legends, much of what we know about how they lived in the winter comes
from conversations which were written down for posterity, along with the
written accounts of white explorers and trappers who lived among them.
People like Henry Schoolcraft, the son-in-law of a Chippewa chiefs
daughter, who lived among the northern tribes as an Indian agent for 30
years in the early-mid 1800s; or Alexander Henry, an English trader who
was captured in the fall of Fort Michilimackinac in 1763 and spent a year
with a Chippewa band, joining them as a hunter in their winter camp.
These writers left us stirring tales of people who regarded winter as an
ally in their survival.
The Athapaskan and Algonquin tribal groups of Alaska and the upper Midwest
perfected winter living and travel techniques over 10,000 years, notes
Stephen Gorman, author of the book, Winter Camping.
Northern peoples have always found an ally in winter, Gorman states.
The season makes their lives easier, not harder. Northern natives depend
upon winter; they do not exist despite it. Winter makes life in the North
In the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, prospectors found that the only way to
travel was during the winter, when hard-packed snow made it possible to
run dogsleds across the tundra, which was potted with unwalkable tussocks
in the summer months.
The same conditions served the Indians of Northern Michigan, with winter
being a primary hunting season. For the hunter, mobility is of paramount
importance, writes Gorman. The ability to cover vast areas in search of
elusive and widely-dispersed game animals is critical to survival. Snow
provides that mobility.
In addition to beating down the brush of the forest, which was difficult
to walk through during the summer, snow made it possible to track animals
and to sled their meat and skins back to camp. Frozen rivers became
highways for Indian hunters. By some accounts, the Ojibway called January
the Snow Moon, February the Hunger Moon, and March the Moon of the
Snow-Crust, because by then the sun had covered the snow with a firm
crust, making it easy to travel. April was the Moon for Breaking
Snowshoes, a haphazard of a season of hard use.
In 1809, Alexander Henry wrote an account of his winter with the Chippewa
and how he was saved through his friendship with Wawatam, the leader of a
small band. Wawatam considered him to be his brother as the result of a
vision he had a year before the massacre at Fort Michilimackinac in 1763.
In his vision, Wawatam had been told that he would befriend a white man
and make him a member of his family; he recognized Henry as his future
brother when the trader arrived via a long canoe trip from Montreal.
Thus, Henry fell in with a tribal band on its seasonal migration south
from the Straits. He wrote that after fishing with great success for
sturgeon off Cape St. Ignace, Wawatams band made preparations to leave
for their winter hunting grounds as the fall grew near.
At our wintering ground we were to be alone, he wrote, for the Indian
families separate in the winter season for the convenience as well of
subsistence, and re-associate in the spring and summer.
HUNTING & FISHING
Henry estimated that the band traveled about 150 miles south along the
west coast of Lake Michigan to what was then called the River Aux Sables,
which is thought to be the present-day site of Ludington. There, he
joined the tribe in hunting deer, bear, raccoon, beaver and marten. The
band had muskets as well as bows and arrows. Beaver were caught by
crossing the ice and busting up their lodges, while raccoons were tracked
to their holes in trees, where they were easily scooped up in a
On the 20th day of December we took an account of the produce of our hunt
and found that we had 100 beaver skins, as many raccoons, and a large
quantity of dried venison, all which was secured from the wolves by being
placed upon a scaffold, he wrote.
Much of this was intended to be taken back to Fort Michilimackinac in
April as trade goods for the French Voyageurs. These included kettles,
knives, hatchets, beads and ammunition. One can well imagine that an iron
convenience such as a kettle was well appreciated: the age-old alternative
was dropping a hot rock in a birchbark container to heat water or soup.
The Indians also used snares to capture large game, and nets for geese and
other birds. A French observer named Nicolas Perrot reported that a band
of Chippewa collected 2,400 moose on Manitoulin Island using only snares
in the winter of 1670-71.
In his book, The Huron: Farmers of the North, Bruce Tribber claims that
fishing was even more important than hunting to the Indians as a food
source. Fishing for whitefish, herring and sturgeon along the St. Marys
River at the Soo was a tradition that is believed to have existed for
centuries. Dried or smoked fish was used to get through the winter, or as
flavoring for corn soup. In the winter, fish were caught through the
ice. This was done with a net passed by means of a pole from one hole to
another; the holes being arranged in a circular fashion.
Tribber says the Huron did most of their hunting in the fall, rather than
the winter. Often, they organized game drives: Sometimes several
hundred men would land on an island and form a line through the forest
Then, making a loud noise, they would drive the animals toward a fixed
point along the water (where) the deer were either shot with arrows or
killed with sharpened poles by men in canoes.
Enclosures of brush piled up 9 feet high were also used in game drives.
Repeating this every second day for 38 days, a band of hunters was able
to kill 120 deer, Tribber writes of one enclosure hunt. The cold
weather was useful because it preserved the meat and allowed the hunters
to haul the skins back to their villages on sleds.
HOME SWEET LODGE
Henry wrote that women erected the lodges that his band lived in (they
also did the heaviest work of packing and transporting gear). A lodge
could be 20-by-14 feet, constructed of tamarack trees, the sharpened ends
of which were thrust into the ground and then bent and tied similar to
that of an upside-down basket. The framework was covered with sheets of
bark, and animal skins were used to cover the door as well as the chimney
hole on the roof. Pole wigwams in the form of teepees were also
Longhouses constructed by the Huron and Iroquois, among other tribes,
could be even bigger.
Tribber writes that longhouses were between 90 and 100 feet long,
depending on the number of families living in them. Houses were
constructed of slabs of bark tied onto a wooden frame and held down by a
network of saplings. Cedar bark was considered to be the best covering,
although it was extremely inflammable and often caused fires that
destroyed entire villages.
Siting a camp in the winter was important. An oral history recounted by a
Chippewa from Minnesota named Gah-bay-bi-nayss (Forever Flying Bird),
also known as Paul Peter Buffalo, had this to say:
There were a lot of camping grounds along the river, and in the winter we
moved to one back in the woods where there is plenty of wood to burn, to
heat our children. We lived in the woods by a lake where we could get
fish, by a lake where theres plenty of wood, by a lake where theres
game. We always put our camp for the winter where we can get to fish. We
go where we can set net through the ice, under the ice. We picked out a
place where theres plenty of deer. In our area there would always be
enough for the group. Course there was a lot of game them days. There was
Winter was also the time for festivals, telling stories, and planning
raids on other tribes for the coming year, according to Johann Georg Kohl,
a German ethnologist and popular writer who lived among the Ojibway of
Lake Superior in 1855.
It is a frequent occurrence that the members of a family or the neighbors
will assemble on the long winter evenings, when nothing else can be done,
and request a clever story-teller to tell them old legends and fables,
Kohl wrote in his book, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among The Lake Superior
These could include stories of fairies, animals, witchcraft, manitou
spirits, great deeds, lovers, erotica, bawdy jokes, poetry and more. The
best storytellers were highly valued, keeping the long winter nights at
bay. These stories, I was assured, are not at all inferior to the
Arabian Nights. Kohl wrote. They are just as amusing, various, and
Kohl notes that war chiefs would hold consultations to plan strategy, the
whole winter through, smoke countless pipes, beat the drum in turn, mutter
magic songs the whole night, consult over the plan of operations, and send
tobacco to their friends, as an invitation to them to take part in the
He added that winter is the season of consultation, for war is rarely
carried on then, partly because the canoe could not be employed on the
frozen lakes, and partly because the snow would betray their trail and the
direction of their march too easily.
A benefit, of course, was this also meant that ones own band was
protected from raids during the winter.
Winter was no paradise for the Indians, however, especially for the weak
and elderly. Henry wrote that old people were often plagued by the misery
of rheumatism and lung infections. Their mode of life, in which they are
so much exposed to the wet and cold, sleeping on the ground and inhaling
the night air, accounts for their liability to these diseases.
Starvation was also a common occurrence, according to John Tanner
(nicknamed the White Indian in his time), who spent nearly 30 years
living among the Ojibway and Chippewa. Tanner had two Indian wives and
families in the early 1800s.
Tanner was once brained with a tomahawk by a Sioux enemy and suffered a
skull fracture. He was nursed back to health over a 10-day period by a
friend named Otopunnebe. Some time afterward this good man suffered the
fate which overtakes so many of the Ojibways -- he starved to death,
Cannibalism could also occur in extreme situations, Tanner wrote. One
member of his band, a rather insignificant person and a poor hunter, had
once eaten his own wife because of hunger and the Indians had wanted to
kill him at the time as unworthy to live.
Kohl wrote that Ojibways who resorted to eating others in the face of
starvation were dubbed windigos and were feared and shunned thereafter
(windigos were also people-eating giants of old in Indian lore). if a
man has ever had recourse to this last and most horrible method of saving
his life, even when the circumstances are pressing and almost excusable,
he is always regarded with terror and horror by the Indians.
Its not hard to imagine that one could develop a feral temperament over
five months of cold and snow, especially when game was scarce. Henry
Schoolcraft collected the following poem, Song of the Wolf Brother,
which offers some insight into how starving Indians may have felt:
Nesia, my older brother,
Bones have been my forest meal,
Shared with wolves the long, long winter,
And their nature now I feel.
You can read through half a dozen books on Indian life and not find a
single complaint about enduring winters cold -- either by the tribal
people or by the whites who lived among them.
Perhaps people living in times past were indifferent to the cold by dint
of enduring months in its grip in bark huts or drafty wooden cabins. On
Lewis and Clarks expedition across the continent in 1804, they reported
seeing naked children playing on the ice beside a snowbound village
without any concern for the cold.
That said, its also true that the Indians knew how to dress for the
weather. The French explorer Charlevoix reported that the Potawatomi of
southern Michigan wrote highly ornamented buffalo robes in the winter;
other observers state that deerskin leggings and furs of various animals
were commonly worn. Men and women also greased themselves with oil and
animal fat as a protection against the sun, cold and insects. The
Athabaskan Indians of Alaska reportedly survived that climates 50-below
temperatures by wearing caribou fur, which has a hollow, doubly-insulated
fiber that sheds water and snow.
Still, you have to wonder, if we were ever denied gas or electricity,
could we with all of our technology, miracle fibers and insulation, make
it through the winter as well as the Indians did here in Northern Michigan
just a few generations ago? Perhaps someday well be forced to find out.
The Indians of the Western Great Lakes: 1615-1760 by W. Vernon
Kinietz, University of Michigan Press.
Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway by Johann Georg
Kohl, Minnesota Historical Society Press.
The Huron: Farmers of the North by Bruce G. Trigger, Holt, Rinehart,
The Hiawatha Legends by Henry R. Schoolcraft, Avery Color Studios.
Captured by the Indians: 15 Firsthand Accounts 1750-1870, edited by
Frederick Drimmer, Dover Press.
Attack at Michilimackinac 1763, edited by David A. Armour, Mackinac
Island State Commission.
Winter Camping by Stephen Gorman, Appalachian Mountain Club Books.