The Chippewa are also known as Ojibway, Ojibwa, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, or Anishinaabe. The word “Chippewa” is a mispronunciation of “Ojibwa,” a native word that translates loosely as “puckered,” believed to be a reference to the puckered seams found on the moccasins worn by the tribe. The Chippewa call themselves “Anishinaabe,” which means, the original people. They are members of the Algonquin language family, sharing similarities with languages spoken by the Cree, Potawatomi, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne. Algonquin-speaking tribes today stretch as far south as North Carolina, and west into the Rockies.
Early histories of the Chippewa place the tribe as far north as Canada’s Hudson Bay, or further east near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Around 900 A.D., they moved westward, settling into the woodlands of Canada, Michigan, and Minnesota. Later, some Chippewa also moved into North Dakota and Montana. By the seventeenth century, when the French began to arrive, the Chippewa were established throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The land was rich with timber, minerals, game, and wild rice, making it an ideal home for the Chippewa. The environment provided an abundance of building materials for homes and canoes to navigate the many rivers and lakes. The Chippewa were successful fur traders with the French and British. The fur trade resulted in intermarriages between the Chippewa and Cree and European fur traders, which strengthened alliances between the groups. The children of these intermarriages became known as Métis or Michif.
The Chippewa fought alongside the French in the French and Indian War, and with the British during the War of 1812. In 1815 the tribe began to formalize a series of treaties with the U.S. government, ceding control of huge tracts of land in exchange for the guarantee of reservation lands, and for the provision of educational and other services. The LaPointe Treaty of 1854 transferred extensive tribal lands to the government in exchange for only six reservations, which were not large enough to accommodate all of the tribal members who would be relocated under the treaty’s terms. But unlike many other tribes, the Chippewa were not forced to migrate away from the homelands they had established centuries earlier, although a few groups did eventually move farther west, to newly established reservations in the Dakotas.
In 1882, President Chester Arthur established the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota (where Louise Erdrich is a member). Today the reservation (only 11 miles from the Canadian border) includes more than 30,000 enrolled Chippewa and Métis members.
Today's Chippewa live both on reservations and in rural areas and large urban centers. People living on the reservation face unemployment or underemployment due to the instability of seasonal jobs like forestry or trapping for income.
In recent decades reservations have successfully developed business operations, from manufacturing to tourism to casino development, for other sources of income. Many Chippewa are benefiting from tribally run schools and colleges that offer courses in business as well as traditional arts and language.