Native people in the Great Lakes area recognized individually-owned property. Women and men owned their own tools, clothing, ornaments, and any gifts of property they received. Ojibwa husbands and wives owned property separately but lent their possessions to each other. These ideas about gender and property contrasted with those in colonial and early 19th century America, where married women could not own property. Native children owned their toys and clothing, so parents did not have control over their children’s property.


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Individuals also owned intangible property, often associated with power received in a dream vision. Youths fasted in isolation for a vision in which a spirit helper granted them various powers (in hunting, war, and curing, for example). Ojibwa girls also had dreams in which they acquired power. Associated with the power were objects (for example, a medicine bag), names, and songs given by the spirit helper that symbolized the power of the vision. The power was not effective without the supernatural connection with the spirit. And the owner had to feed the guardian spirit with tobacco and food to maintain the relationship.

Members of the Medicine Lodge (“meda” or “mide”) acquired a medicine bag and other objects upon initiation. They could pass the bag on to a new initiate (for a fee) or dispose of it whatever way they chose.

Some property was owned not by individuals but by groups. Individual clan members served as custodians of clan-owned medicine bundles. Among the Ojibwas, the Dream Dance ritual was owned by groups (possibly residential or family groups or villages). Sometimes, Ojibwa villages owned dances they purchased from other tribes: the village leader was the custodian of the dance.

Land and the resources on it were not “owned” by either groups or individuals. People had “use-rights” to places where they would garden, fish, harvest rice and berries, and tap for sugar. As long as they used these resources, they had a right to them. Villages that had use-rights in a territory permitted others to hunt, fish, and gather there. Even after Americans imposed allotments and legal title to land, the resources on the land continued to be viewed by Indians as associated with use-rights.

Native people valued property as a means of strengthening social bonds. It was never to be accumulated by individuals or groups while other community members went without. Food was always shared with kin and needy members of the community. When a man killed a deer, he shared the meat by hosting a feast. After a group hunt, the meat was divided among the hunters and their families. Community feasts were frequently held when food was harvested or spirit helpers honored. Clans regularly feasted each other. Tools, clothing, and other items were given to others as gifts, sometimes to reinforce friendship and sometimes to meet a kinship obligation.

Obligations to relatives continued after death. Family members dressed the corpse in fine clothing and jewelry and often buried his or her prized possessions with the deceased. Above the grave, many groups erected a grave house with a ledge where they brought tobacco and food to feed the soul of the deceased person for his or her four-day journey to the Afterlife. Property that might be useful for the journey might be left at the grave or buried: weapons, tools, moccasins, cooking and eating utensils. Food was brought to the grave subsequent to these mortuary rituals, as well. These gifts could be used in the Afterlife by the deceased to establish good relationships there. The bereaved would be helped to go on with their lives by annual or periodic attention from others, including gift-giving.


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Today, feasting and gift-giving are important rituals in Native communities. They serve to strengthen the bonds between living people and between the living and the dead. For example, the Ottawa hold “Ghost Suppers” once a year at several settlements. People come together to feast and honor their deceased relatives. At community powwows throughout the Midwest, families give away property to visitors to honor relatives participating in the powwow and to establish friendly relations with non-members of the community. Food also is often distributed to these visitors. And helping others with food and other kinds of economic assistance still is a central value in Indian communities.

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