Nesper – The Meaning of Clans

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Clanship among Ojibwa is probably, is becoming more important, I think, for people as an aspect of their social identity. I will hear people say things like, “I’m a Crane Clan member. I got my clan from my father.” When it is time for someone to speak. When it is time for someone to speak on behalf of some issue or for someone else, it’s a Crane Clan member that should step forward and do the speaking. There’s a sense again of responsibility to the clan identity.

I’ve heard Ojibwa men, in particular an Ojibwa man in particular, say he’s Wolf Clan, and Wolf Clan members must step forward when there is a need for a pallbearer because it was the Wolf Clan members who went out onto the battlefields in the nineteenth century and earlier and cared for the dead and brought them back. So, in the twentieth and the twenty-first century, it’s Wolf Clan members who will offer themselves as pallbearers or who’ll assume to be pallbearers. So these are, these are responsibilities people assume on the basis of descent and genealogy and I think this is growing in importance throughout Indian country and certainly in northern Wisconsin in the Great Lakes region.

Bear Clan people amongst Ojibwa people act as police. So in the context perhaps of the boat landings, Bear Clan men would step forward and be sure to protect the non-fishermen who were present, the tribal members who were non-fishermen who were present on the boat landings.

Fish Clan people are talked about as being intellectuals. So they will be encouraged to be disposed to have opinions about matters and to be reflective in a way in which another clan might not feel.

Again, there’s a kind of improvisation about this, a creative improvisation within the context of tradition and within the context of values and understandings that are historical. I think these things become both focuses of meditation, of personal meditation, and they also become topics of conversation for people to mutually determine and figure out what it means to be a member of this. This is done in dialogue with other people. And this is I think part of the creative aspect of indigenous society that is so often missed by non-Indians who are not close to these societies. There’s a great creativity, there’s a lot of improvisation. There’s a lot of living in culture and elaborating it that I think we miss as non-Indians thinking that these things are somehow set in stone or somehow unchanging.

I think clanship as a mode of organizing total societies is seen as contrasting with the way in which non-Indian society is organized. I think non-Indian society is imagined in terms of individuals acting autonomously on the basis of the rights that they have to action, the rights that they have to define themselves, make a life for themselves, etcetera. I think that in tribal societies there’s a revitalization of the idea that society exists before the individual. The individual lives a fulfilling life to the extent to which they conform to expectations that have been laid down long ago and expectations largely to be responsible to other people and not define oneself in an autonomous way. Yes, I think [in] a dialogue with people in talking about the ordinary concerns of everyday life, I think aspects of identity emerge. And people will talk about the significance of the fact that they are a member of a certain clan and will share what they think about what their responsibilities are as clan members and will indicate that this is an ongoing area of interest to them personally and that they have social relationships with people that are in some ways informed by the importance of the fact that they’re in the same clan or that they’re in different clans and that they live in some sort of complimentary relationship to each other.

I think that one of the things that an ethnographer tries to do is spend time with people doing what they like to do, talking about what they like to talk about. When we have the opportunity to actually do things together, we then have the opportunity to talk about what it means that we did things together and the meaning of these activities that we both experienced. We can both reflect together on the meaning of these things having both done them.

One of the things an ethnographer does is write a lot. Is that we spend time with each other, with the people that we’re working with, we do the things they like to do, we talk about the things they like to do, and when we’re not with them we write. And we write our field notes, and this is an attempt to represent what it is that we’ve been doing and just to capture, to attempt to capture, to get down on paper the things that people said, what we thought about what people said, ideas about what we would like to pursue in the future either in conversation or an activity that we would like to do. But that’s an important part, I think, of what we do. This then produces what are called field notes. Field notes are something that we return to regularly, mostly because when we’re writing we don’t necessarily understand the significance of what we’re writing while we’re writing it. Because our understanding of what’s going on evolves over a period of time, so we sometimes have actually been told something that we don’t understand but subsequently we come to understand and can reflect upon that and reflect upon its significance at a later date.

Then when you think about it, people have been interested in Indian people for a long time and a lot of them have been literate. So there is a three or four hundred year record really of American Indian societies in the Great Lakes region that can be consulted. Not only by ethnographers who are in the field and are wondering about, “well, what was this community like 200 years ago,” and reflect on that. Not only do we use these texts to reflect on and to use in our inquiry in the activities that we undertake. But we also, our consultants, our informants, if you like, also use these texts because they have access to these in many cases as well. And they too can get to reflect upon these things and think about their societies. The ethnographic writings that have been produced by non-Indians are now being read by Indian people critically to in some cases to comment about how certain anthropologists and ethnographers got things wrong and in other cases to appreciate the way in which they appear to have got things right. And these become valuable resources for people, and can become valuable resources for people, revitalizing ceremonies or certain kinds of activities, because I think as we know a lot of the early ethnographers were good hearted, interested people who were good scholars and careful and wrote a lot of stuff down that has come to be of some use and value to Indian people throughout the region.

I’m Larry Nesper. I’m an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of Anthropology and American Indian Studies. I wrote my dissertation on the Ojibwa spearfishing conflict that took place in the 1980s and took my degree at the University of Chicago in 1994. My research is largely in the area of legal and political development among the tribes of the western Great Lakes.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,

Photo credits:
Crane – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Mwanner
Wolf – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Retron
Bear – photo courtesy of GLIFWC
Fish – photo courtesy of Eric Engbretson/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Alfred Irving Hallowell- photo courtesy of American Philosophical Society
Frances Densmore – photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution
Ruth Landes – photo courtesy of National Anthropological Archives (Image ID_photo_ruth_landes_)
Alanson Skinner – photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Museum

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