Nesper – Cultural Change Research

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Ojibwa people stipulated for the right to continue to hunt, fish, and gather on their traditional territories when they ceded land to the United States. Those rights were exercised for a period of time in the middle of the 19th century and the State of Wisconsin began to infringe upon those rights toward the later end of the 19th century and certainly into the 20th century. In the late 20th century, Ojibwa people went to court and sued for the right to continue to practice and regulate themselves in these activities.

When they began to practice these things, it was first a curious undertaking, or seen as curious and perhaps even interesting from the non-Indian point of view. It soon was resisted by non-Indian people on the grounds that Ojibwa people had special rights as opposed to equal rights. And this was the discourse, this was the conflict: whether or not, “how Indian were these people really?” from a certain perspective. “How American were they?”, in other words. When the people began to exercise these rights, they were celebrating the renewal and the revitalization of particular practices that they had been able to do somewhat surreptitiously off the reservation before. When it was contested by people, when it was opposed by people, when the mass protests began on the boat landings, where non-Indians were out there yelling at Indian people, they, Indian people, reflected on the value and the meaning of these activities in a new way.

They became, as I said, icons of their culture, these practices became icons of their culture, by virtue of the resistance that was presented to them in this. An icon of culture is an activity or a symbol or a material object that condenses values that are traditional, indigenous, and is seen as such by both the people that produce these things as well as the people who consume them. People looked at these practices as important in aspects of their culture. They became more important in proportion to the resistance that was presented to them, I would say. When people faced opposition, what had been subsistence became a kind of warfare. That was a transformation that was created by the larger political and social context within which that was developed.

How we know about this has got to do with being present, being present on the boat landings with people, going out in the boats with people while they’re fishing, helping people clean fish, being present to help cook food for feasts, being present at the feasts themselves where the food is consumed by people. It’s in all of those contexts where we learn the meaning of these things to people, I would say.

When, in early May of 1989 Indian Ojibwa people at Lac du Flambeau anticipated a conflict with the non-Indian protestors, a great feast was given, many speakers came up and talked about battles in the past, evoking memories of service in the U.S. Army and the Marines and the Navy and making the analogy between service to the United States as a soldier and hunting, and specifically fishing, under conditions of opposition. That certainly took place, where people made that connection.

An outdoor ethnographic museum was developed in the 1980s that grew out of the Indian Bowl that had been created in the mid-1950s. This was an outdoor museum, a landscape, a traditional Ojibwa village, wherein non-Indian people could come see this, how people lived, ideally most of all, before the non-Indians came into the region. One of the outcomes of the creation of this was that this space was also used as a meeting place for Indian people when it was not being used commercially. There was a ceremony that took place there in about 1990 right at the time that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the fishing and hunting treaty case out of Minnesota. And what was undertaken was a jessakid, a ceremony where a man would go into a trance and be available to spirits who could then be consulted by the participants in this ceremony. The question was asked of the man who was entranced what people should do about the fact that the Supreme Court is willing to hear the treaty case. This would jeopardize the exercise of treaty rights for people throughout, Ojibwa people throughout, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The answer came back in the usual oracular fashion. Stay close to your traditions. Exercise these rights. Stay close to your beliefs. This would subsequently be interpreted to mean that a treaty staff, an eagle staff, a wooden staff with eagle feathers on it, would be run by a group of runners who would go from Lac du Flambeau to the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., and relay run this staff and bring the staff into the Supreme Court, which was undertaken. Subsequently the Supreme Court found that the treaty rights were intact and voted in a 5-4 vote that the treaty rights would be upheld. This was in turn a validation of the importance of their ceremonies and their beliefs.

People cared so much about food and the particular, the particular hunting and gathering of deer and fishing for walleye and muskie and things. At one point someone said that Indian people in order to remain Indian had to eat certain kinds of foods. That macaroni would kill them, is what they said in that kind of hyperbolic, emphatic, dramatic way. That people needed to continue to consume particular kinds of foods. And I did not really understand that as an anthropologist going into this study, why these people were so adamant about the exercise of these rights until I heard them talk about the importance of eating certain kinds of foods in order to remain the people who they are.

It took a while—that’s a good question. How you come to understand something like this.  It takes a while. I think one of the characteristic methods that anthropologists use is participant observation and that means spending a lot of time with the people who you are studying, doing what they like to do, talking about what they like to talk about, not so much, or at least not initially, asking questions the way in which a journalist might or perhaps other social scientists might. And spending a lot of time with Ojibwa people, watching the way in which they hunt, watching the way in which they fish, fishing with them, hunting with them, listening to them talk spontaneously about animals, about places that they go, all of which I think contribute to an understanding of this. But I think the key for anthropologists, and ethnographers, is that we spend time with people and we enjoy their presence typically and like being with them doing the things that they like to do.

One of the things that an ethnographer does is write a lot. 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 then 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.

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:

Lake Flambeau- photo courtesy of Richardsonpilot
Bear River – photo courtesy of Teresa Mitchell
Boat protest – photo courtesy of Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
Spearfishing – photo courtesy of Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
Waswagoning Outdoor Museum 1 – photo courtesy of Nick Hockings,
Indian Bowl- photo courtesy of George W. Brown, Jr. Ojibwe Museum & Cultural Center
Waswagoning Outdoor Museum 2 – photo courtesy of Nick Hockings
Supreme Court – photo courtesy of Wikipedia/upstateNYer
Woman Carrying Staff – photo courtesy of Charlie Otto Rasmussen
Elder at Supreme Court – photo courtesy of Charlie Otto Rasmussen

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