Anishinaabe clan system

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Anishinaabe, like most Algonquian-speaking groups in North America, base their system of kinship on matrilineal

clans or totems.  The Ojibwe word for clan (doodem) was borrowed into English as totem.  The clans, based mainly on animals, were instrumental in traditional occupations, intertribal relations, and marriages.  Today, the clan remains an important part of Anishinaabe identity.


The Anishinaabe peoples are divided into a number of doodeman, or clans, (singular: doodem) named mainly for animal totems (or doodem, as an Ojibwe person would say this word in English).[1] In Anishinaabemowin, ode' means heart. Doodem or clan literally would translate as 'the expression of, or having to do with one's heart'; in other words doodem refers to the extended family. According to oral tradition, the Anishinaabe were living along the Atlantic Ocean coast and the great Miigis beings appeared out the sea and taught the Mide way of life to the Waabanakiing peoples, six of the seven great Miigis beings that remained to teach established the odoodeman for the peoples in the east. The five original Anishinaabe totems were Wawaazisii (bullhead), Baswenaazhi (echo-maker, i.e., crane), Aan'aawenh (pintail duck), Nooke (tender, i.e., bear) and Moozwaanowe ("little" moose-tail).[2]

The meh established "a framework of government to give them strength and order"[3] in which each totem represents a core branch of knowledge and responsibility essential to society. Today, six general totems compose this framework. The crane and the loon are the chiefs, responsible for over-seeing and leading the people. The fish are the scholars and thinkers and are responsible for solving disputes between the crane and the loon. The bear are both warriors and medicine gatherers. The martens are hunters but also warriors as well. The moose are craftsman and artists. Clans are both a means of acquiring and retaining knowledge for the Anishinaabe. Knowledge gained through experience and interactions with the Spirits and other clan members is passed down and built upon through generations.[4]

Traditionally, each band had a self-regulating council consisting of leaders of the communities' clans or odoodeman, with the band often identified by the principal doodem. In meeting others, the traditional greeting among the Ojibwe peoples is "What is your doodem?" ("Aaniin odoodemaayan?") in order to establish a social conduct between the two meeting parties as family. Marriage among members of the same clan is forbidden.[4]


The word odoodem is a dependent noun. When speaking of one own doodem, the Anishinaabe would say nindoodem(-ag) ('my clan(s)'), gidoodem(-ag) ('your clan(s)') for addressees and odoodeman ('his/her clan(s)') for others. [5]


The clan system is an integral part of acquiring and retaining knowledge for the Anishinaabe. Each clan contributes a key element to the society and individual members contribute to a clan’s knowledge through experience. During a clan member’s lifetime, they are able to gain knowledge known by the clan; emphasis is placed on personal experience, rather than a strict student-teacher relationship. Although members learn through relationships with other clan members, it is the experience gained as a result of these relationships that allows them to attain knowledge. Throughout a clan member’s life, knowledge they gain that was previously unknown to the clan is added to the clan’s collective knowledge.[6] This knowledge is then passed down to future generations, contributing to the "flow of Nebwakawin (wisdom) that passes from generation to generation".[7]

Despite pressure from the colonial society in Canada and the United States, much Anishinaabe knowledge has survived and continues to be shared and built upon. Alexander Wolfe's Earth Elder 18 Stories: The Pinayzitt Path, Dr. Dan Musqua's The Seven Fires: Teachings of the Bear Clan, and Edward Benton-Banai's The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway are a few notable works of Anishinaabe literature. These publications are important carriers of knowledge that pass from the ancestors to future generations.[6]

Clan totems[edit]

There were at least twenty-one Ojibwe totems in all, recorded by William Whipple Warren. Other recorders, such as John Tanner, list many fewer but with different doodem types. For the Potawatomi, at least 15 different totems were recorded. The clan types today are quite extensive, but usually only a handful of odoodeman are found in each of the Anishinaabe communities. Like any other Algonquian groups, the Anishinaabe clan system served as a system of government as well as a means of dividing labour. The five groups or phratries are listed below, listing each of the doodem clans or gentes within their group. The known Algonquin clans are marked with (Al), Mississauga clans with (Ms), Nipissing clans with (Ns), Ojibwa clans with (Oj), Odawa clans with (Od) and Potawatomi clans with (Po).

Bimaawidaasi group[edit]

The Bimaawidaasi group was charged with scouting, hunting and gathering.

  • "Hooves" subdivision:
  • "Little Paws" subdivision:
    • Waabizheshi (Marten) (Oj)
      This pictographic 1849 petition shows an Ojibwa chief represented by the Marten doodem.
    • Amik(waa) (Beaver) (Ms, Ns, Oj, Od, Po)
    • Wazhashk (Muskrat) (Oj)
    • Gaag (Porcupine)
    • Esiban (Raccoon)
    • Waabooz(oo) (Rabbit) (Oj, Po)
    • Zhaangweshi (Mink)
    • Waagoshiinh (Fox) (Po)
    • Zhigaag (Skunk) (Ms)
    • Asanagoo (Squirrel) (Ns, Od)

Giishkizhigwan group[edit]

The Giishkizhigwan group was charged with teaching and healing.

Nooke group[edit]

The Nooke group was responsible for defense and healing. Though today the Bear Clan has all merged into a single clan known as Nooke, at one time the Bear was the largest — so large, in fact, that it was sub-divided into body parts such as the head (Makoshtigwaan or 'bear-skull'), the ribs and the feet (Nookezid or 'tender-foot'), as well as different types of bears such as the Waabishki-makwa or 'white black bear' and the Mishimakwa or 'grizzly bear'.

  • Makwa (Bear) (Ms, Oj, Od, Po)
    • Makoshtigwaan (Bear-skull)(Oj)
    • Nookezid (Tender-foot)(Oj)
    • Makokon (Bear's Liver) (Ms)
    • Miskwaa'aa (Blood) (Ns)
    • Waabishki-makwa (White black bear)(Oj)
    • Mishimakwa (Grizzly bear)(Oj)
  • Bizhiw (Lynx) (Oj, Od)
  • Ma'iingan (Oj) or Mawii'aa (Po) (Wolf)

Baswenaazhi group[edit]

The Baswenaazhi group were traditionally charged with outgoing International communications. Because of this, often members of the Baswenaazhi group are said to be the most vocal.

  • Binesi (Thunderbird)
    • Ajijaak(we) (Crane or "Thunder") (Ms, Oj, Od, Po)
      • Nesawaakwaad ("Forked tree") (Od)
    • Ashagi (Heron) (Ns)
    • Gekek (Hawk) (Oj, Od)
    • Omigizi(we) (Bald eagle) (Ms, Oj, Od, Po)
      • Mitigomizh (White oak) (Ms)
      • Wiigwaas (Birch bark) (Ms, Ns)
    • Giniw (Golden eagle) (Po)
    • Bibiigiwizens (Sparrowhawk)(Od)
    • Makade-gekek(we) (Black hawk) (Po)

Bemaangik group[edit]

The Bemaangik are charged with internal/domestic communications. They were often charged with the community's own council fires and help facilitate dialogue on all internal/domestic issues.


On occasion, instead of referring to the totem by the actual being's name, a clan is identified instead by a metaphor describing the characteristic of the clan's totem. The metaphors that survive to today include:

  • Bimaawidaasi 'Carrier' = Amik(we) 'Beaver'
  • Giishkizhigwan 'Cut-tail' = Maanameg 'Catfish'
  • Nooke 'Tender' = Makwa 'Bear'
  • Baswenaazhi 'Echo-maker' = Ajijaak(we) 'Crane'
  • Bemaangik 'Pass-by Sounder' = Owewe 'Wild goose'

Social order[edit]

Some national sub-divisions were simply referred by their major clan component. An example of this would be Maandawe-doodem ('Fisher-clan') of the Meshkwahkihaki peoples, who live along the south shore of Lake Superior. More inland than the Maandawe-doodem were the Waagosh-doodem ('Fox clan') of the Meshkwahkihaki, who are called the Fox Tribe in English. When the Maandawe were defeated in a major battle between the Ojibwe and the Meshkwahkihaki peoples, the surviving Maandawe were adopted as part of the Ojibwa nation, but instead as the Waabizheshi-doodem ('Marten clan'). Among some Ojibwe people, (though not all) the Waabizheshi clan is also used to denote a form of adoption, i.e., a non-native father and Ojibwe mother. In other instances, for example, odoodem communities such as the Amikwaa were treated as fully interdependent Nations of the Anishinaabeg Confederacy, or given a designation to represent their primary function in the social order, such as with the Manoominikeshiinyag ('Ricing-rails') or the Waawaashkeshi-ininiwag ('Deer[-clan] Men').

Some doodem indicate non-Ojibwe origins. Other than Waabizheshi, these include the Ogiishkimanisii-doodem (Kingfisher Clan) and Ma'iingan-doodem (Wolf Clan) for Dakota and Migizi-doodem (Eagle Clan) for Americans. There are other odoodem considered rare today among the Ojibwa because the odoodem have migrated into other tribes, such as the Nibiinaabe-doodem (Merman Clan), which shows up as the Water-spirits Clan of the Winnebagoes.


Ojibwa understanding of kinship is complex, taking into account of not only the immediate family but also the extended family. It is considered a modified Bifurcate merging (Iroquois) kinship system. Consequently, Ojibwa would speak of not only about grandfather (nimishoomis) and grandmother (nookomis), father (noos) and mother (ningashi), and son (ningozis) and daughter (nindaanis), but also would speak of elder brother (nisayenh), younger sibling (nishiimenh), cross-uncle (nizhishenh), parallel-aunt (ninooshenh), male sibling of same gender (niikaanis), female sibling of same gender (niidigikoonh) and sibling of opposite gender (nindawemaa), and cross-cousin of the opposite gender (niinimoshenh), to name only a few.

Siblings generally share the same term with parallel-cousins as with any Bifurcate merging kinship system due to being a member the same doodem, but the modified system allows for younger sibling to share the same kinship term with younger cross-cousins (nishiimenh). In addition the complexity wanes as one goes away from the speaker's immediate generation, with some degree of complexity retained with female relatives (for example, ninooshenh is 'my mother's sister' or 'my father's sister-in-law'—i.e., my parallel-aunt—but also 'my parent's female cross-cousin'). In both with the great-grandparents and older generations and with the great-grandchildren and younger generations, the Ojibwa collectively call them aanikoobijigan. This sign of kinship/clans speaks of the very nature of the Anishinaabe's entire philosophy/lifestyle, that is of interconnectedness and balance between all living generations and all generations of the past and of the future.

In addition to the Anishinaabeg doodem, clans of other tribes are considered related to the Anishinaabe clans if they have the same designation. Consequently, for example, a union between an Anishinaabe Bear Clan member with a Cherokee Bear Clan member would be considered illegal — even incestuous — by many traditional community groups.

Graphic of the Iroquois kinship system


White Crane[edit]

Grus canadensis-nbii m00554A.jpg

The White Crane clan were the traditional hereditary chiefs of the Ojibwe at Sault Ste. Marie and Madeline Island, and were some of the more powerful chiefs encountered by the first French explorers of Lake Superior. Members of the crane clan include:


Common Loon.jpg

Closely associated with the crane clan, members of the loon clan became important chiefs on Lake Superior's south shore during the fur trade period. Members of the loon clan include:


Black Bear.jpg

Always the most numerous of the Anishinaabeg, members of the bear clan were traditionally the warriors and police (Ogichidaa), as well as the healers. Many members of the clan continue in these roles today. The bear clan provided most of those who participated in the Bad River Train Blockade. In fiction, the police officers in the novels of Louise Erdrich come from the bear clan.


Águila calva.jpg

Now one of the most common clans, the eagle totem was once of the smaller clans. However, the number of eagle totem members grew when new members whose paternal ancestors were Americans were assigned to this totem. Since the first sustained contact by the Anishinaabe with the United States was through government officials, the symbol of the American eagle was taken for a clan marker. Members of the Eagle clan include:

External links[edit]


  1. ^ WiLLMoTT, C. (2016). Anishinaabe Doodem Pictographs: narrative inscriptions and identities. Together We Survive: Ethnographic Intuitions, Friendships, and Conversations.
  2. ^ Bohaker, H. (2010). Anishinaabe Toodaims: Contexts for politics, kinship, and identity in the Eastern Great Lakes. Gathering places: Aboriginal and fur trade histories.
  3. ^ Acoose Miskwonigeesikokwe, J. (2011). "Minjimendaamowinon" anishinaabe reading and righting all our relations in written english
  4. ^ a b Flocken, G. H. (2013). An analysis of traditional ojibwe civil chief leadership
  5. ^ Ojibwe People's Dictionary
  6. ^ a b Chartrand, R. (2012). Anishinaabe pedagogy. Canadian Journal of Native Education.
  7. ^ Acoose Miskwonigeesikokwe, J. (2011). "Minjimendaamowinon" anishinaabe reading and righting all our relations in written english
  8. ^ Older maps list the Ozhiishiigwe as either "Achiligoue" or "Chiligoue"
  • Benton-Banai, Edward. (1979) The Mishoomis Book.
  • Hilger, M. Inez. (1951) Chippewa Child Life and Its Cultural Background.
  • Johnson, Basil. (1990) Ojibway Heritage.
  • Tanner, John. (1830) A narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner, (U.S. interpreter at the Saut de Ste. Marie,) during thirty years residence among the Indians in the interior of North America, ed. Edwin James.
  • Warren, William W. (1851) History of the Ojibway People.
  • Mooney and Thomas. (1910) Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico.