Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society, is a spiritual society found historically among the Algonquian of the Upper Great Lakes (Anishinaabe), northern prairies and eastern subarctic. Once widespread, the Midewiwin became less prevalent after the arrival of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the largest Midewiwin societies are found in parts of Ontario, Manitoba, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Midewiwin: What It Is and What It Does
The Midewiwin is a religious society made up of spiritual advisors and healers, known as the Mide. The Mide serve as spiritual leaders for the general populace. They perform religious ceremonies, study and practise sacred healing methods, and strive to maintain a respectful relationship between humanity and Mother Earth. The Midewiwin is an essential part of the worldview of the Ojibwa, and of some other Algonquian and Eastern Woodland Indigenous peoples.
European settlers have historically described the Midewiwin as a closed and secret society. While it is true that the Midewiwin is a structured society with various classes of leaders, it does offer services to the public. At their place of prayer, generally referred to as the Midewiwin lodge, the Mide perform religious ceremonies for both the general public and initiates (i.e., the people learning to become Mide). According to Bob Goulais, a second-degree member of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, the Midewiwin was once fully integrated in the lives of all Ojibwa:
The Midewiwin lodge was the source of our governance… [it] was where we prayed. It was where our children and our people were educated through traditional teachings. It is where we were given our names and where we were married to our spouses. It was where we went to healing, counsel and fellowship. It was where we held our social gatherings. At the end of our days, the Midewiwin lodge was where we had our funerals. Even those who had not been initiated in the Midewiwin society — came to the Midewiwin people and the lodge for these things.
It is possible that colonials described the Midewiwin as secretive because they did not understand the society’s practices or because they were not welcome at Midewiwin ceremonies. Europeans may have also been describing the tight control over sacred teachings or of restrictions to membership in the leadership. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Midewiwin may have indeed been closed to outsiders (i.e., white settlers), but during an era of cultural assimilation (see: Indian Act; Residential Schools; Reserves), this was the Midewiwin’s way of protecting and preserving its faith.
Origin Story: The Creation of the Midewiwin
The Ojibwa tell stories about how Kitchi Manitou (also known as Great Spirit) created the Midewiwin. Although different versions of the story exist, they all have important commonalities. The first is that Manitou gave cultural hero Nanabozo (also known as Minabozho or Great Rabbit) the power and knowledge to help those who were ill, hungry and in distress. Manitou bestowed upon Nanabozo the secrets of the Midewiwin. Second, Nanabohzo entrusted Otter with these teachings, giving him additional tools to help cure the sick, such as tobacco, a drum and a rattle. These sacred objects and teachings — as well as the otter itself — remain important elements of Midewiwin spirituality. Third, migiis shells feature prominently in Ojibwa oral histories about creation and the Midewiwin. These sacred shells are used in the healing practices and ceremonies of the Midewiwin.
The earliest mentions of the Midewiwin, or of Indigenous healers (see Shaman), in the records of European explorers, traders and settlers are in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Some historians have taken these records as evidence that the Midewiwin was established during this time in reaction to increased and permanent European presence in North America. However, archaeologists point to evidence that suggests the Midewiwin predates the arrival of Europeans. Midewiwin scrolls, unearthed burial sites and fragments of pottery have been radiocarbon-dated to at least between 800 and 1000 years old (see Dating in Archaeology).
The Initiates: Midewiwin Membership
The Midewiwin has four to eight grades of membership, depending on the community. Each grade has its own initiation rites and periods of instruction about medicine and healing. The higher the level of membership, the greater the knowledge and healing power conferred upon the initiate. In the past, Mide also had to pay fees to rise in the ranks, but these have now been removed (although initiates are still expected to provide feasts at certain ceremonies, and cover travel costs to out-of-town ceremonies and lessons).
Historically, the events of initiation ceremonies were recorded in line drawings on bark scrolls. An individual’s rank in the society was marked by facial painting and by the use of certain animal or bird skins of which the Midewiwin bag (medicine bundle) was made. Skins denoting specific grades included that of the weasel, mink, the paw of the bear or wildcat, the rattlesnake, the owl and the hawk.
Today, Midewiwin initiates generally participate in the reciting of sacred stories and songs, the practice of herbal remedies and the performing of dances from which it said they receive their powers to heal and cure. The Midewiwin bag remains an important part of their service, as it contains certain sacred objects that allow them to heal. Mide also participate in sweat lodges, vision quests, and other cultural and spiritual ceremonies that help to focus their thoughts and cleanse their bodies, minds and souls. Modern Mide are expected to learn and practise the language of the Midewiwin — Ojibwa.
The Midewiwin Today
Years of cultural assimilation and government restrictions on Midewiwin practices has significantly curtailed the Midewiwin population. There are only a few Midewiwin lodges in North America, with members in Ontario, Manitoba, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Midewiwin ceremonies are held throughout the year; however, the spring ceremonies are typically the best attended because this is when initiations take place.
The Midewiwin is a resilient spiritual institution that has survived religious and cultural persecution. Mide are making great efforts to pass on their faith and belief system to younger generations. The Mishomis Book (2010), written by Grand Chief of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge Edward Benton-Banai, tells youth and non-Ojibwa peoples alike about Ojibwa history and culture. Many Mide argue that reconnecting with their faith and tradition can help modern youth, as well as Indigenous peoples in general, to live a healthy life.
John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Religious Healing Among the Ojibway Indians (1983).
Michael R. Angel, Preserving the Sacred: Historical Perspectives on the Ojibwa Midewiwin (2000).
Anton Treuer, Living Our Language: Ojibwe Tales and Oral Histories (2001).
Edward Benton-Banai, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway (2010).