Ojibwe, Ojibwa or Ojibway?

Over the years, quite a few names for this group of aboriginal people have emerged. An early name for the Ojibway people was Anishinaabe, which means ani (from whence), nishina (lowered), abe (the male of the species), also translated as Original Man, and refers to the creation story in which Original Man was lowered to the earth. From Original Man, all North American tribes emerged.

According to oral traditions of the Anishinaabe, the Ojibway, Potawatomi and Ottawa people were once a single group called the Three Fires of the Anishinaabe, but separated into three distinct groups as they migrated and spread out across eastern North America.

Anglicized names for the Anishinaabe include Ojibway, Ojibwa, Ojibwe and Chippewa. Chippewa is used prevalently in the United States, while Ojibwa or Ojibway is more common in Canada. As well, when the Ojibway people began gathering and trading in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the French people began referring to them as Saulteurs, or People of the Falls. When some Ojibway migrated west, they retained the name Saulteaux.

For the purposes of this fact sheet, the First Nations group will be referred to as Ojibway.

How many people in Canada speak the Ojibway language?

According to the 2001 Canadian census, there are approximately 21,000 people across Canada who speak the Ojibway language. Nearly all of these live in Ontario (9,670 people) and Manitoba (8,840 people). Nationally, the Ojibway language is the third most spoken language; Cree and Inuktitut are spoken by more people. For more information, see the Cree Language and Inuktitut fact sheets. The Ojibway are the largest group of First Nations in North America, as there are many Ojibway in the United States as well. Within the United States, the only First Nations groups that are larger than the Ojibway are the Cherokee and the Navajo. The map below shows the distribution of the Ojibway people across North America.

Distribution of Ojibway People Across Canada; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe_language

Distribution of Ojibway People Across Canada;

Like many Aboriginal groups, the meaning of Ojibway is not known. One theory is that it is from the word Ojibwabwe, which means “[Those who] cook until it puckers” and is a reference to the way that the Ojibway used fire to cure moccasin seams to make them waterproof. Another theory is that it is from the word Ozhibii’iweg, which means “[Those who] keep Records of a Vision,” and describes the form of pictoral writing that the Ojibway people used.

Are there different dialects within the Ojibway language?

There are different dialects within the Ojibway language. It is difficult to accurately classify dialects, because there are many dialects, some with more similarities than others. The following chart summarizes the primary dialects within the Ojibway language.

Primary Ojibway Dialects and the Regions of Canada in Which They Are Spoken; http://www.native-languages.org/ojibwe.htm

Primary Ojibway Dialects and the Regions of Canada in Which They Are Spoken;

There are others, such as Oji-Cree and Algonquin, which are considered dialects by some; Algonquin has diverged from the Ojibway language, and Oji-Cree is influenced by the Cree language.

How did the written language develop?

The written Ojibway language can be written with the Roman alphabet or with Ojibway syllabics. In Canada, syllabics are common, while in the United States, the Roman alphabet is prevalent. The syllabary is based upon the Cree syllabary (for more information, see The Cree Language fact sheet).

The diagram below illustrates the Ojibway syllabics, which appear very different than the Roman alphabet.

What are some places in Canada that have Ojibway names?

What kind of relationship do the Ojibway have with nature, and water, in particular?

Water has always had an important place in the lives of the Ojibway. Glenn Reynolds, in “A Native American Water Ethic”, recounts a story of one group of Ojibway, named the Sokagon Chippewa. This group of Ojibway migrated west to the Great Lakes region, because an elder prophesied that they would find “the food that grows on water,” also known as manoomin or wild rice. There is a lake in Wisconsin, called Rice Lake, that provides rice for the Sokaogon Chippewa. The history of this band illustrates the relationship that the Ojibway have with nature, and water, in particular. The Sokaogon believe that surface and ground water represent the lifeblood of Nokomis Oki, or Grandmother Earth. They believe that they have a deep spiritual responsibility to protect the purity of springs. These spiritual beliefs are reflected in the names that they give local places; a creek that feeds Rice Lake is called Mushgigagomongsebe, or Little River of Medicines, by the Sokaogon, while the Europeans named it Swamp Creek. The Sokaogon also believe in a responsibility to the seventh generation, which means that they must plan for the future needs of at least the next seven generations.

In the mid-1970s, zinc and copper were found several kilometres upstream from Rice Lake. The Sokaogon, with growing support from local communities and environmental groups, have been opposing the mining corporations since the mid-1980s. In 1995, with persistent requests from the Sokaogon, the United States Environmental Protection Agency approved strict water quality standards for reserves, which prevented upstream discharges that would decrease the water quality on reserves. This was a significant step, because rice is sensitive to small changes in water quality and level. On October 28,2003, the Sokaogon, with financial backing from the Forest County Potawatomi, bought the Nicolet Minerals Company with mineral rights and nearly 20 square kilometres of land for $16.5 million; they immediately withdrew the pending mining permit. The Sokaogon are the poorest of Wisconsin’s tribes, and were required to pledge much of their land to secure an $8 million loan towards the purchase. But the deep responsibility of the Sokaogon to protect the water and the fear that they might lose their homeland to water pollution was more important than money.

The Ojibway people have a history of recognizing the importance of water, and fulfilling their responsibility to both protect the water source, and raise awareness about water issues. On April 18, 2003, a group of Ojibway women began a 2,090 kilometre journey from Bad River, Wisconsin, around Lake Superior, to raise awareness of the importance of keeping water clean. Throughout the journey, they carried a copper bucket of water, and an eagle staff, which symbolized the traditional role of women as water protectors within the Ojibway teachings. The women finished the walk on May 26, 2003, and have since walked around Lake Michigan in 2004, Lake Huron in 2005, Lake Ontario in 2006 and Lake Erie in 2007. They believe that water availability and consumption is taken for granted, and their goal is to help people to realize that water is being consumed and polluted at such a rate that, unless people join together to reverse the current trend, clean water will soon be scarce. You can follow their progress at http://www.motherearthwaterwalk.com/.

The Safe Drinking Water Foundation has educational programs that can supplement the information found in this fact sheet. Operation Water Drop looks at the chemical contaminants that are found in water; it is designed for a science class. Operation Water Flow looks at how water is used, where it comes from and how much it costs; it has lessons that are designed for Social Studies, Math, Biology, Chemistry and Science classes. Operation Water Spirit presents a First Nations perspective of water and the surrounding issues; it is designed for Native Studies or Social Studies classes. Operation Water Health looks at common health issues surrounding drinking water in Canada and around the world and is designed for a Health, Science and Social Studies collaboration. Operation Water Pollution focuses on how water pollution occurs and how it is cleaned up and has been designed for a Science and Social Studies collaboration. To access more information on these and other educational activities, as well as additional fact sheets, visit the Safe Drinking Water Foundation website at www.safewater.org.


Callahan, Kevin. 2007. An Introduction to Ojibwe Culture and History. http://www.dream-catchers.org/ojibwe-history/

Mother Earth Water Walk. 2007. Mother Earth Water Walk.

Reynolds, Glenn C. 2003. A Native American Water Ethic.

Thompson-Ruddy, Abbey. May 2003. Ojibwe women walk to protect sacred water.