Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Researching Location, Part II

In an earlier post, I wrote about travelling to the place where Desert Jewels took place. I did the same with Creating Esther. I dragged Roland along as I travelled throughout Ojibwe country in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to visit museums and reservations and the shells of former Indian boarding schools.

I already knew, of course, that different tribes had different customs and ways of life. But I didn’t know that a few hundred miles could make a difference within a tribe.

The main elements of Ojibwe life and history were the same at each location. Every exhibit we saw referred to the Ojibwes’ seasonal way of life: collecting maple syrup in the spring, fishing and berrying and planting gardens in the summer, harvesting wild rice in the fall, and hunting in the winter. (Actually, fishing and hunting took place all year long, but they were more predominant at those times.) Families moved from one place to another for these seasonal activities but tended to return to the same spot every spring, every summer, every fall, and every winter. In all regions, the members of the tribe also had the same clan system (although not always the same clans) and the same teachings passed down through their oral history.

But they didn’t all live in the same type of birch-bark housing.

Before we left, I thought all of the earlier Ojibwe lived in birch-bark wigwams with the rounded shape shown in the museum exhibit above. On the research trip, I learned that the construction materials varied somewhat depending on the season. Woven birch-bark mats covered the frame in the hot summer months, which allowed the wall coverings to be raised so that air could circulate through the lower part of the frame. In the winter, the walls were insulated with moss and the floors used a radiant heating system.

All of that was helpful new information, and none of it surprised me.

What did surprise me was that the Minnesota Ojibwe used a birch-bark teepee during the winter. We saw no evidence of this in Michigan or Wisconsin, where winter dwellings were built using the wigwam shape. A guide at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum told us that the teepee shape keeps the dwelling warmer. (Since heat rises, the smaller air space near the ceiling would keep more of the heat down by the floor.) During the warmer months, there were no regional differences—all dwellings were built as wigwams. But the winter shape seems to have been modified as members of the tribe moved farther west and closer to the plains Indians, who lived in animal skin teepees.


It isn’t always possible to take research trips to the sites in our fiction, but it has always been worthwhile for me when I had the opportunity. And this one kept me from falling into the pitfalls created by regional differences.
Because honoring regional differences is part of honoring the culture.
I took the first picture at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabek Culture and Lifeways at Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and the second at Grand Portage National Monument in Grand Portage, Minnesota.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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