Status and Leadership

One of the things Dave and I did while we were vacationing in the upper St. Croix area was to visit The North West Company Fur Post, a site that teaches about the trading of goods and furs between the Ojibwe Indians and French and English traders. The reason for the trade was the desire of fashionable Europeans to sport beaver skin top hats – a sign of status and wealth.

I confess I have always been a fan of costumed history interpreters and our guide for today’s tour, an Ojibwe woman, fascinated me with her explanations of the seasonal industries of the Ojibwe. There were two comments she made, not unrelated, that stuck with me.

The first was the Ojibwe amusement/bemusement with the European fascination with a hat as a symbol of status. For the Indians, status had to do with the character of a person, not his possessions. Yet, as she pointed out, European status symbols (and, no less so, Americans today) were possessions. Men who owned one always wore their beaver skin top hats – it showed their wealth and their status. Then it was a hat, today it is cars, fancy phones, etc. None of this made any sense to the Ojibwe.

The second had to do with leadership. The Ojibwe were surprised when they were asked who was in charge by those who wished to negotiate treaties with the tribe. (Europeans and Americans were doubtless used to dealing with the structure of the Iroquois nation.) The Ojibwe response was – “do you want to know who is in charge of fishing? That one over there. Who is in charge of hunting? That person there. Who is in charge of medicinal plant gathering? That woman there.” As our guide explained, the Ojibwe were more cooperative than hierarchical. There was no overall leader – just people who, because of their skill and qualities, were in charge of particular areas important to the tribe’s well-being.

I first learned abou the Ojibwe a few years ago when we vacationed in Grand Marais. I was impressed by their way of living then, and I remain so. I’m not suggesting that we could successfully emulate their societal structure. But there is much we could learn from this communal, cooperative tribe of Indians, who organized and structured themselves in ways that miniimized conflict both among themselves and with the outsiders with whom they dealt.