Before contact with Europeans, the Ojibway subsisted by hunting, fishing and gathering. The Ojibway believe that all things in nature have purpose and are imbued with spirit, and so there was a great respect for the animals that they hunted and the land that they occupied. Traditionally, the Ojibwa people were divided into independent and politically autonomous bands that shared culture and common traditions. In order to maintain strong kinship networks, the Ojibway often intermarried between the two bands. A band would have its own chief and hunting grounds, and would disperse into family-based hunting groups for the winter, reforming as a band in late-spring or early-summer.
The traditional territories occupied and used by the Ojibway at Fort William stretched from Pigeon River in southern Manitoba to the Treaty 9 boundary in northern Manitoba, and extending as far east as Nipigon. Located on the western end of Lake Superior and adjacent to Thunder Bay, the Fort William Reserve was set aside under the provisions of the Robinson Superior Treaty in 1850. Within this treaty, Fort William agreed not to interfere with foreign settlers. In return, the Crown promised cash payments and trade goods, annuities, and complete freedom to hunt and fish as before. The only exception, hunting and fishing had to be limited to private lands and/or reserves.
At that time, Fort William First Nation was a thriving community. Most people made their living in traditional ways but took advantage of the nearby Hudson’s Bay Post to sell furs and buy supplies. About ten families were employed in the commercial fishery, exporting many barrels of salted fish annually to Detroit and various points out east. However, their fishing grounds were not protected within the treaty despite several petitions to include it in the treaty.
The Way Forward:
Today Fort William First Nation is governed under the Indian Act, however, the nation is taking strides to maintain autonomy through self-governance. The band has been working to conduct itself according to Ashinaabeg legal and political laws. The sources of their political legal system includes:
- Language and traditions
- Creation stories (aadizookaanag)
- Community and personal history (dibaajimowinan)
- Family law
- The relationships we carry with Anishinaabe Aki – the land.
Honourable governance means moving their community out from under the control of the Indian Act by using the sources of law and political orders listed above.