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Background on Manitou: The Native American Religion

Manitou is the spiritual and fundamental life force among Algonquian groups in Native American theology.

The Algonquian people are one of the most populous North American groups that lived in Virginia. Today, thousands of individuals identify with various Algonquian peoples either linked by the language (Algonquian), cultures, and customs as well. Historically, the Algonquian were prominent around the series of interconnected freshwater lakes in the upper mid-east part of North America, which connect to the Atlantic Ocean coast and through Saint Lawrence River. Most Algonquian men hunted animals for food and went fishing. They honed bones into fishing hooks and spear tips. Women, on the other hand, primarily took care of tilting the land, planting corn, beans, and squash. The women also wove nets from weeds and grasses. 

The Algonquian’s basic social unit was a village that was composed of families and clans. Depending on the season, villages moved to different locations to search for food. They often break into smaller units and followed where the natural food supplies were. Being temporary and mobile, this practice resulted in cross-tribal flexibility which suited them especially if circumstances required. During warm weather, the Algonquians would build a hut called wickiup or wigwams. In the winter, they lived in longhouses, which were long buildings covered in animal skins and grass in which more than one clan could reside. Summer was the season of weddings and rituals. 

The Algonquians left the winter camps during the spring season to build villages near waterfalls and coastal locations since fishes were aplenty. In months of March, April and May, the men caught fish using canoes made of birch bark and nets. Depends on where the men were fishing, they had salmon, alewife, and sturgeon when fishing on lakes. In May, they ventured into the ocean and had cod. The men caught various fishes like smelt, striped bass, trout, and flounder in the estuaries and streams. Out in the sea, they hunted walruses, seals, whales, and porpoises. The women and children gathered scallops, mussels, clams, and crabs. Until now, this seasonal menu is still common in New England. From April through October, the village men hunted migratory birds such as mourning doves, Canada geese, brant, and their eggs. In July and August, they had strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and nuts. In September, they split into small groups and moved up the streams to the forest to hunt caribou, beaver, white-tailed deer, and moose.

In December, the people created larger winter camps as soon as the snow fell. They built or reconstructed longhouses in sheltered locations to protect them from harsh weather. The villagers had to rely on cached food come February and March which were considered as their lean months. The Algonquian tribes in Northern New England developed a practice of going hungry for several days at a time, sometimes up to a week. This led to historians’ hypothesis that Northerner’s fasting kept their population down since they were food gatherers only. Compared to the southern Algonquians who learned the slash and burn agriculture which allowed them to plant native corns, beans, and squash. With such a diet, the Southerners were able to increase their population and reached a density of 287 people per 100 square miles as opposed to 41 in the north.

The Algonquian was governed and ruled by men. The role of being the ‘chief’ was not earned through election but rather it was passed on from father to son. When the chief did not have a son, the title will be given to his son-in-law. However, being a chief didn’t mean being a ‘ruler’. Every senior member of select families or ‘houses’ were given a say in matters, and the eventual decision was a consensus of opinions. 

Although European settlers in America decided that Native Americans had no religion, that is quite far from the truth. Algonquians, as an example, were very religious and believed that every living deserved respect. Manitou is the belief of Algonquians meaning “mysterious being,” or simply “mystery”. It is an Algonquian word that represents the unknown power of life and the universe. Common among the indigenous peoples of North America, it is related to the concept of mana, a personal supernatural force, and connected to the worship of the sun. A supernatural force that according to an Algonquian belief permeates the natural world.

The term was already prevalent when the early Europeans found their way to the Native American territory. Thomas Harriot included the word “mantoac” meaning gods when he recorded the first glossary of the Algonquian language, Roanoke (Pamlico).

Manitou is universal and manifests everywhere: the environment, events, organisms, etc. When the world was created, Aashaa monetoo meaning the “good spirit” or “great spirit”, gave the land to the indigenous peoples, specifically to Algonquian-speaking ethnic group indigenous Shawnee. In some Algonquian traditions, it was also called Gitche Manitou.

Native Americans acknowledge traditional healers and spiritual leaders who used manitou to see the future, heal illness, and change the weather. Ojibwe traditional healers used their spiritual connection to cure patients since the illness was believed to be caused by spirits and magic. To communicate with spirits and influence manitou, a healer would sing, dance, and drum beats to enter a trance. They sometimes also used hallucinogens to make a connection. For non-healers, they interacted with spirits by embarking upon a “vision quest,” by means of hallucinogens, fasting, praying, and by isolating themselves from society. A person who underwent vision quests would see objects or animals and also heard voices that would become later on as his or her guardian spirit.

Meaning “cave of the spirit”, Manitoulin Island was very important to Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribe, collectively known as Native Anishinaabe people due to its many sacred sites and sounding rocks. Native people (Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi) continue to dwell on the island, even after the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Manitoulin Island is an island in Lake Huron in Laurentia and located within the borders of the Ontario province.

The Meskwaki, also known by Western society as the Fox tribe, believed that the manitou lived on dome-shaped or oblong huts made with natural materials. These manitou dwellings are called sweat lodge. The sweat was used for religious ceremonies where the water was sprinkled on the stones and the lodge stove was lit. The Manitou let the water evaporate and the steam was believed to enter the person’s body in the lodge. The Manitou then flowed throughout the person’s body, driving out whatever ailed the patient. It was then believed that after the ceremony, manitou will impart some of its nature to the body and that was the reason why the patient felt very well after being treated in the sweat lodge. The manitou will then return to the stone after the ceremony.
 
In tribes that practice shamanistic rituals, manitous are connected to an inanimate object or animals to achieve the desired effect. A buffalo manitous for a successful hunt or plant manitous may be connected for healing. It involved the belief that shamans had the power to communicate with spirits, heal the sick, and help bring souls of the dead to the afterlife.

The early Native Americans in Illinois believed that each person has his own god, which they call their Manitou. It could come in a form of a bird, serpent, or other similar things, of which they have dreamed while sleeping. These manitous were considered as a lucky token. For war, manitous came in the form of species of birds, including falcons, crows, ducks, swallows, and parakeets. Representations such as skin or feathers of their manitous were displayed on their homes to ask for guidance and power when they went for fishing, hunting, or war.

As soon as adolescents became aware, it was expected that young adults start their vision quest in the wilderness. To trigger a manitou in a dream, the young adults went fasting without food and water for up to seven days. A manitou could take the form of a bear, wolf, bison, mountain lion, deer, bobcat, bird, or some other animal. 

Over the years, several places in North America was named after manitou or the associated beliefs around it. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is named after an Ojibwe legend of the sleeping bear. This was a gift to the mother bear who patiently waited for her cubs to appear. Whiteshell Provincial Park’s petroforms can also be found in Manitoba and the place is popular for the symbols made from rocks, which serve as reminders of the instructions given to the Anishinaabe by the Creator. The name of Lake Manitoba, where Manitoba in Canada is named, originates from the area called manitou-wapow, or “strait of the Manitou” in Ojibwe or Cree, referring to the bizarre wave sounds crashing against rocks near the Narrows of the lake.

Post written by Franklin Andrews, who is also a contributor at the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Credit Glory.