Tom Chisel revives Midewiwin ceremony, once widespread among Ojibwe

After being dormant for more than 60 years, the Midewiwin ceremony is being revived in Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation), in northwestern Ontario.

'It was a hush-hush kind of thing' for over 60 years, says Mide practitioner Tom Chisel

A group of Midewiwin practitioners, including Tom Chisel, have built a Midewiwin lodge on Lac Seul First Nation), in northwestern Ontario. It's been over 60 years since a lodge was set up in the community. (Danielle Binguis-Quequish)

After being dormant for more than 60 years, the Midewiwin ceremony is being revived in Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation), in northwestern Ontario.

A group of practitioners, commonly referred to as Mide, have built a Midewiwin lodge and separate teaching lodge.

"'When you build that lodge, the people will come, when they know it's here'", says Tom Chisel, a Lac Seul elder, explaining the message given to him from his mentor almost two decades ago. 

At the time, Chisel couldn't believe what was set out for him to do. He didn't feel worthy of building such a lodge but his mentor assured Chisel that someday he would. That day has come.

The Midewiwin, also known as the Grand Medicine Society, is an ancient spiritual society once widespread among the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe people, and by many other Great Lakes tribes. Mides are considered healers and spiritual leaders.

Sweat lodge ceremonies, songs, teachings, and visions are part of Midewiwin activities. (Martha Troian)
In the society individuals undergo a series of initiation and ceremonies — eight  degrees in total — with each degree symbolizing a level of spiritual or healing powers. Sweat lodge ceremonies, songs, teachings, and visions are part of Midewiwin activities.

Midewiwin goes underground

The last time a Midewiwin lodge was set up in Lac Seul was during the 1950's, according to Chisel's father.

Around that time government policy forbade cultural ceremonies practiced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Many of the ceremonies went underground or stopped altogether.

"One of the things I understand in Lac Seul, is when they stopped Midewiwin, it was decided amongst that group of Mide at the time that they would no longer talk about Midewiwin," said Chisel.

"It was a hush-hush kind of thing."

Chisel said the move was solely based on church and government pressure.

"It wasn't a decision they probably would have done freely. It was for the best at the time."

Bringing back the tradition

Today, Chisel says more people are participating, and are open to becoming part of the lodge.

It's a far cry from the 1950s when he says people were afraid Indian agents or church officials would punish their children if they spoke about the ceremonies.

Today, Chisel says more people are open to becoming part of the lodge. 'There's a real need for people who want to reconnect with their culture.' (Danielle Binguis-Quequish )
"Now there's an understanding that it needs to happen," says Chisel.

"There's a real need for people who want to reconnect with their culture."

Even though the ceremonies are no longer banned, Chisel said some could still feel fear or worry what others might think if joining a lodge.

While on her deathbed, Chisel's mom told him never to give up on his culture and that ridicule was part of the church and government's tactics to forbid people from practicing their ceremonies.

Recently, Chisel and others have constructed a children's Midewiwin lodge, specifically for the little ones.

Chisel said he and many others are learning how to initiate someone to the various degrees, with ceremonies sometimes taking place over a 10-to-12 day period.

Excited to share the lodge with others, Chisel spreads the message of sweat lodges and other ceremonies through social media, something unheard of the last time a lodge was created in his community.

Chisel says people from as far away as Quebec and Ontario have traveled to take part in the renewed ceremonies, and he is aware of three other Midewiwin lodges in northern Ontario.

About the Author

Martha Troian

Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige