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Mormanity:The Ojibway Metal Plate: An Intriguing Episode
by Jeff Lindsay
The issue of ancient writing on metal plates is a key topic for Book of Mormon students. It's a topic I address on my LDS FAQ page on metals in The Book of Mormon.
Since the day of Joseph Smith, there has been abundant evidence of ancient
writing on metal plates, but this evidence has essentially all come from the Old
World. Critics still contend that there is no evidence for such a thing in the
New World, where The Book of Mormon primarily took place. So is there any
evidence for writing on metal in the ancient Americas?
First note that The Book of Mormon does not indicate that writing on metal was a widespread, traditional activity of peoples in the Americas, but was a practice brought from the Old World and maintained by a few prophets and leaders seeking to preserve rare and precious records. The Book of Mormon text and the history of its many witnesses is evidence for the reality of writing on metal in the Americas.
But there may be other examples of writing on metal in the New World that will
yet be discovered, as our knowledge of the ancient Americans and state of
archaeological exploration there is still in its infancy compared to the Bible
lands. However, there may be some further hints about ancient writing on
metal plates to consider.
One example, called to my attention in an excellent and previously unpublished essay by Mark Treter, a sharp Latter-day Saint in Wisconsin, is a sacred copper relic that was observed in 1842 by William W. Warren. Mark's essay is posted below, with his kind permission.
The writings of William Warren are found in his History of the Ojibways, Based upon Traditions and Oral Statements (St. Paul : Minnesota Historical Society, 1885, available online at http://imp.lss.wisc.edu, a PDF file with more than 300 pages). Warren's book provides an interesting section that Mark discusses (this begins at page 63 of the PDF file, which is apparently page 89 of the original book).
William Warren's eyewitness account is the only evidence I know of for the
metal record kept by some of the Ojibwe (also spelled Ojibway) people that
Mark Treter discusses. So is Warren's account plausible and reliable? After a
little searching, I found possible corroborating evidence in the book Native
American Mathematics by Michael P. Closs (Austin, Texas: University of
Texas Press, 1986). Beginning on page 181 is a relevant chapter entitled
"Tallies and the Ritual Use of Number in Ojibway Pictography." The
documented use of tally marks and pictographs to convey information about
family lines (especially see p. 183) is consistent with the report of Warren, and
adds to the plausibility of his report, in my opinion.
Here is the essay from Brother Treter. Thanks, Mark, for your contribution!
Copper Record of the Ojibway
by Mark Treter
For students of The Book of Mormon, an interesting event is referenced in the pages of History of the Ojibway People, by William W. Warren.1 The event is also of interest to Wisconsin archeologists because of its reference to metal objects fashioned by Native Americans in Wisconsin.
According to Warren, as a teenager in 1842, he was in the company of his father and mother visiting the Ojibway town that had been a capital or principal gathering place, founded at the mouth of Chequameogon Bay on what is now called Madeline Island in Lake Superior, one of the Apostle Islands. In 1693, French explorers had established a fort and trading post near there which they called La Pointe. The Ojibway town and the trading post are located at the southern end of the island, approximately 2.6 miles across the water from the Wisconsin shoreline along Lake Superior. This location was one of the first outposts for the Ojibway migrating westward under pressure from other tribes, and was selected by the Ojibway for their first settlement in that area of Wisconsin because of the additional security provided by being on an island. Warren's family was visiting his mother's uncle, who was a chief of the Crane clan.
It should be noted that there were smaller Ojibway towns established all along the shore of Lake Superior from Fond du Lac, Minnesota (on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border at the extreme western end of Lake Superior's waterways) to Keweenaw Bay on the east. Warren reports that the Ojibway found a successful life in these lands. Fur was plentiful, fishing was good among the nearby islands, large fields of corn and squash were cultivated, and wild rice was harvested in the lakes and streams. Also, after the French abandoned the trading post at La Pointe in 1698, the other tribes of the area, such as the Fox and Lakota (or Dakota), had no choice but to obtain European goods through their neighbors the Ojibway.
In the winter months, hunting bands traveled deep into Wisconsin woods to the south. But in the summer, Ojibway people from the whole area, as well as from the north shore of Lake Superior, came to Chequamegon on the island for the Medewiwin (or "Grand Medicine") ceremonies. These religious gatherings of the Ojibway nation were held in a great lodge which stood in the principal village on Madeline Island.
At this time, Warren and his parents were shown a "sacred relic"2 of the Ojibway people, exhibited to him by the old chief, Tug-waug-aun-ay of the Crane Clan. Warren would have been about 16 or 17 years old, as he was born on May 27, 1825. The event was later reported in Warren's book, in connection with a historical review of chieftainship among the various Ojibway clans.3
In his book, Warren describes the "sacred relic" as a record or "register" made on a "circular plate of virgin copper."4 Warren reports that the existence of the sacred record was not generally known and that it was seldom displayed even to those were closely related to the one tasked with maintaining the record. "On this occasion he only brought it to view at the entreaty of my mother, whose maternal uncle he was." Warren also reports, "I am the only one still living who witnessed, on that occasion, this sacred relic of former days."
For students of The Book of Mormon, it is of interest that this sacred relic was kept hidden in an underground location. Warren reports, "[T]he old chief kept it carefully buried in the ground ..." Warren reports that the chief "was about sixty years of age at the time he showed this plate of copper, which he said had descended to him direct through a long line of ancestors."
Warren reports that, on this metal plate are "rudely marked indentations and hieroglyphics." It appears that this plate may be one among several, and that it was prepared new at the time the tribe took up residence in this new area. The tribe had selected this location as their new center, and the town or city was reported to be crowded with lodges and hogans, taking up an area three miles long and two miles wide. The purpose of the metal plate appears to have been to keep a new record from that time forward.
According to Warren, the markings on the record showed, among other things, that by 1842, there had been eight ancestors to this chief with responsibility for maintaining the record on this plate, since the time the tribe had come to build their center there. Each "had lived to a good old age," and upon their death, the duty was transferred to another.
It appears that the "indentations and hieroglyphics" on this metal plate was to keep a record "denoting the number of generations of the family who have passed away since they first pitched their lodges at Shaug-a-waum-ik-ong and took possession of the adjacent country, including the Island of La Pointe or Mo-ning-wun-a-kaun-ing."
Also recorded on the plate was a "figure of a man with a hat on its head" placed opposite the third generation markings, indicating the generation during which the white man first came among them.
From the record, Warren was able to conclude that it had been about 360 years since the Ojibway Tribe had ceased their migration from the area around what is now Western New York and collected to settle down and build a principal center at La Pointe. Warren was able to estimate that it had been 240 years since the Ojibway had encountered the white man. He was also able to estimate the year when a formal meeting took place between the Ojibway and a representative of the French nation, as well as the year that Father Claude Allouez discovered the Ojibway.5
Warren also reports that the Ojibway are believed to be related to the other Algonquin-speaking or Algic tribes, who share certain customs believed to be of ancient origin. One such custom pertains to the keeping of sacred relics. Warren reports that it was the custom among them that a man would be appointed by the elders and the chiefs, for a designated span of years, to be responsible for these sacred things, as follows:
"... to take charge of the sacred pipe, pipestem, mat, and other emblems of their religious beliefs. A lodge is allotted for his especial use, to contain these emblems and articles pertaining to his office. Four horses are given to him to pack these things from place to place, following the erratic movements of the camp. This functionary is obliged to practice seven fasts, and to live during the term of his priesthood in entire celibacy."6 He is the only one who "can or dare handle the sacred pipe and emblems."7
Warren notes also that "[A]ll religious councils are held in his lodge, and disputes are generally adjusted by him as judge. His presence and voice are sufficient to quell all domestic disturbance, and altogether he holds more actual power and influence that even the civil and war chiefs." It is also reported that, "[A]t the end of his term the tribe presents him with a new lodge, horses and so forth, wherewith to commence life anew."
Other sacred records are maintained by those initiated into the central religious rites, which ceremony and teachings Warren calls "the grand rite of the Me-da-we-win"8. The teachings of this rite are kept sacred, and even Warren admits that, despite his intimacy with these matters, he yet stands only "at the threshold" of the Me-da-we lodge. The teachings include the creation of the earth, man's true relationship to God, the global flood or deluge caused by man's wickedness.
In this rite, the Ojibway are taught that, after the universal flood, the commencement of a "new earth" or "second earth" was only made possible by the "intercession of a powerful being, whom they denominate Man-ab-o-sho, a divine uncle or brother figure, and that by this intercession they were allowed to exist, and means were given them whereby to subsist and support life, and a code of religion was "bestowed on them whereby they could commune with the offended Great Spirit, and ward off the approach and ravages of death."9 Warren reports that in the teachings of the religion of the Ojibway, "hieroglyphics are used to denote this second earth."10
From the writings of Warren, one can gain some insight into the religious teachings among the Ojibway, which include the following. The Great Spirit alone is the great God and "Master of Life." He rules over all, is the guardian of men who are His children, and is full of mercy, pity, charity and kindness toward them. He teaches, and commands, charity and forgiveness. He is worshipped with reverence in sacrificial feasts, and mention of His holy name is always accompanied by reverence, prayer and sacrifice of some "article deemed precious".11
They never use His name in vain, and they never take profane oaths. They fast, pray, sacrifice and receive visions and dreams. In these visions and dreams, if the Great Spirit is revealed, He "invariably appears to the dreamer in the shape of a beautifully and strongly-formed man." For the dreamer, such dreams or visions "guides in great measure his future course in life, and he never relates it without offering a sacrificial feast to the spirit of the dream."12
In brief, from what Warren has reported, the following ten cultural elements may be of special interest to the student of The Book of Mormon:
1. The keeping of a sacred record on a metal plate;
2. Starting a new record on a new plate at the commencement of a major event;
3. Recording on the record major occurrences, especially those with spiritual implications for the people;
4. Assigning a respected member of the tribe the duty of keeping the record;
5. Passing the record down from generation to generation;
6. Storing the record with other items regarded as sacred relics;
7. Giving the duty of common judge to the keeper of the record;
8. The construction of a major edifice where the most sacred religious rites were to be conducted;
9. An annual gathering of the people to the center place to participate in the great religious rite;
10. Preparing a place to hide the record buried in the ground.
1 "Warren's skill and W. Roger Buffalohead's able introduction call us to read, or
to reread, this classic history." -- Minnesota History. William W. Warren's
History of the Ojibway People has long been recognized as a classic source on
Ojibwe History and culture. Warren, the son of an Ojibwe woman, wrote his
history in the hope of saving traditional stories for posterity even as he
presented to the American public a sympathetic view of a people he believed
were fast disappearing under the onslaught of a corrupt frontier population. He
collected firsthand descriptions and stories from relatives, tribal leaders, and
acquaintances and transcribed this oral history in terms that nineteenth-century whites could understand, focusing on warfare, tribal organizations,
and political leaders.
First published in 1885, by the Minnesota Historical Society. Current edition includes annotations researched and written by Professor Theresa Schenck. A new introduction by Schenck also gives a clear and concise history of the text and of the author, firmly establishing a place for William Warren in the tradition of American Indian intellectual thought.
Theresa Schenck is an associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of William W. Warren: The Life, Letters, and Times of an Ojibwe and The Voice of the Crane Echoes Afar: The Sociopolitical Organization of the Lake Superior Ojibwa, 1640-1855."
2 Ibid., at 89.
3 The event is also cited under "Ornamented Coppers of the Wisconsin Area" by "The Wisconsin Archeologist," published by The Wisconsin Archeological Society, Vol. 23, No. 1 in connection with a survey of copper implements made by the Ojibway tribe, as follows:
. . . Only the last mentioned variety of socketted copper knife has been found bearing indentures or ornamentation of any kind.
No copper axes or celts with decoration of any kind seem to have been found in Wisconsin.
Ornamented Coppers of the Wisconsin Area 83
One copper spud with incised lines has been described. A ridge-backed spud having the back fluted was found near Palmyra, Jefferson County, and is in the Ringeisen collection.
An interesting copper plate is described by Warren and, be- cause of the peculiar character of the plate, Warren's description will be quoted literally.*
"The Cranes claim the honor of first having pitched their wigwams, and lighted the fire of the Ojibways at Shaug-ah-waum-ik-ong, a sand point or peninsula lying two miles immediately opposite the Island of La Pointe.
"To support their pretensions, this family (of the Crane) held in their possession a circular plate of virgin copper, on which is rudely marked indentations and hieroglyphics denoting the number of generations of the family who have passed away since they first pitched their lodges at Shaug-ah-waum-ik-ong and took possession of the adjacent country, including the Island of La Pointe or Mo-ning-wun-a-kaun-ing.
"When I witnessed this curious family register in 1842, it was exhibited by Tug-waug-aun-ay to my father. The old chief kept it carefully buried in the ground, and seldom displayed it. On this occasion he only brought it to view at the entreaty of my mother, whose maternal uncle he was. Father, mother, and the old chief, have all since gone to the land of spirits, and I am the only one still living who witnessed, on that occasion, this sacred relic of former days.
"On this plate of copper was marked eight deep indentions, denoting the number of his ancestors who had passed away since they first lighted their fire at Shaug-ah-waum-ik-ong. They had all lived to a good old age.
"By the rude figure of a man with a hat on its head, placed opposite one of these indentions, was denoted the period when the white race first made his appearance among them. This mark occurred in the third generation, leaving five generations which had passed away since that important era in their history "
From the marks on the copper plate, Warren placed the arrival of the Ojibways at about 1490. His narrative is interesting and accepted as authentic, but the plate seems to have no counterpart in Wisconsin Archeology.
4 The abundance of copper in the lands of the Ojibway clans is well known, although the preparation of a copper plate for the purpose of maintaining a family or clan record or register does not appear to be elsewhere reported. Responses from tribal members to the dissemination of information about this "sacred relic" appears to be to express regret that sacred knowledge of the tribe is being divulged to those who cannot be expected to give due honor or reverence. This may account for why the existence of such items is not more generally published.
5 Warren, at 90.
6 Ibid, at 68.
7 Ibid, at 69.
8 Ibid, at 65.
9 Ibid, at 56.
10 Ibid, at 65.
11 Ibid, at 64.
12 Ibid, at 65.
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