By: Christine McFarlane
Anishinaabe peoples are storytellers, and have been since the beginning of time. It is through legends (aatisoohkan (an) or aatisoohkan (ak) and stories (tepachimowan) that they relate to the world around them. Though there has been a shift in attitudes and beliefs I believe that Anishinaabe legends and stories continue to play a relevant role in the Anishinaabe worldview and can apply to communities today.
“The actualities of Ojibwa life can only be fully comprehended by taking into account the ways in which their thinking, experience and behavior are affected by the conceptualization and interpretation of phenomena that are implicit in their traditional outlook upon the world.” (Hallowell 60) This is where I believe stories come in. Acculturation brought about many changes to First Nations peoples lives. Hanging onto stories/legends and myths despite having to adapt ecologically, linguistically, socially and culturally and their traditional manner in which they try to live is what has helped them to adapt to the world we live in today.
Story and myth mean many things to Anishinaabe peoples and it is through story as we have learned from lecturer Alex McKay that “children are taught in their earliest years” (16/11/2010) because it not only helps them to view their place in the world but it also teaches them life lessons. Lessons can be likened to a quest. I believe that stories are like quests, because when you are telling a story, or you are listening to someone tell you a story from an Anishinaabe perspective-you are often embarking on a journey with the storyteller and you find yourself questioning what the story means and the role it can play in your life.
Stories play an integral role in Anishinaabe worldview because it prepares a child to become a responsible and contributing member of society and it requires the development of an internalized understanding of the shared beliefs, values and goals that exist within the culture. Social behavior is managed through the individual’s responsibility for his or her own conduct. This is based on self-monitoring and having the ability to reflect.
As teaching and guiding tools, story and myth teach us lessons of morality, law and governance and relay how everything is interrelated in one way or another. It is also through story and myth that the Ojibwa people learn about creation, history and how they are supposed to go about living the good life- piimaatiswin.
An example of a story that teaches you about connection and responsibility would be the story of “Shiikawiihsh.”(The Witch) In this story, a woman goes out with her baby, and in the process of cutting firewood, she takes her attention away from her baby, and when she turns back, the baby is gone. When she goes back to her husband, her husband asks her “Why are you sad?” (Sugarhead 47) In response the woman tells him “Indeed I suddenly lost our little baby while I was busy cutting logs for firewood there in the forest.” (Sugarhead 47) In response the husband is angry and sends her away.
When the woman is sent away, you get caught up in wondering if the woman will find her baby, and if she finds her baby, will the connection she had with her baby be lost because she disregarded her role as a mother by not protecting her baby. This story can play out in modern life because it makes you look within and question the role of connection and responsibility. As a woman, and as a mother, you would want to question the woman’s inability to stay aware of her surroundings and her inability to keep an eye on her own child.
I have learned from lecturer, Alex McKay that though “stories are difficult they make you become involved because you question it,” (19/02/2010) and it is through questioning that you figure out “how you may fit into the story.”(19/02/2010) “Shiikawiihsh” has you asking “How can a woman turn her back on her own baby?” and “Who is the witch in modern life.” This story can be viewed from many perspectives depending on who is trying to learn from it. After thinking about this story at great length, it made me recall the role of naval connection-aatisookanan.
Connection plays a huge role in everyone’s lives, whether you are a child, or an adult, and connection often starts with your mother. Those who have had the misfortune of growing up without a mother, whether it was through the advent of the residential school system, or being orphaned through the sixties and seventies scoop where First Nations children were taken away from their families and communities and adopted out, the loss of connection can often make you feel lost, and you often have to learn how to make your own connections, your own community.
Alex McKay suggested that “it is a woman’s nightmare to lose her child, and if you have given birth, you would know that feeling,” (08/03/2011) and I agree with this, however though I am not a mother, I am an aunt. The thought of possibly losing my niece would just devastate me, because we are very close. The closeness we have is something I would consider tantamount to her being the daughter I never really had. Also, I have from afar heard of the pain my own biological mother has gone through after child welfare officials took all four of her children away. I still deal with the loss of that particular connection to this day.
The role of the witch comes into question also. You ask yourself what does the witch do, her behavior comes into question because you wonder how could she take another woman’s child and try to pass her off as her own. Various classmates suggested that “Shiikawiihsh” symbolized or was representative of the children being taken away from their communities during the residential school era.
I see the witch as being what has often been discussed in class as a Windigo. Shiikawiish is a dishonest woman because she not only takes away someone else’s child but she tries to pass off her own breast milk as the baby’s mother’s milk, and gets upset when the baby does not take her milk and transforms him/her into a big youth, so that the mother cannot experience the feeling of closeness or bond with her child. Shiikawiish wastes a lot of effort and time and could have done kinder things instead of taking a child away from its mother, and causing her more pain by not letting her experience the joy of bonding and watching her child grow.
Alex McKay suggests that Shiikawiish can be seen as a universal story. He relays that through the storyteller we are learning about “what it is like to have a village without a child,” (08/03/2011) and that “you can have a child or children that used to live in the community”(08/03/2011) and when they are gone, it can be likened to a mass kidnapping. You can also see Shiikawiish as telling others to watch out and be aware of your surroundings and connections. It is through “aatis,” your belly button, that we are connected to our children and our children’s children that we are connected to our ancestors and their knowledge.
Another example of a story that can relate to our modern day world is “He Dreamed That the Sioux Were Coming.” Within this myth/legend the reader is introduced to the dream world and the possibilities of its power. The dream world plays a very significant and vital role within the Ojibwa worldview, because it is often through dream that individuals are introduced to the ‘other than human persons’ and a higher state in which they receive direction that they may not receive in their waking state.
Hallowell explains in “Religion, Moral Conduct and Personality,” “the most significant and vital contact between Ojibwa individuals and their other than human ‘grandfathers’ can occur only in one kind of context-the dream state,” (Hallowell 84) and it is this ‘direct contact with other than human persons that we become witness to how powerful the dream world can be for the Ojibwa people-specifically for this young boy and how he was able to protect his grandmother from danger.”
In “He Dreamed that the Sioux Were Coming,” a young boy receives a vision. It is through this vision and the metaphorical play of the young boy’s dreams that the reader becomes privy to the dangers that he perceives the danger his grandmother and him may face when the Sioux come looking for them. While reading the myth/legend there were many questions that I found myself asking. I asked myself if it were not for the vision that the boy encountered in his dream, would the boy have been around afterwards to tell the cautionary tale of danger?
A modern twist on this story, as Alex McKay suggested is “the boy is grinding an ax,” (01/02/2011) and that the storyteller is “telling a story about revenge, and the story may be from the view of his ancestors and what the future can learn from it.” (01/02/2011)
Within the context of this story, we are made aware through this boy’s dream that a place is being threatened. You can take this to be anything that you want it to be- a home, a town, a city, anywhere that you feel comfortable is being threatened in some way or another. I also believe that the grandmother is within the story because in Ojibwa worldview, she plays a revered position- not only as an Elder, but someone who carries a lot of knowledge.
Knowledge keepers in Ojibwa worldview are integral to the carrying on of stories, myths and legends, and I believe the grandmother is placed within the young boy’s dream because she is a respected member not only in his life but also in his community. It is through dreaming and story that we learn, even though we may not understand the origin of our dreams and why we are dreaming what we are.
In contemporary times, besides story/myth and legends that are carried on from our ancestors, there also been the introduction of Native play and performance. I believe that these are still conducive to the Anishinaabe people’s ability to carry on their stories, and make them fit into what is going on in today’s world. All we need to do is look at the performance of the youth in “Dog Ends” that was put on my Marie Gaudet of Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, Heritage Canada and Ciimaan.
Within “Dog Ends,” the teaching can be viewed as a revenge narrative or as Nanabush reminding the dogs about community, being aware of how their actions can affect others and telling them that the respect of others is integral. Though this performance had the teachings of respect within it, and was done in 2010 the significance of what it was trying to relay to the audience is still there, the settings had just changed.
In conclusion, Anishinaabe legends, stories and myth still play a relevant and vital role in Aboriginal communities of today. As Geraldine Manossa stated in her article “The Beginning of Cree Performance Culture,” “The sharing of cultural knowledge through storytelling is something that occurred prior to contact and perseveres today and continues to shape the realm of Native Performance Culture,”(Manossa 124) and in quoting Favel Starr, Monassa states “Native artists need to continue to develop and maintain a “working practical knowledge of our language, songs, dances, stories and histories” (Manossa 124) because in doing so, “as artists we will continue, like Great-granny to be influenced by a great worldview, reflecting and representing on stage who we are as contemporary Native people.” (Manossa 124)
Gaudet, Marie. “Dog Ends.” Red Pepper Spectacle Arts, Heritage Canada, and Ciimaan. 2010
Hallowell. A. Irving. “The Ojibwa of Beren Rivers Manitoba-Ethnography into History”.pg. 60-84
McKay. Alex. Native Language and Culture class. January/March 2011. Aboriginal Studies Department. University of Toronto.
Manossa. Geraldine. “The Beginning of Cree Performance Culture.” Aboriginal Drama and Theatre. Ed. Rob Appleford. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2005. Pg. 124
Quill. Norman. 1965. Ed. Charles Fiero. “The moons of winter and other stories.” Red Lake, ON: Northern Light Gospel Mission.
Sugarhead. Cecilia. “Ninoontaan/I Can Hear It: Ojibwe Stories from Lansdowne House.” Memoir 14. Algonquin and Iroquoian Linguistics. 1996