The porcupine year, p.1
The Porcupine Year
Kiizh, my little blue
One Night Hunting
Two Porcupine Soup
Three The Memegwesi
Four Bears and Heart Berries
Five Prayer Feathers
Six The Path of Butterflies
Seven Trail of Ash
Eight The Capture
Nine Pushing On
Ten What Was Left
Eleven Wiindigoo Moon
Thirteen Cry of the Dove
Fifteen Two Strike’s Pain
Sixteen The Woman Lodge
Author’s Note on the Ojibwe Language
Glossary and Pronunciation Guide of Ojibwe Terms
A Few Book Notes
About the Author
Other Books by Louise Erdrich
About the Publisher
Here follows the story of a most extraordinary year in the life of an Ojibwe family and of a girl named Omakakiins, or “Omakayas,” Little Frog, who lived a year of flight and adventure, pain and joy, in 1852, when the uncut forests of Minnesota still stretched, full and deep, west from the shores of Lake Superior.
Her family’s journey began in a place we now know as Madeline Island. Like so many Ojibwe and other Native Americans, Omakayas’s family were sent from their home by the United States government, to make way for European settlers. As they plunged into the great world, searching for a new home, a place where they could live in peace and never be removed, the family never forgot their old home. Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, was a beloved place and would never leave their hearts.
Omakayas froze and held tight to her paddle with one hand. She was trying to keep the canoe absolutely still while her younger brother, Pinch, balanced with his bow and arrow. With the other hand she held a torch of flaming pine pitch. Wait, higher! Omakayas and her brother had inched close to an old buck deer onshore. Eyes glowing, it gazed, curious and still, into the light of their torch. Omakayas’s arm ached, trying to keep the canoe braced in the river’s current. But she heard the faint high-pitched creak of the bow as her brother drew back the string and arrow, and she did not move one muscle, even when a drop of blistering pitch fell onto her arm. Tsssip! Tonggg! The arrow flew, the bowstring quivered.
Hiyn! Hiyn! Aaargh!
As the deer crashed through the trees, Pinch shouted in rage and disappointment.
“Your fault! You let us drift!”
Pinch dropped his bow with a clatter and jerked around to blame his sister, rocking the boat. Indignant and offended, Omakayas relaxed her arms. The canoe swerved, the torch wavered, and over the edge went Pinch. His thunking splash resounded through the trees onshore and made further night hunting worthless. Pinch came up spouting water—late spring runoff. The icy cold doused some of his heat, but he was still mad and ready to fight, especially once Omakayas hooted at him, laughing at the way he had gone over the side, arms out, flailing. She put out the torch with a hiss and expertly guided the canoe just out of his reach. Although they were allowed to go out night hunting, they were not supposed to go far from their family’s camp.
“My fault, ’na? Do you want a ride or not?”
Pinch tried to lunge through the water at her, but Omakayas paddled just beyond his grasp.
“Remember what Deydey said? A good hunter never blames another for a missed shot.”
Pinch stopped, treading water, his dark round head just barely visible in the moonlight. All of a sudden, he was tugged farther downstream.
Pinch yelled in surprise just as Omakayas felt the canoe move toward him, as though propelled by an unseen hand.
“Watch out, the current’s…” His words were swept off. Although Omakayas dug her paddle into the water, stroking backward, the canoe sped smoothly along, so fast that she caught up to Pinch immediately. Desperate to save him now, she stretched and held out the paddle for him to grasp. He pulled himself in, seriously frightened, and scrambled for his own paddle. But the moment had cost them and now the current was even stronger, ripping along the bank. The river abruptly widened and there was no question of turning around—all they could do was desperately try to slow and guide themselves away from the knots and snags of uprooted trees in the river’s flow. These would loom suddenly, only faintly lighted by the moon. The great floating trees were moving too, Omakayas and Pinch realized. Slower and more grandly, perhaps, but they were only half hooked together. They were dangerous structures in what had become a singing flood. The children soon realized that they’d been tugged into the confluence of two rivers. Theirs had been slow and meandering, but the second river was carrying spring debris from a powerful rain far upstream. Not only that, but as they swept through the dark faster and faster they heard, ahead, the unmistakable roar of a rapids.
No sooner did they hear the rapids, and cry out, than the canoe leaped forward like a live thing.
There was no thinking. All went dark. They were rushing through the night on water they couldn’t navigate, past invisible rocks, between black shores. All they could do was swallow their screams and paddle for their lives. Paddle with a wild strength they never knew they had between them. Omakayas felt the cold breath of the rocks as their canoe swept inches from a jagged edge, a monstrous jutting lip, a pointing finger of rough stone. As she paddled she cried out for the rocks, the asiniig, to guide them. Asked them in her mind and then called out again. They seemed to hear her. Even in the dark, she could see the rocks suddenly, areas of greater density and weight. Now she flew past them with a flick of her paddle. Steered by instinct. They hissed in her ears and she shifted balance, evaded. Their canoe didn’t seem to touch the water. It was as though it had sprouted wings and was shooting down the rapids like a hawk swooping from the sky—and they landed the way a hawk would, too. Brought up in a sudden eddy. An upsweep of calm. But no sooner had they taken a breath than they were snatched back into the roar.
This time, the rapids sent them through a dark tunnel that seemed timeless, blind, malevolent. A yawning throat of water. The paddles flew from their grip. They twirled and spun in a sickening vortex. Moonless, mindless, they could only hold each other in the bottom of the canoe and wait for death.
As they held each other, falling or flying, Omakayas’s one regret was that she’d laughed at Pinch as he fell from the canoe.
“I’m sorry,” she cried out. He must have heard her because he yelled in grief and terror, “My sister, I’m sorry, too!”
Even in the chaos, Omakayas was amazed, trying to remember if Pinch had ever apologized to her before. But then the water threw them at each other like two young buffalo—they butted heads and saw winking lights, then nothing. Only blackness.
There was a sudden, eerie silence.
“Are we dead?” Pinch’s voice quavered.
The blackness was so intense they could almost touch it. They were now hardly moving. They still held tightly to the sides of the canoe, but the water had suddenly let go of them. Or perhaps Pinch was right and they were dead, thought Omakayas. Perhaps they were entering the spirit world. But now the clouds lifted and a faint radiance spread around them. They looked at each other—still alive! They continued forward on what was now only a lazy lake current. Dazed, they raised themselves to look. The water spread all around them, glimmering in the calm blue moonlight. A black band of trees stretched out behind them and to the sides, b
They scraped through the water with their hands, taking turns, warming their frozen palms and fingers in their armpits, digging into the water again. It seemed to take forever, but gradually the band of trees grew wider, the shore got closer, the water diminished, and they saw sand, logs, beach. By the time they dragged themselves onto land they were beyond exhaustion. And they were cold, very cold.
“Do you have your striker?” asked Pinch, touching the freezing sand.
Omakayas felt for her fire maker. Like her mother and grandmother, who were capable Anishinabe women, she always carried a flint and striker. She could start a fire anywhere with the stone and steel from the small pouch, which was still tied to her waist. But they were in unknown country now and did not want to be discovered.
“I don’t know if we should have a fire,” she whispered back. “There may be enemies.”
As they pulled their canoe ashore with numb hands, Pinch said forlornly, “I wonder where we are.”
“Saa. We should be quiet,” said Omakayas. “We should hide the canoe.”
“I don’t see any fires through those trees, I don’t smell any camps,” said Pinch in a normal voice.
Still, they pulled the canoe into a stand of birch and tipped it over. The canoe was always a handy shelter. They crawled beneath it and scraped together beds out of a pile of leaves. They had no blankets, nothing dry. But once they huddled together, in spite of the cold, they felt drowsy. In a few moments they were drifting into sleep, worn out, spent, but grateful with relief. Omakayas opened her eyes once, remembered, put her hand down through the leaves, and grasped a little rock.
“Thank you, miigwech,” she said to it, before she closed her eyes again.
As she floated toward morning, underneath the canoe, Omakayas put her sleepy fingers on the beads at her throat. She was dreaming of Nokomis, her grandmother. Nokomis had worn these red beads ever since Omakayas could remember. One day, she had put her arms around her granddaughter and said, “My girl, you are becoming strong and generous. You are going to become a woman sometime this year. I give you my red beads.”
“What do I get?” Pinch had asked. “I’m fearless, handsome, and truly kind!”
“Here, chew this,” said Nokomis, and she’d given him a strip of dried meat.
Pinch was delighted. “You can’t eat beads,” he said, walking off with his mouth full.
Now, dream and memory mixed, and Omakayas touched the smooth, round beads at her throat. Maybe her red beads were going to be useful? Or maybe Pinch was just hungry. That was a sure bet!
Omakayas was no longer a little girl. She was that creature somewhere between a child and a woman—a person ready to test her intelligence, her hungers. A dreamer who did not yet know her limits. A hunter, like her brother, who was beginning to possess the knowledge of all that moved and breathed. A friend who did not know how far her love might extend. A daughter who still winced at her mother’s commands and who loved and shyly feared her distant father. A girl who’d come to know something of her strength and who wanted challenge, and would get it, in the years of her family’s exile from their original home—the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker.
That place was in her heart, even now, as she touched the red beads at her throat and began to wake so far away, curled for warmth next to her irritating brother.
“Puuu, hiyn! You stink!” She rolled away from him toward the crack of light under the canoe. Lifting the canoe’s edge warily, she examined the shore. Empty. Gingerly, she crawled out. Behind her, Pinch was waking grumpily.
“How can I stink if I was washed in a crazy rapids? You’re the one who stinks.”
This was just normal talk with them and didn’t mean anything at all. The two had started their days together with mild insults even before they left the island. To speak pleasantly to each other would have shocked the whole family. A family both of them missed very much at this moment.
Pinch crawled out from under the canoe, too. His hair, stiff and wiry, stuck in all directions. He was an unusually strong boy, which was why he had tested his strength with the bow, and also tested his sister’s patience by hunting at night.
“I wish we were back on the island,” he said, sighing with self-pity. “At least I’d know where we were!”
Suddenly he popped his eyes out at Omakayas, who laughed. Despite his troublesome ways, Pinch could always make her laugh. Plus he was a practical boy and was already planning how to get back to his family—he was, after all, very hungry.
“Let’s just walk back,” he said. “We’ll go along the river.”
“And leave our canoe?”
“Gaawiin, it’s still good!”
“You big baby! Deydey and Old Tallow made it. Nokomis finished it off. What do you think they’ll say if we leave it?”
“We’ll come back for it.”
But Omakayas was stubborn and refused to leave the canoe behind, even though they’d be unable to paddle it up the roaring stream and would have to carry it through the heavy growth by the river.
“Pinch, there’s no choice. We must portage the canoe back to camp. They’ll be waiting.”
“Well, of course they’ll wait for us,” said Pinch, hurt. “Mama couldn’t get along without me.”
“You mean me,” said Omakayas.
“Do we have anything to eat?”
Pinch’s voice was small and wistful; he sounded like a little boy, not the warrior he pretended to be. He sat down on a log, looking out over the lake, and scratched his head. Then he threw himself onto the ground and groaned. “I’m getting weak.”
Omakayas looked around them. She still had her woman’s knife, secure in its beaded sheath at her belt, along with her fire-steel. Sometimes she carried loops of sinew along with the knife, but she’d already checked and found that she had none. She could have used the sinew to set a snare, maybe catch a rabbit, roast it if they got brave enough to make a fire. Her mouth watered at the thought. She was hungry, too. She went to the lake, put her face down to the clear surface, and admired the tiny colored pebbles on the bottom. She cupped her hands and drank, then smoothed her hair back and rebraided it quickly.
“If you’re trying to make yourself beautiful,” Pinch called, “give up, it’s no use, come on back. I see breakfast!”
Omakayas scrambled back to Pinch’s log, where he was still lying flat on the ground, looking up into the trees. He pursed his lips up and pointed with this gesture into the budding leaves. Tucked into the crook of a branch, a porcupine, or gaag, rested. It was only a baby but looked quite plump and would certainly be tender, stewed up in a porcupine soup.
“All we have to do is knock it from the tree,” said Pinch in a pleased voice. “I’m just lying here trying to do it with my thoughts.”
“That could take a while, brother,” said Omakayas. “Your thoughts are feeble. I think we should try a stick.”
Pinch got up, his hair now even wilder, full of leaves, and the two searched the fringe of woods until they found a good long stick that would serve as a knocking pole. Pinch climbed into the lower branches of the tree, then edged himself up a little higher, and Omakayas fed the pole up to him. The gaag was still sleeping. It made no move to get away from them. The gaag’s main protection is of course its quills, and not many animals will climb after them to eat them. Pinch’s poking stick surprised the baby—it opened its little black eyes and then tried to dig its claws into the bark. After a few more jabs and pushes, the stick sent the gaag tumbling down—unfortunately, the porcupine bounced off Pinch.
“Yii, yii, oyii!!!”
Omakayas heard her brother’s screams
Pinch climbed down from the tree, whimpering a little, and cried, “Stop!”
Omakayas froze and took her knife away from the creature.
“Sister, are you heartless? Look at me!”
Omakayas turned to look at Pinch and, perhaps heartlessly but certainly helplessly, laughed. There he stood, his hair every which way, full of leaves, and gaag quills across his shoulders and down one arm. There were quills in his cheeks and even one sticking from the end of his nose.
“Ahhh, ahhhh,” Omakayas could not contain herself. The laughter overwhelmed her. She fell on the ground, then had to force herself up, saying, “Brother, I pity you, but you look…ahhhh, ahhhh.” The quill on the end of his nose undid her and she fell down laughing again. “Hiyn, brother, I am sorry for you. Let me help.”
Pinch was savagely pulling the quills out with his own fingers, screaming with every one. In his pain, he grabbed the quills so carelessly that they stuck his hands. Now his fingers were also quilled.
“Oh, Quillboy, my brother, let me help you. Please, be still.”
But first, Omakayas lifted her knife yet another time to deal with the little porcupine, which was trying to sneak away. To her surprise, Pinch, or Quill, as he’d be known once this story was told, said, “No, leave it.”