For Netaa-niimid Aamo-ikwe
ONE: The Hunting Spirit
TWO: Gaawiin Mashi
FOUR: Small Things
FIVE: Sons of Zhigaag
SIX: The Way It Happened
SEVEN: The Chase
NINE: Into The Plains
TEN: Two Strike’s Knives
ELEVEN: River Break
TWELVE: The Strange Family
THIRTEEN: A Desperate Matter
FOURTEEN: Setting Up Home
FIFTEEN: At the Mercy of Two Strike
SIXTEEN: The Small and the Fierce
SEVENTEEN: The Cart Train
EIGHTEEN: Red River Trail
NINETEEN: Uncle Quill
TWENTY-ONE: St. Paul
TWENTY-TWO: Touching Earth
TWENTY-THREE: Return of the Bouyah
TWENTY-FOUR: The Snake Nest
TWENTY-FIVE: The Wind
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON THE OJIBWE LANGUAGE
GLOSSARY AND PRONUNCIATION GUIDE OF OJIBWE TERMS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
The year was 1866, and the girl whose first step was a hop, Omakayas, sometimes skipped as she chased after her children. Omakayas and her husband, Animikiins, had moved away from the villages on the shores of Lake of the Woods. They wanted to escape the illnesses that the fur traders brought along with bright cloth and wonderful tools. Omakayas, Animikiins, and their family lived in a remote land that gave them everything they needed: birchbark for making houses, animals and plants for food, wood for warmth, and cold sparkling water to dip and drink from the lake. This year, however, a most precious being would be stolen from them. They would follow. Only an act so shocking would bring them away from all they knew, onto the Great Plains. There they would learn how to survive in a landscape of harsh charms and brutal winds. They would learn the ways of the horse, the oxcart, and their new neighbors, the Metis. They would build their life anew and change forever.
THE HUNTING SPIRIT
Chickadee was sure that he remembered everything about the day that he and his twin brother were born.
“It was cold, wasn’t it, Nimama? Just like today? Didn’t the snow come suddenly? I remember that there was lots of snow!”
Omakayas looked down at him and smiled wearily. She had told this story a hundred times, and Chickadee had told it a hundred times more. He had heard it so many times that he now believed that he was the one who remembered every detail. He was an exhausting child, and there were two of him! His twin, Makoons, was using a stick to spear an imaginary bear like the old woman in his mother’s stories.
“I’m Old Tallow!” he cried. “Stand still, Nimama. You be the bear!”
Omakayas growled and took the stick.
The twins were eight years old, and Omakayas was alone in the camp with them. Their father, Animikiins, was out hunting moose. Ordinarily, he would have taken the boys along so they could learn to hunt by his side. But today the air had that iron edge of snow. The sky was growing dark and the clouds looked heavy. Snow for certain. Perhaps that was why Chickadee could not stop talking about the day he was born.
“I remember,” he started again, “you were out collecting wood. I was cold.”
“We were cold,” Makoons corrected.
“You were out collecting wood for a big fire, Nimama, when suddenly the snow just whirled down out of nowhere! It was a flash storm, a blizzard! You started back to the lodge. You staggered, carrying your load of wood.”
Chickadee pitched forward and Makoons pretended he was a heavy wind and tried to push his brother over. Omakayas sighed again, and picked through some manoomin, wild rice, for stray stones and husks. She was boiling the last of their meat over a small fire and hoping that Animikiins would have luck out on the trail of a moose. She was humming a hunting song under her breath, to help him. Chickadee tugged on her heavy blue wool dress.
“You staggered into the camp! You barely made it! You crawled into the lodge and got close to the fire. You threw down the firewood and opened your blanket and—”
“Ai’ii,” said Omakayas.
“There I was,” said Chickadee, with great satisfaction. “I had come to help you. I had flown into your blanket.”
“The snow was so thick in the air that the little chickadee must have knocked right into me, and nestled close,” said Omakayas. She was always drawn into the story, in spite of herself.
“It was Iskigamizige-giizis, the Moon of Maple Sap, when we always get together to make maple sugar. There you were, in the sugaring camp. The chickadee had got whirled around in the snow, just like you!”
“And we came early, too,” said Makoons. “We surprised you. We were very tiny. Each of us fit in a small makak, a little bowl. Our father could hold each of us in the palm of his hand.”
“Eya’,” said Omakayas, remembering what her grandmother, Nokomis, had said about how the world was created by twin brothers. As she had looked at the tiny babies that day, she wondered: Could they have been as small and helpless as these ones?
“The chickadee stayed with you the whole time we were getting born—that’s why you named me for him, right?”
Omakayas thought of how the chickadee, unafraid, had perched near her the entire time. She smiled and nodded.
“And it was the time when little bears are born. They were waking in their dens. It was a late snowstorm,” said Makoons, whose name meant Little Bear.
“And nobody thought we would survive,” both twins said with satisfaction. “Everybody said we would die.”
Omakayas tried to hide the tears in her eyes.
“But you had strong guardian spirits,” she said, remembering too. “The chickadee, the bear. Both there in the snow. They stayed near and helped us all.”
At that moment, the twins’ father, Animikiins, could have used some help. He had tracked a moose deep into a low mashkiig, a wet marshland, and with every step his feet sank deep in freezing mushy grass. His feet were past pain and growing numb. But, like all Anishinabeg, he knew exactly where the line was between a numbness that could awaken painfully and a bitter, frozen numbness that meant the destruction of a foot or finger. He still had far to go, he thought, and took one careful step after another on the precarious ice. The moose was a large suspicious male with a heavy rack of antlers. It paused whenever Animikiins moved, ready to bolt, knowing something was not quite right. The two moved farther, farther, out onto the spring-melted ice. The man and the moose stood motionless for what seemed an eternity to the man, but didn’t bother the moose one bit. Then all of a sudden the moose gave a moose shrug and relaxed its guard. At that moment, Animikiins slowly raised his gun, fired, and, in taking a step forward, plunged into icy water up to his armpits. The moose turned, saw the man go down. Its eyes went red, its expression turned brutal as pain shot through its body, and it charged toward the man trying desperately to scramble back onto solid ice.
Back at home, the twins were still pestering their mother.
“Show us how you kept the blankets warm with rocks,” said Makoons, “so we wouldn’t die!”
“I’ve shown you that a hundred on a hundred times,” said Omakayas. “Your father helped. He kept the flat stones from getting too hot. He got the stones to exactly the right temperature. Then we put your little sleeping makakoon on top of the rocks so you would
“Now look at us,” said Chickadee. “We are warriors.”
“Warriors,” laughed Omakayas. She smiled at her thin little boy whose spirit was so much larger than his body. “Yes, great warriors!” she said. “So how about checking my rabbit snares? How about doing a little hunting, too? And where is your father?”
Animikiins was trying to scrabble back onto frail ice. He raked at it with frozen hands. He’d thrown off his mitts. He kicked up once and fell back. The moose scrambled up the shore and ran off. At least now if he made it out of the freezing water, he wouldn’t be stomped to death!
Animikiins kicked himself upward again, but slid backward, off the ice again, and cried out for help. The cry was loud, from the depth of his being. A hunting song came floating into his mind. He heard his love, his wife, Omakayas, singing. Her song gave him heart, but still he could feel a numb weakness spreading through him. What would his family do without him? He cried out once more. Then he saw something strange.
Animikiins saw his father standing on the shore. But that could not be! His father had died eight years ago. His father had always dressed in poor and ragged clothing, but now he wore a new blanket.
The blanket was not of this world—it was covered in strokes of pale lightning. His father’s head was covered with a beautiful woven turban. An eagle feather floated from the side. Oh, how kindly his eyes shone down.
“Deydey!” cried Animikiins.
He knew at that moment that his father had come to bring him to the spirit world.
“We’re going, we’re going!”
The boys laughed as Omakayas shooed them out the door. They ran into the woods with their small, strong bows and their quivers of arrows. During the winter, the fat partridges, binewag, liked to roost on low tree branches. Chickadee knew that his mother would smile with pride if he shot a bine from a tree branch. Zozie, who lived with them and was like his big sister, would happily pluck and roast it. She would tell him what a little man he was and stir some of the last maple sugar into the strengthening cedar tea that she would make for him.
“Bizindaan!” said Makoons. He stopped and looked around.
“What?” asked Chickadee.
“I thought I heard Father call,” said Makoons.
“I don’t hear anything,” said Chickadee. “Nashke!” He pointed up at a tree where a fat and fluffy bine sat blinking its mild eyes. The boys crept to the exact right place to shoot. They silently fit their stone-tipped bird arrows to their bows. They both shot at once, but neither hit the bird. The bine just watched the arrows float by. It turned its head a little, ruffled its feathers.
Again, the boys brought up their bows. Again, they shot. And again, they missed.
The bine looked bored and shut its eyes for a nap.
Each of them had only two arrows, and now they had to go find them in order to shoot at the bird again. They were certain to scare the bine off, they thought. Knowing that they’d lost their chance, they walked boldly to the tree and thrashed around to find the arrows. To their surprise, the bird did not move.
“Maybe it knows how hungry we are,” said Chickadee.
“Maybe our namesakes are helping us,” said Makoons. “Although my little bear cubs are still sleeping this winter.”
“Maybe our grandfathers are helping us from a distance,” Chickadee said.
Again, they stood close to the perching bird, who looked even juicier now than before. Again they fit their arrows to their bows.
As his father smiled, Animikiins felt joy at seeing him, but also despair.
“Deydey,” he gasped, gripping the ice, weakening, “I am not ready to die! Gaawiin mashi! Not yet!”
His father looked at him with steady eyes. Animikiins thought he was going to tell him, gently, to come along, just as he had when he was a boy. His father would tell him to come along to a place that frightened him, and he would join his father in the spirit world. But Animikiins did not want to go.
“I must go back!” he cried. “Father, I cannot join you!”
At last his father lowered his head and nodded. Then he pointed at a place on the ice just to the left of Animikiins. Suddenly Animikiins saw that a branch had lodged there, in the ice, a little beyond his grasp. But if he just kicked a little harder, strained a bit more, he might reach it. Might reach it … there! With an effort he didn’t think he was capable of, Animikiins pulled himself forward. Then he crawled and wiggled carefully across the thin ice onto the shore and stood. Where his father had been there was only empty snow. No tracks. Nothing.
Quickly, with numb hands but with an expert’s knowledge that he had practiced since he was a child, Animikiins gathered dry birch shavings, moss, and bits of twigs. He had no feeling in his hands now, but he told them what to do, how to hold the striker, the steel, how to cup the spark and steadily breathe an ember to life in a tiny nest of kindling. In no time, Animikiins had a fire going in the spot where his father had appeared to him. He dried out his mitts, which had been strung inside his jacket. He winced as the blood entered his fingers and his toes. They’d throb and ache for days after this. But he was alive.
“Miigwech, indeydey,” he said. “Miigwech for your love. Thank you for giving me this good life.”
Twice more the twins shot and missed the bine, and yet it still waited in the tree. The bird’s patience was beginning to spook the boys.
“Do you think it is a spirit bird?” asked Chickadee.
“Maybe it just wants us to eat,” said Makoons. With a gasp he released his arrow, and the bird fell from the tree.
“Wait,” said Chickadee. “Your arrow didn’t hit the bine! I saw your arrow hit the tree! This is definitely a ghost bird and I don’t want to go near it.”
“Ah, the great warriors,” laughed a girl behind them.
She had two more rocks in her hand. It was Zozie who had brought the bird down into the snow.
“Did you check the snares?”
The twins shook their heads, and she smiled down at them. Zozie was tall and pretty. They were bashful and a little bit in love with her. She was the daughter of their mother’s powerful, enigmatic, bold, and sometimes bloodthirsty cousin, Two Strike. Zozie loved her mother, but as Two Strike readily admitted, her heart really wasn’t in mothering. Two Strike loved to hunt and was far off to the north on a trapline. Zozie was happy to stay with Omakayas, who loved her and called her daughter.
“Waabooz,” she cried now, catching sight of a trapped rabbit. They knelt near a snare and removed the frozen rabbit. There was another rabbit caught in a snare set farther on. That one had already been half eaten by a weasel.
“Tracks,” said Chickadee. “We just missed the weasel. I would have shot it.”
“No, I would have shot it,” said Makoons.
“Just like you shot the partridge?” asked Zozie.
The twins scuffled their feet in the snow, looked down, and didn’t answer.
After he felt the chill leave his heart, and after he got used to the fact that he would live, Animikiins remembered that his family was very hungry. His empty-handed return would disappoint them. Oh, they would cry when he told them about seeing his father. Omakayas would hold his hands to her face. The boys would cling to him. Zozie would hang her head and sigh. But they would all be even hungrier than they had been when he’d left. As a hunter, that made him very angry. Animikiins jumped to his feet.
Where had that moose gone, the moose that drove him into the lake and nearly cost him his life? It had surged up the shore just past the spot where Animikiins’s father had appeared. It had not looked back, but melted away into a heavy stand of spruce. Animikiins followed. All of a sudden he stopped. A splash of dark blood lit the snow, then another and another. A bit farther on he saw the dark mound of the moose. Animikiins looked into the sky and s
And fall. And fall.
Zozie breathed the deeply cold air and smelled snow coming.
“Giigawedaa,” she said. “Let’s go home.” The boys trudged behind her, each carrying a rabbit. She had the partridge. Omakayas would be very, very glad to see them. On the way back, Zozie sang a little traveling song and the boys sang too. Each beat of the song was a footstep, and even when the snow began to fall they marched along cheerfully. They were sure that their father would make it home before them, and that if he’d had no luck he would be filled with praise for their skills.
By the time they reached the camp, the snow was swirling through the air. The wind was blowing hard and groaning in the trees. They could hardly see their birchbark house, their wigwassi-wigamig, but they heard the dog barking. A crack of warm light showed through the blanket slung over the entry, and Omakayas parted the door and came outside.
“Is Deydey back yet?”
“Gaawiin mashi,” said Omakayas.
“Look at what we brought! What great hunters we are!” The twins gave their rabbits excitedly to Omakayas, forgetting that she was the one who had set the snares.