Books and islands in oji.., p.3
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.3

           Louise Erdrich
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  The Lake, or Tobasonakwut, or Tobasonakwut, the Lake

  Tobasonakwut arrives. During the last fifteen minutes of northern dusk light he pulls up to the dock. There he is, looming toward us with fixed weariness. I have just decided that he and the lake are one person. That is a relief. For if to describe one is also to describe the other, I am set free. Both are so vast and contradictory and full of secrets that I both despaired of and was delighted with the prospect of never getting an adequate handle on them. But now that he has actually arrived, I feel that I should introduce Tobasonakwut.

  To do so, I must go back to 1688 when a twenty-year-old French explorer named Jacques de Noyon wrote about a group of people who nearly killed him when he raided their gardens of squash, corn, pumpkins, beans, and potatoes on what is now Garden Island in Lake of the Woods. According to Tobasonakwut, as de Noyon and his men approached the gardens, an arrow was fired from the woods and landed at their feet. As any rational people would, they stopped, and then from those trees there emerged a giant people, taller than any native people they’d ever met, and very frightening. He got to know them a little, and called them the People of the Cat.

  Those people were Tobasonakwut’s ancestors, who became the Big George family and are of the Bizhiw or Lynx dodem. Tobasonakwut’s people still tend to be tall, rawboned, rangy (handsome, I think), and with a wariness that can shift from kind to belligerent. They are not a people to be trifled with. But for all that, Tobasonakwut is exceedingly gentle. Babies seem to know this. Around my extended family, he’s always the one who sits and talks to the babies. Yet he’s tough in a way people who have been through too much are tough—he can sleep anywhere. Or go for days without really sleeping when his presence is required in ceremonies. Yet although he went hungry as a child, he won’t eat just anything. He’s finicky about his food now. He doesn’t eat much meat, passes on frybread, orders salads in restaurants—unusual eating habits for an Ojibwe. As I said, he’s full of contradictions, like the lake. Tobasonakwut grew up on a spit of land called Niiyaawaangashing, in a time before the Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg were removed from their homes in the islands. He is fortunate to know something of the time when his community was intact, when the bays were dotted with cabins and camps, when his extended family lived more or less by the spiritual seasons of the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine teachings, and those ceremonial teachings formed the moral and social center of the community. The teachings made sense of the beauties and hardships of Ojibwe existence. He was also unfortunate, for that world was devastated in just a few years. After his people had stabilized their lives and partly recovered from the wave of nineteenth-century invasions and diseases, the Canadian government invented devastating aboriginal policies. It is his burden to have seen what survived of the Ojibwe world around him nearly demolished by death, removal, forced relocation, the poison of alcohol, and to have experienced an education that amounted to kidnapping and a brutal attempt at brainwashing.

  The place where Tobasonakwut grew up, Niiyaawaangashing, is about three or four miles by water from the fishing lodge. It is very useful for us to have a base of operations so close to the places we want to visit, but it is not uncomplicated. Camp owners have become almost the only residents in land that once belonged, and by treaty rights should still belong, solely to the Ojibwe. The only native people staying at the lodge now are the fishing guides, Riel, and two other men. Tobasonakwut once worked as a fishing guide. But he knows and is part of the lake in a much more profound way than where to catch walleyes for wealthy non-Indian sport fishers. He knows the lake in a way that only indigenous people can truly know anywhere.

  His people were the lake, and the lake was them. At one time, everyone who lived near the lake was essentially made of the lake. As the people lived off fish, animals, the lake’s water and water plants for medicine, they were literally cell by cell composed of the lake and the lake’s islands. Tobasonakwut’s father once said to him, The creator is the lake and we are the waves on the lake. Tobasonakwut shows us the place in the heavens from which the creator descended. Their origins are familiar. The cosmology is in the surrounding landscape, in the stars, in the shapes of the rocks and islands, and in the mazinapikiniganan, the paintings that his people made on the sides of the rocks.


  The next day, we get into a sixteen-foot Alumacraft with a 115-horsepower motor, and we buzz out onto the lake. Before anything else, we go to visit Niiyaawaangashing. There are still two fish-camp houses standing and one tumbled-in cabin of weathered wood. Two docks twisted and upended by ice. A strong little black bear stands next to the first dock, watching us calmly. We cut the motor. The bear slides into the channel and dog-paddles with powerful assurance to the other side, where he doesn’t hide himself at all, but stands up and rakes the berry bushes underneath a tree containing a huge eagle’s nest. One eagle hulks stubbornly next to the nest, watching over an eaglet, whose head pops up, curious, from time to time. We skirt a long, pale boulder with a crease down the middle, just opposite the former camp, romantically secluded.

  “Hundreds of Anishinaabeg were conceived on that rock,” says Tobasonakwut. I look at the gray hollow in the rock—it actually looks pretty comfortable. Nobody lives at Niiyaawaangashing anymore, except the bears and eagles, and so we stop only long enough to put down tobacco. Sometimes the bears, especially the curious young, sit in the trees and watch people on the shore. Sometimes a little bear will get caught in the crotch of a tree and hang himself. When such a skeleton is found, it is very sacred to the Ojibwe and is used in religious ceremonies. Once when Tobasonakwut was little, there was a big Midewiwin or Grand Medicine lodge in the grass that is now quickly returning to scrub trees and sumac. A Midewiwin lodge is made of young bent-over popple or birch poles tied together with basswood. Spruce boughs or ferns are tied along the sides for shade. The main events of the religion are carried out in the lodge. When Tobasonakwut was about six years old, a strange event took place at the Mide lodge here at Niiyaawaangashing.

  Tobasonakwut’s Memory

  He watched six canoes approaching from the west, one bearing a man and dog. They pulled to shore, and the explanation for their coming was given. The man with the dog had suffered an oppressive dream. It was a dream he could not mentally evade even once he woke. In the dream, he’d learned that he once had been a slave owned by the Bwaanag, the human flesh eaters, the warriors, the Sioux, who were for generations bitter enemies to the Ojibwe. As a slave, this man dreamed that he had been tied up with the dogs and, like the dogs, fed scraps, not fed at all, despised and kicked and beaten. One afternoon he just was about to die of sorrow and loneliness when it occurred to him to speak to the dog next to him, who answered. The dog told him that the dog people had been waiting for the man to talk to them. Now that he had spoken, they were willing to help him escape the Bwaanag.

  There will be some feathers, said the dog, and you will chase them. When the Bwaanag look at you, they will not see a man. They will see a dog playing with some feathers. You will run after the feathers until you are far from the Bwaanag camp.

  In this way, the man was freed from his degradation. The man who dreamed he was the man enslaved by the Sioux understood when he woke that he and his dog must give thanks to those dream dogs by fasting together. And so the canoes had come, accompanying him to the Midewiwin lodge, where he would fast for twelve days, his dog for four days. During those twelve days, the children were to treat the man just as the Bwaanag had, mean. Though they were to respect the dog. Tobasonakwut could not be cruel to the man, who cried and groaned in his hunger, as he lay in the lodge. The dog fasted alongside his master, and then was feasted like a human being. The man continued until he weakened so badly he could not move. But he survived, and in the end he was feasted too.

  There is nothing where that lodge was but poison ivy and grass and a broken table. Tobasonakwut’s dream is to rebuild the lodge there and to teach people all that he knows, including what the rock
paintings mean. To this end, he has started a foundation to gather money to put up this lodge. He has also filed a claim for compensation against the Oblate Order of the Catholic Church. They were in charge of his education, but instead they stole life, innocence, and spirit from him and from his people. He thinks they should be responsible for helping to reconstruct what was lost.

  Perhaps someday a Mide lodge will stand where the table has collapsed. Perhaps the old Midewiwin songs will be heard on Niiyaawaangashing once again.


  Songs belong to these islands. When Ojibwe people fast in these islands, the songs, even if lost for a time, always come back in dreams. The nagamonan. These very old songs are as old as the rock paintings. Songs were composed, often by those who owned drums, for honor, for celebration, for beauty, for love. There is one particular song that haunts Tobasonakwut and has, as well, a special meaning for me. Our friends often sing this song in their sweat lodge. It is a song used to help those struggling with the pitiless, uncanny, and baffling disease that is alcoholism. The words of the song, Kiiwashkwe biishki indigo anishaa dash indigo, are the words of a long-ago drunk who found his way to sobriety not through a twelve-step program, but through the intervention of a powerful spirit. All of this happened during the eighteenth century, when the fur trade began the first wave of alterations that would forever shift the economic, social, and spiritual balance of Ojibwe life in Lake of the Woods.

  Tobasonakwut always begins his story of this song by attributing it to his uncle Kwekwekibiness. Very traditional people are very careful about attribution. When a story begins there is a prefacing history of that story’s origin that is as complicated as the Modern Language Association guidelines to form in footnotes.

  In this story, there was a young man, an extraordinary hunter, known as unusually strong and of a generous nature. He began to sell his furs to the first trader in the islands. At first, the young hunter acquired blankets, fire strikers, kettles, guns, and ammunition. He traded for things he needed, his family needed, his wife, his children. But eventually, he traded for liquor too.

  A form of trader’s rum, mixed with hot pepper and tobacco, became his pleasure. He bought a little more each time he came with piles of beaver skins. The trader began to provide him with the liquor before they finished their negotiations, and soon the young man woke from long binges and found that he owed the trader, that he had drunk up his pay and then some. At last, he began trading for the rum alone. His children left him, his wife left him, his whole family stayed away from him. The animals stayed away from him too. It was no use hunting, so he traded his gun for a keg. It was no use trapping, so he drank away his traps. Finally, it was no use begging either. No use in anything. The trader’s liquor had eaten his life, his loves, his strength, his mind, his will, and all but a fraction of his spirit.

  This tiny part of his spirit, this fraction of the man that was still a man, decided that it would disappear into the wilderness. So the young man walked away from the trading house and from all of the trade goods including the rum. He walked off into the snow without a blanket and without a gun. He walked until he was blinded by the snow glare, exhausted to the last degree. In the deepest moment of despair he’d ever known, he threw himself down in a trackless place, at the mercy of the spirits. While he was face down in the snow, and as he determined that he surely would die, he heard a song.

  The nagamon began like this, Kiiwashkwe biishki indigo anishaa dash indigo. I am a drunk. I am nothing. The song went on and he sang the whole of it into the place beyond the bottom of a drinking cup that is the darkest place on Earth. As he sang this song, over and over, and as he waited to die, this young man heard a voice.

  It was the voice of the Kwiingwa’aage.

  The Kwiingwa’aage is a spirit of dark strength and cleverness represented by an animal, the wolverine. Among the Ojibwe, this animal has an almost supernatural reputation. There is one who steals from your traps and cannot be caught. There is one who you know is watching you, but you cannot see him or hear him. There is an animal who follows you just out of sight. It is deathless, lonely, and somewhat strange in his contempt for human intelligence. He easily outwits the smartest hunters. When the creator passed near the Earth in the form of a tailed light, that was the Kwiingwa’aage. When a man feels eyes at his back and experiences a thrill of unreasonable fear out in the woods, that is the Kwiingwa’aage. Perhaps because he is so fearless, so impervious to pain, so dangerously strong, the spirit of the Kwiingwa’aage is the only one that can address the problems of the schkwebii, the alcoholic. For the disease is without pity just as is the animal. Alcohol is cunning, and it is phenomenally deceptive. So when the animal spoke to the young man, and said that he had been watching him, and that he had given this young man a song, it might have been the first time the Kwiingwa’aage was known to pity anyone.

  And if it was the first time that this spirit had showed pity, in all the years of Ojibwe hardship, then it goes to show how terrible this scourge of alcohol was, and how low it laid the people.

  The voice of the Kwiingwa’aage saved the young man though, and he got rid of the trader’s poison and recovered his life.

  There are no Anishinaabeg, including mixed-bloods like me, whose lives have not been affected by the perplexing pains of addiction. The degraded longing and despair of alcoholism changes even the most intelligent among us. And so when we regard the place where the song given by the Kwiingwa’aage was first heard by the young man so long ago, it is for me a personal moment. I hold our baby tighter and we put out handfuls of tobacco.

  The Four Stones

  Tobasonakwut’s copy of the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous is covered with a handmade leather case. It is marked and thumbed, interleaved with personal notes and ribbons. It is like a preacher’s bible, or a writer’s favorite dictionary. He has carried the twelve steps with him for over thirty-five years, but his uncle, Kwekwekibiness, who knew nothing of the steps, surprised him once by telling him something about the book that he had not perceived.

  Kwekwekibiness was devoted to the sweat lodge ceremony, in which stones are super heated and then cooled with water to produce a healing steam. In every Ojibwe ceremony, the number four is sacred—four seasons, four directions, four phases of life, four of everything. Kwekwekibiness held Tobasonakwut’s book and told him that it contained four stones. Intrigued, Tobasonakwut examined the book for the stones and after reading it painstakingly found three. He couldn’t find the last until one day he noticed, in the beginning of the book, a gravestone.

  John Tanner and the Landscape of Hunger

  This is John Tanner country—where he was always hungry. One of my favorite books, The Falcon, a Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner During Thirty Years Residence among the Indians in the Interior of North America, is about the relentless efforts of a man to feed himself. My sisters and I read this book in its old Ross and Haines edition until the spine gave, the pages tumbled out and were held together with a rubber band. John Tanner’s narrative exerted a fascination on us, and not only because one of our ancestors was mentioned in its pages, but because of the enigma of John Tanner himself. My sister Lise says that it is the only true sequel to that great American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which ends when Huck and Jim light out for the territory. On the first page of his narrative John Tanner wishes, as a boy, that he could go and live with the Indians. During the next few pages he is, indeed, captured by the Shawnee. It is 1789, and the rest of the novel is about what exactly happens in the “territory.”

  John Tanner was brought north, sold, adopted, and from then on lived entirely as an Ojibwe. For the most part, he hunted throughout Lake of the Woods country and into Rainy Lake, the exact range of the area I’m visiting on this trip. I’ve read his narrative so often that it is a constant mental reference. I see this region as it is and was. When I think about John Tanner’s life the flimsy billboards, border crossings, cheap plastic gas statio
n signs, and hopeful fishing lodge ads look pathetically superimposed on a region harsh, mystical, quite beyond the practical efforts of human beings to tame it. Out here on the lake, those human efforts are sparse and seasonal. It doesn’t take much imagination to see myself in Tanner’s world.

  John Tanner led a feast or famine life. His tale was told after he had attempted to return to civilization and found its restrictions irksome. Tanner, whose Indian name was Shaw-shaw-wa-Be-na-se, or Falcon, was captured at nine years old, specifically to comfort a woman who’d lost her own son. But his stepfather and brother nearly killed him and he was fortunate enough to be sold to an extraordinary and resourceful Ojibwe woman, Net-no-kwa, whom he came to love. His portrait of Net-no-kwa is a treasure. Tanner had a gift for description and an ear for anecdote, and in his voice Net-no-kwa is a stereotype-busting powermonger. When she approached the fort at Mackinac with her flag flying from her boat (it was probably a flag that described her personal dream vision), she was saluted by the fort’s gun. She was a shrewd trader, an observant hunter, and a medicine woman who also got smashed on whiskey from time to time. She saved her family many times with her resourcefulness in times of crisis, and she and Tanner developed a particular affection for one another. “Though Net-no-kwa was now decrepit and infirm,” he says near the end of her life, “I felt the strongest regard for her and continued to do so while she lived.”

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