Books and islands in oji.., p.4
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.4

           Louise Erdrich
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  Tanner had a clear eye and in his narrative he provides detailed descriptions of the world around him. A terrified female bear picks up her cub and cradles it like a human. He recounts his surprise at a porcupine’s trusting stupidity and notes that it was quite tasty. An otter exhausts him with its tenacious fury when he tries to kill it with his bare hands. Tanner attended to animal behavior with a terrible fixity of purpose, for game was the only real food and his relationship with nature was one of practical survival.

  At the leanest times, Tanner’s family was forced to boil and eat their own moccasins, to subsist on the inner bark of trees or dead vines. During the best of times, the food was eaten all at once and drink, if there was any, consumed until it disappeared. Indeed, the kind of life where a few people killed a fat moose and polished it entirely off in a few days is mirrored in the binge or abstinence style of drinking that Tanner describes. Not a life for the moderate. Not a life for the faint of heart. Tanner’s ordinary feats of hunting endurance are almost beyond comprehension in these days of radio-collared bear dogs and high-powered telescopic rifles. And yet he was by his own account no more than a mediocre hunter, who was patiently instructed by Ojibwe who had survived for millennia without guns or steel:

  I had occasion to go to the trading house on Red River, and I started in company with a half-breed…who was mounted on a fleet horse. The distance we had to travel has since been called, by the English settlers, seventy miles. We rode and went on foot by turns, and the one who was on foot kept hold of the horse’s tail and ran. We passed over the whole distance in one day.

  When I returned to my family I had but seven bullets left, but as there was no trader near, I could not at present get more. With those seven I killed twenty moose and elk. Often times, in shooting a moose or elk, the ball does not pass entirely through and can be used again.

  Visiting his family in Kentucky after having lived virtually all of his life in the north woods, John Tanner fell ill. He grew claustrophobic when nursed inside of a house, and had to sleep outside in his brother’s yard to restore his strength. Once he returned to Sault Ste. Marie and told his story, he vanished. He was suspected of a murder but that charge was later thought false. He never turned up. As Lise says, “He vanished into his own legend.” His end was as mysterious and tragic as the outline of his life in this beautiful, unforgiving country. As he was to all respects a “white Indian,” and saw the world as an Ojibwe, his is the first narrative of native life from an Ojibwe point of view.


  Rock Paintings

  * * *

  More About Age

  One of the first questions people ask about the rock paintings is how old they are—complicated answer. There is no completely accurate way to date rock paintings. Some are hundreds of years old, and others thousands of years. The Anishinaabe have been in Lake of the Woods forever, according to Tobasonakwut. Since at least two thousand years before the birth of Christ, according to archaeologists. One thing certain is that the paintings were made by the ancestors of the present-day Anishinaabeg, for the ancient symbols on the rocks are as familiar and recognizable to Tobasonakwut as are, say, highway and airport and deer crossing signs to contemporary Americans. Of course, the rock paintings are not just pointer signs. They hold far more significance. They refer to a spiritual geography, and are meant to provide teaching and dream guides to generations of Anishinaabeg.

  Akawe Asema

  The rock paintings are alive. This is more important than anything else that I can say about them. As if to prove this point, we see as we approach Painted Rock Island that a boat has paused. It is a silver fishing boat with a medium horsepower outboard motor. A man leans over and scoops a handful of tobacco from a pouch, places it before the painting, and then maneuvers his boat out and goes on. Akawe asema. First offer tobacco. This makes Tobasonakwut extremely happy, as do all the offerings that we will see as we visit the other paintings. It is evidence to him that the spiritual life of his people is in the process of recovery. He swerves the boat out and chases down the man who made the offering, and then, seeing who he is, waves and cuts away. He is doubly pleased because he knows where this man sets his nets, and knows that he went ten or twelve miles out of his way to visit the rock painting. It is sunset now and will be dark before the man returns to his dock.

  The Wild Rice Spirit

  The long rays of the deepening sun reach through the channel. As we draw our boat up to the rock painting, the light warms the face of what was once a cliff. I am standing before the rock wall of Painted Rock Island and trying to read it like a book. I don’t know the language, though. The painting spreads across a ten- or twelve-foot rectangle of smooth rock, and includes several spirit figures as well as diagrams of teachings. The deep light pulls the figures from the rock. They seem to glow from the inside, a vibrant golden red. For a long while, I am only interested in the visual experience of standing at eye level with the central figures in the rock. They are simple and extremely powerful. One is a horned human figure and the other a stylized spirit figure who Tobasonakwut calls, lovingly, the Manoominikeshii, or the wild rice spirit.

  Once you know what it is, the wild rice spirit looks exactly like itself. A spiritualized wild rice plant. Beautifully drawn, economically imagined. I have no doubt that this figure appeared to the painter in a dream, for I have had such dreams, and I have heard such dreams described. The spirits of things have a certain look to them, a family resemblance. This particular spirit of the wild rice crop is invoked and fussed over, worried over, just as the plants are checked throughout the summer for signs of ripening.

  This year, on Lake of the Woods, the rice looks dismal. Because the high waters have invaded a whole new level of recently established rice beds, the rice is leggy and will flop over before it can be harvested. Earlier in the day, we stopped to examine Tobasonakwut’s family rice beds. At this time of the year, mid-July, the rice is especially beautiful. It is in the floating leaf stage and makes a pattern on the water like bright green floating hair. Kiimaagoogan, it is called. But upon pulling up a stalk Tobasonakwut says sadly, “There’s nothing in this loonshit,” meaning he cannot find the seed in the roots. All the energy of the plant has gone into growing itself high enough to survive the depth of the water. There will not be enough reserve strength left in the plant to produce a harvest. “And then,” Tobasonakwut goes on, “if your parents had no children, you can’t have children.” In other words, the rice crop will be affected for years.

  So perhaps this year it is especially important to ask for some help from the Manoominikeshii.

  When the pictures were painted, the lake was a full nine feet lower, and as it is nearly four feet higher this year than usual, some paintings of course are submerged. The water level is a political as well as natural process—it is in most large lakes now. From the beginning, that the provincial government allowed the lake levels to rise infuriated the Anishinaabeg, as the water ruined thousands of acres of wild rice beds. As it is, I mentally add about one story of rock to the painting, which at present lies only a few feet out of the water.

  This is a feminine-looking drawing. The language of the wild rice harvest is intensely erotic and often comically sexualized. If the stalk is floppy, it is a poor erection. Too wet, it is a penis soaking in its favorite place. Half hard, full, hairy, the metaphors go on and on. Everything is sexual, the way of the world is to be sexual, and it is good (although often ridiculous). The great teacher of the Anishinaabeg, whose intellectual prints are also on this rock, was a being called Nanabozho, or Winabojo. He was wise, he was clever, he was a sexual idiot, a glutton, full of miscalculations and bravado. He gave medicines to the Ojibwe, one of the primary being laughter.

  The Horned Man

  This is the figure that glows brightest from the rock. He is not a devil, and he isn’t throwing away a Christian cross—the local white Christian interpretation of the painting, which has led to its close call at defacement. (At th
e figure’s far right, in white paint, I can still make out Jesus Christ in fairly neat lettering. But the thirty-year-old graffiti has nearly flaked off, while the original painted figures still blaze true.) As I stand before the painting, I come to believe that the horned figure is a self-portrait of the artist.

  Books. Why? So we can talk to you even though we are dead. Here we are, the writer and I, regarding each other.

  Horns connote intellectual and spiritual activity—important to us both and used on many of the rock paintings all across the Canadian Shield. The cross that the figure is holding over the rectangular water drum probably signifies the degree that the painter had reached in the hierarchy of knowledge that composes the formal structure of the Ojibwe religion, the Midewiwin. The cross is the sign of the fourth degree, and as well, there are four Mide squares stacked at the figure’s left-hand side, again revealing the position of the painter in the Mide lodge.

  I quickly grow fond of this squat, rosy, hieratic figure. His stance is both proud and somewhat comical, the bent legs strong and stocky. His arms are raised but he doesn’t seem to be praying as much as dancing, ready to spring into the air, off the rock. When this rock was painted on a cliff, the water below was not a channel but a small lake that probably flooded periodically, allowing fish to exit and enter. Perhaps it was a camping or a teaching place, or possibly even a productive wild rice bed. Very likely it was a place where the Mide lodge was built, like Niiyaawaangashing. The painter may have been a Mide teacher, eager to leave instructions and to tell people about the activities that took place here.

  Most of the major forms of communication with the spirit world are visible in this painting—the Mide lodge, the sweat lodge or madoodiswan, the shake tent. The horned figure beats a water drum. Such drums are extremely resonant, and their tone changes beautifully according to the level of the water and the player’s skill at shifting the water in the drum while beating it. (Anyone curious about the sound of the water drum can buy a CD and listen to the winners of a recent Native American Grammy, the singers Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike, Bless The People.) The water drum is a healing drum. In the pictograph a bear floats over the drum, and a line between the horned figure and the bear connects them with the sky world.

  The line is a sign of power and communication. It is sound, speech, song. The lines drawn between things in Ojibwe pictographs are extremely important, for they express relationships, usually between a human and a supernatural being. Wavy lines are most impressive, for they signify direct visionary information, talk from spirit to spirit. In the work of some contemporary Ojibwe artists, Joe Geshick, Blake Debassige, and of course Norval Morrisseau, the line is still used to signify spiritual interaction. Contemporary native art is not just influenced by the conventions invented by the rock painters, it is a continuation, evidence of the vitality of Ojibwe art.

  The Bay of Baby Spirits

  Looking on a map at the little bay we are going to travel, my friend, who is in training as a doulah or birth assistant, says no wonder it is known as the home of baby spirits—the bay is thin and winding and looks like a fallopian tube. The bay of little spirits is a courting bay, the water shallow and romantic. To either side, the rich young undergrowth is said to be inhabited by the spirits of babies who choose humans, as they pass, to come and live with. Traveling slowly down the shallow channel, I stroke the tender spot upon Kiizhikok’s head, the fontanel, which has nearly shut. I’ve heard it said that until it does the baby still hears spirits talking. If they’re out there, if they’re talking to her, I hope they are warning her that it is dangerous to hide stones in her mouth.

  Suddenly we come upon three young moose, gangly and playful. Instead of climbing onto land, one clomps into the water and then swims along beside us. Her long rabbity ears cock toward us from time to time, and she doesn’t seem particularly frightened. Her Joe Camel nose held high, she rolls her eyes at us. Those odd Twiggy legs and knobby knees work smoothly, powerfully. A wonderful swimmer, she at last veers away into the reeds and cattails. I am very surprised that this happened. According to John Tanner the wary moose is the most difficult of animals to hunt. But then, these are very young moose and our baby is in the boat. I harbor the irrational notion that animals are curious about Kiizhikok and show themselves around her, that her presence is a kind of magnet to them. And it is true, not only do we see animals but they seem unafraid of her, like the otter, like the moose, and the constantly wheeling eagles and pelicans. The animals come close as if they want to get a good look at this child whose ancestors watched their ancestors, whose grandmother ate their grandmothers, whose father was stolen from among them by priests.

  Mirage Islands

  When the water is high like it is this year, large pieces of bog pull free of the lake bottom and drift all through the bays and channels. You fall asleep looking at a certain shoreline, memorizing the sweep of it, and by morning the shape has shifted and the bog has moved on. When these bogs attach to islands, they can change its shape instantly, but often they merely bounce against the island until they fall apart. Lodge owners get their guide boats out and push the bogs into the lake currents. Close up, rising out of deep water, they are deceptively solid looking. They are a rich biomass composed of reeds, young willow, wiikenh, cattails.

  Cattails are a useful plant whose roots are edible, whose tails when puffed out are a perfect diapering material for the tender new bottoms of Anishinaabeg babies, used to stuff in the bags of cradleboards. Reeds were used for floor covering, woven into mats. Wiikenh, or sweet flag, is the star of the floating bog, though, a medicine with every possible use. “Where there is wiikenh, there are Anishinaabeg,” says Tobasonakwut. Wiikenh is the ultimate medicine. He investigates each floating bog, hoping to pick it easily, for when rooted it is difficult to wrench from the mud.

  Looking at these bogs it is easy to see how, once, when a raiding party of Bwaanag had camped in Ojibwe country, they were driven out by use of a floating bog. The warriors entered the bog from underneath and swam it to the shore of the Bwaanag camp, like Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane. From that bog, they attacked and drove the Bwaanag out.

  Massacre Island

  It is not considered wise to point a finger at any island, especially this one. The Ojibwe use mouth or head to indicate direction, and are often humorously mocked for “pointing with the lips.” But it is impolite to point a finger at people, and the islands as well. Pointing at the islands is like challenging them. And you don’t want to challenge anything this powerful.

  Massacre Island is a forbidden place. Recently, two men who tried to fast there were bothered the entire night by ghosts. As we approach the island, I feel its brooding presence. I can’t tell whether this island is a formidable place because of its history, or whether it possesses a somber gravity all on its own. But the very look of the place disturbs me. Massacre Island is located where the lake deepens. Sounds travel farther, the air thins, the waves go flat. Its rocks sloping down to the water are not the pale pink flecked granite of the other islands, but a heavy gray nearly black in places and streaked with a fierce red-gold lichen.

  On this island, the Ojibwe wiped out an entire party of Sioux, or Bwaanag. As Tobasonakwut tells it, the entire island was ringed by Ojibwe canoes. At a signal, the sasawkwe, the war whoop, a terrifying and a bloodthirsty shrill, was raised. From one canoe to the next, it traveled, a ring of horrifying sound. The canoes advanced four times. The sasawkwe was raised four times. On the last time, the Ojibwe paddlers surged all the way forward, beached their canoes, and stormed the Bwaanag. He shows where the warriors died, including one who staked himself into the earth and fought all comers who entered his circle, until he was overwhelmed.


  The paint, atisikan, should be patented, says Tobasonakwut. It is an eternal paint. The Ojibwe Sharpee paint. It works on anything. When he was little he often watched the paint being prepared. It was used for other things, besides painting on rocks. For burial, for b
ringing people into the religion, for teachings, for decorating request sticks and Mide stakes.

  The recipes for paints used by other tribes are often based on vermillion from outcroppings of cinnabar. The Inuit used blood and charcoal. Burnt plum seeds and bull rushes were mixed into a black paint by the Klamath, and many tribes used blue carbonate of copper. Later, as we walk the Kaawiikwethawangag, the Eternal Sands, I will find some of the mysterious ingredients of the Ojibwe atisikan at my feet, then jumping from the lake.


  On a great gray sweep of boulder, high above Obabikon channel, a rock painting gives instructions to the spirit on how to travel from this life into the next life. Such a journey takes four days and is filled with difficulties. For that reason, loved ones provide the spirit with food, spirit dishes, and encouragement in the form of prayers and songs. We climb to the painting with tobacco and leave handfuls by the first painting, a line with four straight, sweeping branches, and the second painting, which is of a mikinaak, or turtle.

  The mikinaak has immense significance in Ojibwe life. As there are thirteen plates in its back, it is associated with the thirteen moons in the yearly cycle, and also with women. It was women, says Tobasonakwut, who were responsible for beginning Ojibwe mathematical calculations. They began because they had to be concerned with their own cycles, had to count the days so that they would know when they would be fertile. They had to keep close track of the moon, and had to relate it to their bodies in order to predict the births of their children. And they had to be accurate, so that they could adequately prepare. In a harsh Ojibwe winter, giving birth in an unprotected spot could be lethal. Women had to prepare to be near relatives and other knowledgeable women. Mathematics wasn’t abstract. It was intimate. Dividing and multiplying and factoring were concerns of the body, and of survival.

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