Books and islands in oji.., p.5
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       Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, p.5

           Louise Erdrich
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  Whitefish Bay

  To get into Whitefish Bay from where we are will require lots of sandwiches, water, a full gas tank, and two extra five-gallon plastic gas containers that ride in front when full. We start early on a tremendously hot morning. By now, I’m much happier in a boat. I still have the usual fantasy, on starting out, involving the rock and the swim to shore towing Kiizhikok, but by now I’m used to it. I try to move on quickly and enjoy the breeze whipping with heroic freshness off the lake. Whitefish Bay connects to Lake of the Woods via a peculiar contraption called a boat trolley. This is a suspicious-looking, wood-ribbed basket that the boat is floated onto. By sheer muscle power, turning a big red metal wheel that moves the trolley basket along a set of metal tracks, the boat is painfully transferred. Once on the other side of the concrete channel, we reload ourselves and start off, into Whitefish Bay.

  First, we pause at the place where Tobasonakwut was born, a quiet little bay of old-growth pine and soft duff. Just after he and his brother were born, Tobasonakwut’s name was discovered by his father, who gazed out into the bay and saw a certain type of cloud cover, low and even. Tobasonakwut. His twin was named for a small bird that visited his mother shortly after the birth. She has told Tobasonakwut that as this is the type of bird who nests in the same place year after year, if he ever sees one on a visit it will be a relative of the one who named his brother.

  As he is sitting beneath a tree that must have been a sapling when he was born, as he is singing to his daughter, I realize that after thousands of years of continual habitation and birth on the shores of this lake, Tobasonakwut is one of the last human beings who will ever be born out on these islands.


  Wiikenh tea strengthens the immune system. Mixed with a mashed waterlily root, okundamoh, it draws out infection and poison. Speakers chew wiikenh to keep their throats clear, and singers chew it to strengthen their voices at the drum. As we enter a long channel filled with shallow water and small flooded bays, Tobasonakwut sees vast clumps of bright green-gold reeds and mutters, over and over, “So much wiikenh!” This is not the gloating sound I’ve heard before in his voice when discovering so much medicine. Rather, he is distressed that it should be sprouting in such tremendous abundance and no one else has come to pick it. His tone implies that this should all have been harvested, that the endless thick fringe of plants along the shores is an almost painful sight. One thing is sure, he can’t pass it up, and for about an hour we putter along, stopping from time to time for him to lean over the prow of the boat and pull up the long tough bundles of muddy roots. He slices them off with a very sharp hunting knife while I sit behind the wheel of the boat with the baby.

  Wiikenh gathering is very boring to her, but she has decided to be lulled into a state of contemplation by a combination of breast milk and boat engine. Indeed, every time she gets into the boat now, she tips her head dreamily toward my nipple. I’ve grown used to having her there. I’ve filmed eagles and those young moose, dancing loons and zhegeg, pelicans, with one hand while she nurses away. Indeed, though I haven’t mentioned it, I have been filming everything I’ve described all along, as well as somehow brandishing a pen and notebook, all while nursing. One grows used to it.

  Sometimes I look at men, at the way most of them move so freely in the world, without a baby attached, and it seems to me very strange. Sometimes it is enviable. Mostly, it is not. For at night, as she curls up or sprawls next to me and as I fall asleep, I hold onto her foot. This is as much for my comfort as to make sure that she doesn’t fall off the bed. As I’m drifting away, I feel sorry for anyone else who is not falling asleep this way, holding onto her baby’s foot. The world is calm and clear. I wish for nothing. I am not nervous about the future. Her toes curl around my fingers. I could even stop writing books.

  Spirit Bay

  The name on the map is actually Devil’s Bay, so tiresome and so insulting. Squaw Rock. Devil’s This and Devil’s That. Indian or Tomahawk Anything. There’s no use railing. You know it as well as I do. Some day, when there is nothing more important to do, the Anishinaabeg will demand that all the names be changed. For it was obviously the rock painting at the entrance to the bay that inspired the name. It is not a devil, of course, but a spirit in communication with the unknowable. Another horned figure, only this time enormous, imposing, and much older than the one in Lake of the Woods.

  This spirit figure, horns pointed, wavering, and with arms upraised, is fading to a yellow-gold stain in the rock. It is a huge figure, looming all the way up the nine- or ten-foot flat of the stone. At the base of this painting, there is a small ledge. Upon it, a white polo shirt has been carefully folded, an offering, as well as a pair of jeans. The offerings are made out of respect, for personal reasons, or to ask the spirit of the painting for help. There are three rolls of cloth, tied with ribbons. Asema. Again, here are the offerings, the signs that the rock paintings are alive and still respected by the Anishinaabeg.


  I get very excited when I see the thunderbird pictured on a cliff far above the water. It is so beautifully painted, so fluid and powerful even glimpsed from forty feet below. “Are you strong? Are you agile?” Tobasonakwut asks. “If you are you should climb up to that rock. You’ll never be sorry that you did.” I believe him. I grab my camera, my tobacco offering, and retie my running shoes. I already have my twenty extra pounds left over from having a baby. I am just pretending that I am strong and agile. Really, I’m soft and clumsy, but I want to see the painting. I am on fire to see it. I want to stand before that painting because I know that it is one of the most beautiful paintings I will have ever seen. Put up there out of reach or within difficult reach for that very reason. At that moment, I just want to see it because it is beautiful, not because I’ll get some spiritual gift.

  The climb is hard, though of course it looked easy from below. Like all women are accused of doing, I claw my way to the top. Sweaty, heart pounding, I finally know I’m there. All I have to do is inch forward and step around the edge of the cliff, but that’s the thing. I have to step around one particular rock and it looks like there’s nothing below it or on the other side. I could fall into the rocks. My children could be left motherless. Or I could simply get hurt, which is not simple at all. I calculate. The nearest hospital is hours away and there is that trolley contraption. So I don’t go around the rock, but seek another route. I continue climbing until I’m over the top of the cliff. Still, I can’t see down. I don’t know how to get down to the paintings. Again, I nearly take the chance and lower myself over the cliff but I can’t see how far I’d fall. Finally, looking far, far down at my baby in her tiny life jacket, I know I’m a mother and I just can’t do it.

  Climbing back into the boat is admitting defeat.

  “Give me the camera, and tobacco,” says Tobasonakwut.

  “No!” I say. “Don’t do it!”

  “Why? If you can’t make it then you’ll feel bad if I do?”

  “Just like a guy, so competitive! Because you will go around the corner of that rock and you’ll fall and kill yourself.”

  “I will not fall. I’ve done this before.”

  “How many years ago?”

  “A few.”

  With terse dignity, Tobasonakwut goes. He’s an incredible climber and regularly shames the twenty-somethings who come to fast on the rock cliffs by climbing past them and even dragging up their gear. I know he’ll make it. He’ll do something ridiculous, maybe even get hurt, but he’ll manage to get right next to the paintings.

  He’s always poking around in the islands. Once, he described a rockslide he started coming down from a cliff like this one. Remembering this, I maneuver the boat away from a skid of rocks on the south side of the cliff, though he didn’t go up that route. Anyway, he had a terrifying ski down on the boulders and at the bottom one bounced high in the air, over him, and its point landed right between the first and second toe of his right foot. He said that he’d done something mil
dly offensive to the rocks. He’d thrown one down to see what happened. That’s how the landslide started. When the boulder bounced down on his foot, he thought it would slice his foot off. But when he looked down his foot was still there. Just a crushed place between his toes. It was as if, he said, the rocks, the grandfathers had said, “Don’t fool around with us.”

  And now he’s climbing rocks again.

  It’s no use. The best I can do is make sure that the baby’s comfortable. I might as well be comfortable too. I take a fat little peanut butter sandwich from the cooler and munch dreamily, while nursing, and after a while the wind in the pines and the chatter of birds lull us into a peaceful torpor. I forget to watch for him, forget the all important ascent. From somewhere, at some point, I hear him call but he doesn’t sound in distress so I just let my mind float out onto the lake.

  Then he’s back.

  “Did you see me up there?”

  “No!” I feel guilty, awful. Here he is about as old as I’ll be when Kiizhikok graduates from high school and I didn’t take the trouble to film him as he made the dangerous climb to the rock paintings. He hands over the camera. Ashamed of my distracted laziness, I put it away.

  “How did you do it?” I ask quietly.

  “Oh, jumped.”



  I’m immediately just a little pissed off. “You jumped? You could have broken your leg!”

  “It was only six feet.”

  “More like fifteen feet.”

  “Well, if you hang down, it comes to…”

  “Don’t ever do that again!”

  We travel for a while, heading back for the boat trolley, and I brood on his unlikely stubborn-headed insistence that he’s still a young man. How long will it take before he really hurts himself? He’s scarred and burnt. Just last winter a red hot stone from a sweat lodge brushed up against his calf and left a deep hole. His back and chest are pitted with sun-dance scars and one of his eyebrows was smashed sideways in a boxing match. He took so many punches to the head while a boxer that he has to take special eyedrops now to relieve the pressure on his optic nerve.

  “You’ve got to quit doing things like this,” I say softly, but I know I will have no effect, and besides, this is one of the reasons I love him. He’s a little crazy, in a good way, half teenager and half akiwenzii.

  He doesn’t answer, just keeps steering the boat, munching trail mix.

  When we get to the boat trolley I am further convinced that animals love the baby because it happens again. This time it is a nice fat waboose, a grown rabbit. The rabbit sees us from across the shallow boat channel and behaves just like a friendly little dog. It hops down onto the trolley mechanism while Tobasonakwut is laboriously turning the wheel. The little rabbit crosses the water using a rail as a bridge, and comes curiously up to me. The rabbit looks right at the baby. Just as when the otter came toward us, I’m a bit unnerved. I suddenly imagine that this rabbit will bounce charmingly close, and then bare vampire teeth. But it merely inspects us, turns, and hops away calmly.

  All right, I think, animals do love the baby.

  Now that we’re over the channel and into Lake of the Woods again, I try hard to let go of my agitation about Tobasonakwut’s dangerous rock climb. We start talking about the thunderbird pictured in the rock painting that I didn’t get to. I did take a movie picture of it and Tobasonakwut surely snapped some up-close shots, I think, consoling myself. That thunderbird is very graceful, and there is a handprint with it. It is still the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.


  These spirits are particular about what they’re called—they prefer Binessiwag to Animikiig. They’re very powerful. Thunder is the beating of their wings. Lightning flashes from their eyes. You don’t want to rile the young ones, as they are the most unpredictable. When a storm approaches, traditional Ojibwe cover all the shiny objects—mirror and cooking pans—so as not to attract the attention of the Binessiwag. A feather over the door lets them know Anishinaabeg are at home. They will avoid that house. It is important, when the Binessiwag appear, at any time of the day or night, to offer tobacco.

  The only natural enemy of these immensely strong beings are the great snakes, the Ginebigoog, who live underwater. These snakes are said to travel from lake to lake via an underground network of watery tunnels that lies beneath northern Minnesota and Ontario. There is an ongoing feud between these two powerful supernatural beings. The young Binessiwag, those that come out in spring, are the most volatile, the most unpredictable. Anyone who has experienced a violent spring thunderstorm in the north woods can attest to this truth. As we have perfect weather, we don’t need to appease the Binessiwag. Day after day the morning sun shines clear. The Earth heats up. The water gleams like metal. The sky by noon is a hot deep blue.

  The Eternal Sands

  Kaawiikwethawangag, they are called, the Eternal Sands. John Tanner must have approached from the south, for he said, that “this lake is called by the Indians Pub-be-kwaw-waung-gaw Sau-gi-e-gun, ‘the Lake of the Sand Hills.’ Why it is called ‘Lake of the Woods’ by the whites, I cannot tell, as there is not much wood about it.” And it is true, the lake is very different in character when approached from this direction. Gorgeous and deserted sand beaches stretch around the southeast side of Big Island, the reserve that Tobasonakwut’s mother, the original Nenaa’ikiizhikok, came from. The great island is now empty of people, the villages abandoned since shortly after World War II.

  Even though Canada’s aboriginal people could not vote and were being forced from their lands and educated by force, they fought in both World Wars. One of Tobasonakwut’s uncles, a soldier, came home to Big Island much affected by the fighting. He was silent, withdrawn, and stayed away from his family. Then his little son, a small boy named Wabijiis, came down with an unusual fever.

  Such was the terror of disease, at the time, that it was decided that once the boy died the village would break up and the people disperse to Seamo Bay and Niiyaawaangashing. The little boy’s grave was dug with paddles—the people wanted to bury him the old way and not use metal. A prayer flag was erected near. The little boy Wabijiis was the last person buried on Big Island, and his grave and all that remains of the village is now grown over with young trees.


  All of a sudden between our boat and the fringed woods a great fish vaults up into the air. I’ve seen muskies. I walk around a Minneapolis lake of which signs warn MUSKELUNGE ARE IN THESE WATERS. Once, I saw an Uptown Minneapolis type, dressed in tight black jeans and tight black T, wearing a suit jacket, fishing in a very cool way. Cool until he hooked a vast muskie. His screams echoed along the sedate bike paths and the fish he dragged forth was soon surrounded by Rollerbladers, joggers, and awestruck pink- and blue-haired teens. The fish I just saw was not a muskie. It was even bigger. Tobasonakwut sees it from the corner of his eye and slows the boat down.

  “Asema,” he says, and puts the tobacco in the water. That fish was the nameh. The sturgeon. Tobasonakwut is happy and moved to see it because, he says, “They rarely show themselves like that.”

  Once again, I’m sure it is the baby. The sturgeon seemed to take flight above the water, rising in a pale thrust and falling on its back. The sturgeon is a living relic of life before the age of the dinosaurs, and to see one is to obtain a glimpse of life 200 million years ago. I’ve never seen one of these fish in the wild before, much less grown large. I’ve only seen tiny, fish hatchery, Pallid Sturgeon that a relative of mine who works for the North Dakota Department of Natural Resources was raising to stock the Missouri River. Nameh, Acipenser fulvescens Rafinesque, the Lake Sturgeon, is long-lived and can grow to more than eight feet. The Lake of the Woods record fish was a lake sturgeon weighing 238 pounds. Tobasonakwut says they can grow over twice that large. Males live into their forties. Female sturgeon can live over one hundred years, but they only spawn every four years, and not until they are in their twenties.
r />   The sturgeon up here on Lake of the Woods were the buffalo of the Ojibwe. Greed and overfishing by non-Indians caused their population to crash around the turn of the nineteenth century, when, along with the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods became one of the world’s principal suppliers of caviar. The sturgeon were indiscriminately taken by the non-Indian fisheries for their roe, much as the buffalo hunters took only the buffalo tongues. They were stacked like cordwood all along the lake and often left to rot. An agonizing sight for the Ojibwe, who revere the sturgeon and who knew its secrets.

  Long before fish-farming, the Ojibwe had traditional “sturgeon gardens,” shallow and protected parts of the lake where they mixed eggs and sperm and protected the baby sturgeon from predators. The eggs and sperm were mixed together with an eagle feather in an act both sacred and ordinary. These days, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and tribal communities raise sturgeon. A conservation program begun ninety-nine years ago, in Lake Winnebago near Shawano, Wisconsin, has provided the best example and the best hope. Wisconsin has tightly restricted sturgeon fishing since 1903, and Lake Winnebago now has the only large, self-sustaining sturgeon population in the world. A long-term program there may provide stocks that will rehabilitate sturgeon in the Great Lakes and throughout Canada.

  At the base of the very first rock painting that we visited, a great sturgeon floats above a tiny triangular tent. It is a divining tent, a place where Ojibwe people have always gone to learn the wishes of the spirits and to gain comfort from their teachings. Someday perhaps Kiizhikok’s children will find the sturgeon vaulting from the water around Big Island a common sight. I hope so. It was a moment out of time.

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