Ojibwa tales by an elder
This First Nations ethnic group of expert hunters and fur trappers is particularly famous for one of its legends, the northern cannibal evil spirit called Wendigo, which found its way into the US and British gothic and horror literature of the early and late 20th century and nowadays, has even become a fixture of the American pop culture – even if, as always in those cases, those modern representations get more or less everything wrong about the legend they purport to depict and end up with a neutered, bland version tailored to fit the lowest common denominator.
But despite the aptness of the original Wendigo myth (a perfect First Nations counterpart of the European vampire or ghoul, i.e., the mythical version of the monster in human form, the universally loathed psychopath), horror literature is not the point here.
Nokomis is an Ojibwa elder who sells her art on her website. But, she also has lovely stories to tell.
So, here are some of Nokomis’ stories about her people, her youth, her father, her mother and her life out there in the Canadian wilds, north of Lake Superior, miles from anywhere.
First, an introduction by the author herself:
I don’t think there’s ever been a time I didn’t tell stories.
In the bush, stories were entertainment. My father could go on a two day hunting trip and by the time he got home it was a two week story. My mother could cross the lake and have a cup of tea with her friend and by the time she got back she had enough stories to fill a book.
But stories were also used to educate…to make a point, to explain why some behaviors were inappropriate, why it might be best to choose another course of action, and especially to explain the mysteries of the universe.
What you may not know is that Canadian native art is the reason why many of those stories are still told. There’s always been a great blossoming of artistic and ritualistic activity in response to cultural calamities. It happened three times in the prehistoric Eastern Woodlands cultures and it’s happening today as First Nations people face extreme cultural pressures to conform to mainstream mores. The stylized imagery that shows up in the works by many contemporary woodland artists is what sparks conversations about the beliefs and stories that were once fundamental to a way of life that is all but gone.
And, besides that, I just wanted young people to know what it was like to live in the bush without electricity, without running water and without a store close at hand.
The stories are told in no particular order.
By First Nations Artist Nokomis
I lived in a part of the bush that had no roads and no stores. But in 1939 the Ontario government set up a mobile dental service in a railway car that was pulled from town to town in the northwestern part of the province. It served those railroad communities that weren’t connected to the road system.
The dentist lived with his family in the front of the car, schooling his children with correspondence lessons. But the back end of the railroad car had been converted to a complete, albeit tiny, dentist’s office. It had a chair, a drill, and all the little weapons neatly arranged in drawers. The dental car was dropped off at various towns along the tracks and the word would go out that the dentist was in town.
My mother had never been to a dentist, but someone told her that this man was like « a doctor for the teeth » and that it was GOOD to take children to see him. She was a good mother so naturally I had to go to the dentist.
I wasn’t yet going to school which meant that my Dad was still sticking to his rule about not living too close to a town. His idea was that if he or Mom could paddle to the village in a single day that was close enough. I mention this because we lived about twenty five miles north of the railway tracks along a canoe route that followed the shores of three small lakes. There was no current to speak of – the lakes were connected by narrow channels.
In the years since I’ve been telling this story I’ve only met three men nowadays who could paddle that distance by themselves in a single day. Two men paddling together have a chance, but it is a a challenge for a single paddler.
But times were different then. We grew up in those canoes. Though it was hard work, Mom could make it to town before dark, all on her own and even with me in the canoe.
But this dentist trip took twice as long as normal.
It took a full two days of paddling to get to the railway tracks and they were loooooong summer days.
Each evening before we made camp I dropped a short line into the water and caught a fish for supper. It was easy to do in those times…sometimes I didn’t even have to use bait! As soon as I caught something Mom would head to shore so that she could start a fire and rest from her hard days work.
It was my job to do the cooking. My one and only recipe at that age was fish soup. My technique was to drop the fish in the water and add the white stock of some bulrush which I hacked apart with my mother’s knife. At night we propped the canoe on it’s side and used it as a shelter.
In the morning we got up and did the same thing again.
When we finally reached town and saw the dentist it turned out that neither my mother nor I had anything wrong with our teeth.
The trip had been for nothing.
So we picked up a few supplies from the store and paddled home. But again, it took another two days to get home instead of one. It was a four day dentist trip.
The reason it took so long was that my brother had been born the day before we left! He was thirteen hours old when we’d launched at dawn that first morning.
Iwas never able to acknowledge my mother in a way that she could hear. In her own mind she’d been taking her time…two days instead of one so what the heck was I blathering about?
And besides everybody could have done it. The woman who had come to our camp to help my Mom deliver the baby had travelled a further distance but it only to her a single day. You wouldn’t have been able to talk sensibly to her either…she had three children with her in the canoe and one of them was a two year old!
Nowadays if the women of my mother’s generation were still paddling, then during the Olympic Games Canadians across this nation would be on their feet in front of their TV’s cheering at the top of their lungs because we would come home with the gold, the silver and the bronze!
Over the years I could NEVER win an argument with my mother. Just about the time I nailed her to the wall with my superior mind, brilliant ideas supported by years and years of advanced education she’d glare at me, slap her hand on the table, raise it backup, point her finger at me and say through gritted teeth. . .
« You’re kids teeth would rot in their mouth before YOU got them to the dentist in a canoe. »
She was right.
Part two: Saga of the New Stove
Part three: Picking Berries
Part four: Visiting Friends
Front Picture: Chippewa/Ojibwa with their typical bark canoes by a lake, Northern Wisconsin, 1908