Ojibwa tales by an elder
Who are the Ojibwa?
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 for the mass media.
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 sociopath), horror literature is not the subject matter here.
Nokomis is an Ojibwa elder who promotes 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, and her life out there in the Canadian wilds, north of Lake Superior, miles from anywhere.
But 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
Many years ago, it wasn’t an easy thing to visit a dentist if you lived in a remote part of Canada.
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 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 its 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.
I was 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 took 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. . .
« Your kids’ teeth would rot in their mouth before YOU got them to the dentist in a canoe. »
She was right.
By First Nations artist Nokomis
Ojibwa canoes opened up this country and looking back I’ve come to realize they expanded my life as well. Like kids today who take car travel for granted, my brothers and I just assumed that if we wanted to go from point A to point B in the summer that it would be by canoe.
My grandparents were the only people I knew that still used birch bark canoes regularly. My parents had bought a red cedar strip canoe before I was born and it was the one they usually used for travel… until Kokum decided enough was enough, made a unilateral decision and taught my parents how to build their own birch bark canoe.
Ojibwa children literally grew up in their family’s canoes. My brother, for example, began a four day canoe trip the same day he was born. Like all babies, he was bundled into a tikinogan (cradle board) to keep him safe and quiet on the journey. Our trip took twice as long as it normally would because Mom had to pull over and feed him regularly and change the moss in the tikinogan. (Original disposable diaper, that!)
Because of the danger when families traveled on the water, children were taught to sit quietly hour after hour. As a child my mother had survived a canoe accident in which she was the only survivor. She never learned to swim and demanded that as children we sit motionless and absolutely silent. In her experience children who chattered and fidgeted in a canoe caused trouble.
I can tell you that it didn’t matter how far to the front of the canoe you sat… her paddle could reach you if you fidgeted… and the bruises usually disappeared by week’s end!
We practiced mental gymnastics to pass the time. Ojibwa canoes taught endurance.
One long day trip stands out in my mind.
When we traveled, because I was the oldest I exercised my right to sit in the bow of the canoe. My brother sat behind me and we both knew enough to sit quietly and endure the boredom. We were returning from a visit to a relative and had left for home when the sun came up in the morning. We’d made occasional stops but for the most part had to just sit and sit…..and sit.
Ojibwa canoes taught us patience.
Sometime late in the afternoon my brother slowly and discretely leaned over and pinched my bum! You may have made a big fuss over that but not me. I clenched my teeth and didn’t let on anything had happened. My mother’s secret weapon for controlling tattler’s was to punish the tattler. Unfair. Mean. Abusive. But it worked.
I knew if I said anything, even a whisper, that she’d make straight for the shore and paddle my bum just for making a fuss. So I shut my mouth.
Then my brother leaned over slowly and discretely and did it again!
He was in trouble. I was going to get even. Not at that minute, but he was going to get it.
More time passed.
HE DID IT AGAIN!!!
His life was in danger. He just didn’t know it, yet. I sat with my hands on the gunwales, teeth clenched, every muscle in my body ready to spring. I could see our cabin in the distance and I was ready for battle.
Now. . . your mother didn’t condone fighting and neither did my mother. We weren’t allowed to yell at one another, hit one another, or be disrespectful to one another. In her presence, anyway.
But who cared? The kid was going to get his just desserts!
As the canoe came up against the sandy bottom in front of our cabin I was out of it. I didn’t care what my mother was going to do to me later, I was going to get even.
I turned and in one swift motion pulled my brother off his seat and into the water. I pushed him down, straddled him and proceeded to punch the beejeebers out of him. He yelled. He screamed. His nose started to bleed. He called to Mom to help him.
And what did she do?
She beached the canoe, pulled it up on shore, hauled out the knapsack and cooking pot and walked towards the house.
She’d known all along what was happening and because I’d not made a fuss, I got to dish out the punishment.
I was so shocked that I stopped the beating.
My brother just looked at her retreating back, got up and without saying a word shuffled off, sniveling into the house.
I don’t think he’s pinched another woman’s bum since then.
I don’t think I got away with hitting him ever again, either.
Part two: Saga of the New Stove
Part three: Picking Berries
Part four: Visiting Friends
Front picture : Chippewa/Ojibwa in a traditional birch canoe.