seven directions

Willam Berens' stories, told to Irving Hallowell

The story that follows comes from an Anishiaabe community in the Berens River region of northern Manitoba and Ontario. The photographs were taken by the anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell and the stories are told by his good friend William Berens, who was chief of the Berens River band of Anishinaabe from 1917-1947. The two are pictured below in a photograph taken in the 1930s.

On the right appears a photograph of Chief William Berens, of the Berens River Anishinaabe or Ojibwe, taken in 1930 by his good friend and collaborator A. Irving ("Pete") Hallowell, whose papers reside in the American Philosophical Society's library.  The photo is entitled "Grandfather's Rock" and is accompanied by a description: "Black and white photograph of Chief William Berens, sitting outside, beside a shrine, with offerings, between Grand Rapids and Pikangikum, Ontario, Canada."

William Berens was the keeper of this sacred place and the stories that enliven it.  To better understand the significance of Chief Berens' ancestral authority and the distinctive, rounded rocks that bestow a sacred quality to this place, three stories told by Ojibwe elders appear below the photograph.  The stories teach the attentive listener to see deeper, spiritual dimensions of the photograph that would not make themselves visible without the gracious guidance of the Anishinaabe wisdom-keepers.  To begin this journey, it is helpful to know that the word for 'grandfather' in Ojibwe is mishoomis.  In this case, mishoomis can refer either to William Beren's genealogy (the rocks were put here by his great-grandfather) or to the spirit of the ancestors.  More specifically, the rocks themselves are grandfathers, animate beings with memories and stories to share with those, like William Berens and his great-grandfather, who are gifted enough to hear the ancestral voices.  

Willam Berens' stories, told to Irving Hallowell

Irving Hallowell and William Berens worked together for a decade (1930-1940).  Because of their friendship and Hallowell's deep respect for the power of Ojibwe storytelling, Chief Berens presented his friend with several stories about this photograph, which Hallowell recorded in his field notes:

"Yellow Legs, the paternal great-grandfather of William Berens was an old Mide ['Grand Medicine Lodge'] priest who was once seen walking on the water over to a little island to secure a special kind of 'medicine.'  He was brought back by the memegwesug ['little people'], semihuman mythological creatures who live in the rocks.  He was a manao, a type of curer who obtained his medicine from memegwesug.  All this happened in broad daylight while many people were watching.  He also brought back some gulls' eggs from the island, 'in order to make people believe in his power.'"
"On another occasion, Yellow Legs dreamed of a large round stone on Egg Island, near the one already mentioned.  He sent two men to fetch this stone for him.  They were told to follow a bear's tracks to be found on the edge of the shore, which would lead them directly to it.  To make sure they had found the right stone, they were told that a few branches would be broken directly above it.  This stone was brought back and it later appeared in the Midewiwin ['Grand Medicine'] lodge.  It exhibited animate properties when Yellow Legs tapped it with a knife.  A mouth, suggested by the external characteristics of the surface, would open and he would extract a packet of medicine.  This medicine would be made into a concoction which was then shared by all present."
"These anecdotes exemplify the traditional Ojibawa [Ojibwe] world view....  They are thoroughly intelligible in terms of its premises.  The famous stone of Yellow Legs finally reached the Berens River where his son Bear went to live.  Bear, in coooperation with his brother Cauwanas (the one who travels with the South Wind), carried on the Midewiwin at the mouth of the river where William Berens saw the last performance as a child.  The stone came into his possession and he never would part with it.... William once dreamed of the memegwesug, as his great-grandfather had.  He said he could have obtained medicine from them but never did so." 

-- Written by Maureen Matthews, an anthropologist who has worked for many years in the Berens River region who works closely with William Berens’ descendents.

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Andy Favorite and Larry Aitken on Ojibwe Blood Quantum at White Earth Tribal College

Andy Favorite lived on the White Earth reservation and taught Ojibwe history at the White Earth Tribal and Community College. As Andy explains, The Treaty of 1855 established first reservations for the Mississippi and Pillager bands of the Anishinaabeg. White Earth reservation was established in 1867 with the ominous designation as being the place to which the federal and state authorities intended to remove all of the Anishinaabeg people in the region. White Earth is, therefore, a place deeply familiar with the sorrow and sadness associated with ningaabii’an.

Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, the Anishinaabeg (‘Ojibwe people’) would suffer a relentless series of attacks on their land, resources, and their very identity. As Andy Favorite points out, the Treaty of 1855 compelled the Ojibwe to sell 10 million acres for 10 cents per acre. In another part of the interview, not in the above video, Andy Favorite explains the ideology behind the creation of the White Earth reservation:

the idea is referenced as "The Great Experiment", and the Great Experiment was to Christianize us, civilize us, and make us agrarian. And once they did it here at White Earth, they were going to replicate it on other reservations.… White Earth was earmarked as late as the 1840s to be a, the answer to the Chippewa problem in northern Minnesota. The plan was to concentrate all the Michigan bands, all the Minnesota bands and all the Wisconsin bands here at White Earth, as early as the 1840s…. So then what they did is a -- a controversial character in Chippewa history was Knute Nelson, who did a Congressional act called "An Act for the Relief and Civilization of Chippewa Indians in Northern Minnesota", and what that did is essentially dissolve the five Chippewa reservations east of us here, and it talks about the complete cession and relinquishment of all Chippewa lands except White Earth and Red Lake in the state of Minnesota. So the plan was to do allotment under the Dawes Act and double-whammy us with the Nelson Act and remove everyone to White Earth and Red Lake. Red Lake refused allotment; White Earth allegedly accepted allotment, and that's why our enrollment is over 20,000 now because of all the refugees, if you will, from the other reservations.

For more on this horrific moment when anthropologists attempted to steal valuable timber by changing full blood Anishinaabe to mixed-blood Anishinaabe see David Beaulieu’s article “Curly Hair and Big Feet: Physical Anthropology and the Implementation of Land Allotment on the White Earth Chippewa Reservation,” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 4 (autumn, 1984), pp. 281-314

Andy Favorite on Manifest Destiny at White Earth

The idea of ningaabii’an offering a gift of sorrow is, perhaps, difficult at first to understand. It is, however, an integral part of the journey. Below, the former White Earth tribal historian, Andy Favorite, explains a painful part of Anishinaaabe history—the treaty era, when the Ojibwe in Minnesota lost ten million acres of land, were cheated out of millions of dollars of timber revenue, and endured “a forced dependence on government commodities and rations” that lasted more than half a century. In the second video, Andy Favorite explains how non-Native people even tried to steal the Ojibwe’s identity.

Andy Favorite, sadly, passed away in 2012. He was a brilliant historian and a fearless storyteller. We honor him and his wife, Mary, chi miigwech (‘we offer thanks’).

Florence Foy Prayer; on Boarding School; and on Breaking the Cycle

This notion of cleansing as part of the journey through the seven directions is expressed powerfully by Florence Foy, an elder from the Couchiching First Nation, explaining how to break the cycle of abuse that continued beyond the boarding school era. Captain Richard Henry Pratt established the first Indian boarding school in 1879 with the stated goal: "to kill the Indian in order to save the man. " Florence Foy, talks here with heartbreaking honesty and courage about the abuse that she suffered in boarding schools and, tragically, how the abuse was passed down to the next generation.

As Florence Foy teaches, to move forward on the path to recover it is crucial to confront the atrocities that have been committed against the Anishinaabe people. Taken together with the spirit of West, which offers the gift of sorrow, Florence Foy explains the necessity of confronting the historical trauma of the past in order to attain purification and cleansing.

These videos were originally recorded for the Sunrise Center Against Sexual Abuse, a non-profit organization based in International Falls. The original video "Wiidookodaadiyin / Talking Circle" was intended for use in high schools: "Elder Florence Foy leads a talking circle about finding the strength to forgive, being responsible parents, showing children how to be safe, honoring traditions, and speaking from the heart"

Plants Gift

Traditional Anishinaabe knowledge also includes many teachings about how to heal with herbal medicine. In the video below, Larry Aitken, a traditional healer on the Leech Lake reservation, describes when, how, and if to procure mashkiki ('medicine') from Gichimanidoo gitigan ('Creator's garden). This kind of knowledge requires a deep understanding of traditional protocols to utilize the invisible connections between plants and Anishinaabeg ('human beings').

Dr. Meness on Health at Cass Lake Hospital

Here, Dr. Debra Meness explains the concept of bimaadiziwin (‘a healthy way of life’). Dr. Meness, who comes from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg First Nation, received training in both traditional Ojibwe and Western medicine. At the time this video was filmed, she was working at Cass Lake Hospital on the Leech Lake reservation as an osteopathic doctor, an alternative form of medicine that recognizes the body’s ability to heal itself. She explains how she is able to enter into the patient’s body through a doorway that transcends both space and time, leading her to the seam where the earth meets the sky and allowing her to call forth an energy that comes up through time.

When Dr. Meness refers to the megis shell, through which doctor's blow the breath of life, she is referring back to an ancient migration story of how the Anishinaabeg ('Ojibwe people') were led from the northeast coast to their present homeland in the Great Lakes region. It is said that the Anishinaabeg knew that it was time to move when a great megis shell rose up out of the water, leading them to the place where food grew in the water—a reference to manoomin ('wild rice'), which is still a staple of the Anishinaabe diet to this day.

ishpiming | above world

Ishpiming is the above spirits, the cosmos, the universe, star world, sun and moon world, Creator's world.

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mishoomis | grandfather

Mishoomis manidoog are the spiritual grandfathers that dwell on top of the earth. The spirit of Mishoomis sometimes manifests as asiniig (‘rocks’) like the giant boulder or the heated rocks being placed in a sweat lodge as shown in the video above.

Related terms:

nimaamaa-aki | mother earth

Nimaamaa-aki ('Mother Earth'), as Larry Aitken explains, is the manidoo ('spirit') in charge of the four orders of the earth—-1) soil / covering; 2) plants; 3) animals; 4) people. The spirit of Nimaamaa-aki is embodied by giigonhyag ('fish'), ginebigoog ('snakes'), and nibi ('water'). These are messengers of mikinaak ('snapping turtle').

ningaabii'anong | west

Ningaabii’an means West, Ningaabii’inong or bangishmog means ‘to the west’ (the latter is the spelling from the Nichols and Nyholm dictionary). Ningaabii’an, as Larry Aitken explains, is associated with four legged animals like the mashkode-bizhikiwag (‘buffalo’ [plural]), bebezhigooganzhiig (‘horses’), and waawaashkeshiwag (‘deer’). As Larry Aitken explains, it is the place in the Anishinaabe cosmology where the manidoo (‘spirit’) associated with the West is in charge of sadness and sorrow. It is also a place where Anishinabeg change from physical to spiritual, and where animikiig (‘thunderbirds’) reside. It is said that when animikiig open their eyes, lightening flashes, and a small glimpse of the Creator’s power is revealed. [Click here to ask the elders about thunderbirds]

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