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  • Writer's picturezhaawano

Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 13: Living the Mashkikiikewin Life

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Mamoominike-giizis (Ricing Moon) (August 6, 2022)



Boozhoo, biindigen! Welcome to part 13 in the series Teachings from the Tree of Life.

Let's talk about food today. Food, and medicine, that is generously given us by our mother, the Earth. Too often mankind mistakes prosperity for profit and does not respect the rules of a fair relationship with our mother anymore.

So, let's talk about living the Mashkikiikewin life. What does Mashkikiikewin mean? The verb mashkikiike means, "gather (or produce) herbal medicine." The noun mashkiki is a contraction of the verb mashkawizi, which means "have strength, or power," and aki, which means earth. -ike means s/he makes, produces, or gathers. The verb is related to the word mashkikiiwinini, which means "medicine man." More literally: "man who makes or gathers strength from the earth." Mashkikiikewin, therefore, denotes, "Living like a man (someone) who is of the medicine making and in doing so, gathers strength from the earth." Our ancestors lived according the cyclical rhythm set by, as they called it, aandakiiwinan, the seasonal changes. Mashkikiwan and aniibiishag (medicines; medicinal plants and medicinal herbs) as well as editegin (berries and fruit) were of utmost importance to them, in terms of nutrition and healing illnesses. Traditionally, the Ojibwe odoodem (clan) of nanaandawi’iwewin (healing) is represented by the otter - as well as by the turtle, the frog, the rattlesnake, the water snake, and the mermaid/merman. It is the teaching of the Midewiwin, our age-old Anishinaabe society of the Good Hearted Ones, that every tree, bush, plant, and fruit has a use. Bimaadiziwin, health and long life, represented to our ancestors a central guideline in life and a code for upright living, and those who had knowledge of plants and fruits and their medicinal and ceremonial use were most highly esteemed among their communities. This knowledge often came directly from manidoog (the spirits), particularly from bawaaganag, spirits in animal form visiting the healer in a dream or vision. But not all herb specialists received their knowledge directly from the spirit world. Many herbalists - generally called Mashkikiiwininiwag - were specialists possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious properties of an enormous variety of plants, herbs, roots, and berries. These medicine persons were often women, and therefore referred to as mashkikiikewikwewag ("Women who are of the medicine making"). These herbalists, either male or female or two-spirited, had great knowledge of that what the earth offered them, and they were keenly aware that certain plants and roots produce a specified effect upon the human system. Some of the fruits and berries that grow abundantly in summer, such as miinagaawanzhig (blueberries) and bagwaji-ode’iminan (wild strawberries, literally: wild heart berries) were traditionally not only used for food and medicine, but also had a strongly ceremonial function. Berries were often associated with makwa the bear. In the old days, when a person was fond of, let’s say, cherries, the people would say: "Look, there goes a bear".

Our ancestors approached life in a sacred manner. GAA MIINIGOOYANG: “That Which Is Given to Us” used to be a notion that was central to their worldview. Gaa miinigooyang refers to the traditional Anishinaabe belief that everything we have is given to us by Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery, as a gift that we must humbly give thanks for. Traditionally, the philosophy of gakina gegoo, or inter-dependency of all things, lay at the heart of the economic system of our ancestors: the individual was dependent upon his community for survival, the community was dependent on nature for survival, and nature was dependent on the Spirit World for survival. The traditional definition of wealth has always been the ability to have enough to share with the community, and to give away what one does not strictly need in order to survive. Sharing with each other and giving away more than one receives were therefore the greatest of the virtues…When taking a mashkiki (plant), ojiibik (root), or mashkosiw (herb), one always explained to its spirit why it was being done, and offered some asemaa (tobacco) in return. While putting asemaa in the hole one would respectfully tell the spirit of the dug-up plant or root that the spirits allowed it to grow in that certain spot for the benefit of mankind and that the tobacco is been given in return so that the plant will do it’s best to make the medicine work. This is the way it has always been done and always will be done.

Now. It has taken us Anishinaabeg many strings of lives to develop our bodies so that we coexist peacefully with gaa miinigooyang — the natural foods that Aki provides us with. However, due to land loss, reservation politics, internment in Catholic horror factories and a myriad of mental health issues resulting from it, most of us Anishinaabeg (although not all!) lost touch with the old Ways. This development only took three to four generations to complete. This means that we haven’t had the time to develop resistance to many of the foods that modern society throws at us. Foods that are manufacturing processed and contaminated with all sorts of synthetic substances.

Our bodies are daily being ravaged by processed foods that we, out of free will, buy in the stores. Foods that are often difficult to digest and consist of extreme amounts of refined sugar and a myriad of chemicals. All this poison results in widespread and intergenerational diabetes and cancer — and ditto mental issues! —that havoc our communities in much higher rates than most non-Native People that have settled on our Turtle Island.

So, what we don't need is more Wiindigoowin. What I would call: living a mass media-fueled consumerist life style. What we do need is Mashkikiikewin — what I would call, living a life based on gathering medicine. More literally: gathering strength from the earth. Because strength can be found in the earth, not in factory products.

We all can be Mashkikiikewin. We all should be mashkikiiwininiwag, and mashkikiiwininiikweg, medicine men and women, leading a healthy life. Get informed about the properties of the foods and medicines you prepare and consume. Ask yourself each time you put something in your or your children's mouth, is it good or bad for me and them? Why is it good or bad for me and them?

Get informed and use the knowledge that is out there in your everyday life to defeat the Wiindigoo. Stay away from a consumerist life style that entices you into bad habits. Avoid disease and work toward having a healthy body and mind. Live the Mashkikiikewin life.


Illustration: "Living the Mashkikiikewin life." ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik

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