Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 19: Wenabozho and His Grandmother's Hair
Updated: Jun 2
Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) / Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon) - May 30, 2023
Aaniin. Biindigen! Hello, welcome to my storytelling lodge, where there is love and learning!
Today's story is the 19th already in a new series named "Love Stories From the Land of Many Lakes." It's a collection of love stories written and provided with jewelry images and illustrations of artwork by myself and kindred artists. The stories are based on the aadizookaanan (traditional stories) of our People, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg of Gaa-zaaga'eganikaag, the land of many lakes - the Great Lakes area of North America. The narratives are of a sacred, healing nature and often told within a romantic context; their allegorical themes are more often than not provided with a personal touch. Although I call it a love story, the following narrative is not about the romantic love between two people, but about Wenabozho’s love for his grandmother and her teachings. It tells the story of a grandson who happens to be a semi-spirit and a creator of nature and wildlife, who wants to honor his grandmother and, in doing so, enriches the world with a small bird with magical colors and supranatural flying qualities, and a tall medicine plant with leaves as enchantingly brilliant and pure as the colors in the evening sky. He does this with the aid of the sun and his friend Zhezhoobii’iged, the Spirit Painter.
In short: It is a story of love, affection, gratefulness, and great magic.
PART 1: WENABOZHO AND HIS GRANDMOTHER
Wenabozho, the Great Hare, loved his grandmother a great deal. He would gather firewood for ookomisan, he brought her fish and mushrooms and wild roots and helped her pick berries and trap the rabbits that lived in the underbrush. A good and dutiful grandchild he was! But he also had another side. In fact, he had many sides.
Geget sago, Wenabozho was truly not a typical man. It was commonly believed that Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery, had entrusted him with the task to teach the People, and one of his first tasks was to name all the plants and animals and to teach the Anishinaabeg the curative powers of plants and mino-bimaaadiziwin: how to live a good, long, and prosperous life. Since he was sired by the Wind Spirit of the West and born of a mortal woman and thus half spirit half human, he possessed tremendous abilities and strengths – qualities that people nowadays would regard as extraordinary but back in the days were accepted at face value and not thought to be very unusual at all.
The reason Wenabozho was so well-loved, therefore, were not his supernatural powers, but how he used them; the Anishinaabeg loved him, not just for naming the plants and the animals, but also for introducing medicine to cure the sick and, last but not least, for his tireless efforts and inclination to help little children, the poor, and the weak.
There was truly not much that Wenabozho would not do to help his People! He had the ability to shapeshift at will into virtually any creature and form, including a rabbit or hare, a tree, or a rock! His creation of the second world after the first flooded, his role as securer of the right for the Anishinaabeg peoples to hunt and fish and as a teacher showing men how to paint their dreams and visions on the rocks, and his embezzling of fire to give to his Grandmother (which in turn gave fire to the Anishinaabe people), are among the many things that made him the most beloved aadizookaan (supernatural character) in our aadizookaanan (sacred stories).
Geget, it was said that Wenabozho conversed with literally every creature in the Universe. He mastered every language known among men and spirits! He even knew what the birds were saying in their songs! There were so many things Wenabozho could do! He could run from dawn until dusk; he could swim in the coldest of rivers and lakes. Some say that his footsteps were so long that he could easily cross the widest lake in one step! Ishte, some folks even claimed that they had seen him seize the lightning in his hands and that at his command terrible storms broke loose from their caves!
Yet, at the same time, on his command also, the gentle winds blew, the mountains became green, and the flowers of spring bloomed everywhere…
Wenabozho could be seen every day walking the earth. Although his greatest joy was spending time with his grandmother – Wiindamawishin nooko (“Tell me a story, grandmother”) was a question he frequently asked – but exploring the world and spending time with odinoodewiziwin, his family, and odinawemaagananag, his relatives – all beings and creatures that existed beneath, on, and above the earth – gave him much satisfaction as well.
So, as Wenabozho was walking the earth, he watched all the beings and creatures carefully to see how they lived, and he spoke with them to learn what gifts they carried to learn their true names. As he walked through Creation learning their names, they called out to him when he passed, “Wenabozho!” — or, in case he came disguised, “Wenabozh ina gidayaa?” (Wenabozho you are here?”), or giin ina? (Is it you Wenabozho?) — which, through time, became “Boozhoo!”— which is still our greeting to one another today.
PART 2: THE MEADOW
One sunny day in miin-giizis (the month of July), Wenabozho walked through the land, feeling sad. Normally he walked in such a way that each step was a greeting to Mother Earth, but today his tears drenched the very earth he walked on. Ookomisan, his beloved grandmother had died and returned to her original abode, the moon. At night, Wenabozho would look up in the sky and speak with her so as not to be lonely. But in the daytime he could not see her and his heart would be heavy with sadness...
The first thing he did when Ookomisan had left for the Sky world was travel to the North, Giiwedin, the land of homecoming, where he found a white bear who gave him Wiingashk (sweetgrass).
Wiingashk, in a long braid, offers peace of mind and comfort and protection to a traveler, so Wenabozho had put some of it in his medicine bag. To honor his grandmother, he vowed to walk only with humility from then on and create beauty and color wherever his makizinan would lead him.
Next, his makizinan had taken him to the South, called Zhaawanong, the land of birth and growth. From the South comes the green that covers the world in the spring and summer moons, carried on the warm winds and breezes. Once in this land, he looked around him and wondered what he could do to make this beautiful place even more beautiful – to add color, movement, and sound to it.
At noon — the sun shone directly overhead — he arrived at a flower-dotted meadow at the foot of a hill. Wenabozho, tired, decided to rest. Hungry and still in a contemplative mood, searching the undergrowth for berries, he found a few white hairs caught in the bush’s branches. With a shock he realized the hairs were his grandmother’s! Then he remembered the site had been her favorite spot in the summer to rest and pick blueberries. Quickly but carefully, he collected ookomisan’s hair and put it in his medicine pouch.
But then he remembered something. Something ookomisan had told him when he was still young. She had taught him about the importance of hair!
“Our hair is a physical manifestation of our spirit,” ookomisan had told him. “Cutting hair during while mourning, burying it, and burning it all carry a strong significance and meaning. When you burn hair in a fire, it is released back into the universe — you’re showing it the respect that it deserves. Our hair carries a lot of energy, it is an extension of us. Therefore, we wear our hair long. The longer your hair is, the more connected you are to the land. Long hair has symbolic significance tying it to mother earth whose hair is long grasses.”
Smiling, Wenabozho took his grandmother’s hair out of his pouch and buried it in a little mound. He decided to honor the bear spirit that he had met in the North and pay homage to the earth he daily walked on. He put a makak (bowl) of freshly picked blueberries on top of the mound. Next, he took the braid of sweetgrass from the North from his pouch and a miigis (seashell) he had found on one of his many journeys to the West and placed them in front of the makak. “Now, having honored the bear spirit and my mother the earth and the waters of the rivers, lakes, and seas, what can I do to honor my grandmother who now lives in the moon?” he asked himself.
PART 3: THE HUMMING BIRD
Being in a creative mood, Wenabozho took out his magic pipe, filled his head with asemaa (tobacco), lit him, blew six puffs of smoke, and closed his eyes. He sat there all day and night, smoking and contemplating, when suddenly a breeze from the south caressed his cheekbones. He sat up straight, and, squinting his eyes against the bright morning light, directed the stem of his pipe upward, straight into the sun. No sooner had he done this than a tiny ruby-throated bird came fluttering out of the sun!
Watching the bird fly toward him, Wenabozho got up and started to dance, meanwhile blowing on a whistle made of eagle feather bone. He danced for four days and three nights as the sun-bird fluttered around him without landing once. It always took him that long to perform his Giizheninjigewin Niim’idiwin (Creation Dance)! Then, hoowah! at sunrise on the fourth day, a tall plant with snow-white leaves magically sprang to life from the little mount in front of him. The bird from the sun hovered there for a few eye-blinks with his green-gold breast shimmering; then he slipped his needle nose in the plant! After sucking pollen from its leaves, he flew away, and as Wenabozho followed the bird with his eyes he noticed that faster than he could blink twice, uncountable plants had sprung from the earth, dotting the prairie that stretched around the hill as far as he could see. “Tayaa!” he thought to himself, “There sure is a whole lot of magic going on today!” Amazed he watched the bird, whose humming sound could be heard everywhere, transferring the magic powder between the plants, pollinating them one for one! Soon followed by amoog, the bees, and memengwaag, the butterflies, who seemed to be attracted by the plants as well!
“What a beautiful way to honor my grandmother,” Wenabozho said to himself. “Look at how I created the most beautiful bird in the world! To describe the sound of his wings I will call this bird nenookaasiins, humming-bird! And to describe his sacred work, I will call it amoo-bineshiinh, little honey bird!” But then, as he looked at the plants dotting the prairie as far his eyes could reach, he thought, “I made these plants so that they carry medicine for the sick; their roots grow into the soil until they touch roots of other medicinal plants, such as the sacred sagebrush. To me, they resemble the hair of nookomis. Just like the roots of this plant touch those of other plants, grandmother’s wisdom and medicine have touched many creatures and people throughout the land. Then, frowning, he said to himself: “Yet, the precious creamy-yellow flowers of this plant are invisible to the eye, hidden beneath spiky leaves that have no color. What can I do to make this plant brighter, other prairie flowers, so that they can easily be found by the birds and the bees and the butterflies? To make them more visible for my little winged relatives and to honor nookomis even more, I must add color to the leaves so that the plant will stand out even more! Sha naa, I wish I had the talent of a true artist!”
PART 4: THE SPIRIT PAINTER
For a while he sat there, still frowning, watching the hummingbird and the bees and butterflies do their work with the plants, meanwhile pondering ways to add color to them. Then, suddenly, since he had an extraordinary hearing ability, his attention was drawn by a soft, rhythmic sound that seemed to come from the hill. It was as if he heard someone sleeping! Slowly Wenabozho walked toward the hill. As Wenabozho approached it, the sound he thought he heard turned into a loud, snoring sound! His heartbeat and pace quickened. He touched the hill with the soft sole of his makizin. The snoring increased and this time he kicked it sharply with the tip of his makizin, but still no response! Puzzled, Wenabozho walked around the hill, touching the grassy sides with the tips of his fingers, examining them. Then, suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. He remembered something! When he was a kid Nookomis had taken him many times to this place. The hill was the resting place of the great painter Zhezhoobii’iged, who woke up each fall to color the leaves of the trees red! Zhezhoobii’iged works at night with his friend Ningiigwagi, the Frost, grandmother had told him, and together they splash color on the leaves when Ogashinan (Grandmother Earth) wears her finest and most beautiful clothes …
Wenabozho, being the trickster that he was, grinned. Hoowah! he said to himself. The answer to my question lies right in front of me, snoring like a gichi-makwa (grizzly bear)! All I must do is wake him up! Easy does it…
Now, it happened to be that Wenabozho had the power to turn within a heartbeat winter into summer and lakes and rivers into freezing masses. Pretending he were Ningiigwagi, the Frost himself, Wenabozho ran around the hill, which he covered with an icy breath. “Indaga, shkozin niijiikiwenh! Mii'i gikendaagwak oshki-dagwaaging. Gii-pimwewidamoog igi nikag miinawaa maangwag! Zhaawanong izhisewag! Wewiib, ambesa!” he bellowed. Come on, wake up my friend! Autumn has arrived! I heard the geese and loons flying by! They are flying to the south! Come on, hurry up now!”
The hill stopped breathing. A deep voice sounded from its interior. “Awenen awe? Awenen giin? – Who is it? Who are you?” “Niin! Niin Ningiigwagi! It’s me! your friend the Frost!” Wenabozho replied. “I have come to wake you up!” “Dagwaagin! It’s autumn! Ambe, come on now, there is much work to do! Get your paintbrushes and come out of your den!”
The hill started moving, and out of it stepped a giant dressed in a beautiful cloak covered with colorful images of flowers. Towering over Wenabozho, the giant shook off the dirt and grass and ants from his fine-looking cloak and gray hair, which was woven in a thick braid and adorned with a shiny miigis (seashell). Then, noticing it was still summer, he quickly realized he had been fooled. His handsome face clouded over with annoyance, then smiled as he recognized Wenabozho. The giant, who fortunately for Wenabozho had a profound sense of humor, started to roar with laughter. “Nanabozh? Giin ina? Is it you Wenabozho?” He exclaimed. Then, patting his tormentor on the back, he roared, “Hoowah! Giin Nookomis oozhishimaa! Aaniin ezhichigeyan Nanabozh? – Oh my! You are Nookomis’s grandson! What are you up to Wenabozho?”
Smiling the shiest, most innocent smile he could muster up, Wenabozho replied that he needed Zhezhoobii’iged’s help in painting the colorless plants that now dotted the prairie as far as the eyes could see. “Although I myself am a great teacher who has taught the anishinaabeg (human beings) to paint their dreams and feats on the walls of the high cliffs that line the rivers and lakes, I lack the expertise to give these plants the bright colors that they deserve. I wish to have them turned into eye-dazzling mashkikiwan that not only have healing properties but honor the beauty of nature and celebrate life itself. I wish to commemorate the life and the memory of my grandmother through these plants, and only the brightest of colors can do that! I hope I’m not over-asking?”
Zhezhoobii’iged looked at Wenabozho, amused. “Gaawesa,” he said, “Nah, ahaam sa, it’s OK - I’ll sleep when I'm dead.” Without further ado he started to roam the land collecting tree bark, berries, and roots as pigments. He crushed the ingredients and, using bear’s grease as a pigment binder, ground them into pastes. The magic paints that he thus made, had, at Wenabozho’s request, various shades of crimson and orange and yellow. When his companion was satisfied with the result, Zhezhoobii’iged grabbed his medicine pouch and brought out a corn cob, whose silks he used for a paintbrush. Then he started to paint the leaves of all plants that had sprung from the earth that day.
PART 5: BIRTH OF THE SPIRIT PLANTS
When his work was done, the Spirit Painter looked at his work, then at Wenabozho, who stood right behind him. “Niminwedaan, niijii! Gichi-miikawaadad” the latter said, smiling. “I like it my friend! It is very beautiful.” A sea of uncountable soul-moving, spirit-opening plants with dazzling leaf colors surrounded them, ablaze with crimson red and flaming orange with yellow paint streaks. It was truly a feast for the eye!
“We shall call this aniibiish (spirit plant) with its cup-like, bright scarlet-colored leaves and with flowers that will bloom each spring and early summer, Wenabozho Ookomisan Wiinizis, Wenabozho said, ‘The Hair of Wenabozho’s Grandmother’! To make it difficult for the busy hummingbird and bees and butterflies to feast too much on its nectar, I made sure its flowers are safely hidden inside the leaves. The Anishinaabeg (human beings) will use the plant for seasoning food and medicine, such as treatment of women's diseases and rheumatism. Aapiji go, it will even make a great shampoo for those who are so vain to want to show off with their hair all nice and glossy!”
And so it happened. Now, in most sacred stories this would be the end, and the hero, having performed his great deeds, would travel on, toward new adventures waiting behind the horizon. But not so in this case! Wenabozho, who was not yet done being in a creative mood, decided he wanted to honor ookomisan some more. He decided he wanted to do something nice with the yellow pigment, a left-over from the paint that his newly made friend had concocted. Again, he danced his Creation Dance. He created the lily, which he called Wenabozho-obikwak, “Wenabozho’s Arrow,” and the lady slipper, which he called Niimi'idii-makizin, “Dancing Moccasin.” On Wenabozho’s request Zhezhoobii’iged splashed them with the yellow paint! The first aniibiish, Wenabozho decided, would help the humans to treat snake bites, and the second would serve as medicine against nervousness, tooth pain, and muscle spasms. Next, he created – again with the help of his artistic companion – a medicine plant with the most beautiful color he could think of! It had a tall, strong stem and a round yellow flower head resembling a glowing sun. He decided the name of this plant would be giizisoobagoons – “Sun Small Leaf.” *
Pleased as he was with his accomplishments, Wenabozho noticed there was still some yellow left! Four more days he danced his Creation Dance, and again a beautiful flower sprang from underneath his feet. “Now that my friend here graced your petals with yellow paint, I will name you doodooshaaboojiibik (milk weed),” he said to the plant. Your leaves, stems, flowers, and roots will be used for food and, as a tribute to my grandmother, various medicinal purposes, such as diseases of women.”**
But being the teasing prankster he was, Wenabozho had an ulterior motive for creating the beautiful yellow prairie flower. By painting the petals a bright yellow, he pulled a prank on the old and nearsighted Zhaawani-noondin, the South Wind, whom he knew to be a hopeless romantic who fancied yellow-haired girls…
But that is a story for another day…
Giiwenh. Such is the story of how Wenabozho found hair of his deceased grandmother on the prairie and honored her legacy by creating the hummingbird and – with the help of his friend the Spirit Painter – five beautiful plants that each year under the supremacy of Ziigwan, the Spirit of Summer, enchant the grasslands of Turtle Island in a truly splendid blaze of colors…
* Giizisoobagoons, or “Sun Little Leaf” a plant related to the Bakadewibagoons (Sunflower) and called ox-eye daisy by Non-Natives.
** Doodooshaaboojiibik, or “Milk Weed”: called “dandelion” by Non-Natives.