Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 8: North Star Woman and the Call of the Loon
Updated: Oct 10
Manoominike-giizis (Ricing Moon), August 4, 2021
Aaniin. Biindigen! Hello, welcome back to my storytelling lodge!
Today's story is the sixth in a series named "Love Stories From the Land of Many Lakes." It's a collection of love stories accompanied by illustrations by myself and kindred artists. The stories are based on aadizookaanan (traditional stories) of my ancestors, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg from Gaa-zaaga'eganigak, the land of many lakes – the Great Lakes area of North America. The stories are of a sacred, healing nature and told within a romantic context, their allegorical themes often provided with a personal touch.
Today, I tell the contemporary traditional (sacred) story of a young woman who lives on the shore of a bay and falls in love with the voice of a young man who lives on an island not far from her. Illustrations by, among others, Ioyan Mani (Maxine Noel), the late Moses Amik, the late Eddie Cobiness, and myself accompany the story. Also, images of jewelry – which play a central role in the narration – made by me are shown. Last but not least, displayed at the bottom of the page, a drawing by me, containing digitized design elements of an original line drawing by the late Manitoulin Island painter Stanley Panamick (1961-2019),¹ was lovingly used to infuse today's narration with his unique artistry and with the beautiful, dynamic spirit of the Northwoods where he was from.
I dedicate the story to Jane Muskitta, who gives me daily love, joy and laughs, and inspiration.
~~ THE BEGINNING ~~
One cold morning in the moon of falling leaves, Jane HighEagle, a young woman of mixed Ojibwe and Dakota ancestry whose traditional name was Giiwedanangookwe (North Star Woman), stepped out of her log cabin. Her People knew her to be kind, fun-loving, and blessed with an artistic eye. As she walked to her car in the driveway she heard across the water of the bay the sound of a hand drum which drew her alert jet black eyes, glowing in a high cheekbones face framed with soft brown curly locks, toward a small island not far from the bay shore she stood on. The drumming was accompanied by the most beautiful human voice she had ever heard. The voice reminded her of the melancholic cries of the loons that lived abundantly on the lake that stretched out behind the bay. Although she didn’t know the meaning of the words of the song she imagined it to be a love song, sung especially for her.
Dibishkoo maang zaaga-iganiing miinawaa dibik-giizhig
Apane besho omaa nigad-ayaa
~~ THE FIRST DREAM ~~
The melancholic sound of the voice and the words and the melody of the song stayed with her all day! When she came home that night she said nothing to her mother, with whom she shared the cabin, and who looked at her daughter curiously, sensing she was more silent than usual. Then, that night, a few hours after she had gone to bed, Jane dreamed the strangest dream! In her spirit’s eye, everything was black around her except for a motionless star that shone directly above her, and which she figured to be giiwedin-anang, her namesake star.
A strange melody came from the star and as she gazed into its brilliant white light, tayaa! a silver drum with a stylized sun depicted on it was lowered from it by what looked to her as a silver snake cord. The small drum hovered in front of her for what seemed an eternity, and just when she was about to touch it, it ascended back into the sky which in the meantime had gotten purplish red, the color of dawn. She strained her eyes to see where the little drum went, and tayaa! with a flash of silver light it disappeared, back behind the North Star! Still dreaming, she remembered her mother had told her when she was a kid that the North Star, after which she was named, was located in the tail of the Maang, or Loon asterism – which is how her People called the Little Dipper. Her mom had told her that this star, called Giiwedin Anang in her language, although usually translated into “North Star,” actually means “Returning Home Star.” As she had never really understood the deeper meaning of her name, she now suddenly realized what it meant.
When Jane woke up it was already light outside. Puzzled by her dream vision of last night, she got up and when it was time to go to work she stepped out of the cabin, and as she walked toward her car she strained her ears in the hope to hear the beautiful, haunting song again that had come to the morning before, carried across the bay by the rhythmic pulse of a drum beat. Yet she heard nothing except for the wind and the shrill cries of seagulls that came from the foam-topped waves of the lake. She drove away, disappointed.
~~ THE SECOND DREAM ~~
The following night the girl had another dream vision. In it, she sat on a beach of multi-colored pebbles, which she recognized as being similar to a beach that she knew was close to her home. In her left hand she held a wing feather of migizi, the white-headed eagle. The mirror surface of the lake in front of her reflected a clear blue sky. The sun shone high and the day was shrouded in blissful tranquility, leaving the girl in a soft, wide-eyed haze. As she pensively gazed across the waters in the direction of the island that seemed to simmer in the warm morning sun, tayaa! suddenly a cool breeze kissed her cheeks, making her aware of the presence of mystery. Before she had time to blink twice a beautiful small silver cuff bracelet rose out of the smooth surface of the lake! The bracelet, which featured a contrastful design of two loons placed on either side of a sun rising from behind the waves of the lake, hovered in front of her for what seemed an eternity, and just when she, full of wonderment, was about to touch it with the miigwan (feather), the shiny object was pulled back by an invisible force, toward the lake again, which in the meantime had gotten dark blue and dotted with the reflection of uncountable stars. She strained her eyes to be able to catch a last glimpse of the bracelet, expecting it to disappear into the moonlit waves, but ni'aanh! instead it was abruptly lifted up. The bracelet floated in slow motion toward the north star that now shone brightly in the tail of the loon in the sky. Next, before the girl's amazed eyes, it disappeared with a flash of magic into the blinding blue light of the star …
~~ THE GIFTS ~~
At daybreak Jane, feeling exhausted and still confused by the beautiful, strange dream she had had last night, got up and walked into the kitchen where her mother sat. It was weekend and neither of them had to go to work that day. Her mom smiled at her and gestured to the front door, saying, “good morning Jen. (Jen was how her mom used to address her.) I made you coffee. But first have a look outside and see what someone left at our doorstep last night.” With her heart pounding in her throat, the girl opened the front door and tayaa! this is when she saw a beautiful red and green morning star blanket spread on the ground. On it sat a newly-made drum with the design of a loon painted on its membrane, and next to the drum lay, neatly arranged, a dewe’iganaatig (drumstick), a migizi miigwan (bald eagle feather), and a beaded gashkibidaagan (pipe bag). The feather, its quill wrapped in red cloth, was the same as the one she had held in her dream last night! She lightly touched it, then the drum and the drumstick, and then, with shaking fingers, her heart beating fast, she opened the pipe bag – and there it was! The silver bracelet she had dreamed about the previous night! She let out a little whoop and, wearing the silver bracelet around her wrist, ran back into the house where her mother still sat at the kitchen table. In front of her sat a shell filled with tobacco and a smudge stick. “That is a very beautiful bracelet, indaan (my daughter)” her mother said. “But what you ought to do now is carefully wrap the dewe’igan (drum) in the star blanket and bring it and the dewe’iganaatig and migizi miigwan inside, and find a suitable spot for it in your bedroom. You’ll be needing my smudging bowl too. Remember, a drum and an eagle feather are living spirits, grandfathers that carry the heartbeat of their owner, and should always be taken care of and looked after accordingly. Tonight I will give you instructions about how this is done.”
~~ THE RETURN OF THE SPIRIT DRUM ~~
After Jane had done as her mother had told her to do, she went back into the kitchen and decided to tell her mom about the mysterious voice from the island and the dreams she had had about the drum from the sky and the bracelet from the lake. Her mother poured her daughter a mug of coffee and handed it to her, then cleared her throat, smiled, and took her daughter’s hand in hers. Then she started to speak.
“A’aam zha (okay then), let me tell you a story of long ago, Jen. Many years ago, there lived where our house stands now, in a birchbark wiigiwaam, an Ojibwe boy who went by the name of Wenoondaagoziwid-webaashi. This boy shared the wigwam with his grandfather. From his earliest youth the boy, who belonged to Maang doodem, the Loon clan, was observed by his People to be introverted and pensive. Like you, he was gifted with second sight as he had often visions of the unseen world, and like you, he possessed an artistic nature. It escaped no one’s attention that he spent much time in solitude and fasting. Even in infancy the boy had seemed different from other children his age; and as he grew older his character appeared more strange and more wonderful. Before he reached the age at which children in those days underwent a cycle of puberty rites and fasting, Wenoondaagoziwid-webaashi spent much time in remote places. Some people even whispered that he was banaabe, a person belonging to the other-than-human-class, having the features and outer form of a human being but in reality possessing at least some qualities of manidoo. He was truly not a typical boy! His name, which means His Voice Reaches Far, wasn’t a reference to the loudness of his voice – in fact he was soft-spoken, almost timid. No, the name attested to his seemingly ability to converse with every creature in the Universe. Some people even said that he mastered every language known among men and spirits and that he knew what the birds were saying in their songs! Even his grandfather believed that Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery, had entrusted his grandson with the task to teach the People, particularly about the curative powers of plants and mino-bimaaadiziwin: how to live a good, long, and prosperous life.
Eye’, yes, this boy seemed to possess tremendous abilities and strengths! Whenever he could leave his grandfather's wigwam he would venture off – often at night – to remote glades in the dense inland forest, or sit upon a high bluff overlooking the water of yonder bay. It was in such places that he sought meaning and self-discovery by addressing the grandfathers and by regularly invoking his guardian spirits. Like you love to spend time outdoors with your camera and take beautiful pictures, Jen, this boy would often feel the urge to use his creativity to paint, using red ochre to paint in the presence of the spirits his dreams and visions on the rocks and cliff walls that border our bay. His Voice Reaches Far was such a skilled painter and his images had such deep spiritual meaning that he had become known as the artist of his People even before reaching the age of 15!”
Her mom nodded in the direction of the island in the bay, which was partly visible through the kitchen window. “Now, as chance would have it,” she resumed, “there lived an old man on yonder island who belonged to the Dakota, the tribe of your father. Although this man, who was a drum maker, lived a secluded life, from that solitude there came from time to time the sound of a water drum, calling the Anishinaabeg on the mainland back to the simplicity and truth of the ways of all Native Peoples of the great Turtle Island. The drumming was usually accompanied by sacred chants, and His Voice Reaches Far often listened in awe and in a state of near-hypnosis to the island man as his voice carried prayers and petitions across the bay and the lake and beyond. These petitions were pushed on by the rhythmic pulse of his drum that, to His Voice Reaches Far, resembled the thunder rolling through the sky, and the chants were sung in a language that could only be understood by him and the loons that lived on the lake.
The old man on the island, Jen, was your great-great-grandfather! He was the father of a Dakota woman, a direct ancestor of yours, who when she was a young teenager had a vision that brought the powwow drum to the warring Dakota and Anishinaabe Peoples. This brought about a time of peace and brotherhood among both nations…
But then, one bad day, your great-great-grandfather left for the spirit world and the island became invaded by strange tribes from the south, who brought with them a different drum and the greedy ways of the gichi-mookoomaanag, the white men. This marked the end of an era of peace and a life according to the laws of Gichi-manidoo. The character of powwow changed drastically, kind of like what is happening now; white businessmen and even big oil companies bringing in the contests and prize money, bringing professional Native dancers in from many kilometers to the south, from the southern states of the US even. Powwow, instead of the spiritual gatherings Gichi-manidoo intended them to be, became the mega spectacles that we see again today…
The young man whose melancholic, loonlike voice you heard this morning coming from the island, Jen, is a gifted silversmith, but he is also a traditional drum maker, like your great-great grandfather used to be, and like your great-great grandfather did he, too, lives in solitude. He is handsome, has gray eyes, and he goes by the name of Travis Oshkabewis. But his traditional Ojibwe name is Migizi Giizis, which means Eagle Sun. People say he has a wounded heart and chooses to live in relative seclusion, spending his time on the island making jewelry and drums and writing stories. He is a direct descendant of the Ojibwe boy named His Voice Reaches Far whom I just told you about and who lived in the wiigiwaam where our house now stands!
It was this forebear, after his name changed into Oshkaabewis, the Helper, who as a young man had a powerful vision. He dreamed of a bear that lived behind the sun. The bear brought back your great-great grandfather’s Spirit Drum and Oshkaabewis explained to the People that it was time to reconnect their hearts with the drum and the old teachings and to bring back the values of honor, respect, generosity, and humility to the powwow dance grounds. Thus, the return of the Spirit Drum marked an era of renewed peace between the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples...’’ After a short pause she added with a smile, “You, Giiwedangookwe, are the living proof of it…”
~~ THE TRANSLATION ~~
Jane, as she had listened breathless to the fascinating story about how her Ojibwe forebear had returned the spirit drum to the powwow dance grounds of her ancestors, realized with a smile that her mother had never called her before by her traditional name! Now she was even more captivated by the mysterious sound of the hand drum that had sounded from the direction of the island in the bay. She felt as if the voice of the lonesome young man called Eagle Sun had sung directly to her. And the dreams she had been having! Did he speak to her through her dreams? “Did he fall in love with me?” she asked herself. “And what’s more, was he perhaps preparing to undergo a vision quest that would bring back the old values to the powwow grounds, just like his forebear His Voice Reaches Far had done many strings of life ago?…oh if I only could meet this man…”
That night Jane, wearing her new bracelet around her wrist slept fitfully, but this time Migizi Giizis did not visit her in her dreams. Then, the following morning, hoowah! she again heard Migizi Giizis’s drumming and his melancholic voice echo across the bay. She asked her mother to step outside and listen to the song and translate the words for her. Her mother smiled as she translated the song for her daughter:
is my spirit name.
The loon is my clan.
To the skies
The sound of my drum echoes.
I care for no one else
I care only for you.
Do not be sad
Do not cry
I walk with you.
Like the returning home star
that I can see
Like the returning home star
that I can touch
I am by your side sweetheart.
Like the loon of the lake and the night sky
I walk with you.
Always close will I be
~~ THE CROSSING ~~
Upon hearing this, Giiwedangookwe, as she remembered a lesson her mother had once taught her, to always follow your heart and dreams and to walk your own road, decided that night to borrow her mother’s jiimaan (canoe) and cross the lake to visit the young jeweler and drum maker who was waiting for her. As she steered her mom’s jiimaan across the bay toward the island the distant cries of a loon couple caught her attention. The soft glow of nookomis dibik-giizis (grandmother moon) caught on her bracelet and cast a silverly reflection on her pretty face that now gazed up at the stars in search of the celestial Loon. And for a moment she sensed her ancestors smiling down on her, telling her she was doing the right thing…
Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw zaagi'idiwini-aadizookaan. And that is the end of the story. Thank you for listening today, for allowing me to relate to you this sacred love story. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.
¹ Nanabush Meets Mandaamin, Lewis Debassige/Two Bears Cultural Survival Group, Printed by Woodland Studios, Ontario, p.6.