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Star Stories, part 39: Mishibizhiw and the Great Passing of the Spirit Rabbit

Updated: 12 hours ago

Ode’imini-giizis (Strawberry Moon) / Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon), July 4, 2024

 

Wenabozho Mourns the Great Passing of Jiibayaabooz, painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Wenabozho Mourns the Great Passing of Jiibayaabooz, ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

 

Boozhoo! Hello! Biindigen miinawaa, welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, where there is love and learning!


Wenabozho and his three siblings, Maajiigawiz, Papiigawiz, and Jiibayaabooz, continue to be popular characters in Anishinaabe storytelling. They are known as the Spirits of the Four Directions, which is no surprise since it was none other than Ningaabii’an, the Spirit of the West, who had sired them. The roles of these Aadizookaanag, passing down an endless reservoir of rich values and wisdom to future generations, vary from community to community, often depending on the context of the narration and the individual viewpoint of the storyteller.


Below is an aadizookaan (sacred story) commemorating the Great Passing of Jiibayaabooz, the Spirit Rabbit. 'Mishibizhiw and the Great Passing of Spirit Rabbit' is a wondrous tale about how the legendary Wenabozho avenged his brother Jiibayaabooz’ death and, with the aid of the Great Underworld Lynx and others, helped him to escape the darkness of the Underworld and return to his birthplace in the sky.


"Wenabozho loved his younger brother Jiibayaabooz because he in his daily walk was one of exemplary purity, and unlike anyone else was able to capture the essence of the natural world with his beautiful voice."

One bad day, Wenabozho, the great trickster spirit of the Anishinaabeg Peoples, was confronted by a painful truth. His first-born brother named Maajiigawiz, who was the fiercest warrior of his time but also possessed a jealous nature, had killed their third-born brother. The name of this legendary brother was Jiibayaabooz, the Spirit Rabbit. Widely known as the patron of music and songs, Jiibayaabooz was said to possess a keen sense of listening, as he could distinguish the uncountable different melodies of the birds – yes, even hear the subtlest murmurs of creeks and brooks and the faintest rustling of tree leaves in the wind! Wenabozho loved his younger brother because he in his daily walk was one of exemplary purity, and unlike anyone else was able to capture the essence of the natural world with his beautiful voice.

 

This tragic event caused Giizis (the sun) to disappear, and darkness fell upon the world, stirring panic among the animals and the human beings. Many Anishinaabeg fell ill and many died. Wenabozho, intent on avenging his brother’s murder, traveled from his abode in the center of Gichigamiin (the present-day Great Lakes area) to the mountains in the West, the abode of his brother Maajiigawiz, where he engaged him in a fierce battle. Wenabozho confronted and eventually outsmarted Maajiigawiz, killing him on the spot. Next, he called upon the spirits of the awesi'ag (land animals) for their aid. With their assistance, he traveled to the place where the sun rises, determined to understand the cause of Giizis’ disappearance, and restore light and healing to the world.


"The whole entire village was sick but because of Wenabozho no longer! Next, Wenabozho threw the remainder of the sunlight back into the night sky..."

Finally, after a long and adventurous journey, Wenabozho found the Sun who had disappeared. He found that the Moon was blocking the Sun! Wenabozho climbed the highest mountain he could find. Panting, he reached the summit and there he sang a sacred song, meanwhile shaking his zhiishiigwan (ceremonial rattle).


Nimishoo, heya-way-whe!

Nibizaanigaabawiyaan omaa,

Gigiizhigoongimaanin nindowiindan,

Aandii gindaandakii?

Mii azhigwa bi-naagozid gimashkiki

Mii azhigwa waseyaa heya-way-whe!

Mii azhigwa waseyaa heya-way-whe!


("Grandfather, heya-way-whe!

Quietly I stand here,

To the skies I look and call,

Where is it that you dwell?

Your medicine comes into view soon,

Soon it is light heya-way-whe!

Soon it is light heya-way-whe! ")


Quietly he Moon moved to the side and there he was! The Sun was all tangled up inside a gigantic spiderweb that was spun in front of a large portal in the sky. Observing how the sun danced frantically to break free from the web that was guarded by seven sisters, he shouted: “I came to rescue you, nimishoo (my grandfather).”


 

"Wenabozho Snares the Sun" painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Wenabozho Snares the Sun," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 

Quickly Wenabozho shapeshifted himself into a nanapaajinikesii (fieldmouse), after which he climbed up the snare wire as close as possible to the sun. The sun's heat was enormous, made all the worse by his anger at being trapped by the sisters, but Wenabozho, seemingly undaunted, used his sharp teeth to chew the cord, meanwhile using his medicine on the celestial sisters that tried to stop him. Wenabozho's medicine was too powerful for them, and they hastily disappeared in the portal of stars that shone above the mountain. Wenabozho kept gnawing, and finally the snare broke. The sun, relieved, danced up in the sky with fire beneath his feet, but not before he gifted Wenabozho with a small piece of his sun power. Gratefully Wenabozho put the treasure in his biinjigosan (medicine bag). His task fulfilled, he then changed himself into his old human form and descended the mountain.


Upon his return to the Great Lakes, Wenabozho went to a place where rapids roared and summoned the sick Anishinaabeg to a meeting. Sitting on the ground with his eyes closed, he began to sing. Still singing, his voice barely rising above the sound of rushing water, he asked the agile otter, who had great swimming abilities, to bring him a miigis (seashell). Wenabozho placed a piece of the sun which he had brought with him into the miigis and holding it in the air, he blew with his breath into it. Next, he stood up and pointed the shell at the sick people in the village. The whole entire village was sick but because of Wenabozho no longer! Next, Wenabozho threw the remainder of the sunlight back into the sky. It suddenly became light again!


As a result, the days started to grow longer, signaling the return of warmth and light to the world. This made Wenabozho very happy!


"Travelling side by side, leaving a shimmering trail of cedar leaves (stars) behind them, the Great Snapping Turtle and the Sky Girl etched a celestial trail named Jiibay-miikana (Path of Souls) – known by most people as the Milky Way."

 

But then, gichi-wiiyagaaj! Alas! Wenabozho found out that Jiibayaabooz’s spirit was still lingering in the depths of the underworld. Still grieving his beloved brother’s demise, he decided to help him on his journey. Drawing once more on his formidable powers, Wenabozho grabbed all the souls that were lost in a total darkness while trying to cross to the other side and put them in a copper vessel. Once he had collected enough souls he used them to craft a powerful being, which he named Nambizhiw (Underworld Lynx.) Nambizhiw guided Jiibayaabooz in his journey through the underworld. But help also came from other spirits; Mikinaak the Turtle, known for his wisdom, and Oshkikwe, a female being that had the outward features of a cedar tree, were sent to walk the night sky. Travelling side by side, leaving a shimmering trail of cedar leaves (stars) behind them, the Great Snapping Turtle and the Sky Girl etched a celestial trail named Jiibay-miikana (Path of Souls) known by most people as the Milky Way – spiraling through the Galaxy.


 

"Oshkikwe's Vision,"  painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Oshkikwe's Vision," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 

This spiritual pathway, sometimes envisioned as a river swirling through outer space, its banks lined with the boughs and leaves of the cedar tree that Sky Girl had left behind, would help Jiibayaabooz to escape the darkness of the Underworld and return to his birthplace in the sky. Soon, this path of Souls would become a guiding light for many generations of human beings who, in Jiibayaabooz’s wake, embark on their last journey. Aided by the Great Lynx, their jiibay makizinan (spirit moccasins) treading on nookagizhikaandag (soft cedar boughs), are being led safely back to their place of origin among the stars.


"And to this day, in the night sky a curly-tailed water lynx can be seen while Wenabozho in the sky shoots arrows at him, signifying the thinning of ice on the lakes and the birth of spring season."

 

How did Nambizhiw evolve from a spirit of the Underworld into a guiding spirit of the Skies, you may ask?


Throughout time, Nambizhiw had shifted his subterranean existence to the realm of the lakes. In his new capacity as anaamibiig aya'aa (underwater creature), Nambizhiw became known as Mishibizhiw (literally: "Great Lynx"). As he had fulfilled his task of guiding Wenabozho’s favorite brother through the Underworlds of the land and the lakes, Mishibizhiw agreed to assist those whose time on earth was up in crossing the celestial Jiibay Miikana, thus bringing solace to their weary spirits, leading them toward their final destination. In time, the Great Lynx in the sky became known as Gaa-ditibaanowe' Mishi-bizhiw, or “Curly Tail - Great Lynx.” This constellation, which emerges in the late winter skies, actually consists of two star formations, called Leo and Hydra on the Western-oriented star maps.


 

"Wenabozho and the Birth of Spring" pen and ink drawing by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Wenabozho and the Birth of Spring," ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik
 

And to this day, in the night sky a curly-tailed water lynx can be seen while Wenabozho in the sky shoots at him, * signifying the thinning of ice on the lakes and the birth of spring season. Guarding and watching the souls of those who are on their journey home, the Sky Lynx reminds us that we, as living beings on earth, are here only temporarily and that while we are here, we must never neglect to acknowledge and capture the energy of giiwitaagiizhigong, the endless sky lodge called Universe...


Nahaaw. Weweni onjida gibizindaw noongom. Well, thank you for listening today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! 


 

NOTE:


 *Wenabozho Anang, called Scorpio in Western astronomy, is often depicted as Wenabozho shooting an arrow at the Mishibizhiw Gaa-ditibaanowe’. There are many stories around that tell the story of what caused the flooding of the earth. One story links this dramatic event to a great battle between Wenabozho and Mishibizhiw. See: Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 19.


 

>Read the other episodes in the "Star Stories" series:


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