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Stories and Teachings from the Earth, part 12: Dreaming of the Bagwajiwininiwag

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Iskigamizige-giizis (Boiling Sap Moon), April 8, 2023


Magic Dance of the Bagwajiwinini
"Magic Dance of the Bagwajiwinini," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2023


“Gchi-mewzha go gonda bgojinishnaabenhsag bi ko yaawaad maampii gidkamig. Kina go mziwe yaawag. Naangodnoong gaawiin gdoo-waabmaasiig, yaawag dash wii go. Gaawiin ngikendamaasiig yaawaad. Gaawiin ooya bbaamendmaasiiwaan... Bgojinishnaabenhsag, yaawag go geyaabi."

(“Those little wilderness beings have been around this earth for a long time, and there are more of them, all over this country. But you can’t see them, sometimes, but they are around though. I don’t know where they are. They never hurt anybody... Bagwajiwininiwag, they are still around.")
– Wiigwaaskingaa (Whitefish River First Nation) Elder Namens/Little Sturgeon (Archie McGregor)  



Boozhoo! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong -- Hello! Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, where there is love and learning.

Today's story, which centers around two paintings I recently made, is about a race of magical little forest people that are very dear to us Anishinaabeg people. It is no exaggeration to say that these little people not just live in our aadizookewin (storytelling); they live in our manidoo-minjimendamowin (collective memory).

Geget sa go, sure enough, the bagwajiwininiwag and their magic stories live in us forever.

Anishinaabe aadizookewin refers to these people as Bagwajiwi-Anishinaabenhsag; "Little Anishinaabe of the Wilderness." The shortened form of Bagwajiwi-Anishinaabenhsag is Bagwajiwininiwag. Bagwajiwininiwag means "Wilderness Men, or "Little Wild Beings." They should not be confused with other little magical beings that are also classified as "Little People," like the Memengwesiwag,¹ Baa-iinsiwag,² and Mizabigamag.³ The only common factors are that they are little and possess characteristics and attributes that could be described as mamaanjinowin (magic), and that they live in the forest. No matter their names and characteristics, they all move between the physical world where we live and the greater spirit world. Also, since they had lives in both worlds, many of these beings live inside cliffs marked with images of dreams from vision quests.

The Bagwajiwininiwag (pronounce: Bug-wud-gee-wih-nih-nih-wug) are known among the Gichigami-Anishinaabeg (Anishinaabeg who inhabit the great Lakes area) as a friendly tribe of specters that inhabit the forest and the sandy shores of lakes, warning passers-by of the fearful Mermaid. They were once a tribe of peaceful people, descendants of a dwarflike hero with magical powers and skills, named Waadisesimid: "He of the Little Shell." He was named so for his talisman, an ens (small shell), which enabled him to perform great trickery and great deeds. Waadisesimid's descendants were extremely poor and wore very humble clothes. They dressed in rags and never decorated their clothes or fancied their hair like the other tribes did. They were also a peaceful people and were very kind and generous to all those who were passing through their territory. They spoke a language unintelligible to the other tribes and used sign language to communicate with them. The Anishinaabeg took kindly to these people and adopted them into their powerful confederacy, accepting them as brothers and trading partners.

The Anishinaabeg called these special people Mishiini-makinaakowininiwag (People of the Large Snapping Turtle), as they lived only on Mikinaakominis (Turtle Island; present-day Mackinac Island, Michigan). One dreadful day, however, a party of warlike Naadoweg (Haudenosaunee) attacked the Mishiini-makinaakowininiwag and killed everyone except a young man and woman, who escaped the genocide. In order to survive they had to live in a cave and go out only during the night to feed off of edible bark and leaves. Eventually they made it to the North Shore of Gichi-aazhoogami-gichigami (“Great Crosswaters Sea”; present-day Lake Huron) without getting noticed by the cruel intruders from the east. Once on the Northshore, they moved to the back bush and made a beautiful wiigiwaam to live and prosper. There they had many children and lived a very secluded life, only socializing among themselves. Despite their terrible fate they were happy! One winter, however, it did not stop snowing and the family was on the brink of death from starvation and loneliness. Manidookwe (the Mother Spirit of the Land) noticed the desperation of this poor family. She blew her sacred breath through the smoke hole of their wiigiwaam! In doing so she turned every one of them into Sacred Beings!⁵a

Once they became spirits, they became happy because their race of people would live on indefinitely, and without fear or prejudice from the warlike tribes that surrounded them. They also chose to live close to the Anishinaabeg who were always friends to them, but still lived in seclusion; never really being seen unless they chose to be seen. The Anishinaabeg started to call them Bagwajiwi-Anishinaabe (Wilderness People") because of their reclusiveness and extreme desire to remain secluded deep in the backwoods. Thus, the Bagwajiwii-Anishinaabeg became a mystical tribe in the forest and were quickly recognized for their mischievous but good-natured disposition and their great spiritual power. Medicine People, knowing that Thunderbirds love to blast pine trees, transported their prayers to the Bagwajiwininiwag through the incense and the smoke of burning pine. They know that the Bagwajiwininiwag can be addressed to give help in requests and help in the doctoring rites. And to this day, Anishinaabeg traditionally leave asemaa (tobacco) where they have been spotted, or in a particular area where there is evidence of their existence.

It is a common belief that the Bagwajiwi-Anishinaabeg live in little wiigiwaaman made of grass or bark, travel in little birch bark canoes, and operate in isolated areas of the forest. They very rarely show themselves to humans, particularly grown-ups. They are extremely elusive beings as they can appear and disappear at wil. Many people who claim to have seen Bagwajiwininiwag also state that they are about knee-high and have pale faces, and are sometimes seen wearing cloaks or hooded garments. Some claim to have seen one sitting on a tree stump smoking a pipe, only to see them, in the blink of an eye, disappear back in the bush. They also do not speak Anishinaabemowin, but often communicate through mental telepathy or through dreams and visions and almost always disappear just as fast as they have been seen. In the old times, while the Anishinaabeg were sleeping, the Bagwajiwininiwag even told them how to make maple syrup! It is also common belief that those who dreamed of them or had physical encounters with them were chosen ones who would certainly bring good medicine back to the people...

“Well, those Buhkwudjinini–Anishinabe were noted to be… They were able to penetrate rock. But they were not able to penetrate sand with a stick. Supposing they wanted to use a stick, you know, to cook their meat on. They couldn’t penetrate the ground, but they were able to penetrate the rock.
Now, the man of course of today can penetrate the sand or earth. But the Buhkwudj–Anishinabe can’t.  A little story goes along like this. That the Indian hunter… That’s a normal man and or a normal tribe of Indian was out hunting sometime by himself. And he shot himself a bear. Well, pretty soon, he heard a little shot. A very much smaller shot, possibly even smaller than a twenty–two calibre rifle. And looked around, here was a little Buhkwudj–Anishinabe with a small rifle. And he was struggling to lift a small bear. No. A squirrel, it was. And so, they stopped and they talked, and chatted for a few minutes. And this Buhkwudj–Anishinabe says, “Well,” he said, “I’ll carry your bear down and you can carry my squirrel down to the landing.” Wherever it was. Wherever this one place or another. The normal man said, “Well, all right, I’ll take your squirrel down because the Buhkwudj–Anishinabe, he couldn’t lift his squirrel. That is his game. The normal Indian, he said, “Okay, I’ll carry your squirrel down.”  And Buhkwudj–Anishinabe says, “I’ll carry your bear down.” So, he picked up this bear and he took it down to their camp, to this Indian’s camp over there without a struggle.”

- Wiigwaaskingaa (Whitefish River First Nation) Elder Bill McGregor  *5ab

There seems to be a connection between the little wilderness men and the Midewiwin – the Anishinaabe society of healers and teachers. Some people claim you can hear the beating of the little boy water drums by these little men. Some of them are believed to have made little replicas of the big water drum (see the illustration at the top of this page), made into doctoring rattles by the medicine men. Even the little pipes were made in observance to their spirituality!

A friend of mine, a knowledgeable Elder and respected Lodge Keeper from Mikinaak-wajiw (Turtle Mountain, ND), told me that where he lives, these little men live in the ground and in the forest. They are able to seem to vanish or elude people after they are seen. And they can cause a person to stop talking or prevent them from talking! He also told me he once saw one in a sweat lodge. He described it as small and all hairy, like a small bear but stood up. When he was a youngster, another little man had teased him at his parents' house while they were all in the living room. This one was dressed up in traditional garb, even wore his hair in two braids. He wore moccasins, traditional garb of what looked like plain tanned leather, without any beadwork on it. "Evidently you can feed them," my friend told me, "because I was holding a saucer with some food on it. So I have the right to feed them."

But their most well-known characteristic – besides teasing people and sneaking into a person’s house and snagging and misplacing their beer cans or car keys – is their habit of kidnapping abinoojiinyag (young children)! There are endless accounts of stories in Anishinaabe Aki that tell of kidnapped abinoojiinyag who, when grown in their teens, seek a life-guiding vision quest. This often resulted in a outstanding gift to prepare sacred medicine, and many accredited their long life and all of their healing abilities to it. Some famous people – such as ogimaag (chiefs) and mashkikiwininiwag (medicine men – even owed their name and reputation to an encounter with the little magical forest dwellers!

It seems, however, that the Anishinaabeg out west view the Bagwajiwininiwag in a less harmless light than their cousins in the east (particularly those who live in the area around the north shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron). My friend from Turtle Mountain in North Dakota told me that they seem harmless, but they are not. It is a well-known fact on his reservation that they steal babies and children, which is why parents feel they must guard the abinoojiinyag playing by the water or edges of the tree line. Those hairy dwarfs make medicine from our bodies just like we make medicine from animal body parts, he says. He even told me stories about Bagwajiwininiwag using babies as their medicine bags! He also added that some seem to be be friendly though, since his dad had told him that one approached when he was little, and then left without hurting him.

Harmless or not, it is a common understanding among Anishinaabeg that usually only very small children report seeing Bagwajiwininiwag. But why is that? Is it because a child's view on the natural world is still clear, pure and unstained? The following account by the late Carl Pine, in 2009, at Thunder Mountain, Ontario, sheds a bright light on the topic:

“Babies still carry medicine from their Mother’s Womb, which makes them very spiritual and receptive to the Mother Earth, and this also explains their encounters with ‘Little People’. I believe it is designed like this so children can be our greatest teachers on how to act properly towards the spirit of the land and all its helpers. When the babies grow into children they will say, “look at this rock, look at this stick.” They will bring frogs, bugs and leaves into the house, as they are trying to show us how beautiful Mother Earth is. As they get older and become adults, they let go of their mother’s medicine and stray off into a disconnected path which can last for many years. Once they get older and become Elders, they start to crouch down and to pick up that Grand Medicine again and began to show the people how beautiful Mother Earth is; often showing people rocks, sticks, and pointing out all of Wenabozho's creation. They also start reminding us of the ‘Little People’ that live in our forest, the awesome Spirit of the Land. The great cycle of life has made full circle.”b 




The Anishinaabeg have always been a dream-conscious People. In the old days of pre-contact, children were not taught the subjects of reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and religion; instead, they went to school in stories and dreams. The power of dreams and life-guiding visions and sacred stories has always been evident in ordinary waking experiences as well as in the daily actions of the Anishinaabe, whether they are chiefs, medicine women and men, members of the Medicine Lodges, hunters, warriors, or just ordinary persons from all different walks of life. A good health and success in life and the ability to help others were not deemed achievable without dreams and the help and the cooperation and the blessings of the ancestors and of the aadizookaanag, the powerful Spirit Grandfathers who were also the protagonists of the sacred stories. Dreams and sacred stories – which were, usually in a ritual fashion, told by Elders in the winter evenings – have always been causally interconnected; the same Grandfathers who played a role in the sacred stories would, in the form of personal guardian spirits ("helpers"), appear in dreams at night – or in the daytime –, to those who sought a lige-guiding vision in remote places. Even today, Giizhig-inaabandamowinan (Sky dreaming) or seeking Waasayaabindamiwin (a Vision) are considered to be the primary means by which a healer and an artist can enter into direct social interaction with the world of the ancestors and the spirits/grandfathers.

Since the persons or entities that appear during sleep or vision quests present themselves in spirit, the essential self so to speak, bawaajiganan, or inaabandamowin (dreams received in sleep) and makadekewinan (visions) are considered to have a higher degree of debwewin (truth) than things or persons or phenomena seen with the waking eye. These bawaaganag or dream visitors, as they are generally called, often appear in animal form (or, as we see in today's story, in the form of a bagwajiwinini). The dream visitors are regarded as patrons, spiritual helpers if you will, who personally provide the dreamer with special blessings enabling them to exercise exceptional powers of various kinds. To be more precise, they bestow upon the dreamer or vision seeker control over some area of human experience that is of assistance to them in the daily round of life. Examples that spring to mind are the healing of ailments, or predicting the future, or encouraging the young to develop individuality and self-growth, or exercising good leadership, or being a good mother, or keeping family and community amply supplied with food and materials, or making beautiful or powerful works of art – or whatever special social skill is needed to help keeping intact the framework and well-being of Anishinaabe society.

What would illustrate the unlimited power of dreams and vision-seeking better than Mother Earth and Father Sun with their eyes closed as if sleeping? The way I painted them – against the backdrop of binaakwe-giizis (Falling Leaves Moon) – suggests they're dreaming! Their closed eyes are depicted as midemiigisag (sacred seashells), as a reference to the dancing youth in the center of the painting. This youth has a sacred dream vision. As a young child he was abducted by Bagwajiwininiwag, and in the vision he is presently having he encounters a Bagwajiwinini named Waadisesimid, or He of the Little Shell, who teaches him how to be a teacher of his People and to act properly toward the spirit of the land and all its helpers. As Mother Earth blows her sacred breath on him the young vision seeker actually turns into a Bagwajiwinini! The youth dances on a maple leaf, holding a sacred pipe in his hand. He dances a dance of Creation and New Beginnings! His penis, the purple seed depicted inside his loins, the miigis shell painted on his face, and his waving headdress of green and red leaves symbolize fertility and procreation and the power of regeneration within the Great Cycle of Life. The Thunderbird flying over a birch tree Lodge and a pine tree growing in front of it symbolize great spiritual power and prayer. The stars, in conclusion, are a reference to our clans in the night sky and, in particular, to Waadisesimid's sister who looks after the Anishinaabeg. She lives in the eastern sky in the form of the Morning Star...

Ahaaw sa. Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Ok, that is the end of the today's story. Thank you for listening to me. Gigiveda-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! Mino bimaadizin! Live well!



¹ Memegwesiwag: "Persons Who Speak Strangely." Noseless, hairy-faced dwellers of riverbanks and steep slopes in rocky areas. They are anthropomorphic, dwarf-like friendly creatures that live on river banks and steep slopes in rocky areas around the Great Lakes who sometimes are seen paddling a stone canoe as they emerge from their rock home and who – like the bagwajiwininiwag – are famous for their medicine. They usually travel in small groups and appear only to pure-minded people – which are often children. Although they were in possession of stone paddles, their stone canoe moves alone, as if powered by some external force. They are looked upon as powerful dream guardians, and if a person fasts in search of a vision, he or she will sometimes dream of the Memegwesiwag, which may protect the dreamer against the evil spell of a jaasakiid or shaking tent seer. They are also believed to have gifted the Anishinaabeg with the Little Boy water drum. ^

² Baa-iinsiwag: little beach dwellers. ^

³ Mizabigamag: "Little Men of Iron": Little Man of Iron, a mysterious specter who inhabits picturesque caves and unique rock formations, deep arroyos and other places suitable for the seeking of visions ^

Manidookwe: Spirit Woman. Sometimes the name is used to denote our mother the moon, who, in the form of Giizhigookwe (Sky Woman) lowered down her children – twins, forebears of the Anishinaabeg – onto the shield of the turtle (the earth). Manidookwe can be used for any female spirit, regardless of the way she presents herself to the world. In the context of my story about the Bagwajiwininiwag, however, I used manidookwe in the sense of a maternal, spiritual ancestor, referred to as the Mother Spirit of Aki, the land. This spirit is associated with kindness, the kind of kindness mother earth displays when she wakes up at spring and provides the land with warm sun rays, bird song, and flowers. So, in that sense, manidookwe is the spirit of kindness that is displayed by Aki, Mother Earth. Also alternately called Omaamama (Mother), Nimaamaa-aki (My Mother-Earth), Omizakamigokwe (Everywhere on Earth Woman) , Mooshkokamikwe (Medicine Woman), Ashkaakamigokwe (Earth Woman), Gookomisinaan (Our Grandmother), and Ogashinan (Earth-Grandmother). ^

a Source: Bomgiizhik/Isaac Murdoch. ^ *5ab Fragment from a 1953 interview. Source: Northerners, eh. ^

⁵b Source: Bert Poffé's blog. ^

A miigis (plural miigisag) is a sea shell that symbolizes the exodus and eastward migration of the Anishinaabe Peoples from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes and beyond. A midemiigis (plural midemiigisag) is a sea shell used in Midewiwin ceremonial practice. It is held sacred since it represents the sun, long life, and the virtue of selflessness. ^

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