Stories and Teachings from the Earth, part 9: Akiwenzii's Teaching
Updated: Oct 23
Binaakwii-giizis (Falling Leaves Moon) (October 15, 2022)
Nisawayi'iing akiing idash giizhigong mii ji-mikaman gido'ojichaakam. "Between the earth and the sky you can find your soul."
Boozhoo! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong ji-maamawoo-nanda-gikendamang. Hello! Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge so we can learn together.
Ningad-aadizooke noongom giizhigad! Let’s tell a sacred story today!*
~~ THE STORY OF EARTH FLOWER ~~
Once, in the center of Anishinaabe Aki, the land of the Ojibwe People, in a village at the foot of the Falls, an oshkikwe (young woman) lived who went by the name of Aki-waabigwan (Earth Flower). She belonged to Awaasii doodem, the clan of the Catfish People.
Aki-waabigwan was not so much occupied with the same things the other young women of her age were interested in. She spent most of her time roaming the hills and playing with butterflies in the valleys. She kept herself very busy going on adventures and learning new things and making new friends. She was very curious about the world around her. This is what made her truly happy. However, she was not only known among her People for her playfulness and her good nature; she also possessed an extraordinarily artistic talent.
One day Aki-waabigwan noticed a young man passing through her village and when she asked her parents who he was, they told her his name was Anang (Star) and that he lived in a faraway village to the north of the Falls. From the moment they exchanged glances Aki-waabigwan and the handsome stranger fell in love with each other...But since he belonged to the same doodem (clan) as she, it was not allowed for them to join…after the young man had continued his journey, poor Aki-waabigwan stayed behind, knowing that she would never see the beautiful stranger again…so big was her sadness, so tormented were her dreams, that she decided to consult Akiwenzii (“He Who Had Walked the Earth for a Long Time”), a wise man who had much knowledge about dreams and the aches of the heart.
As Aki-waabigwan approached the old man’s wiigiwaam (lodge) she heard him beat his hand drum and sing in a high-pitched voice:
"Heya-way-whe- H’ya-whe-yawhe-yaw! Heya-wya-whe.
Bimaawadaaso wiijiiw giigoonh, bineshiinhyag, apa'iinsag
Megwe digowag, megwe digowag.
Apii anwaatin, miinawaa baakawan
Nisawayi'iing akiing idash giizhigong.
Mii azhigwa bi-naagozid manidoo maang
Mii azhigwa bi-naagozid heya-way-whe,
Heya-way-whe- H’ya-whe-yawhe-yaw! Heya-wya-whe.
("Heya-way-whe- H’ya-whe-yawhe-yaw! Heya-wya-whe.
Canoeing along on the lake,
Traveling along with the fishes, the birds, the little people
Among the waves, among the waves.
When the waters are calm, and the fog rises
In that area between earth and sky.
Where is it that you dwell?
The spirit of the Loon will appear soon,
It will appear soon heya-way-whe,
Like a shadow
Always following me along my tracks.
Heya-way-whe- H’ya-whe-yawhe-yaw! Heya-wya-whe.
As soon as he spotted the young woman walking up to his place the old man smiled at her. Picking up his hand drum and pipe he invited Aki-waabigwan into his wiigiwaam (domed birchbark lodge) to sit with him at the fire. After entering the lodge she offered the old man asemaa (tobacco) and respectfully addressed him as follows: “Nimishoo! Grandfather! If you allow me, I will tell you about what lives in my heart...”
The old man nodded and, without speaking, accepted the tobacco. Then he lit his pipe, which had gone cold. After taking four puffs he nodded again, smiling. Sensing his friendly eyes upon her, Aki-waabigwan took a deep breath and commenced to tell her host about the stranger whom she had fallen in love with and her fear of never seeing him again in this life. Then, she told him about a dream-vision she had the night before:
“I lied down against the black
waiting to drift into the light
of my deepest and sweetest dreams.
My eyes had barely closed
to welcome the bliss of night when
I could feel his hands take mine.
How this real world changed
as my lids fell so heavy against my cheeks
that I could hear them shut.
As I opened them on the other side
it was like stepping into the universe
being drawn up by star people.
I saw him once before when so small
that my feet could barely take me
more than a few paces at a time.
Always just above my real sight
until the darkness came this dream
before I awoke today.
We travelled through them so vast
the constellations of stories past
I had been here before?
As my feet walked into the lodge
I closed my eyes and left again
Into the universe not for the first flight.
That was taken when just a child
A hand taken to a place of freedom
Where no sounds or feelings could come.
Where will I go tonight, nimishoo
When he comes
To take my hands?”
Akiwenzii, knowing that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation, and understanding the depth of the pain and grief that shone through the dream-vision Aki-waabigwan had related to him, sat quiet for a while before he spoke. Finally, this is what he told her:
"Ahaaw, n’gad aadzooke (Now, I will tell a traditional story).”
~~ THE STORY OF THE CLIMBING PLANT ~~
“A long, long time ago, GICHI-MANIDOO (the Great Mystery) created only strong and healthy Anishinaabeg.
All were happy and prospered in Anishinaabe Aki, their turtle island home. Death was unknown to them. A huge biimaakwad (climbing plant or vineshoot) grew in the heart of Anishinaabe Aki.
It was a living ladder, connecting the Earthmother and her children with the realm of the Skyfather.
One day, because of the foolishness of a woman who tried to climb him, the Trail of Vine collapsed under her weight. Disaster fell upon their happy homes, and the Anishinaabeg lost the gift of health and immortality.
Many, many left on Jibay-miikana, the path of souls...
Then GICHI-MANIDOO, feeling pity on the poor Ojibwe People, sent our Elder Brother Wenabozho with the Gift of Medicine. Called Wisakejak by our relatives to the northwest, Wenabozho is a Spirit Messenger gifted with powers of transformation. Being the son of the West wind and a mortal woman, he is very sympathetic toward our People...
So, Wenabozho sought out a young man whom he called Ode’imin (Heart Berry or Strawberry), teaching him all there is to know about plants, roots, and herbs, and how to make the Standing People (the trees) lend their powers of healing and growing to the other beings.
Ode’imin, who thus became the first of a long line of Mide (Medicine) men and women, passed on his newly acquired knowledge, and our People became a healthy and prosperous nation again!
In order to keep alive the knowledge of curing and the wisdom of mino bimaadiziwin (how to live a good life), Ode’imin founded the Midewiwin, the Society of Medicine Men And Women Who are In A Sacred And Unseen State - a very old association of medicine people and philosophers that still exists today. And to this day, noozis, the Midewiwin and the special gift of medicine are celebrated by the various peoples of the Anishinaabeg!
Giiwenh. So the story goes.”
After pausing a while and thoughtfully drawing on his pipe, Akiwenzii continued:
“I know noozis (my grandchild), this is a sad tale because it speaks of suffering and disaster, but it is also a story of great beauty.
I have told you this tale because I know you are not like that poor woman whose desperate dreams made her climb the living ladder, this trail of vine whose branches reached all the way into the sky. It is not always high up in the sky where wisdom and happiness are to be found. To find your soul, you do not always have to travel to the stars. It is often in that nebulous area between the earth and the sky, between the fog and the clouds, where you can find it. Nor is it always wise to wish to own the stars. When a long time ago the boisterous Loon grabbed all the stars from the sky dome and used their voices, his song echoing across the waters and the land, Our Elder Brother Wenabozho, in his wisdom, asked him to place them back in the sky.
Instead, you will learn to understand the art of reaching out into the sky world by sitting like a flower in late summer, staying close to the soil of the earth. You will learn to look for the evening fog that rises between the water, the land, and the sky. As you chase your dreams and ambitions, you will know to stay as close to the roots of the climbing plant as possible. Through the climbing plant, you will talk and reach out to the star high up in the sky. This way the star will hear you and he will use the climbing plant to send to you your dreams and thoughts and words, to return to you the love you send up to him. The star will know that the flower, whose voice he hears from up there, deserves to have the love she sends to him returned to her tenfold.”
After a brief pause the old man continued, “Although it is sad that the flower cannot use the trail of vine to live in the sky world forever, and the lone star cannot descend to the home of the flower that lives on the earth, the star will see that the flower on the earth flourishes each day a little more, and it will make him happy. It will make him so happy that at clear nights, the Ojibwe People will notice that the star shines more brightly on their homes than before. And the faces of the Ojibwe People will forever reflect the deep, shining love that the star holds for the flower.”
Akiwenzii concluded with the lesson learned:
“Inside the tales of the climbing plant and Ode’imin who restored the gift of health and long life to the People, lives another, hidden tale. It tells the story about the flower and the star. This story is also about you and the stranger from the north and the eternal love you hold for each other. Be wise noozis, be like the flower in the story for she teaches us that the power of love to create healing is unlimited. Try to understand the ways of the heart and the healing medicine it holds. Do not get caught up in your dreams of longing and hurt and despair; do not spend your life dwelling on sorrow and mourning a lost love.
Breathe through your heart instead.
Be like the flower in the story noozis, and you will live to be a happy and strong person who is a shining example to her People."
Aki-waabigwan thanked Akiwenzii for the story he had told and the wise counsel that he had given her, and she went outside, determined to do as the old man had suggested. From that time on she passionately expressed her individual dreams and heartbreak, transforming it into works of incredible beauty and she gained wide and legendary recognition among her People and far beyond as one who creates healing art for the benefit of individuals as well as for the Nation - enh, for all Nations - as a whole. All her works of art, initially inspired by the sad story of the Flower and the Star, became stories of hope, strength, and determination and until today her proud artistic legacy shines like the Fisher star above.
As long as she lived, Aki-waabigwan felt gratitude in her heart for the wise lesson Akiwenzii, he who had walked the earth for a long time, had imparted to her…
Giiwenh, so the story goes.
~~ THE MEANING OF AKIWENZII ~~
Now, let’s have a closer look at the word akiwenzii, and the role akiwenziiyag (old men) traditionally play within Ojibwe Anishinaabe society.
The Ojibwe Anishinaabe word for an elder man is Akiwenzii or Akiwenziinzh; ᐊᑭᐌᓐᓰ᙮ in Ojibwe syllabics. According to some sources its literal meaning is "long dweller on the earth." Aki means earth, land, our planet; wenzii, according to these sources, means a long journey or a long time.
Ojibwe author James Vukelich Kaagegaabaw, a descendant of Mikinaakwajiwing/Turtle Mountain, explains the word as follows: Aki means Earth, Land, Our Planet; wenzii is derived from wenjii, which means "from a certain place." A metaphorical translation of akiwenzii could therefore be "Comes from the Earth, of the Earth, and returning to the Earth." It is a reference to a man, advanced in age, acknowledging an inevitable appointment, to return to the Earth. In other words, he is a caretaker of our Mother, the Earth.
Unlike in Western society, where "old man" doesn't always have a positive connotation, in Anishinaabe society to call someone “an old man” is nothing short of a compliment. Depending on the context and the dialect spoken, an elder person is also known as a gichi-aya’aa (“a great/old being there”); this term can also be applied to impressive or aged animals, trees, and plants. Another term of respect used for a male elder person – as we have seen in the above story - is Nimishoomis, Grandfather. Nimishoo is the vocative form. Other words for “Elder Person” are getaadizid (one who is old), gichi-anishinaabe (great human being), and gete-anishinaabe (old human being). Gichi-anishinaabewi, gichi-ayaawi, gichi-aya'aawi , and gitaadizi are verbs meaning being elderly, or an elder person. Oral tradition or oral teaching is recognized as a principal form of instruction within Anishinaabe culture. The stories, told by the debaajimoodjig and ayaadizookedjig (respectively true-storytellers and traditional-storytellers) are not just a form of entertainment, but also powerful tools, valuable lessons containing a vast wealth of knowledge and wisdom. A traditional story not only contains lessons but are also mirrors reflecting the beliefs, fears, and hopes of both storyteller and audience. Many stories were deemed sacred and considered to be manidoog (‘spirits’) in themselves, filled with mystery and healing powers. Storytelling usually took place at family and community gatherings and were told in a strict ritual context. The art of telling stories, without which the history and the identity of the Anishinaabeg as a people would never have survived until today, has always been the task of grandparents and other elderly relatives; particularly of either old learned men, gichi akiwenziiag, and old learned women, mindimooyensag - or gichi-ikwewag (great women) or gookominaanag (grandmothers) as they are sometimes called. Particularly teachings about odoodem (clan) responsibilities have always been an important part of the education of the young. Because of their age, old people, as they are climbing the summit of 4th hill of life (which I depicted shrouded in mist; see the image), are close to passing on to the spirit world. This proximity gives them the status of bawaaganag (familiars) with the manidoog (spirits). Their age and acquired wisdom place mindimooyensag and akiwenziiag therefore in the larger framework of the sacred. The term gete-anishinaabeg or "old human beings" is, in extension, used to refer to the jiibayag (souls) living in jiibaayakiing or waakwing, Land of the Deceased. Personally, although I have used the term "Elder" in many of my previous stories for lack of a better translation, I am hesitant to use it though since the word comes from a church tradition, that is, the tradition of church elders. I think I may use the term “Elder Person” instead. SOME AKIWENZII-RELATED EXPRESSIONS: Learned Old Man (literally: Big/Great Old Man: Chi-akiwenzii, gichi-akiwenzii Husband/my old man: (n)indakiwenziiyim (plural: (n)indakiwenziiyimag)
Her/his old man: odakiwenziiyiman (plural: odakiwenziiyimanag)
Little Old Man: Akiwenziins Old Man's Song: akiwenzii-nagamon (plural: akiwenzii-nagamonan) Old man/be an old man: akiwenziinyiwi (term used by the Southeastern Ojibweg) Old man/be an old man: akiwenziiyiwi (term used by the Southwestern Ojibweg) Old man/be an old man: akiwenziiwi (term used by the Northwestern Ojibweg) Old man/be an old man: akiwenzi’iwi (term used by the Northwestern Ojibweg) Old man/my old man: (n)indakiwenziiyim (plural: (n)indakiwenziiyimag) ___________________________________________________________________ Illustrations, top to bottom:
Akiwenzii Nagamon (Old Man's Song) - Visit the webshop to view details of the painting
Waabigwan miinawaa Anang (The Flower and the Star)
Akiwenzii Nagamon (Old Man's Song) - detail
© 2014-2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
* Aadizookaan loosely based on the story "The Flower and the Star" told by by Zhaawano Giizhik.