Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 9: The Girl Who Walked the Bear Path
Updated: Apr 22
Binaakwe-giizis (Falling Leaves Moon), October 14, 2020
Welcome to part 9 of my blog series titled Teachings from the Tree of Life, in which I connect the storytelling art of myself and kindred artists with an old Teaching called The Tree of Life.” This Teaching, which is also known as “Spiritual Paths,” is based on the ancient Anishinaabe spiritual/philosophical principle of mino-bimaadiziwin that countless generations of ancestors handed down to us from the time they still lived in Waabanaki -- the old homeland along the Atlantic coast. Mino-bimaadiziwin literally means, “the Way of a Good Life.”
The simple but essential teaching of the Tree of Life is passed on by James Mishibinijima from Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island. It centers around the notion that the spiritual path that we as humans follow was designed way before we were born on Aki, or Mother Earth. We all have our own path and our own visions to follow, from our prenatal state to old age and into the next life. By living through all the stages and living out the visions, we gradually, eventually, gain wisdom, which we then must pass on to those still to walk the path of life. Now, while we climb this “tree of life,” we are being tested many times; sometimes we succeed but many times we fail. But if we want to live good lives, all we need to do is to keep trying and to take a good look at ourselves and see what we truly need. When confusion sets into our life, we have the ability to choose another branch from the tree and follow that branch towards discovery. We will find that if we stand back and take a good look, we have so many branches to choose from …
The story that I tell today is woven around a one-of-a-kind storytelling necklace (see below image) that I created at my workbench and illustrated with artwork by the late Miskwaabik Animikii, as well as by the late Gelineau Fisher, the late Randy Trudeau, the late Ahmoo Angeconeb, the late Goyce Kakegamic, James Mishibinijima Simon, Bebaminojmat , Ahki-ekwanīsit, and Zhaawano Giizhik.
Makwa, niibina gikinoo'amaagewinan gimigiwe. Weweni ganawaabam makwa ezhibimaadizid mii dash nanda-gikendiman geyaabi gikinoo'amaadiwinan. "The bear, he gives us many teachings. If you watch how the bear lives his life, you will learn many more teachings."
~~ LITTLE EAGLE AND HOW HER PEOPLE LOST THE GIFT OF HEALTH AND LONG LIFE ~~
Now, let me tell you about a young woman from the People of the Rapids and a series of dreams that she had, and that gave the necklace that features today's story its design and shape, and its title.
Once upon a time, in a village situated at a river branch close to the north shore of Nadowewi-gichigami (present-day Lake Huron), there lived a curly-haired girl who belonged to the People of the Place of the Rapids, nowadays the Sault Ste.Marie area in Ontario and Michigan. Her People knew her by the name of Migiziwaazhiins (Little Eagle). She was a member of Maanameg doodem, the clan of the Catfish People -- who, along with other fish clans and those of turtles and snakes, are traditionally charged with Teaching and Healing.
From her earliest youth Little Eagle, who was known to walk the earth barefoot all year round, was observed to be introverted and pensive. Even in infancy the girl seemed different from her siblings and the other children of her village; and as she grew older her character appeared more strange and more wonderful. Even before she attained the age at which children enter upon a period of puberty rites and fasting she was well-known for her artistic nature and qualities, and it escaped no one’s attention that she spent much time in solitude and fasting. Some people even whispered that she was banaabekwe, a person belonging to the other-than-human-class, having the features and outer form of a female human being but in reality possessing at least some qualities of manidoo (a spirit).
Whenever she could leave her parents' wiigiwaam she would venture off -- sometimes at night -- to remote glades in the dense woods that covered the shoreline of the lake, or sit upon a steep and narrow rock that overlooked Gichigami-zibii -- the mighty sea river that nowadays is called St. Marys. It was in such sacred places that Little Eagle sought meaning and self-discovery by addressing the spirits of the Universe and by regularly invoking her bawaagan, or guardian spirit. More often than not she would feel the urge to use red ochre to paint in the presence of the spirits her dreams and visions on the rocks and cliff walls that bordered the river. Even at a young age, Little Eagle was the philosopher and the artist of her People…
Now, it happened that Little Eagle grew up in a time when her People ignored the instructions GICHI-MANIDOO had given their ancestors and, because of it, lost the gift of health and long life.
The miinagaawanzhiig, the blueberry bushes, and the oginiiminagaawanzhiig, the rose bushes, started to decline in number and the richness and brilliance of fruit and flowers diminished. Almost no one seemed to care, almost no one deemed it necessary to become alarmed. Woe betided Little Eagle’s People! The People of the Place of the Rapids began to overlook the fragile nature of the balance that exists between all living things in general.
Many had begun to close their eyes to the original Teachings and to the age-old concept of circular dependency, that delicate fabric of the web that the Great Mystery had woven between plant, animal, and man... with truly dire consequences ...
Not before long the waaboozoog (hare and rabbits) started to become affected by the scarcity of the miinagaawanzhiig and oginii-waabigwaniin that once had covered the earth as far as the eye could see, their fatness decreasing and their bellies screaming for food. Although the People of the Rapids vaguely sensed that something was not quite right - the fur of makwa, the bear, became less rich and its meat tasted less sweet than it used to - it were our relatives the aamoog (bees) and the naanooshkaashiinsag (humming birds) who were the first to be alarmed, and, naturally, in the longer term the bears themselves, since they too depended on the nutritious berries and the honey that the roses used to yield in abundant quantities.
Eventually, there were no blueberries and roses to be seen anywhere! As soon as winter approached the Place of the Rapids, as many of their small animal relatives had almost became extinct and the makade-makwag (black bears) were all hide and bone and too skinny and weak to follow their yearly pattern of hibernation, finally started to worry and even to despair …
LITTLE EAGLE'S FIRST DREAM
~~ The Hungry Bears ~~
One late autumn day, after a fast on a bluff overlooking the Great Sea river that lasted four days and night, the spirits of four makade-makwag (black bears) appeared in Little Eagle’s dream, handing her a wiigwaasinaagan (birch bark bowl) filled with miinagaawanzhiig (blueberries). As soon as the bear grandfathers had handed to the girl the bowl of Spirit Berries they disappeared and the girl found herself sitting in a lodge made of a round, open structure made of poplar saplings and decorated with colorful ribbons the colors of red, green, yellow, and black. As she sat there looking around in wonderment she noticed sitting in the center of the lodge the bowl filled with the Spirit Berries, and before she knew it a long line of bears, who looked hungry and feeble and their once mighty body masses reduced to sagging pelt and bones, entered the eastern door of the Lodge. The girl watched in wonderment as the hungry bears, whose fat storage had been depleted dramatically, started to feast on the blueberries, and as soon as the bowl was empty the bears stood on their hind legs and, as they regained their former body mass, walked to the western door which they used as an exit, and left toward the setting sun, finally ready to start their yearly hibernation ...
~~ The Sweat Lodge and the Great Cedar Tree ~~
Next, still dreaming, the girl woke up, feeling tired. Slowly opening her eyes she found herself in another lodge -- a low, dome-shaped structure that sat in the center of aki, the earth. In the center of this madoodison, or sweat lodge, which was constructed of saplings covered with bearskins and whose only door faced a sacred fire, were seven red hot stones giving off steam that rose inside the lodge, filling it with an extremely hot fog. As she felt invigorated, even reborn, by the steam in combination with the intense smell of herbs that invisible hands had sprinkled on top of the glowing grandfather stones, the girl crawled out of the madoodison on hands and feet. Since the underworld around her was covered in darkness all she could do was sense her surroundings by mere touch… then, suddenly, she found herself clasping both hands around the stem of a tree, which she discerned to be a giizhikaatig – a cedar tree. It was the Tree of Life! With all the force she could muster up, Little Eagle started to climb the tree, which had four huge branches directed toward the four cardinal points and each signifying an earth level. On the first branch, which was directed to the north, sat an old miskwaadesiinh (a painted turtle) who told her that, once she had traveled through the four layers of the earth, she was expected to cross a body of water. In the water she would be met by nigig (an otter) who would give her directions from there. The girl continued the climb in the direction of the light. Next, she crossed an underwater lake. Here she encountered a mishiginebig, a grandfather with the outward appearance of a great horned snake, who granted her a safe passage after explaining to her that she had nothing to fear from him since he was a patron of healing and knowledge of medicinal herbs and a protector of the women of her tribe. Then, as she reached the fourth branch she found herself in full daylight again! Before her there was water stretching as far as her eyes could see!
LITTLE EAGLE'S SECOND DREAM
~~ The Great Sea Turtle ~~
Remembering Miskwaadesiinh’s instructions, Little Eagle started to swim, and just when she started to wonder which direction to head in, an otter surfaced, laughing and joking -- because that is what otters usually do --, signaling her to travel toward the west until she encountered a large island the shape of miigis (a sea shell). After the playful slider had disappeared in the waves, hoowah! a mishi-makinaak (huge sea turtle) suddenly rose out of the waves! The turtle told her he would bring her to the miigis-shaped island. Little Eagle, grateful for turtle’s help, climbed on his shield and as the turtle swam westward with great speed – away from the area of rapids and waterfalls where Little Eagle had spent her childhood – they crossed an even bigger body of water. As they crossed the lake, still heading west, mishibizhiw, a catlike being with horns surfaced and caused a big flood by slashing its long tail covered with scales of copper… a terrible storm ensued that whipped the lake to a fury! Quicly Little Eagle sprinkled asemaa (tobacco) on the waves upon which the wind dropped, and the lake became calm again. After this they encountered many more obstacles and challenges along the way; but so powerful was turtle, and so great his speed, that even the treacherous whirlpools caused by the mermen and mermaids that lived on the bottom of the lake could not drown him and his little companion! Then, after four days of swimming the miigisominis – the shell-shaped island the otter had mentioned – came finally into view…
~~ The Bear Spirit From the Sea Shell Island ~~
After Little Eagle thanked the sea turtle, who after delivering her on the beach glided back into the waves of the lake, she started walking toward a wooded area that sloped to a steep wajiw (hill), from which she faintly heard the sound of a drum. As she, curiously, walked into the direction of the drum sound she noticed a narrow path meandering through shrubs of miinagaawanzhiig (blueberries) and leading toward the east side of the hill. Then, as she walked around a bend, oonyooy! suddenly, a big shadow cast over the path made her stop in her tracks. A huge noozhek (she-bear), her pelt the color of a cloudless summer sky and adorned with a multitude of mide-miigisag (sacred sea shells) stood towering over the startled girl!
Little Eagle, realizing the bear was no ordinary bear respectfully addressed the fearful creature that blocked her path as nooko ("my grandmother"). Asemaa in hand, she explained to the bear with a clear and unwavering voice that she came in peace and did mean no harm. After she had handed the bear the gift of tobacco and related to her the purpose of her visit, the Makwa Manidoo explained to her that the hill she were about to climb was a midewigaan (Spirit Lodge) and that it was her task to guard it.
Then the bear spoke:
“Nindinawendaagan, noozis, bizindoshin
My relative, my grandchild, listen to what I have to say.
Since we of the bear nation came from the sun high above
To teach anishinaabeg (humans) to live in harmony with aki, the Mother Earth,
And since it was I who from the bowels of aki,
Pushed the Tree of Life through the layers of the four worlds, and then through a vast body of water
And delivered the gift of life, including the sacred miigisag,
And brought it to this here island the shape of a shell,
Since our people and your people are inawendaaganag (related)
And peacefully cohabit the same world since time immemorial,
Since bear people possess the skill of hibernation
And arise again when spring comes,
Thus embodying death of the old life
And resurrection into the new life,
Since we guide your medicine people in your travels
Between the upper, middle and lower worlds,
Since it us who preside over the medicine plants
And hereby gave your healers
The power to enter the dream world
The power to guide your visions
In order to obtain, through mishiginebig, the great horned serpent,
Powerful medicine to cure the sick of body and mind;
Because of all this, noozis
I’ve come to understand that
Your people honor us by calling us
Anishninaabeg (humans) and address us
As nooko (my grandmother) or nimishoo (my grandfather)
And by incarnating us in your aadizookaanan (stories) and midewii'iwewinan (rituals),
And by making us the leading doodem of your people
Entrusting us with the noble tasks of Defence and Healing,
And by appointing us as guardians
Of the east doorway of your Medicine Lodges,
And as protectors of the healing medicines
And sacred rituals of your medicine men and women,
And by tying bright-colored cloth and ribbons
To the trees in the forests and on the mountains,
And by making food and asemaa offerings
As gifts in our honor.
I’ve also come to understand, noozis, that
Throughout the ages and generations
Your people have danced and sung mystic songs
To invite the spring and heal the sick,
To ensure abundant plant foods,
And to guard yourselves against your enemies.
Haw dash bizindoshin noozis
Now listen to me my grandchild!
Since the bear people are the progenitors of anishinaabeg
And long ago even had a human form,
I therefore will not fight you
Nor will I use bad medicine on you.
I will grant you safe passage instead
And bless you with these sacred shells.”
Hereupon the Bear Spirit gifted Little Eagle with a few handfuls of miigisag from her pelt, which the girl knew symbolized the sun and long life and the virtue of selflessness. After she had thanked the bear and traded the glossy shells with more asemaa from the medicine pouch that she had taken with her on her dream journey, she walked the last stretch to the foot of the spirit lodge mountain. Still impressed by the encounter with the friendly bear spirit she looked over her shoulder one last time, and he saw to her astonishment that the bear was nowhere to be seen! Then, squinting her eyes, she perceived a small stooping figure in the bush that seemed to be picking blueberries; when she looked closer hoowah! she realized this person was a gichi-anishinaabekwe, an old grandmother, dressed in poor rags that were, however, richly decorated with miigisag! Little Eagle smiled...
~~ The Medicine Lodge on the Seashell Shaped Island ~~
On top of the wajiw, in the center of a clearing surrounded by trees, stood the Lodge from which came the sound of the drum she had heard on the beach. The lodge, much larger than the one she had been in while she was in the center of the earth, was rectangular in shape, with two entrances facing east and west. It was open at the top, free to receive light of giizis (the sun), anangoog (the stars), and waawiyekamig (the Universe at large). In the center of the lodge stood a post made from a cedar tree, painted white, green, red, and black and covered with white-painted dots of clay. Around the post was an enclosed space, from which came the sound of high-pitched voices and rattles shaken in rhythmic concord with the singing.
Little Eagle, sensing that something in the spirit lodge was awaiting her that would change her life, approached it from the eastern side. The sun was at his highest in the clear blue sky and it was very hot. At the eastern entrance Little Eagle was met with four makademakewag (black bears) who joined in the chants and the rattling of the turtle shells that came from inside the lodge. She recognized the bears - who were smaller in size than the bear grandmother she had met earlier on - from her first vision, which she had received on top of the river bluff! The bears chanted:
Minode-ezhowishinaang Chi mino-inaadiziwinaangen. Nanaakiinamowidaa maji-de’ewin! Zhaagoojidamowidaa maji-doodamowin.
“Fill our spirits with goodness So that our lives will be upright. Defend our hearts against evil! May they prevail over evil deeds.”
As in trance, the girl, cheered on by the firred sentinels shaking their rattles (which were meant to dispel malevolent spirits), started to dance on the sound of the drum (which gathered benevolent spirits) that came from inside the lodge, making her way around the lodge in clockwise direction.
Then, tayaa!, as she circled the lodge for the fourth time, seemingly out of nowhere, four other makademakwag, appeared. These bears, similar in size but, unlike the other four bears, looking real mean, growling, blocked her path. The startled girl, who was very wise, intuitively understood that the presence of these contrary-bears symbolized the paradoxes in life, and the fact that there are two sides to everything. Next, to the girl’s relief, the benevolent bears that had awaited her at the eastern entrance pushed the growling bears out of the way. This reminded the girl that she must not hesitate, or shrink from the forces of evil …
The four friendly bears that had come to her aid signaled her inside the lodge, where she was welcomed by the shadows of smiling people sitting around a fire, singing and shaking turtle-shell cymbals, and whom she recognized to be her ancestors. At the base of the central cedar post the sat a mitigwakik (drum). Near the drum were assembled a myriad of carefully selected and neatly displayed gifts, among which medicines, tobacco, pouches made of animal skins, and birch bark scrolls. Then, hoowah! to her surprise she saw sitting beside the mitigwakik a shiny miigis, which was a bigger copy of the tiny shells that had adorned the coat of the bear grandmother that she had encountered at the foot of the hill. It was the sacred sea shell she had heard about in the stories that the Elders of her village had told her, and she knew it to be the most secret symbol of her People as it symbolized the Gift of Life;¹ she had also heard stories of how a long time ago the forebears of the Anishinaabeg, traveling far in search of Waabanaki (the Land of Dawn), were led back home by a shining miigis in the sky.
Here, in the rectangular lodge on the miigis-shaped island, Little Eagle received daily counselling and training, which included learning about the properties of plants, and how to address a plant through song and prayer. She learned to read the pictorial writings etched on the birchbark scrolls, on slabs of copper and slate, and on animal hide – displaying the origin stories of her People - and to sing many sacred chants, solemn petitions that were carried by the sound of the mitigwakik (drum) and zhiishiigwanan (rattles) into the infinite space where the spirits heard them and delivered them to GICHI-MANIDOO in the upper world, and to Makadeshigan, the spirit of the Underworld. She learned the principle that all things have their origin in vision; everything, including healing, begins with a vision, with the sacred act of dreaming. But above all, she was taught that she must present herself to the plant, and to the world at large, with biinide'ewin and debwe'endamowin: a clean heart and with truth in mind.
Under the tutelage of gete-ayaa’ag, her ancestors, Little Eagle was now prepared to undergo a second dream - which included an education in the use of plants and berries for healing purposes. After having been immersed in a series of stories, teachings, and purification rites, during which she learned to withdraw into the very depths of her soul, as well as to sing many sacred chants and spiritually cleanse herself, Little Eagle once more petitioned Makwa Manidoo, the spirit of the bear. However, a Mishi-ginebi Manidoo (Malevolent Serpent Spirit) crawled outside the lodge, which was less friendly than the serpent she had met earlier on, in the underwater lake, as she was climbing the cedar tree into the direction of the light. The snake manidoo, hissing, tried to prevent her from dreaming into a next level, and she was advised to offer a feast during which prayers were said to the Makwa Manidoo Guardian, asking him to chase away the serpent …
The girl was seated before a mitigwakik (sacred drum) and while she sang the chants her ancestors in the spirit lodge had taught her, the snake finally yielded, reluctantly granting her a safe passage. Once she entered her next dream -- the third since she had be welcomed in the spirit lodge --, the girl was told to give another round of feasts and offer petitions to niiwing ondaanimad (the four directions) and to the aadizookaanag – the benevolent Grandfathers of the Spirit World. Yet, as she continued to learn how to be a healer, ni'aanh! alas! Little Eagle had still a great deal of difficulties to overcome! This time she encountered at the eastern entrance to the medicine lodge two malevolent Bizhiw Manidoog (Panther or Lynx Spirits); at the same time a great number of other maji-manidoog (evil spirits) roamed about the structure, making a last effort to prevent her to enter her fourth dream and reach a higher teaching level …
But this time she was aided by another horned serpent who seemed to be more friendly than the one who had attacked her before! The horned manidoo protected her against the evil spirits by arching its body so that she could pass beneath unarmed. With his help, and also since her own medicine had gotten strong enough to withstand the negative forces that tested her, the evil spirits yielded and dispersed into the dusk. Little Eagle, who in the meantime had actually taken on the form of a bear and become herself a Guardian Spirit Bear -- the upper portion of her face painted green and the lower part red -- started to chant a song of thanks for life and power:
Heya~wya~whe~ H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw! Heya~wya~whe~. H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw! H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw! H ͤya~whe~yawhe~yaw!
Niiwing ondaanimad Niiwing inaanimad. Bawaajigeyaan wanjimanidoowiyaan. Nigiiwitaakamigoweyaan.
(Yes-sey, yes-sey, yes, yes, yes! Yes-sey, yes-sey, yes, yes, yes! Yes-yes-yes! Yes-yes-yes! Yes-yes-yes! Yes-yes-yes!
From four directions blow the winds To four directions blow the winds. I derive mystery from dreaming Around the world shall I bear it.)
LITTLE EAGLE'S SECOND DREAM
~~ The Great Sky Turtle ~~
Little Eagle, who had grown into a young woman, was conducted out of the Medicine Lodge by the western exit, where she was approached by the old woman dressed in rags she had met earlier, on the blueberry bushes lined path that led to the foot of the hill, and who had initially shown herself in the form of a bear. The gichi-anishinaabekwe told the girl that she had successfully gone through four lodges (dream phases) and now possessed powers not before possessed and was now successfully initiated in, what she called, Ode’imaaizhitwaawin: “the Way of the Heartbeat.”
"You are now well-versed in the principle of mino-bimaadiziwi: 'how to follow the code for long life and wisdom,'" the bear spirit woman told Little Eagle, "and finally ready to enlarge, and put to good use, your inner curative powers that will be to the benefit of your People. Soon you will receive a new name that reflects your dream journey. Although you have spent four summers in the lodge on the miigis-shaped island, your journey has not come to an end! Now, I will bring you back to the place where the big cedar tree grows. Once there you will fast again.”
After she had finished her speech the woman shapeshifted into a bear again and told Little Eagle to climb on her back and hold on to the miigisag attached to her pelt while crossing the great water into eastern direction.
After four days and nights of swimming the bear and the young woman reached the point of land on which the Tree of Life stood – that living ladder that had transported Little Eagle from the underworld to the middle word. Here, the magic bear with the sky-blue coat told Little Eagle to dismount and seek solitude in order to find another life-guiding vision ...
Little Eagle climbed off the bear's back but when she wanted to say something to her, the bear was gone. But as she stood on top of a dune where she planned to have a vision, she noticed small footprints in the sand leading back to the beach. She realized with a shock that they were no bear's prints but the footprints of a gichi-anishinaabekwe! Then, thinking back of the encounter with the bear after landing on the miigis-shaped island, she smiled ...
After three sun-ups Little Eagle woke up from her vigil, and when she opened her eyes, hoowah! to her amazement she noticed the cedar tree that had transported her from the bowels of the earth to the surface of the lake had continued growing; the tree stuck right through the dune she sat on and its branches now reached all the way into the sky-world!
As if in trance, Little Eagle started climbing the tree and as soon she reached the highest tree branch a big thundering whisper resonated in the air:
Ishpiming inaabin Migiziwaazhiins!
“Look up into the Sky, Little Eagle!”
A mishiikenh (giant turtle) from ishpiming (the sky) was lowered to where Little Eagle sat on the tree branch looking up in wonderment. Before she knew it she was lifted upon the turtle spirit’s back! The giant turtle ascended high into the sky, and Little Eagle sang with a clear, vibrating voice a magic song that she had learned when still in the medicine lodge on the miigis-shaped island:
Ogidibiig babaamaashiyaan Babaa-waabandamaan Aki
Aki Manidoo ninga-wiijiiwaa
“Over the waters I fly about I search the World
With the Turtle I shall go
He searches for them, the Anishinaabe.
Over the waters I fly about
I search the World
With the Great Mystery I shall go
He heals them, the Anishinaabe.”
The cedar tree and the great lake beyond her disappeared from sight and the turtle flew with great speed through a big opening in the sky –- an open star cluster that, to her, resembled the seven grandfather stones of the madoodison (sweat lodge) from the underworld. Little Eagle sang another song:
Nindebaab aazhawi-anangoong, N’ga gikinoowezhigoog anangoog. Nindebidan aazhawi-anangoong, N’ga noondagoog anangoo, Gaagige n’ga debitaagooz.
"I can see beyond the stars The stars will guide me. I can hear beyond the stars, The stars will hear me, My voice will sound freely in space.”
The Great Sky Turtle guided Little Eagle beyond time and space, past the sun and the moon, and finally her spirit traveled a path that resembled Jiibay Ziibi, the River of Souls (Milky Way).
The Great Sky Turtle, after a climb that could have lasted a few seconds, or minutes, or perhaps even one moon -- for such is the immeasurable nature of non-linear time within dreams! ---, landed at the end of the starry river path in the dwelling place of Animikiig Binesiwag (the Thunderbirds). Behind it was a beautiful land of sloping hills and vast lakes bathing in a soft pink light! Here, a sky spirit who had the body of an awaasiinh (catfish) –- which was Little Eagle's clan animal -- covered with small thin scales that shone brightly like the morning star, welcomed Little Eagle and conducted her to the western end of an immense lake with the clearest and bluest water she had ever seen, and at its shore stood a sweat lodge made of earth and stardust. The catfish spirit with the shining body told her to undress and after having conducted the sweat ceremony and dressed in new clothes of the softest deer skin, her curly hair braided in long twin ropes that fell about her shoulders, Little Eagle was led to a waaginogaan (domed lodge) that looked as if it were covered by shakes of giizhik (cedar wood), draped with many rainbows, and studded with uncountable shining stars.
THE THIRD DREAM
~~ The Turtle Star Lodge~~
The strange awaasiinh manidoo signaled Little Eagle to enter the star lodge, and as she stepped inside she noticed right by the entrance a drum and set beside it was a shining miigis! The shell was an exact copy of the cowry shell that sat in the rectangular medicine lodge on the shell-shaped island on below earth! Then, as she looked farther inside the lodge, Little Eagle noticed a very old turtle spirit sitting in the back dressed in a beautiful crimson red blanket. When she looked closer she noticed that the front of the blanket -- which was tightly woven with the aid of fine strands of asemaa (tobacco), giizhik (cedar), mashkodewashk (sage), and wiingashk (sweetgrass) -- carried magic symbols of turquoise blue lakes and the moon and a big red star and a fire bright with flame. A sweet-scented, mystic mist the color of turquoise filled the lodge. The turtle grandmother spoke as follows:
"Aaniin, biindigen noozis. Nindizhinikaaz Makinaak-anang (Hello, come in my grandchild. I am called the Turtle Star. Mikinaak nindoodem, my clan is Snapping Turtle). It is the same as your mother's, who belongs to the People who live near the rapids down on below earth. I know who you are. You are Little Eagle and your father's doodem is maanameg, the catfish. Now, I will tell you who I am and where I come from. I was born of the fire of the sun and the foam of the waters of the lakes that flow beneath the sky-world as they color red at sundown; for when I was conceived the west wind blew, and the waves of gichigami, the great sea below, quickened into foam, and Giizis (the sun grandfather) and the moon and stars at night shone on the foam and warmed it, and the warmth made life, and that life is I."
After a thoughtful silence during which she appeared to be looking straight ahead into space, the turtle grandmother took a few draws of her stone pipe and continued, "Inaa! See! I carry with me healing, wisdom, and love. I will give it to you if you will grant my wish and take my wisdom and love back home to your People. The women of your People, who as you know are the keepers of Gichi-Nibi, the sacred Water Circle, will love and honor me well for these gifts of life and water for they will understand that I am their protector and their guiding star into old age. I am but an old spirit but nevertheless swift of mind, and I summoned you in your dream to be nimizhinawe (my messenger) and to make it known to you that from now on I shall abide with you and be your teacher and helper during the long quest that you are about to undertake in search of love and knowledge and the gift of youth. But before you return to the earth you must visit four more medicine lodges and have four more visions."
Next, the turtle spirit grandmother began to sound her dewe’igan (hand drum) and chant to the girl in a strange language that nevertheless, miraculously, sounded familiar in Little Eagle’s ears, and which in her language would translate as follows:
Ninagam endazhi endani-dabayaan Gaagige ninga dabitaagoz Bimose-makomiikanakwe gindizhinikaaz giin
Gizhawenimig giizhigaadizookanag Bimaadiziwinaatig giigaa bawaajige Midewaatig gimizhinawe-ik
Gimashki-akiimewaa mandidoowan Giigaa waaseyaa-aabindam nebaa'in Gigaa gawakoshe nebaa'i
Giigaa babaa-ayindaa Giigaa mino-bimaadiz E-naabindaman daa izhi-wabad, noozis.
"I sing before you Timeless is my voice Your name will be Walks the Bear Path Woman
The Sky Grandfathers are generous with you Through the Tree of Life will you dream Through the Ceremonial Tree will you speak
Your Medicines are potent Even in sleep will you see Even in sleep you will hear
You will live in different spheres You will live a long and prosperous life What you dream will be, my grandchild."
No sooner had the strange song echoed away than Little Eagle, whose name was now Walks-the Bear-Path, found herself standing outside the star waaginogaan. A waabanigig (white otter) whose snowlike pelt was covered with stardust, approached Walks-the Bear-Path from the east. Addressing Walks-the Bear-Path in the same foreign language the turtle grandmother in the star lodge had used, the otter explained to her that she was a ceremonial helper and would bring her to another place of visions where she was supposed to seek more dreams – this time not on an earthly level but, as she was now in the star world, on a sky level. After a few hours of walking through the beautiful sky land of sloping hills and meadows filled with brilliantly colored flowers and butterflies and buzzing insects, the gichitwaakwe (helper) led Walks-the Bear-Path into a very dense wood of cedars and spruces and pines. It was here, where the trees grew tallest and thickest, that Walks-the Bear-Path was prepared for her next fast. After she had placed an offering of asemaa (tobacco) the nigig gichitwaa addressed the presence of the spirits, asking them to be generous and grant the woman that had come from the earth another life-guiding vision. Before she left, the otter constructed from twigs of cedar a small lean-to with a bedding of pine needles and stardust. “I will come for you in four days,” she told Walks-the Bear-Path.
Then, even before Walks-the Bear-Path could blink twice, her guide disappeared and she found herself completely alone in this dark and hostile place that greatly contrasted with the colorful land of vast meadows and hills and lakes the sky turtle had taken her to. “Tayaa! she thought by herself, “I’m not certain what is expected of me but it sure looks like I’m being tested!”
THE FINAL VISION
~~ The Shaking Tent ~~
Hungry and tired of her past adventures and shivering in the dark mist that rose from the damp earth and moistened her clothes and pervaded her bones through and through, Walks-the Bear-Path fell asleep. A flutter of wings followed by an ominous oo'oo sound woke her up, sending chills down her spine; squinting, peering through the dark shadows and dim outlines of the surrounding tree spirits, she discerned to her south a branch of a nearby tree where sat an oo'oomisii nookomis (a grandmother in the shape of a horned owl) that looked at her with piercing yellow eyes. Walks-the Bear-Path, remembering the lessons she had received in the medicine lodge on the miigis-shaped island, realized that the owl was no threat to her. She entered a dream state that permitted her spirit to transport her to yet another world she had never seen, or dreamt of, before.
Once more, Walks-the Bear-Path was lifted up to an even higher plane, and as she ascended the dark forest beneath her disappeared quickly. Still dreaming but her spirit alive and vibrant, she suddenly found herself on a beach of multi-colored colored pebbles that shone like the stars that studded the night sky. Three figures, dressed in capes of simple fabrics, their faces hidden in pointed hoods, squatted near the water. One of them beat a hand drum and they were chanting. They looked into the direction of the lake, in which stood a small cylindrical lodge covered with a moose skin and with a small opening at the top, through which stuck a cedar tree. From the lodge sounded rattles and voices as if from animal and human lips yet in a tongue unknown to Walks-the Bear-Path. Then, a loud noise came from inside the lodge that reminded her of the flapping of the owl's wings that had woken her up during her fast . The noise and clamor increased into a climax and before the startled girl's eyes the lodge started to shake! Then, tayaa! a turtle came out of the opening at the top and just when Walks-the Bear-Path realized it was the same turtle spirit that had transported her to the sky world, a brilliant white light blinded her sight!
~~ The Medicine Lodges in the Sky ~~
When she opened her eyes it was daylight again. Walks-the Bear-Path looked around her wondering if she was still dreaming. The turtle and the lake with the shaking tent in it were nowhere to be seen ... instead, she found herself on top of a sloping hill covered with beautiful grass that glistened in the morning dew... Right in front of her, in a valley blooming with a sea of flowers, there was a camp consisting of four oval domed structures made of star material and erected in a single file. A sweat lodge stood nearby and a fire burned outside each of the four lodges. "Maybe the looks are deceiving and this place holds some dark secrets like the one I just came from?" Walks-the Bear-Path asked herself. But then, thinking back of the words the turtle star grandmother in the lodge made of stardust had spoken to her, she understood that the four lodges in the peaceful-looking valley meant she would be gifted with, and must undergo, four more dreams ...slowly, smiling, she started to walk toward the camp...
Like the rectangular medicine lodge Walks-the Bear-Path had been in while on the miigis-shaped island on earth, these lodges in the upper sky realm that she now walked in were open and oriented east to west, with a passage at each end. A multitude of spirit helpers, among whom she recognized some of her ancestors, and a myriad of animal spirits such as the otter and the bear as well as the turtle, the owl, the frog, the rattlesnake, the water snake, and the mermaid and merman, awaited her near the entrance and exit of each lodge, and at the cardinal points. Here, in these lodges erected in a land high above the sun, the moon and the stars, Walks-the Bear-Path had another series of dreams, which lasted four days; but since she was in the sky world, this time period was equivalent to four years on earth …
After she had walked the bear path four times and was finally conducted out of the last of the four celestial Medicine Lodges by the western exit, Walks-the Bear-Path was met by the same white otter spirit that had taken her to the dark forest on the lower plane to seek a vision. The helper put in front of Walks-the Bear-Path a bowl of seven fresh ode'iminan, or heart berries (strawberries) and, before Walks-the Bear-Path was allowed to eat the berries, she explained to her the symbolical meaning of this gift.
“Now you have dreamt into the eight and last level of your spiritual journey and concluded your education on two levels, that of earth and of sky, it is time to return to earth. But first I will tell you a story, which you must pass on to your People once you return …
~~ The Heart-shaped Berry ~~
“A long time ago disaster fell upon Turtle Island,” the sky otter explained, “and the bears and the birds and the trees perished. As a result a terrible plague struck your ancestors and many crossed over to the spirit world. A 15-year old boy named Ode'imin was one of many who died, and as he entered the Land of Souls he pleaded with GICHI-MANIDOO to save his People from this destructive epidemic. GICHI-MANIDOO was so impressed by the admirable altruism of the young fellow that he brought him back to life and sent him back to earth on a mission of revival and hope.
Under the skillful tutelage of his supernatural teacher Wiinabozho, who taught him to study the nature of plants from the conduct of animals, Ode'imin hereupon brought his People new ways of Healing. He also introduced to them seven Teachings, called Grandfathers, along with the noble principle of mino-bimaadiziwin. This Good Code for Long Life and Upright Living led to the physical and moral healing of all Turtle Island Peoples. Ode'imin explained to the ancestors that a healer could only reach the highest possible order of healing powers through a high ethical standard, and not by knowledge alone. What counted were not only knowledge of plant and self, but also the ability to bring together the healing capacities of both plant and self. Only a herbalist gifted with and keeping up a high standard of inner power could expect the plant being to reveal its own healing power; only then the plant would allow the herbalist to confer their inner curative power upon the plant itself. And into this day, each spring and each summer Ode'imin is remembered and celebrated by the Turtle Island Peoples, for the blossom of the strawberry symbolizes Ode'imin's first life and the berry itself his second.”²
After a brief pause the sky otter resumed by explaining that each of the seven heart berries in the bowl represented a Teaching that GICHI-MANIDOO had given to the Anishinaabeg when they still lived in the Dawn Land on the borders of the Great Salt Sea. “But now, since your People have forgotten about the Grandfather Teachings and no one remembers the story of the Heart-shaped Berry any more, and, as a result, sickness and famine have struck your villages and affected the rabbits, the bees, and the bears, the Great Mystery has chosen you to reintroduce the good healing ways of your ancestors and at the same time remind your People of their straying off the true path. It is time they understand that they must stop being indifferent to the needs of their elder brothers the animals but instead must look to them for knowledge and guidance and emulate their character, as each of them, from the tiny crawlers to the mighty winged ones, symbolizes an ideal and represents wisdom to be sought, attained, and perpetuated. Ahaw! So now, find back the cedar tree that transported you into the sky world. You must return to the Turtle Island country beneath the stars and the clouds, noozis, and tell your People the story of the Heart-shaped Berry! It is time you return home and, as if you were the reverberating sound of the rattle used in the ceremonies of the medicine lodges up here in the sky -- recalling ancient times of wholeness and dispelling evil spirits --, you must use your healing powers to help your People return to the source of life’s existence on earth, to a beginning without sickness, grief, and premature death, but instead, generating wellness, happiness, and long life.”
~~ The Owl Grandmother ~~
Walks-the Bear-Path, after emptying the plate of heart berries that the sky otter had put in front of her, bade him giga-waabamin (farewell) and, with the aid of the great sky turtle that had flew her to the land beyond the stars, she dreamt herself back to the giant cedar tree, whose top still stuck through the clouds. As she approached the tree top her eyes got enchanted by brightly colored shafts of light surrounding the tree which, to her, looked as if they were spikes holding up the sky vault. There, sitting on a branch bathing in the brilliant light sat a bird, which she recognized to be the same oo'oomisii nookomis (horned owl grandmother) that had guided her into the vision she had had in the upper sky world, and which she knew not only to embody a passage to the spirit world (afterlife) but also to herald the advent of new life (birth). The owl grandmother looked at her, and her brown eyes, which suddenly started to shine like yellow glass, looked straight through the young woman. After Walks-the Bear-Path offered her a pluck of asemaa that she carried in a small pouch around her neck, the grandmother started to speak:
“Listen carefully to my voice, noozis, for it is prophetic as it guides the four winds and the four seasons of the year. I have followed you in all of your visions and dreams, and my soundless wings casted their protective shadow over you while you visited the four medicine lodges on the earth and the four medicine lodges in the sky. During your dream journeys I have looked into your heart and I know you are bound to do good things on earth. Now you reached the top of the great cedar tree twice, once from the bottom up and once from the sky down, it is time you make a choice. Either you stay in the sky realm where you will live on as a spirit, or you return to the earth as a Medicine Woman and restore the long-lost Gift of Healing and Long Life to your People. What is it that you choose to do?”
Before Walks-the Bear-Path, the decision already formed in her heart, could answer, she was transported back to Turtle Island, and she woke up on top of the bluff overlooking the Great Sea River where she had started her vigil. As soon as the sun rose the girl called Little Eagle, who had grown into a woman by the name Walks-the-Bear-Path, the only visible witness of her dream journeys being her bear robe covered with miigis shells and her facial paint the colors of red and green, walked to her village. Here, with the help of her happy mother and father who had given up hope they would see her again, she gave a feast. After the feast she summoned her People to a gathering.
~~ Walks-the Bear-Path's Message ~~
There, in her beautiful birthland of rapids and waterfalls, Walks-the Bear-Path spoke about her dream adventures during which she had received her new name and she relayed to them the message the Otter Spirit from the Sky World had conveyed to her before she descended back to the earth. She related to her People the story of Ode'imin, the Heart-shaped Berry. She also spoke of how she found back the miigis shell on the island in the big sea and in the lodges that she had visited during her dream journeys, and she told her People that the shell is a reminder that long life is not to be sought for its own sake, but is a gift that the People must reclaim after they had forsaken the Original Instructions of GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery.
Next, she taught her audience the meaning of the sweat lodge ceremony and how to build the medicine lodges, the way Wiinabozho had taught their remote ancestors when they still lived in the Dawn Land, and she instructed them in the ancient healing methods that her people had long forgotten about.
When she had finished delivering the instructions, Walks-the-Bear-Path spoke about makwa the bear. Biboon (winter) is the birth time of new life, she told them, and during makwa’s hibernation bear puts many dreams together to create good medicine. Biboon is a time of conserving health for the bear, a time for reflection, she explained... it is a time that allows bears and humans alike to renew, to undergo change, to honor their place in life and food cycles. It is time, she told the people that had gathered that day, that humans learn to “walk the bear path” again…
“This means that each and every one of you, nindinawendaaganidog, my relatives,” she told those who had assembled that day, “have your own Bear Path to follow. It is a journey-through-life that we all must follow, from our prenatal state in the East to old age and death/passing on in the West. By living through all the stages and living out the visions, we gradually, eventually, gain wisdom which we must pass on to those still to walk the path of life.”
Walks-the-Bear-Path explained to her People that, although she had followed the bear path on a supernatural level – in the spiritual domains of the underworlds, the middle world, and the sky –, they must strive to translate her bear path vision into their daily lives. Both bear and humans must walk the bear path, she told them. Haw sa, her 8-year lasting dream was merely a reflection of a spiritual journey that they all must follow, and must be lived out daily, on an earthly level – both in the sanctity of their Lodges and in their individual, daily routines. “Each of you, as you walk the path of life on earth,” she explained, “must live through the same phases that I lived through in my dream. Each of you, in order to develop individuality and self-growth, must -- individually as well as collectively -- honor in prayer and song and emulate in behavior and conduct the bears that live out there in the woods and that follow their yearly pattern of hibernation, isolation, and emerging with new life as soon as the winter ends.”
She-Who-Walks-the Bear-Path finished by saying:
“The bear is a spiritual teacher who teaches us the principle that all things have their origin in vision; everything begins with a vision, with the sacred act of dreaming. A good health and success in life and the ability to help others, and the honoring on a daily basis the principle of mino-bimaadiziwin – which leads to living a good, wholesome, and balanced life -- are only achievable with the help of visions and dreams and the help and the cooperation and the blessings of the spirits of the plants, the animals, and everything else that is part of the natural world. But it is first and foremost makwa, our grandfather bear, who guides us and shows us the way into the dream world. Makwa, the sacred spirit from the north, teaches us to regularly retreat in vigil and in prayer and to ask ourselves if we are still on the true path; it is makwa who reminds us to renew ourselves again and again so that we can face life and conduct ourselves in all that we do with biinide'ewin and debwe'endamowin: a clean heart and with truth in mind.”
Thus, She-Who-Walks-the-Bear-Path became the first Midewekwe (Medicine Woman who receives healing power from the spirits) of her tribe; now, many generations later, she is still remembered by our Peoples as the gifted girl who, like the bears, carried the Gift of Life and who brought back the blueberry and rose bushes to our beloved turtle island home. Her most important feat had been that she, under the spiritual guidance of Makwa Manidoo -- the bear spirit – and the expert tutelage of the gete-ayaa’ag (her ancestors), had travelled in a dream-filled way into places no one before had ever dared to venture and, finally, found back and restored the gift of health and long life that had been lost!
Not only did Walks-the-Bear-Path show her tribe how to procure medicine from plants and berries and how to use it in order to cure the sick; she also introduced ethics in the healing methods of her People. Thus, the ancient, but forgotten concept of mino-bimaadiziwin –- “how to live a good life,” was re-introduced, which is basically a moral code of upright moral behavior and simply being a good human being. She reminded her People never again to ignore the instructions GICHI-MANIDOO had given their ancestors - or else, she warned, the fragile balance in nature would surely become disturbed again!
Also, as she was true to her artistic nature, She-Who-Walks-the-Bear-Path, after she had returned to her village near the rapids and falls of Gichigami-zibii, went to remote locations near the water where she conceptualized in red ochre the dreams she had had. And even now, many centuries later, the spiritual lessons that she painted in the bedrock and on rock cliff walls lining the lakes and rivers of her birthplace, are still there, only accessible to those who are properly initiated and trained in the old teachings …and to this day,offerings like asemaa (tobacco), clothing, and bundles of colored sticks can be found near Walks-the-Bear-Path’s spirit writings in rock, left there by healers seeking insight and medicine ...
Ahaaw, thanks to Walks-the Bear-Path, whenever they established their villages and homes, the Anishinaabeg started to commemorate annually in ritual the gift of life and knowledge, and to celebrate the gift of medicine that she had brought with her from the womb of the earth, from the depths of the lake, from the miigis-shaped island, and from the heights of the stars. Since Walks-the-Bear-Path returned from the Sky World to teach among her People, the initiation rituals, puberty rites, and ceremonies of the Medicine Lodges still follow the cyclic pattern of the bear and, each year when the spirit of spring arrives in the land, the bear's power of renewal is still invoked ritually by our medicine persons.
Haw sa, to this day we, as Anishinaabeg, remember Bimose-makomiikanakwe, She-Who-Walks-the-Bear-Path, as the brave Ojibwe girl who followed the bear path in order to become the Spiritual Teacher of her tribe. And Walks-the-Bear-Path’s vision that saved from extinction the blueberries, the roses, the bees, the bears, and many other relatives -- including her own tribe, the Anishinaabeg –, will surely shine in our medicine lodges, our traditional stories, and our hearts and minds as long as the sun rises in the east and there are stars in the night sky ...
THE STORY OF THE NECKLACE The above necklace, which I created some decades ago and is now in the possession of a gifted, curly-haired Native girl who lives in the Netherlands, symbolizes the dream journeys of Bimose-makomiikanakwe (She-Who-Walks-the-Bear-Path). The amber beads the color of honey -- a reference to the bears -- represent the journey through Bimose-makomiikanakwe's dream stages, which we call "Bear Path" in the above story.
The pendant made of sterling silver and 14K gold represents the medicine lodge that plays a central role in Walk-the-Bear-Path's dreams. The shiny white gloss of the silver rim stands for the miigis, the sea shell that is central to our healing ceremonies and our sacred stories. The recessed, oxidized (darkened) area of the pendant holding two stone "bear fetishes," a yellow gold bear paw set with a red coral cabochon, and an ovally cut red coral cabochon set in red gold, refer to the sweat lodge ceremony of our Peoples. Out of the dark womb of the earth (represented by the sweat lodge) emerge the two bears, which I cut by hand out of nuggets of natural turquoise the color of a blue sky. These two "contrary bears" symbolize the bears in the story, which guard respectively the east and west entrances of the sky and earth Medicine Lodges in which Walk-the-Bear-Path receives her training. The red coral stone set in gold refers to the forgotten gift of Long Life and Healing of the heart-shaped berry that Walk-the-Bear-Path has re-introduced to our Peoples. Lastly, the polished green turquoise fastened at the back of the pendant, its shape resembling that of a crouching bear and its color symbolizing the earth, serves to keep the pendant from tilting forward when the necklace is worn. Giiwenh. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw aadisookaan. Bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga!
So the story goes. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to share with you this sacred story. Please come see me again!
1 The acknowledged Elders know that miigisag, which are native to salt water of the oceans, live deep within the earth; also, to them, as these shells are covered with a deep coating of enamel on the outer surface which gives them a brilliantly polished appearance, the shells are symbolic of early human characteristics. The idea behind this is that the Anishinaabeg were believed by some to have originated from the sea (the Atlantic Ocean) where they were still covered with scales; when they started to shed those scales, Anishinaabeg lost the power and protection that the scales originally provided…
2 Source: Przybilla and Councillor, Ojibwe Tales, 21-2.