A Story of when the Animals Saved the Earth
I am never sure how to feel about the mass pollution of Nuclear Waste in my homelands. My first reaction is of great sadness and then immediately right after I get right pissed off and want to fight industry like bloody hell. This is not getting me anywhere, and never has, and I find myself feeling frustrated everytime I think about it.
I need to go back to the stories and teachings of my childhood as they somehow restore balance in my life. They bring me comfort; like hitting a reset button that automatically shoots something beautiful into my heart during a time of tragedy.
As a story teller, these teachings help me probably alot more than they do the listener. On Nov 27, 2015 at the Native Canadian Friendship Center in Sudbury, Ontario, I told this story of how the animals saved the earth which was recorded and later transcribed and edited for this post. I want to thank and ackowledge the Late Ojibway Elder Frank Settee for passing this story on to me during a spring ceremony. The transcript is as follows:
The Northern Ojibway like to record what has happened in the past. This oral history has been preserved by the Elders, one story at a time, often taking the listener deep into the ancient memory of the land to collect Great Medicine to use in the future. The Elders of the present day, say that right now we are in a sacred story, and that future generations will be sitting around a fire telling our current story of how the ‘Two Legged’ lost their way and tried desperately to destroy the Earth. The old people state that we are in desperate times and that we are the Authors of this Story, and that everything we do right now will be the next chapter.
The land has something to give us. It has a voice and we hear it every time the wind blows. We hear that voice when we hear that water splashing against beautiful rocks along a shoreline. It’s telling us something. The voice of the land is great medicine for us. And it’s everywhere; it surrounds us. Our people are great philosophers. They understand and hear the great voice that comes from the land. That voice is still out there. It will still tell us the stories of what happened if we take the time to listen. We need to get back on the land.
The old stories contain the natural laws by which we human beings need to remember and follow in order to keep everything in balance. ‘Balance’ is one of the cornerstones within all Indigenous philosophies. We know, as our Elders still remind us, that there is a great responsibility of balance each generation has to maintain, or severe consequences to all of life on the planet will be compromised. Here is a story that gives us a message of respect and balance.
Years ago, the Anishinaabe migrated from east to west, from wabanong (east), all the way to where we are now. We were following a very sacred path called Wabano Miikaan. It’s the path the sun follows, going from east to west. We were instructed many times, by many different beings to remain on that path.
Before the great ojibway migration something happened that changed everything. Something happened so profound that it almost wiped out the two-legged off the face of the earth.
In Ojibway beliefs, we have our wiigwaam doors facing east, and there is a good reason for that. It’s because the sun rises in the east and when it rises, the light comes into our lodges, giving us life. We believe our children need that light to live and thrive. Wabano Miikaan is that sacred path from east to west that the medicine people still speak about. Animals follow this path, and we were instructed to follow the animal trails so we could remain on this path.
Well, a long time ago the Anishinaabe stopped following this sacred path and got greedy. The Anishinaabe wanted to have their lodge another way. They started to believe that the great medicine that bursts from animal footprints wasn’t good enough. They wanted to make their own trails. And so that is what they did. They made their own trails.
They started living life, not like a four-legged, but like a two-legged.
Everything went wrong at this point.
Not only did they become very greedy, but they began to disrespect everything. They would just walk along and bust branches when they were walking. When they saw flowers they would just step on them for no reason. When they ate, they wasted everything. Fat was just thrown about like it was nothing. They would let fish rot and the animals became very scared of them. The two-legged also became very mean with each other. They started to talk about each other and become a very war-like people, and the animals couldn’t stop them.
But, there was somebody watching all that was happening. Something that was bigger than the two legged. They were being watched from giizhik, the sky. A spirit was up there, looking down at the two-legged and seeing how they were acting, and how they had forgotten to follow the path the four-legged had showed them.
This spirit’s name that was watching is Biboon’nini. He is the old man that lives way up in the universe, in the north. Biboon’nini saw what was happening and he thought to himself, ‘I’m going to destroy the two-legged for how they are acting.’ So he decided to blow down onto earth his sacred breath and everything started to freeze. His breath was ice cold.
But, there was a medicine here on earth that was stronger than his breath, and it was carried by the birds. When the birds sang their sacred songs, it pushed his cold breath back into his mouth. There is so much medicine in the bird’s songs and it pushed back Biboon’nini’s breath with great force. The old man knew that his power wasn’t as strong as those sacred songs the birds were singing.
So he thought of an idea.
He thought to himself, ‘I’m going to go down to earth and I’m going to collect all those birds and I’m going to tie them up in a great big bag and store them in my wigwam. I’ll take them up to my wigwam in the stars. And then I’ll blow my breath again.’ So, that is what he did. He collected all the birds with his helpers and blew his ice cold breath.
The earth became so lonely because the birds songs were gone. And let me tell you, the earth froze quick. That old man blew his sacred breath so hard that everything started to freeze and perish in an instant.
The Anishinabek were already very weak because they had lost their way. They didn’t know what to do and began to be more greedy, hording their food and being stingy. Everything living on Mother Earth was struggling for life. Even the lakes had froze right to the bottom. The animals started to gather and have meetings. They started to pray and sing and ask for guidance and help. They were the ones that were putting their tobacco down when we couldn’t. And with their petition came great medicine.
At one of these meetings, it was decided that maybe nothing could be done. The animals all gave up except for one little animal, the Odjig, the Fisher. That little animal said “No, there is a way. We have to try to figure this out. We cannot give up.” Fisher put his tobacco down first and then spoke, “my little son at home told me that there is a way. My child told me that his blanket that he wrappes around him is not working but still that he gets his strength and his warmth from the heartbeat of the land, and there is a way.”
Well of course when it was explained like that, they all knew that the message the little fisher gave was very pure it held hope. They knew that they had to come up with a way to stop that old man from blowing his breath down on earth.
And what it was agreed upon was, they were going to climb a high mountain. Once they were up on the mountain they would jump up from star to star and they would go into that old man’s wiigwam, get those birds, sneak them out and bring them back to earth so that their voice, their medicine would save all life.To save the people – both the four-legged, and the two-legged. They knew they had to go up there and try to negotiate with the old man. That was the plan and it was a good plan. Little did they know the old man was not interested.
Every good plan starts with a sound. It starts from the black. Once the sound is made, it travels and it seeks the medicine that you are looking for. We know this because our rattles tell us this. The animals know this and live by it.
So that is what they did. They sang their songs in order to find the courage and strength that they would need to go on their warrior’s quest to save the world.
Everything was frozen solid.
The old man never pitied the two-legged. He just kept blowing and blowing and blowing.
Four animals decided to go. The first animal that wanted to go was the Gaak, the Porcupine. A very unlikely hero when you think about it. The porcupine has a strong back. And Porcupine has a strong heart.
The second animal that wanted to go was the Nigig, the Otter, and is very fierce. He is a warrior and their medicine is strong. There are not too many things that can beat up an otter.
The other animal that chose to go was the Bizhew, the Lynx. “I can do this,” he said “I have strong legs, I can jump high, and I’m quick.”
And of course the fourth animal was Odjig, the Fisher.
Those were the four that were chosen by the great mystery of this land to go up there to save the earth.
They climbed the highest mountain they could find and they felt strong. They knew everything was done correctly before hand. The tobacco was put down. The songs had been sung. The vision of that young person and heartbeat he talked about was in carried in their bundles.
They made a plan. They said, “We’ll grab Porcupine by his arms and legs and we’ll swing and throw him up to the stars because he’s not a good jumper.”
So they did that. They threw him up hard. But when he went spiraling up there, he hit something. It was something that they couldn’t see.
There is a great power we can’t see called giizhikdong, but it is there and coveres the earth. They couldn’t go through it. Porcupine just bounced right off of it and came shooting back down to earth onto the mountain. When he landed, he landed on his back feet, and busted them and went rolling down the mountain.
That is why porcupines are like that today. They wobble. When you see them its like their back feet are busted, they are off to the side and are swollen. This is to remind us of that time when the two legged became very greedy and wanted to rule the earth.
The next one that wanted to do the jump was Otter, Nigig. Nigig took that big leap and hard. And when Nigig jumped up, he too hit that power and came smashing down to earth. And when Nigig hit the earth, he landed on the side of the mountain and it slid all the way down on his stomach. That is why otters slide around like that today. It’s to remind us two-legged of what happened when we didn’t listen to our mother, the earth.
The next animal was Bizhew, the lynx. Bizhew is strong and quick. And he’s smart. He is a warrior. He thought, ‘we have to do this. We have to get through. If we don’t get through everything will perish.’ So Bizhew jumped. Hard. And when Bizhew hit Giizhik, he too came smashing back down to earth. He hit it harder than the other two because he was desperate. He was desperate for all the life to live that was on earth. He was desperate to keep the heartbeat alive that we all carry.
When Bizhew landed on that mountain, he landed on a sharp rock and he busted his tail off. That is why Bizhew today has a short tail and why he looks like his face is smashed in. It’s to remind us of what happened when the two-legged decided to follow their own path and disrespect everything.
The only one that was left up there all alone was Fisher, Odjig. He felt lonely and he felt defeated because his friends were gone. He felt like maybe he didn’t have the strength to do bust through because those other three were very strong warriors and didnt make it. All he thought about was his son. And when he thought about his son, he thought about the faith and hope his son carried. So he dug in the ice and snow and found six red bear berries. He laid them down as an offering to the great spirit of this land and when he looked up, he saw something! He saw something that gave him all the hope in the world. He saw a crack in giizhikdong where the other animals hit! He knew that if he kept trying that he could bust his way through and he knew in that moment that he had to.
So he jumped. And he jumped again. And again. Again. He didn’t stop jumping until he finally busted through.
When he got through, he was in the star world and he looked to where that old man lived. Another challenge faced him. There was a great big crane guarding the doorway of the old man’s wiigwaam. A crane has a voice that can be heard for miles, and they are loud!
If you have ever heard the shrilling voice of a crane there is a very good chance you will turn around and go the other way!
So Fisher knew he had a big challenge in front of him.
So again he put down his tobacco. What he thought was, ‘I need to go back down to where the trees are. I need to collect some spruce gum, gowaandak-bigew. And I need to grab spruce gum and sneak back up to where the crane is and shove it in his mouth…when I shove that spruce gum in his mouth maybe he won’t be able to make that loud noise if I jam it in there far enough.’
That was his plan. And that was a good plan.
So that is what he did. He crawled down to earth and he started to collect spruce gum. “Oh please! I need you!” He said to the tree. “I need to take some, I need to do this. I need your help. Please! I just need a little bit.” And he collected the spruce gum till he had a nice good handful of it and then went back up through that hole in the sky.
Once up there, he started to sneak from star to star to star. Finally, he was getting close to where the crane was. Everything had led up to this very moment. He knew, ‘this is it!.’
So he put down his tobacco on a star and he charged for the wiigwam. Crane saw him. And as soon as Crane saw him he opened up his great big mouth and just as he did fisher shoved the spruce gum down his throat. But, just before it got all the way back of the cranes throat, Crane made a little gawking noise, “ga!” But that little sound was enough for the old man to start running for his arrows in his wigwam.
The old man’s arrows are not like regular arrows. They are magic arrows.
They could go to the end of the earth to find their mark, no problem.
Fisher decided to charged into that wiigwaam, and grabbed the birds and sped out. Quickly, he started running with the birds back to where that hole in giizhikdong was. He hadn’t run very far when he heard it.
It was the snapping of a bowstring.
He knew the arrow was coming behind him and all he could think about was getting those birds down through that hole.
Now, the size of the hole and the size of the bag of birds was the same. He knew if he was going to get those birds down that hole, he wouldn’t be able to go down the hole himself. This uncertainty made him run harder and faster.
When Fisher got to the hole, he grabbed the bag of birds and put it down into the hole as he just kept traveling over it. He didn’t have time to jump down. He kept running, and shortly after is when he got shot with the arrow.
He laid there with the arrow stuck in him and cried with great joy because he did it! He knew that the birds and the sacred songs that they carried was going to bring great medicine across the land. He knew there was still hope! He understood then, that was part of his journey was to die for the people. And that is exactly what he did.
Of course the old man was happy he killed Fisher because he was his greatest obsticle in trying to destroy the greediness on earth. And the old man knew that all he had to do was just go back down to earth to gather those birds back up in a bag and put them back in his wiigwaam and blow his sacred breath. There were not going to be anymore heros to face.
But when Fisher was dying up there, something did happen. When he gave his last breath, “haaaaaaaaah”, that the sound of his breath travelled seeking medicine. Just like our prayers long after we’re gone. His sacred breath carried a request that traveled exactly to where it needed to go.
There were six spirits that received his sacred petition, that was offered through his last breath. Those spirits had also seen everything. At first, they didn’t intervene with what the old man was trying to do. Why would they? The two legged really destroyed everything. But after seeing the strong courage of Odjig, they pitied the four legged. The six spirits came traveling to where that old man’s wiigwaam was. They sat with him, each one of them carrying a red bear berry in their hand, and started to talk with him. Remember Fisher wanted to do that? He wanted to negotiate and talk with the old man.
His breath, his very last breath had really meant something.
Those six spirits that visited the old man in his lodge told him, “We respect what you’re trying to do. We respect that you are trying to cleanse the earth of the two-legged for what they have done, but the animals are innocent. What we have seen is hope. What we’ve seen great medicine being cast around the earth by the birds. And it means something.
What we would like to see is for you blow your breath for half the year, because we believe what you are doing is true. But we also want to let birds sing their sacred songs for half the year as well. Because we believe in what they do too.”
Of course at that very instant, that is what became winter and summer as we know it. In the springtime, when mother earth’s water breaks, those birds sound their sacred songs to the world and bring medicine to everything. The same way when our mothers water broke and we come out and took our first breath, and sounded our scared voice to the world.
You’ll also notice a set of stars in the springtime. Those six spirits up there also said, “to commemorate what Fisher did, to commemorate his heart, we are going to turn Fishers body into stars. So they turned Fisher into the Big Dipper.
In the spring time you’ll see the Big Dipper upright, this represents life. When its upright, the water breaks. Water comes through the ‘sacred hoop,’ Bgonegiizhik – the hole in giizhikdong that the four legged made so that life here could flourish. That sacred water comes and gives us life and the sound of life is then cast out into the world through our little ones.
Then in the fall, the Big Dipper goes upside down and blood will run from fishers tail where it got shot from that arrow. The blood paints all of our trees red. shortly afterwards the old man will blow his breath as a reminder of how we are too act in this world. Both in the spring and fall, the Big Dipper is to remind us of what happened when the two-legged lost their way.
When I think about this story, I think about now and truly believe that in the future, they are going to be talking about what is happening right now. And maybe us, the two-legged have to be the ones to make that jump and reach for the stars. Maybe it’s the two legged that have to take that leap of faith. As Two legged, we have to find that trail again. We have to find that sacred path that goes from east to west. We have to find the great medicine that is bursting out of the foot prints of the four legged. A lot of people will say what does that mean? To me it means getting back to the land. It means learning our language. It means getting back to the land and building those wiigwaams. It means respecting our woman. The story now needs this that more than ever. Our story now is depending on us to take a jump. And so I encourage you to take that leap. I encourage you to take that jump because we are in the story now. I will jump with you.
Maybe the work that we do now trying to help the environment doesn’t seem like it means anything. Maybe what we do now seems like we are not accomplishing anything. But I’ll guarantee you, if it wasn’t for the strong back of Porcupine, if it wasn’t for the strong legs of Bizhew the Lynx, and strong heart of Nigig the Otter, Fisher never would have made it through. Everything that we do now is going to matter in the future. Because of the great medicine that gets casted out through the songs of our babies first cry to the world, nothing is impossible.
Note: This story was told to a classroom of young people who then decided to turn it in a mural project. Artist Christi Belcourt accepted the oppertunity to paint four panels, showcasing the story. Jodie Williams championed the project. The picture shown here is one of the panels.
Permissions granted by: Isaac Murdoch