Anishinaabe Stories

Anishinaabe author Josie Cormier relates more of her grandmother's stories, this time about the Wendigo and Nanaboozhoo the Trickster

Growing up in Nipigon, Northern Ontario, all my life it has never ceased to amaze me. Whether it is the trees dressed in the brightest green as they dance and sway in the arms of the wind, or the view of the lake as it melts with the sky just as it did so many years ago. Every view, tree, or rock you see along your travels has its own story. In Anishinaabe culture we tell stories to learn about the land and to create our own connection to it. These stories have taught me just how alive this earth truly is, and how many secrets it hides within. In my case the stories I’ve heard come right from my own family, and today I would like to share two of my favourites with you.

Each of them has their own way they connect me with the land. One of them has always made me keep a careful eye on my surroundings, the other amazes me with the magic this land can produce. Either way, maybe after you read them it will make you too keep your eyes peeled to every rock formation, tree leaf, or trail that comes upon you in your stay on this part of Turtle Island. After all, you never know what legend or spirit lives beneath your feet…

My Great Great Mishoomis and the Wendigo

Every year when the seasons change from the warm breeze of summer to the cold chill of fall my grandmother tells me a story about her Mishoomis (grandfather), my Great Great Mishoomis, and the encounter he had with a creature of the Northern woods. When my grandmother tells this story, I can almost hear her Mishoomis coming through in her voice as she retells the details of the encounter that haunted him for the rest of his life.

My grandmother’s family used to live on a reserve near highway 585, now known to the locals as Cameron Falls Road. The reserve’s name is Parmechene and it had the Nipigon River flowing right in front of it. It was, and still is, wide and strong and it stretches all the way from Lake Nipigon to Lake Superior. By canoe in the summer and dog sled in the winter, this is how she and her family (and the other families) made their way around. She says her Mishoomis went out one day and didn’t come back until nightfall. When he did arrive back home he was as pale as a winter’s morning and his eyes were wide and unblinking. As my grandmother looked at him she thought, what could have happened that scared him so much? And that is when he gathered her and my great Aunts and Uncles all around and told his story…

The sky above him had frozen into twilight leaving him swallowed whole by the early night of the Northern winter. The frigid air had felt like it stopped everything from moving, held in its place by the jaws of frost. The only sounds he heard around him were the ragged breaths from his dogs pulling him atop the frozen river and the skis of his sled dragging on the snow. There were bright stars in the sky that were guiding him back to his home. But in an instant dark clouds started to crawl their way over the trees, eating the light of the stars one by one. My great great Mishoomis had noticed there was no light now, and the temperature dropped ever so slightly, so that his lips and cheeks went numb with the cold. That’s when… he heard it. Cracks of branches in the bush just behind him. The rustling of bare branches that sounded like bones, and then… he saw the flames. The creature was like a walking forest fire with a giant pitchfork in its hand. It was coming closer and closer to my Great Great Mishoomis.

“Wendigo!” he yelled into the night. “Wendigo! Wendigo!” But nobody could hear him.

Luckily, he and his brave dogs ran with all their might all the way back home physically unscathed. But mentally the memory was like a ghost following him at his back. All my life this story has made me wonder about what hides behind the branches of the jagged trees that stand along the highway. Is this creature still out there lurking within the dense bush of the Boreal Forest? I hope that from this story when you get the feeling something is watching you, you are more mindful of the array of trees so perfectly disguising this creature for many moons. I know I do…

Nanaboozhoo the Trickster

Have you ever looked down at the rock formations that live beneath the soil and the rocks that you stand on when you’re on a lookout or walking a trail and thought, I wonder what these little plants are that grow on top? Or have you ever looked at a weeping willow and thought, why are they red while the others are not? Well I will tell you that very reason right now, and it all starts with a trickster spirit named Nanaboozhoo.

Growing up I heard a lot of tales about the trickster spirit of Nanaboozhoo. I always used to think he and my little brother would have gotten along if they ever met as the spirit of the trickster and the teaser runs through his veins just as much as the legend himself. Though this story I want to tell you is not about my little brother. It actually starts off with my grandmother as a small child, playing with her siblings and teasing them in a place she should not be.

On a warm summer day long ago, my grandmother was picking blueberries with her siblings and her grandmother (my great great grandmother). As she was laying in the bushes, boredom slowly started to sink into her skin like the golden sun above her head. So she went to go see what her siblings were doing. When she got there she found them relaxing atop a grassy hill. Some were picking blueberries, some were eating them, and being the youngest she decided it would be fun to tease them a little bit.

As she started to have her fun, her siblings joined in. Their laughter rang through the bright green tree canopies that surrounded them. But very soon after they started their fun they heard the soft but determined shuffle of their grandmother making their way towards them through the grass. “Nanaboozhoons! (Little Nanaboozhoos)” she was calling them as she sat them all down with a scold. "But why?" my grandmother thought, as she was yelling at them for playing on top of that hill. "Why can’t we play here?" My great great grandmother looked at her grandchildren, and as the warm breeze of summer swept between them she sat in front of her Nanaboozhoons and told them why.

Many many moons ago, when there were no cars or highways, the trickster spirit of Nanaboozhoo wandered around the forest playing his tricks on the Anishinaabe villages that lived among the boreal forest. One day as he was doing his wandering while whistling with the birds perched on the trees, he came across some Anishinaabes playing on top of a grassy hill. As soon as he saw them he thought, ah perfect, time to play more tricks! So he did just that. He started tricking them, teasing them, snickering in their ears, and howling laughter into the sky like a wolf on a full moon. But the Anishinaabes started to get mad at Nanaboozhoo. Mad at all of his tricking and his teasing, so when Nanaboozhoo was distracted by his own laughter the Anishinaabes started to chase him.

In an instant Nanaboozhoo snapped out of his trickery and noticed the Anishinaabes running towards him. He started running but… he realized he was actually falling! He was sliding down the hill hitting his bottom on all the rocks. As his bottom scraped its way down his “ows!” and “ahs!” replaced his usual laughter. When he finally got to the bottom he stood up and took a breather, a break from the painful slide he just endured. But then… he turned around… and saw the Anishinaabes running down the hill! So he ran through the long grass and disappeared into the dense bush. He had got away that day and wasn’t seen for a while after that. Though he did leave a little trail in his scurry to get away. The little plants that grow on the rocks, my grandmother describes them as scabs or scars like the ones you see on human skin, well those are the marks his bottom left on the way down! And the weeping willows that you find at the bottom of hills are from the blood coming from his scraped bottom! That had to hurt, eh?  

This story always makes me wonder if he is still out there playing his little tricks on us as we walk along a trail or set up a tent. I like to think he does, and if not… well I have my little brother for that. All is not lost though. For when I close my eyes and listen closely sometimes, I think I can hear his snickering floating in the wind, and it makes me smile. Can you hear it too?

I hope that you enjoyed the stories that have gone through my family for many generations. Today you were my family too! I hope that you share these stories with your families as well to keep them alive for many years to come!  

About Josie Cormier

Josie Cormier grew up in Nipigon, Northern Ontario, and is part of the Red Rock Indian Band. She is passionate about sharing the love she has for her home with everyone she meets. You can always find her looking for new adventures by kayaking, hiking, and exploring the beautiful area she's lucky to call home. Josie is currently a student at York University in Toronto and hopes to start a career as a writer. 

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