Archive for the ‘Oral Tradition’ Category

Every once in a while an Indian (read American Indian) will give a friend or family member a nickname. Sometimes these names are given just for fun, other times they are given to help that person be humble. “Dances With Wolves” comes to mind.

I actually know some of my aunts and uncles by their nicknames: Ishky, Bunny, and Boogens are three.

I told my wife that I finally figured out what her Indian nickname was.

“Well, what is it?”, she asked.

“Too Many Pillows”, I said.

She laughed… because she knew it was true.

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Winter Full Moon
Manidoo-giizisoon (Mă´nĭ·dū-Gē·zĭ·sūn´): Hmm. An attempt at a translation would be  “spirit- [yearling moon, or little moon, or new moon]” an interpretation might be “little spirit moon” but you can see how something gets lost in the translation because the object to which the adjective little refers, gets transferred to spirit, instead of moon; but maybe it was supposed to be that way all along, as, in its relation to January which is Gichi Manidoo Giizis or Great Spirit Moon or Manido Giizis (spirit moon).
Bibooni-giizis (in the Eastern Candian border lakes): It is my Winter moon
In either case an  (animate noun)
Ojibwemowin is a fantastic language for interpretation because of all of it’s subtleties!

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“I’m from Minnesota

Got no one to call my own

So I go a lookin’ for you Hi-ya



If you’ll be my honey

I will be your suger pie

Wei ya hi

Wei ya hi ya!”


These are lyrics from an old 49er song. These were sung for round dances where young people could socialize with each other after a powwow.

Here is a link to a softer kind of 49er that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called the “Eternity Song” by Randy Wood and friends. The English lyrics are:

“As long as the grass grows, river flows.

As long as the wind blows,

That’s how I will love you,

for all eternity”.

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I sometimes think just a word’s interpretation is in itself poetic.

Găsh·kă·dē·nō – gē´zĭs (Noun Animate)




“Frozen Over Moon”



From the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary

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Wootihu didn’t know what to think about this style of delivery so he mostly kept quiet as he paid attention to the current of the river.

Soon they would see Muskrat dwellings and Nanabozhu would turn into a Muskrat and talk about the social habits of Muskrats. And then he would say out of the blue, “The Bagwajiwinini were a virtuous people, in all senses of the word.”

While Nanabozhu was talking and transforming back and forth; navigating Mud River was not so easy for Wootihu, as it was shallow in some places and deeper in others. So the water was sometimes up to his ankles, and sometimes up to his neck. While he was splashing through the river he had to listen carefully as Nanabozhu would get lost in thought and would speak only when he felt like it.

“The reason you don’t see many of them now is because they are so caught up in their own cares, they do not often go out of their way.”

Wootihu heard this all the while plagued by mosquitoes which whined irritatingly around any of his exposed skin, and deer and moose flies would painfully bite him whenever they could find a spot to land–usually tangling in the hair on his head.

The mud sucked at his feet, slowing him down and tiring him out.

That was how they traversed the whole length of Mud River as it meandered around and up through the reservation, until they arrived at the bridge by the Fishery. The place that Wootihu originally thought they were going!

The only beings Wootihu had seen were a few kids  swimming in the pond just before the bridge and some houses back of town. This had taken them eight more hours and the longest night of the summer was approaching.

“I was hoping we would have seen one by now.” said a dejected and worn out Wootihu.

Nanabozhu eyed Wootihu with a hint of sadness. “I’ll take you to a place where I know one will be at home, but I’ll have to blindfold you because it’s so close to downtown Redby.

So Nanabozhu blindfolded Wootihu and turned him around four times, and led him by the hand, taking him circuitous ways until they arrived inside of the home of the Bagwajiwinini. Night had descended.

Nanabozhu’s parting words were, “I will leave you here so you can ask him all the questions you want when you see him, but don’t take the blindfold off until you have counted to eight, as I make my exit.”

With that, Wootihu heard footsteps out of the house and a door closing softly as he slowly counted to eight by one thousands. And then took off his blindfold.

Wootihu found himself standing in front of his bathroom mirror.

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Now, Wootihu thought that they would walk a few blocks to where Mud River emptied out into Red Lake at the Fishery, but they walked all the way from Wootihu’s house which was in Redby–on Copper City Road, and took the Kinney Lake Trail road past Kinney Lake and onward to the South Edge of the reservation. Then they took the south boundary road east to where Mud River entered the land of The People, just West of Highway 15.

This took them from sunup to noon as the south boundary was a good ways away!

While they walked there, Nanabozhu subtly drew Wootihu out to talk about himself, and his family, and the things that were important to him. Which he didn’t mind at all, as although he recognized that Nanabozhu was doing this, he realized as the Anishinabeg do, that one had to approach some subjects circumspectly, (especially when talking with a demigod). Wootihu knew that Nanabozhu would talk about the Bagwajiwininiwug in his own good time and in his own way.

“Okay,” said Nanabozhu, “You’ll have to wade down Mud River because they will be by the river bank and the best place to see the entrances of their houses, is from the middle.”

“What do their houses look like?” asked Wootihu.

**** To be continued ****

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Wootihu almost forgot to ask his question as he looked at Nanabozhu. He looked like the quintessential Anishinabe. He was handsome, and he had thick, jet black Raven hair; the kind with the purple highlights. He was tall, about five feet ten inches; tall enough that most women looked up to him but not so tall so as to intimidate naive or foolish men. He had bright but dark brown eyes that glinted like a raptor. And a nose that had just enough of a suggestion of a hook to it to make him interesting.

Now Wootihu was an honest if somewhat innocent Red Laker, so he told Nanabozhu; “I would really like to meet a Bagwajiwinini–one of the little people. But I am afraid you will play some kind of trick and leave a permanent mark on me and the rest of the Anishinabeg to show you did it.”

“Hmmm”, said Nanabozhu eyeing Wootihu speculatively. “I promise I will not lie to you, and I will not leave any physical mark on you.  And concerning the Bagwajiwininiwug, they are all over the reservation, if you know what to look for.” Nanabozhu smiled that little boy smile of his. “For your part, it will probably take us all day to find one and you’ll have to invest a lot of effort. In which time you will not be able to use any modern conveniences such as a car, or your cell-phone, and I will tell you just enough about them so you can know one when you see one. “How about that?” said Nanabozhu with a smirk on his face.

“Deal” said Wootihu. And they spat on their hands and shook them.

There may be some Bagwajiwininiwug at Mud River,” said Nanabozhu. “Let’s look there.”

**** To be continued ****

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When he told them what he was going to do, his friends thought he was crazy. You see, Nanabozhu was the Anishinabeg trickster demigod and if you had any kind of meaningful interaction with him he always played some kind of trick on you, or left some kind of mark on your species. That’s where the Loons got their red eyes, or the Kingfishers the ruffled feathers of their crests. And he was important enough, that he would reveal himself to you in his human form maybe only once in your life time.

So Wootihu set out to find Nanabozhu.

In those days, Nanabozhu was much easier to find… if you dared. All you had to do was find any piece of wood and knock on it four times, then call his name after you knocked and repeat all of that three more times until Nanabozhu answered.

Thus it was the next Saturday morning that Wootihu did this;

Knock knock Knock knock,


Knock knock knock knock,


Knock knock knock knock,


Knock knock knock knock,


on the outside of his closed bathroom door, which was the closest piece of wood he had in the house at the time.

After which Wootihu heard the sound of a toilet flushing, and then the sounds of someone zipping their pants and then washing their hands in the sink. The door opened to reveal Nanabozhu standing behind it, holding it open.

A questioning Nanabozhu looked at Wootihu and asked, “Yes?”

**** To be continued ****

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Once there was a Red Laker named Wootihu. Now, this was not his real name, nor was it his Indian name. It was his nickname. Most Red Lakers had nicknames. You might hear names like “Bunny”, ”Ishky”, “Crick”, or “Boogins” when you were talking to your friends in school.

You see, a bunch of Barred Owls lived around Wootihu and he would hear them calling in the evening, at night and in the early morning. He got to know their calls pretty well, and even was able to perfect his call so that they came and “talked” to him. One night, a strange Barred Owl called outside his window. But instead of the “Woo Woo Woo, Woo Woo Wa Hoo” he expected, what he heard was: “Woo woo woo, Woo Ti Hoo“.

Woo Ti Hoo?!” What kind of a call was that? It was either a young Barred Owl just learning to call or it was an owl who was developmentally disabled.

While the other Barred Owls didn’t seem to notice, this young man was intrigued. He was so engrossed in this call that he couldn’t get it out of his head, so he had to tell all of his friends at school the next few days. Having heard many an Owl tale before, his friends could only groan, or roll their eyes, or shake their heads when he related this. This nickname stuck when one of his friends said “Okay Wootihu, we get it”. This produced a few chuckles, because of which, it was too late for Wootihu. Sometimes his friends called him “Wooti”, and sometimes they just said “Who?” in jest when his name was called for attendance in class for first period.

Now lately, Wootihu had been thinking a lot about the Bagwagiwininiwug or the Little People. You see, he didn’t know much about them except that he had heard they were generally a mischievous and benevolent people. However, he wanted to know more, although he couldn’t really find anyone who knew a great deal about them.

So he decided to ask Nanabozhu.

**** To be continued ****

(I had such a fun time writing this story. I wanted to share it with you all at once. But it looked so long on the page and I get so impatient that I sometimes don’t read something if it looks too long, (Is that just me?) so I decided to break it up into smaller parts so it will be more manageable. I hope you  enjoy it too.)

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In the old days, the Anishinabeg as a people where virtuous. Parents would not allow their young daughter to meet with a young man unattended. So it was that he would use a courting flute to woo her (and them).

At night, just after the sun went down, the young man would play his flute while hidden in the woods near their lodge. If she liked what he played, she would invite him in for further discussion. If she didn’t like what he played, then she would throw stones at him while making disparaging comments until he stole away in the night.

Mă·nō´mĭn was the name of the flute maker’s beautiful daughter. Her name meant “wild rice”. Her parents named her that for many reasons: one, because they liked the way it sounded; two,  just as wild rice was essential for the survival of the people, they knew they could not live happily without their precious daughter, and three, because her auntie, who was a powerful mĭdewiwĭn, prophesied at her birth that she would have a wild (as in free and unfettered) temperament.

Now being the flute makers daughter, and he having a very young son not yet old enough to learn the tricks of the trade, happily taught Mănōmĭn all of his flute making knowledge. This gave her quite the advantage over her friends. Not that she would take advantage of them, rather, that she knew things that would help her to make a better choice concerning her suitors.

For instance, she knew the four most important things about courting flutes and their owners: how the flute itself reflected the characteristics of it’s owner, who all the young men in the village were; the love magic associated with a courting flute, and how to make her own flute.

You see, either a young man came to the flute maker to learn how to make his own flute, or he came to the flute maker to have a flute made for him. This helped Manomin because she saw all the young men who visited her father.

But this was not all, for in this family, (and so in most of this village) a flute was traditionally as long as the forearm of its maker–from elbow to the longest fingertip. There was a hand’s breadth of space between the mouthpiece and the fetish, another between the fetish and the first finger hole, and still another between the last finger hole and the bottom. The bore was as large as the dominant forefinger of it’s owner and there was a thumb’s breadth between each of the six finger holes.

So, if the owner of the flute was a tall young man with big hands, his flute would be long, with a large bore and so would have a low tone. If the young man was short and had little hands, his flute would be short with a small bore and thus would have a higher tone. Knowing this, Manomin could generally figure out who played what flute.

In either case, the young man came to the flute maker to learn how to play his flute. For her father had to learn how to play his flute well in order to woo and win over his wife, and for a fee or trade he passed this knowledge on to his proteges.

Now, here’s the rub. You see, while each young man was given the basics on how to play a flute well. They all had to practice their flute in private, either deep in the woods, or at their own lodges, which were far away. Not only that, but they also had to create their own songs, becoming one with their own flutes during the process,  so Manomin could not know exactly what songs came from who.

Now, having this knowledge was compounded by another factor. There was love jē´bĭk,  or magic, that could be associated with a courting flute. If a young man wanted to entrance the young woman with his courting flute playing he had to get a personal item or piece of hair from his intended and incorporate it into the decoration of that flute. This was how he would hopefully “seal the deal”.

Knowing this, and knowing that her father wasn’t above trying to “stack the deck” for the  young man of his choice, Manomin was very careful to keep all of her personal possessions hidden away in her Mă·kăk´, which was a birch bark container that is square on the bottom and round on top, and routinely burned any strands of stray hair that ended up in her comb or brush.

Finally, knowing how to make a courting flute was knowledge that Manomin kept up her sleeve for later.


As things go, the courting started in earnest that spring.

It was late enough so that there were leaves on the trees and grass on the ground, but early enough that the mosquitoes and biting flies had not come out yet. It was still cool enough that Manomin would sit by the fire just outside the lodge by a large pile of river pebbles she had gathered over the previous months for that very purpose. These stones were large enough that she could throw them a great distance but small enough that if you were beaned with one it would hurt, but not knock you out.

There were many suitors. Some played so softly and tenuously that she could barely hear them. Manomin figured that she needed someone who played boldly to reflect their bold spirit. So she threw stones at them and they disappeared.

Sometimes she heard rustling in the bushes as if someone were fighting and she would call out and throw stones, letting them know that if they did not let each other play that she would have none of them. So it was by the agreement of the suitors that each one played on a different night until all had a chance.  They would play until Manomin got tired of listening and went inside the lodge or until she threw stones and chased them away.

Some of the songs were unoriginal, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. That got the stones. Some of the songs were painful. Their notes too high. Manomin figured that if she didn’t like the songs, that she wouldn’t like the young man who wrote them. Stones, stones, stones.  They were the recipients of stones as well.  Some of the songs were repetitive. Manomin did not want to have a boring relationship so those young men were stoned.

The songs that she liked the most were those that incorporated the sounds of her favorite courting  bird, the Mahng or loon,  and the various woodpeckers. The combination of tremolo in them was either from the player being nervous which she didn’t mind at all because it made her realize she had power to make that young man nervous, or because he was accomplished enough to deliberately incorporate that quality into his song. She also realized that having such a skill might translate into other areas as well. There were a few flutists whose songs made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, they were so thrilling!

The young men were also tenacious enough that they came back night after night. They would play one song that identified them  and then they would play the new songs they had made up over the past few days.


This lasted until near the end of the Fall when Manomin decided to do something totally unexpected. She pulled a flute she had secretly made out of her sleeve! Whenever one of the young men who were left tried to play their songs she would play hers. One of the young men tried to drown her out. She was sad to have to throw stones at him because his songs were so beautiful and sad that they made her weep, but she knew that if he was not smart enough to figure out that she mattered in this way that he would not treat her equally later.

Her playing initially silenced the remaining flute players until only one was left. He came every night and announced his presence with a short song, but Manomin started playing immediately after that.

Then a wonderful thing happened.

When there was a break in her song, the young man would play counterpoint.  When it was possible, and their flutes were in tune –which was very difficult because the notes of Anishinabeg flutes were not tuned to scale as the Europeans do, but were made to the measurements of the user, the young man would play harmony to her melody. This went on four nights with their songs becoming increasingly complicated and intertwined. On the last night, Manomin gave her final test. She ad-libbed! And the young man, well knowing how she played by this time ad-libbed right along with her. The result was a musical synergy that each could not have developed without the other.

It was on that night, just before the first snow fell, that Manomin invited the young man who would become her husband, in to meet her parents.

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