The Ojibway Mysteries

The Anishinaabe of Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin originated on the Eastern Seaboard—possible in Ontario or Maine-- and may have participated in the great Hopewell trading culture that flourished from 200 BCE to 500 CE which involved many groups from the South-Eastern United States up to Western New York and Ontario. This widespread trading culture built large mounds with astronomical/astrological significance not unlike the Great Pyramids. They often had sedentary cultures with sophisticated leadership structures that allowed enough free time to create great art. Their beautifully

carved pipes and other objects betray a rich spiritual heritage.

     The Anishinaabe have what is called the ‘Seven Fires’ tradition that relates to seven prophecies they were to follow in reaching Minnesota and the way stations along the way. The first ‘fire’ described their cultural origins as adhering to the institution of the Midewiwin Lodge or ‘Grand Medicine Society’ which can be seen as a great mystery school tradition in no way inferior to the great mystery schools of Greece, Egypt, and Syria and that, possibly, could have been widespread in the Hopewell trading culture.  

     The Midewiwin Lodge of the Anishinaabe used a pictographic writing system on birch bark scrolls and, possibly, on cowrie shells referred to as the sacred megis. The first prophecy described the journey they should take with seven way stations beginning and ending with an island shaped like a turtle. They would know their final destination when they find food growing upon the water (wild rice). They were told they would be destroyed if they didn’t undertake this journey—presumably by Europeans.

     The first stopping place was Montreal and the second was Niagra Falls. When they reached the third stopping place near Detroit and the large and prophesied body of water it was a period when they realized the second prophesy involving the disregard of their spiritual traditions. The fourth stopping place was Manitoulin Island on the East coast of Lake Michigan where the Midewiwin tradition revived.

     The third prophecy refers to finding a place where food grows upon the waters so the migration continued to the fifth stopping place which was Sault Ste. Marie. Here the Anishinaabeg came into contact with the French and developed a large trading network with them. The fourth prophecy foretold the coming of the light-skinned race which brought the promise of higher technology and a great alliance that would make a great nation of four different peoples but also held out the threat of death if the light-skinned people came bearing arms and fouling the waters.

     During the time of the fifth fire or stopping place the prophecy was given that if the Anishinaabeg followed the one who promised great joy and salvation and abandoned their ancient ways that it would cause the near destruction of their people. This prophecy is, obviously, interpreted as the coming of Christianity which began with the Jesuits in their missionary efforts to wipe out native religious traditions. Some interpret this also to refer to the acceptance of technological civilization rather than living traditionally.

     After the French, the British and the Colonists came with settlements that infringed upon the Anishinaabeg so the migration continued with the group splitting into two and traversing both sides of Lake Superior. The sixth stopping place was symbolized by Spirit Island in Mille Lacs Lake in east-central Minnesota which is the second largest inland lake in the state with huge food production capabilities that include wild rice production. Spirit Island is a quarter acre-sized island composed only of boulders pushed up on a bedrock shelf that are entirely covered in bird droppings. This was a lucrative place to hunt water fowl and search for birds’ eggs. Mystery surrounded this island since its characteristics are known to give off loud noises similar to hearing a shotgun from a distance at times. This was the traditional home center of the eastern Dakota people who left or were pushed out probably around the time of the coming of the Anishinaabeg. The population of the Dakota, though, had boomed with their hunting of bison. With the Anishinaabeg immigration they may have chosen to follow the buffalo and the French trading posts in going south and west. There is a report of a battle in 1695 between the Dakota and Anishinaabeg called the ‘Battle of Kathio’ near the village of Isanti that the Anishinaabeg won.

     The sixth prophecy relates that during the sixth fire people will know that the promise of the fifth prophecy was false since children turn away from their parents and elders die without a reason to live. This is clearly the period when Indian children are shipped off to boarding schools and Indians take on European ways and manual labor for livelihoods.

     In an effort to find their seventh prophesied stopping place many Anishinaabeg retraced their steps to Madeline Island in Lake Superior off the coast of Wisconsin. This became the spiritual and ceremonial center that was also a military stronghold against the Dakota rivals of the Anishinaabeg throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota when Anishinaabeg population growth was widespread through these two states in the 1700’s with the assistance of alliances with the French and Jesuits. It was also very close to extremely rich wild ricing territory near Ashland. In 1854 when the Anishinaabeg were forced off of Madeline Island with reservation treaties a band was created at Bad River maintaining the traditional Midewiwin culture while the Red Cliff band were those affiliating with Roman Catholicism. This Madeline Island area is still a tremendous cultural center with their wild rice festival.

     The seventh prophecy speaks of a new people emerging who will pick up the threads from the past, learn what they can from the elders who are left, and rekindle the fire of the Midewiwin tradition. A warning is given that the light-skinned race in this period will have a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road it will inaugurate an era of universal peace and harmony between all people. If they choose the wrong road then they will bring on the whole earth an era of destruction and suffering.

     The White Earth Recovery Project originated by Winona LaDuke on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota is an example of ‘new people’ emerging who are not only buying back land but working towards food self-sufficiently with wild rice, maple syrup, and native heirloom corn varieties. Energy independence is another focus with the construction of windmills. LaDuke and the Anishinaabe are also actively involved in trying to save the planet through opposition to carbon-intensive projects along with forming alliances with many like-minded people across the world.

     There are different ways of thinking about these prophecies. The traditional one is that they were given for direction by seven prophets—really eight since the fourth prophecy was given by two prophets giving the upside and downside of the light-skinned people—for people’s future guidance and direction. This is quite reasonable since people have always been guided by dreams and intuition—even if they are informed by circumstances.

     Another easy interpretation is that the story just serves as a mythological platform for people’s experience of migrating across the Great Lakes and their world-view of themselves and others.

     A third way to look at the prophecies is that the sages or shamans of the Midewiwin Lodge long ago were informed in several ways. They could easily see the technological superiority of the Europeans and their abuse of native peoples.   Their soul travel and dreaming would have clearly warned them about the future—and could have suggested possible solutions. These sages could, also, have been easily aware of the ‘food upon the waters’ from scouts or from informants in the great trading exchanges that would have taken place on the great highway of the Great Lakes. The Lake Superior area was a border land rich in food resources that was not infringing upon tribes the Anishinaabe were related to.

     The shamans of the Anishinaabe gave specific directions in travel in speaking of following the sacred shells or cowrie shells as well as the importance of finding various ‘turtle islands’. This marks out a water route to a destination concerning ‘food upon the waters’ that was probably known as well.

     A Creation story called “Deeds of a Little Boy” of the Midewiwin Lodge is wonderfully told by a Mille Lacs Chief Bayezhig that was recorded by Walter James Hoffman in “The Midewiwin or ‘Grand Lodge of the Medicine Society’ in the Smithsonian Institution, US Bureau of Ethnology Report (v. 7, pp. 149-299) that was published in the Washington D. C. Government Printing Office in 1891.

     The story begins with ‘Gichi Manidoo’ creating two men and two women who had no power of independent thought or reason. Then, he made them rational beings and paired them so they would multiply.

     This is a real interesting beginning. This ancient story could be seen to reflect an evolutionary world-view where humans gradually developed higher mental faculties.   Europeans didn’t arrive at this understanding until about seventy years after ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published in 1859.

     The “two men and two women” reflect the spiritual sight of the midewinini (male practitioner) or midewikwe (female practioner) who could see not only physical bodies but energetic bodies both of living people and those who have passed on. This perception is reflected also in the designation of Anishinaabe shamans as ‘two spirit men’ (female shamans who were more rare were designated ‘iron women’). This spiritual perception also reflects the perception that the one soul has gendered energetic bodies or ‘twin souls’. These two rational, gendered energetic bodies of a soul, then, entered physical embodiment and began physically multiplying.

     Gichi Manidoo realized there was a need for intervention from above, however, because physical embodiment made souls subject to the experience of sickness, misery, and death so Gichi Manidoo saw the need for giving humans Sacred Medicine so they would not become extinct—or at least in having their spiritual nature or awareness die.

     Gichi Manidoo first spoke to the four manidoog between him and the earth by speaking to the one immediately below him. This manidoo then spoke to the manidoo below him who spoke to the manidoo below him who spoke to the manidoo below him. This layered understanding of the dimensionality of the universe didn’t really take hold in the wider scientific establishment until the development of string theory in the second half of the twentieth century but has always been known by spiritual adepts. Saying 19 of the Gospel of Thomas reports: “…there are five trees for you in Paradise which remain undisturbed summer and winter and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death.”

     The four manidoog then met with the four wind manidoog to decide what would be in the best interests of the Anishinaabeg. The wind manidoog refer to the physical universe and the understanding that there is consciousness associated with all of creation. Modern science is just beginning to catch up with the awareness of Quantum mechanical principles such as superposition and quantum entanglement along with the work of theoretical physicist David Bohm who posited that consciousness and the objective universe are both projections of an underlying reality. The eight manidoog agreed to ask Gitchi Manidoo to provide the Anishinaabeg with the Sacred Medicine.

     Gitchi Manidoo went to the Sun Spirit as agreed upon by the council and requested that the Sun Spirit go to the people and instruct them. The Sun Spirit went to the earth in the likeness of a little boy to live with a woman who had a little boy of her own.

     At this point of the story there can be different interpretations. One of them might be that Sun Spirit boy is the energetic body of the little boy and the Sun Spirit represents the higher self of the energetic body and the physical body. Perhaps this higher self even acts through the medium of the physical Sun which happens to be the most intense physical energy in our neighborhood as it was requested to do by Gitchi Manidoo.

     The family the Sun Spirit boy joined went off to hunt in the autumn but the Sun Spirit boy’s adopted brother died that winter. The family was so distraught they decided to bring their son back for burial. Each evening they would erect a set of poles to hang the body of their son on to protect from animals. Meanwhile, the little Spirit boy would play about the camp and amused himself.

     This contrast between the body being treated objectively as an object and the playful spirit of the little Spirit boy is the perfect contrast between the energetic body and the physical body. When a person dies the energetic body generally and normally feels free of the physical body like the little Spirit boy at play.

     The Spirit boy felt sorry for his grieving parents and told them he could bring his brother back to life. He instructed them to hurry to the village, build a wiigiwaam of bark, and place the body in the center with a covering of wiigwaas or birch bark.

     Family and friends, then, gathered in the white birch bark shelter and sat in mourning around the white birch bark covered body. The white birch bark is suggestive of seeing the body in the light of eternity.

     The family and friends sat quietly for some time. This is a very suggestive part of the story. When the story was relived in the cultic setting of the Midewiwin Lodge it probably took quite a few hours. People sat quietly or meditated. Perhaps in the cultic setting they were led in a guided meditation. At any rate, the story is suggestive of a vision quest.

     In the Midewiwin Lodge the ceremony probably took into the dark of the night. The little dead boy represented the hopes and dreams and potential of great beauty that had died. Grief was profound. All thoughts of self finally came to an end. There was nothing left but the dead body covered in comforting white bark. Finally, a peace pervaded the wiigiwaam and a quiet darkness with only maybe some moonlight finding entrance through the wiigiwaam openings.

     In the quietude of the mental exhaustion and through the tears some movement was noticed in the dark in peripheral vision—perhaps it was a bear that had entered the lodge but it was too dark to see well. This dark round bear swirling movement, then, encompassed the whole field of vision around the dead boy covered in birch bark—maybe four times as the story says and a sound was heard as the bear circled the boy: Ho-o-o, ho-o-o, ho-o-o, ho-o-o. This is very close to the sound of creation from the Eastern world of om.

     The story reports that the body began to quiver. And from the swirling and quivering motion the energetic form of the boy emerged alive!

     Perhaps participants saw different things or saw the same things slightly differently but then the ‘bear’ addresses the father who was sitting in the “distant right-hand corner of the wiigiwaam”.

     This description gives the impression of distance between the speaker and the hearer as if the speaker is speaking from another dimension or from the higher self beyond even the dimension of the energetic form of the little boy.

     The father is addressed in very specific words that are probably the most important part of the experience and probably never varied when the experience was relived in the Midewiwin Lodge. The ‘bear’ relates that his father is not an Indian but that he is the son of the spirit—just as it is obvious now that the father of the dead boy who is now alive is. The ‘bear’ suggests the father give a tobacco offering in gratitude saying that he could only bring a body back to life once since spirit scarcely lives here. This injunction makes it clear the point was not involving a physical resurrection but about a rare spiritual experience. The ‘bear’ addressed the father as a “fellow spirit” in saying that it was clearly time for the ‘bear’ to return home.

     The story ends by saying that the bear boy stayed with the people for a time teaching them the mysteries of the Midewiwin. The people would have no need to fear illness with the Midewiwin and that he would return to the sun from where people could feel his influence.

     The visioning work of the Midewiwin Lodge was probably used in ferreting out answers to illness issues as well as connecting to the Sun Spirit of one’s higher self.

--John Munter, March 3, 2014