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5/20 Ojibwe Stories - Gaganoonididaa: Listening to Nature


Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa this month features Larry Amik Smallwood, a language instructor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who discusses (in both Ojibwe and English) about the awakening natural world around us, and the messages that nature gives us. Topics include net-fishing, deer hunting, blue jays, owls, maple-sugaring, and wild rice.


Ojibwe language-related content in this episode:

I was born in the late 40’s and I was raised by my mother's aunt and uncle. They only spoke Ojibwe in the house, so me being raised by my mom's aunt and uncle, of course I learned Ojibwe before I was even a year old. So, first language that I ever spoke. Not till I got into grade school when I started speaking English, and that's where I learned how to speak English. When I started school out there, they didn’t have kindergarten or they didn't have preschool or any of those kinds of things. We just went from the house to the first grade. When I started school, I didn't know, it was a culture shock. I didn't know what was going on, I just know I was supposed to be school, you know, giwii-kikinoo’amaagoo giiwenh ingii-igoog. They told me, "You're gonna be going to school now." Weweni bizindawik a’aw gikinoo’amaagewinini gikinoo’amaagekwe.

So, I sat there the first day and they were all talking English, and I didn't understand. I was just looking at my surroundings.  And all the way, from the time I got on this little bus in Duxbury, Mn. going to Cloverton, Minneota, a 15 mile bus ride, I learned my surroundings as I was going and when I got to the school. I studied everything on the way over there. I didn't know what was going on really, you know. If I wanted to run away, I could run away I knew how to get back, you know. But I couldn't speak English but the teacher knew that and knew my folks. And so when they called the first graders up there, I went up there and joined them, you know, because I was in the first grade, I guess, that was the row I was sitting in.

So, she was reading them stories and asking them questions and I was looking at the pictures and looking at all that writing there, and looked up at the wall, way up there, and there was  English writing, English letters, up there and started checking all those out. I couldn't wait for the first day to get through, so I could get home and speak my own language. But I remember my first English sentence, after I put it all together was probably somewhere around the last part of September, after a month of school. There was storybook time, and there was a little girl there pointing at a cat running.  And there was an older lady in that picture, presumably her mother, and the words down there, those little three letter words said, “See the cat run”. And I said, "that's probably what that means then," looking at those little words, "See the cat run”. Well by now, I was learning my ABCs, too, so I thought, "Well, I can speak English, “See the cat run”. I don't remember anything the rest of the day except "See the cat run."

So, I got home, I found the cat, and I told my mom, Maa agwajiing bi-izhaan, niwii-waabanda’in gegoo. Inzhaaganaashiim gaye. I said, "Come on outside, I want to show you something. I can speak English!" So, I grabbed a cat, then I put her down, but she didn't run. So, I kicked it and it ran and I pointed and I looked at my mom and I said, "See the cat run." And she looked at me, “Aaniin danaa ezhiwebiziyan?” So I went and got the cat again, I said, "Wait - Bekaa mom.” I put that cat down again, before I kicked it, it ran off and I said, "See the cat run." She said, “mii izhi-booni’ a’aw gaazhagens, aaniin danaa ezhiwebiziyan?” I said, "Ahaaw nizhaaganaashiim -  I'm talking English!"

So, you know, that was in September, last part of September. By the time December came around, I can speak English well enough and I was in a little Christmas program there where they recited little Christmas pieces there and I think I had like three lines or four lines that I knew really good and by the time school was out in June, I could speak English just like I can today. Few little words more. So, that was when I started speaking English when I was in the first grade. That's why I say today: immersion works. Because I was immersed in that English language for six hours a day five days a week, you know, and from September to June and it was December when I could speak English.

So then when you came home after school and that summer, it was still all Ojibwe in your family, right?

Exactly, and then, you know, we had our ceremonies that I went to. I understood the ceremonies and I understood what was being said and I did the things that I was supposed to do and all that. You know, it was a culture shock, too, when I got in the fifth grade. See, I grew up with all my traditions out there and the settlement where I lived in eastern Minnesota there, east of Hinckley about twenty five miles. We had our Mide camps set up. I went through that when I was like seven years old. We had our big drum ceremonies going on back then. See, we never put any of our ceremonies aside or went underground with them; we kept them right out in the open, you know, "don't bother us, you know, we're traditional here, we're going to do what we want to do" pretty much.

But when I was in the fifth grade, I remember a car pulling up and it was this elderly gentleman, got out with snow white hair and it was probably around, it was the springtime. It was warm, but he had a trench coat on, a black one, and he was carrying all kinds of contraptions.

The teacher looked out she said, "Oh, Reverend so-and-so is here. Who wants to go to religious instructions?" A few little hands went up, so I asked my friend up ahead of me there, Johnny Mitchler. I said, "Hey Johnny," and I said, "What is religious instructions?"  He said, "We get to go and drink Kool-Aid and have cookies and we get to watch movies of people and different countries, different lands and all." “Man, I'm going. Sign me up for religious instructions.” So, I went. And somewhere along the line of course of religious instructions there, in the next few weeks, I found out some of the stuff they were telling me... it was pretty scary in that religious instruction class. You know, like I was going to burn in hell forever if I said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing and then, once again, I went home when mom and I said, "Mom!” “Awegonen?” “Ingoding giiwenh giwii-chaagozimin akina.” “Henh?” I said, “ingoding giiwenh giwii-chaagozimin akina.” “Aaniin dana ezhiwebiziyan? Aaniindi gaa-ondinaman miinawaa i‘iw?” “Oonh gii-pi-izhaa a’aw… a’aw gagiikwewiinini iidog. Mii gaa-izhiyangid widi giishpin gegoo maazhigiizhiweyaang, wanigiizhweyaang, wiinigiizhweyaang, giiwanimoyaang bangii,

awegodogwen igo, mii go wii-chaagizoyang. Kina widi da-jaagideg kina giwii-izhaamin widi wii-chaagiziwaad.” “Gego ganage miinawaa izhaaken iwidi” gii-ikido. “Don't you even go back over there.” “Nashke a’aw giinawind a’aw Manidoo gikenimaanaan naagaanizid mii a’aw begidinamawang asemaa endaso-giizhig. Mii a’aw begidinamawang asemaa widi niimi’idiyang. Mii a’aw asemaa begidinind pane nitam mii a’aw naagaani’ind a’aw asemaa. Gaawiin wiin akeyaa gidizhi-debweyendaziimin i’iw akeyaa izhi-debweyendang a’aw Waabishkiiwed. Gego miinawaa biindigeken widi.”

So, she gave me a lecture about going back to religious instructions, but, you know, that didn't stop me. Because that gentleman scared the heck out of me, you know, so holy cow, what if there's some truth to this? So, at nighttime I would silently pray, "Forgive me, Jesus, I did this today," you know, and that really did something to me. All the way up into the time I was 32 years old, I would silently pray at night going to bed, but meanwhile during in the daytime, you know, I'm still putting my tobacco out. So, I guess I was kind of covering my butt, you know. I was gonna make sure if there is some truth to what he's saying, I wanna make sure I'm going to the right place there.

But, you know, I sat for 30 days at a treatment facility and thought about these things and by then I've been teaching language and culture and listening to a lot of spiritual advisors, spiritual leaders, and some of my own people back home in Mille Lacs and Aazhoomoog and also, I'd been up to Canada and all over out East and talked and listened to a lot of these spiritual advisers. They all had the same thing to say, you know. I said, "I know that there is not a book where they learned this from and I know how old man so-and-so over in Eastern Wisconsin can say the same things somebody says up in Manitoba and there's some truth to this.

So, it was in the treatment facility where I kind of found my identity so to speak, and made me a believer in our ways. A strong believer in our ways; I was did believe in them but I was... that religious instruction kind of messed me up and from then on from the time I was 32 years old, you know, I'm a traditional Anishinaabe. You know, I speak my language, I use my asemaa and I do this and I do that and that's how I am today.

I was wondering, too, the family you were raised in, how did they make their living when you were a younger boy?

When I was young, I used to watch the old man. See, he couldn't speak any English. A few words here and there, and so did my mom. That's what I call her now. But he would work for the local farmers around the area there during the summer time and he would cut pulpwood during the winter time. And also, he had, there was some cabins around the two Tamarac lakes, out there, and he was probably about seven cabins altogether. And from May to probably late September, he would mow those lawns around those cabins because we lived right on the lake and he would upkeep those cabins and then when those guys come up on the weekends that own those cabins, they were giving him, you know, ten, twenty, bucks for each lawn and he was making good money back then $150 - $200 a week there, just mowing lawns and taking care of the houses. So, that's how he made his living.

And then, plus, he was a trapper too, so he did a lot of trapping of beaver and mink. She was a housewife, but a lot of people would come to her, and the local people would come and ask her to mend something. As far as sewing goes, and she made blankets and she made moccasins and she made this, and all those things.

I wonder if you could tell us about the changing nature of the season and what nature tells us.

Well, you know I used to hear them, those people that raised me, you know, back in the late ‘60's and mid-‘70's, they’d say, “gegoo ingoding wii-izhiwebad.” Something is going to happen someday. “Ganabaj wiiba wii-ishkwaa-akiiwan.” Is what they used to say. Time is coming for he Earth to, for the end of the world. They would say, “nashke anooj anishwanaajitoon a’aw Waabishkiiwed o’ow aki.” People are doing too many things here on Earth and it's harming the earth. I listen to that, and you're going to see with big icebergs melting up north and what's happening with our crazy weather down here, now.

I mean like last year in March we had 70 degree weather and then this year in May, we're having snowstorms. And you know last year the walleyes on Mille Lacs, they were kind of confused.  And this year, the ice didn't go off the lake until just a few days ago.

And then they used to say, too, you know, “gaawiin geyaabi epogizosiin a’aw waawaashkeshi miinawaa waabooz ko gaa-ipogozid mewinzha bakaan noongom ipogoziwag.” They would say the deer and the rabbits and those wild, that wildlife didn't taste anymore like how used to taste. And my wisecrack was, "Well, geez, you're eighty years old, you're ninety years old, your taste buds probably no good anymore!" But now I see that, you know, I believe it, there's some truth to what they're saying.

I don't know if you want to call it global warming. If it's global warming, I don't think so, you know look how cold we were here in May. Also, all the chemicals in the lakes, they're polluting the lakes and then we have these invasive species coming up on the boats and from other places and the whole thing is going, it's not right. It's going out of sync.

You know, there are times too, you know, the maple sugaring. Some of these guys that go out and harvest maple sugar, you know. They were tapping trees here and they were still getting water here, even after it rained and after the moth come out, and after frost. They were still tapping water and still trying to make syrup, you know, we should have just let those trees be until the next year. You know, you always have to have your test trees out there, one or two of them, to see how it is and leave it alone you know. A lot of my friends are tapping and said, this one guy said, I got so many gallons of oil, my God!" I said "Moths and all that. Those been out, all that... the frogs been croaking and it's been raining and I said, "You can't do that." And he said, "Yeah, yeah!" I said, "Okay. I’m not going to taste the syrup, either”.

Does that kind of come from your family then? These kind of regimented teachings about when we're supposed to stop doing certain things? Like sugaring and when we're supposed to start?

Nature tells you that. If you're a good Anishinaabe person, you can tell, you know, nature. She will let you know. Pay attention to that. Pay attention to nature. It will give you all the signs. You know. And then there are things that happen when you don't pay attention to nature.

Did you ever hear a teaching about blue jays? Their kind of role in things? Like when you're out hunting and you see, like, a blue jay and it's going away from you or? Because I heard this thing once that they were like messengers to the other animals, so they inform the other animals like you are around basically.  

You know, those little blue jays, I've noticed and I've heard and I've noticed and they're usually right. When they come around you, and they're noisier than heck, somebody is going to leave this world that you know. And when I was younger, I said, I used to think, "Nah." But now, we hear it, and I told my cousins that work with me and some of the other guys and said, "Listen to that bird out there. Blue jays making a lot of noises, let's listen to see if something happens." And sure enough, about nine times out of ten it does.

You know, animals are messengers. One example is my uncle and I were in a field and there was a pile of rocks in the middle and we were taking a break and we saw this huge buck coming across, and we ran into those rocks and we hid there and lay down and got our rifles ready. And then he said, "You go first," he said, "If you miss, I'll go." I said, "Alright." But there was no way we could miss this big buck coming strolling across. It wasn't running and I had seven shells in my 30-30, he had five in his. I emptied my seven, and he laughed at me, and that buck, still walking, is probably about 80 yards from us, and he was about 80 yards from going back into the woods. And he said, "I'll do it." I said, "Go ahead." And he emptied his rifle, never once hit that buck. And he said, "Something's, gonna happen." You know, it wasn't very long after that, just a few weeks, his mother passed away.

Now, we were out sunfishing one day, my uncle, and a friend of ours, three of us fishing.

My God, we were getting fish left and right, there were just every time we threw our hook in the water, the fish would come up. Well, all of a sudden, they just stopped. And we could see them down there. They wouldn't take our bait. The one guy was with said, "Hey, we better quit. Trying to tell us something." So we did. Went back to the house and when we got back to the house, I found out my mother passed away. Just that time.

The last time I witnessed that was two years ago during deer season. I was in a cabin, a hunting cabin, and this big buck ran across, probably 150 yards, across the river, this big buck was rolling through. I told my niece that, "Hey! Check this out!" She says, "My God, that's a huge buck!" I ran out there, and I seldom miss, and I shot. And he didn't even jump, and I shot again and he disappeared into this little woods. My other son was straight across from me up on the hill and I texted him I said, "Did you see that big buck?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Run down, look for it, see where I, see if I hit it." So, he made his way down the hill, and he said, "No," he said, "You didn't even hit it." Well, it was probably about a few days later, our brother got severely sick and we lost him probably a week and a half later. So, I am a firm believer in that animals will tell you things. They're messengers. It's not superstition; it's just that you got to pay attention to nature and what it tells you.

I get a lot of calls, "Hey! There was an owl sitting on the road". or "Hey! There was an owl up in a tree by my house!" Yeah, so? I mean, it's a bird, you know? What's wrong with him? Nothing! What should I do? I smudged my house!" Whatever works for you, you know. They're just birds and all, but people get so paranoid over these things like that. But see, people don't take time to try to learn these things. My age and the next generation older than me, we never took the time to teach our young ones. I have a seven year old son and he's been in the woods with me since he was four, out deer hunting and he is learning a lot about the woods right now.

He knows how to put his tobacco out, he told me what to do, I shot a deer in front of him one time. He ran over there and, "Put some down for him!" I did. "Okay, let's go now!" and then he was with me all the way through the cutting and quartering process. All the way up until the time he made me fry him up a fresh piece of deer meat.

But, he also goes to big drum ceremonies and he also goes to the Mide ceremonies as well and he sings a lot of songs, but he's kind of bashful. He also knows some Mide songs that he sings too, from being around the Mide camp. He's gifted in that way. So I'm trying to tell him as much as I can when he's at home with me by taking him into the woods and all that. He knows how to track deer now. He saw a deer track with the blood trail, one of my other two sons, and I couldn't see it. He went and found and here it is.

It's good. He’s learning at an early age. You know, I got a call about deer, when and when not to hunt deer. We don't usually hunt deer till after the first part of July. You know, they're carrying their young ones and we've got to give them a chance to give birth to those young ones and kind of lead them around and show them the ropes a little bit. Plus, we want to give a chance, it's been a hard winter, we want to give them a chance to fatten up a little bit, you know, before we go and hunt.

There was a question a while back about, "What about for ceremonial purposes?" Well, in a rare occasion, you could request or get one of your D.N.R travel D.N.R. people to find you a deer or whatever but it's pretty much of a no-no to hunt between January and first part of July, especially for does. We got to give them a chance to give birth to their young ones.

Gaawiin Shinaabe daa-giiwosesiin maadaginzod a’aw Aabita-biboonigiizis baamaa go, baamaa go ishkwaa-aabita-niibing. Mii api gii-inendaagozid da-baa-giiwosed nashke kawe da oga-ayaawaan iniw oniijaaniwan miinawaa da-gikinoo’amawaad akeyaa  gaa-izhi-nanda-wiisininid iniw onjiijaaniwan a‘aw waawaashkeshi. Mii apii ko enendaagozid da-giiwosaanind a’aw waawaashkeshi azhigwa ani-ishkwaa-aabita-niibing. Nashke giishpin baashkizwad a’aw waawaashkeshi a’aw oniijaani giishpin baashkizod megwaa megwaa gigishkawaad iniw oniijaanisan gaawiin gaawiin onizhishinzinoon i’iw. Pane ingii-pi-gikinoo’amaagoog gaa-nitaawigijig gego baa-giiwoseken baamaa ishkwaa-aabita-niibing. Miish go ezhichigeyaan dash.

Mii i’iw minik ezhi-gaagiigidoyaan omaa. Inga-nibemaag ingiw bezindawijig.

I'd like to hear a little bit about netting on Lake Mille Lacs.

Nashke, nashke noongom i’iw, gii-pagidawaang netting season izhinikaadeg. Gaawiin ingii-kashkitoosiimin omaa gwech Misi-zaaga’iganing da-bagidiwa’aang onzaam wiikaa gii-maajaa mikwam.

We didn't get a chance to do too much netting on Mille Lacs this spring because of the ice. And while I'm talking about netting, we on Mille Lacs are very strict about our nets. Our nets feed us fish. We respect those nets. I have seen and we have noticed other people come with their nets and they take them out of their boats or boxes, they throw them on the ground and take the fish out of them, drag them across the highway or across a driveway and we never, ever allow our nets to be drug cross the highway or across the road or even to touch the ground and that's a big no-no.

Other tribes, I don't think, are aware of that. Maybe they lost that teaching somewhere. I hope they lost it, but I hope they can pick it back up. We respect those things that feed us. Those tools that we have to get what we need to survive, and the net is a very important tool.

We smudge them, we dry them, and we take care of them. And I've seen, the old people do that with their traps. They would smudge their traps. They would smudge their rifles. They would give feasts for all this. They had rifles, they had knives and all those things that are out there.

They would give feasts for a good harvest, and these things that they're going to use, and that they will be safe with using those knives, and all of those axes and those rifles. So, that's the more traditional people. I don't know of how many people do that, but I can't stress enough how important it is to tell the people not to drag a nets or let them hit the ground. Keep them from box to box, boat to box to boat, and hang them up as soon as you get there, and dry them out. I know we had a net out on Lake Mille Lacs last night, and somebody in the middle of the night went out and cut half of it off. I don't think it was another Shinaabe person but things like that happen and they shouldn't do that. Respect those things that you use when you're getting the game that was provided to us by the Creator.

And likewise, are we supposed to take our nets down then at night, too, if you're hanging about to dry or not leave those out at night?

That I've never heard. That might be it might be in another community they do that. I'm not saying it's wrong, I've just never heard it. You know, our nets are hung out overnight to dry. But that's how they were taught! And if they do that fine, that's a good showing respect for those nets. The other way they use the net, too. My grandpa used to do that but I didn't pay attention. They would net under the ice, and I was asking a few of my friends here the other day, I said "Do you know how net?" Because we were about to go ahead netting under the ice, and I don't know how we're gonna do it, but I think some of my cousins on Mille Lacs know how to do that but I myself don't know how to do that. But they used to do that, and I think they still do.

How did that work when you were growing up then? You know, before we got our treaty rights, they let us, you know, practice our treaty rights again. Was it tough when you were kind of growing up, as a kid, for your family to net?

A lot of people used to sneak net. Had to. We found a way. Just like the wild rice, too, this year. Last year wasn't any good. We've seen a lot of rice that got wasted by the storms. And some people don't know how to maneuver through the rice properly, you know, they'll take their boat and they'll turn around in the middle of a nice rice bed and knock all the stalks down and it'll go to the other way and all that. They don't put tobacco out before they go ricing.

So, you know, and while I'm on that subject too, our casinos use a lot of our wild rice in their buffets on their menu. You know, we try not to waste our wild rice. We try to use all we cook, OK, and when that buffet closes at night, they take all that rice and they throw it away. It's waste. I've been talking about that for two years now. About, let's not put the rice out there for people. Let's make it a special order and they'll eat it and then they won't waste it that way. That food is one of our spiritual foods we got from the Creator, wild rice, deer meat, fish, berries, all those things.

The thing I find, too, is people, they go too early.

They go as soon as the season opens. I'll tell you something, you know, I remember back in the ‘50's when the old local game warden, I'll tell you about it, Basil Irwin ??? Spelling they used to live down here by in Pine County. He would come over and ask the elderly Indian people, men, there was about three or four men that he would ask, "Do you would think the rice is ripe? Should we open it up? And those old guys would go check, and then that old game warden come back again the next day and, you know, "Do you think it's ready?" And they would tell him, you know, "It's ready" or "Give it two more days." And those old men would check and they would tell the game warden, "OK, let's open it up tomorrow." And he would. It's those old Shinaabes that knew when the rice is ready. Now they open it up, what in late August, mid-August and doesn't get a chance to grow, it doesn't get a chance to ripen. And then they break it all up and I said that, "Respect that rice or Manidoo is gonna do something!" Sure enough, man, the Creator had that big storm last summer, wiped everything away. It took it away from us. It's true. So those old people are right when they predict something; they know things. Mii i’iw. Don't get me going, here.

5/20 Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa - Listening to Nature

Larry Amik Smallwood grew up in Aazhoomoog, the Lake Lena District of Mille Lacs. He has worked as a language instructor for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Nay Ah Shing School, the Leech Lake Tribal College, and the University of Minnesota - Duluth. Since 1999, he has served as the director of language and culture for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Gaganoonididaa is produced by KUMD-FM and the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, with funding provided in part by a UMD Strategic Initiative Grant from the Chancellor's Office of UMD, and by Eni-gikendaasoyang - the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Language Revitalization at the University of Minnesota Duluth.