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2/17 Ojibwe Stories - Gaganoonididaa: End-of-Life Rituals


On this episode of Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa, Larry Amik Smallwood talks with host Erik Redix about the Ojibwe views on winter activities, and also explores rites observed by Ojibwe at the end of life.


2/17 Ojibwe Stories - Gaganoonididaa: End-of-Life Rituals

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.

Ojibwe Stories: Gaganoonididaa is produced by KUMD and the Department of American Indian Studies at UMD, with funding provided in part by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Ojibwe language-related content in this episode:

I was told things when I was young when I was playing out in the snow you know everything is  - we have to respect everything. One of the things I was told was not to make fun of the snow. Don't build snow men, things like that because there is a Manidoo – Gaa-biboonike -  is what they call him. The spirit of the snow. Everything to us is spiritual. The one who brings us snow Gaa-biboonike and even the rains – binesiiwag obiidoonaawaa nibi - even the Thunderbirds that we believe in. So, everything is spiritual so by us making - I tried that a couple times and I got scolded for it - You know I tried to build a snowman or something like that, you know, “Don’t do that”. They never told us why, really, until we got a little bit bigger. And the same thing too, some kids were over one day and they're making snow angels or whatever they are called. And that old lady hollered at me and said “gego giin izhichigeken I’iw” - “Don't you be doing that”,  “Oonh, ahaw goda!” - “Oh okay.” I never did say why? But later on, they told me when he got into my curious years when before I started teaching or just about the time I started teaching.


Because that's the thing I think today, people want to know that kind of stuff. You know they're like why should we do that there you know.


Right you know and long time ago the elders told us and we never said “Why?” you know. Why and why not. This is one of our teachings. OK. And then we go back to that someday you'll know. It was for me some day didn't come soon enough so I went on and got really, I asked a lot of questions a lot of people.


Because, for me it goes way back from the time I first heard these ministers and preachers and that and you know after the experience I had with my mom telling me we have a different way. So, that's when I start getting curious and asking these questions and “Why do we do this?” “Why don't we do with this”? and all that. So, that's one of the reasons why we don't make snow men or make snow angels because you know, “gibaapinodawaanaan Gaa-biboonike baadood I’iw baboon” – he who brings the winter.


So, meaning that it's something where people do it then we'll have like more snow? Or I guess I wanna know more about the why.


Yeah right. Well, I asked too because you know we have a lot of young parents in Ojibwe country and you know, they maybe they don't know. They need to you know explain to their kids.


Right well, and see I was growing up in a time in that era where you didn't ask why. You know, wanna know something you wait till later then ask why. And then maybe they'll explain it to you, once they thought you were old enough you know. They'll explain it to you and that's only thing they told me is you're making fun of the Manidoo one of the spirits there, so. I just never did. I told some my kids when they were growing up, “don’t do that”. “Why”? We just don't.


I want to ask you to a little bit about end of life rights for Ojibwe people. And you know what's our belief about you know we have all these modern things in our communities and the outside culture is changing in their attitudes about funerals and end of life type stuff. We have things like cremation and then what are we told about that from our teachings - cremation.


Well, we believe there is no end of life actually. You know the body that we - that houses our spirit - is what gets tired and worn out and old and you know eventually gives up. But we still live on we have our spirit. So, there is no end of life if you go to a traditional funeral and if you listen to what the person that's conducting the funeral has to say you will get a good understanding, you will know why. Because a funeral is not done I think other cultures think that way too but a funeral is not an end of life it is a beginning of a life - a beginning of a new life.


Because in our culture. We send the spirit, we talk to the spirit and tell him he must go back to the spirit world. And we talk to that individual in our language and tell him the necessary steps that he or she must take to get to the spirit world. And then and that is very important. Because once you get to the spirit world there is no coming back and eventually we all go up there some time or other. So, it's a beginning of a new life for them. Gaagige-minawaanigoziwining izhi-wiinjigaade i’iw.  It is called the “Land of Everlasting Happiness”, it’s not called the Happy Hunting Ground. Something else there but “Land of Everlasting Happiness” is the best way we can translate it.


And if you listen to the funeral story, the journey that the individual has to take, the steps he has to take, it is very comforting to the family that lost this person, very comforting to get a good understanding of what's going on and what this spirit is going to be doing. And it's really good. I used to listen to these elderly men when I was young when they used to do the funerals. And you know by at the time I was probably sixteen years old, seventeen before I left home and I pretty much knew the story of how it went.


So, that was fine and dandy, of course. I moved out and I went to the cities and all over the military and all over the west coast and lived and traveled and here and there. And then when I came back to Minnesota, I started teaching of course and me teaching and I got you know I said I was curious you know so I wanted to know these things that I was teaching about.


So, I learned these things and probably in the late ‘90’s probably around ‘99 and the really late ‘90’s, my uncle called me up one day you know I was living over in Leech Lake.


“Indaga, bi-giiwen. Indaa-ayekozimin gosha. Gidaa-pi-naadamawaa a’aw mayaajaa’iwed.” “Ahaw,” indinaa.


He called me up and he asked me, “you think you should come home now”. We're getting tired here and uh, too tired to do these things. There is a man here who is doing them now and he needs some help and gidaa-pi-naadamawaa ina? Can you come and assist him.? So, I thought about it and I finally agreed and came back to Mille Lacs. I sat with niitaawis ingii-wiidabimaa Lee Staples, for a few years and then listening to him and got the story down. How he does things, Mide funerals are a little different you know but I'm learning that too. I have done one or two of those Mide funerals. But so now Lee does them, I do them, and Melvin Eagle does them over in Mille Lacs, and Skip Churchill does them so there's a handful that still do the traditional funerals.


And so, like if the family comes to you and says well or even people before they pass on if they're older sick that means they say we want to be cremated what are teachings about that?

Is that taboo or?


Nobody has ever come up to me or to Lee either and said I want to be cremated. You know, you're still talking to me how you want to be cremated you know. But it's a family's after the individual passes away and we want to cremate old Dad here, we want to cremate old mama, well we look at it as just getting by with a cheap funeral. Sorry to sound so blunt but that's what it is. You know they don't have to pay for the casket, they don't have to do that, so they just want to cremate him and get it over with, that's the way we look at it. And then that's not our way cremation, you know and it's not.


A long time ago even before caskets, and before any of modern stuff come around we used to bury the people and sometimes they were wrapped in birch bark and I've seen that too just as recently as ten years ago or they wrapped an individual birch bark and buried her.


Can we still do that I mean is that I mean yeah like United States government type that they allow that or?


Well they did. Ordinances or whatever right, right all you know there's always rules for something. You know we have our cultural laws too, our cultural rules too, you know. But, yeah, they've done it with birch bark and things like that you know. But cremation was not one of our ways. It was just a way to do a cheap funeral so the kids don't have to pay for the funeral. And that's the way we look at it.


I mean is there any teachings to about why it's not a good idea?


I've never actually heard any teachings about that, just the comments I made I have heard from some elders that they shouldn’t do that. Right. I mean is there something too about disrupting like your journey to the other side if you do that? Well your spirit lives on so what happens to your shell you know something else I guess just a respect for it.


But, anyway you know there's people that do funeral ceremonies and each one is a little different depending on what community you're from. But like I say over in Mille Lacs and the three districts there haven't changed anything in forever. It's always been the same and the story the directions given to the Spirit is the same. You know the telling the spirit about the journey he or she has of take at the same but there are different ways of doing things you know. We have a lot of rules do's and don'ts during our funeral ceremonies you know. Expectant women are not allowed to view the body you know because of something else here and also wearing glasses when you view the body you know that is forbidden, because the spirit is still there and causes the glare and he or she can see himself or herself.


There's something I always want to ask about that, it seems cheesy, so it's going to be a cheesy question are contacts OK about that, or?


I don’t know. Maybe people do wear contacts over there, I can't tell you to take your contacts out. They're inside of you anyhow you know but to go in a big pair of glasses like I'm wearing over here and so that's a no-no. Yeah, and then also food is very important.


Our funerals are different like I said. We talk to the spirit and give their direction and their steps that they have to take to get to the spirit world and there's no other way around it. You know other funerals you know they don't do that. Our way is, hasn't changed and it's the only way because they don't talk to the spirits and the other type of service and that's why you have these spirits that wander. You might see somebody passed away and you didn't have a traditional burial you might what they call amanis. You might see them walking on a road or something and we’ll see them in your house or you might see them outside or wherever they have these moments you know where they see someone here. You know that is probably the spirit that didn't get sent off right and didn't get sent to where he was supposed to go because he wasn’t given the directions in Ojibwe.


It's kind of scary, actually.


It is, it is. There's you know there's a lot of things happening out there and I could give you examples but we're not going to do that of people that I've seen some one that passed away and in nine times out of ten they weren't sent off the right way you know.


In your kind of role in funerals you don't just go to Mille Lacs you go to different communities, right, like where was some of the furthest you've traveled.


I believe I have gone to Sioux St. Marie, Ontario. And Lee Staples has gone down in the deep south of Georgia or somewhere in Kentucky somewhere down that way.


Theres still natives down there?


Yeah, yeah. Yes, there are a native down there, what happened here is one of our Mille Lacs band members who lived down that way, you know. But then I have done some in Michigan too. They're a little less fortunate than we are because they don't have any person that can do this because it was not handed down or passed down to them so they get a person from over here, and you get a person up there, and they get a person down that way and pretty soon they're all mixed up. There's no consistency to how they do things and like I said earlier we here in Mille Lacs are fortunate. We haven't changed anything for 100 some years.  We're very fortunate down here. Right now, Lee Staples is working with a few individuals on teaching them the way to do these things, conduct these things and so.


Is that how we kind of get these things as I go this isn't just limited to funerals I guess it could be any kind of ceremonies and teachings and whatnot that because you know we see it and you know it like you mentioned Mille Lacs is pretty fortunate that you know you guys still have a generation there that where there is a group of people that still do those things as opposed to maybe other places. But is there kind of an effort you know as we talk about language revitalization bringing back our ceremonies too, you know and again with the geography as well it's important to have you know to bring back to where it isn't just Mille Lacs or Red Lake where these things are happening but where these people that people can go anywhere to do these sort of things?


Well, I'm not saying don't get me wrong I'm not saying like I know Red Lake has their way too – up in Ponema, you know, they're doing their things are traditional people. They have their spiritual leaders and advisors and people and so does Nett lake and they have some in Leech Lake.  But I'm just saying farther away is less fortunate as we are and so we're fortunate up here in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin Ojibwes. You know to still have some people that can do these things.


So, what's your advice to about if a family comes to you about things like organ donation? What is Ojibwe view about that, or the ceremonial view?


That's another one we don't believe in that. People do and I don't know, I just can't see it myself. You know, they always ask. They asked me that when I got my driver's license, took my test, do you want to donate.  No, no I want all my organs I'm going to go whole if I can, minus some teeth maybe. Or, finger or something but I am going to go as whole as I can be. They don't ask us that too much.


But like you say though I mean that's kind of in the modern world we live in that something they hit you with right away at the DOT.


Right. Right.


And make you feel almost like you know you're less of a person if you don't get on the bandwagon.


Right. So, I don't think anybody would want my organs anyway. But no, we have strict rules and belief, about cremation, about donating organs and all these kinds of the things. I want to keep everything as it is pretty much. And you're talking about funerals too. Funerals will take two days you know you have the wake one night and then you have the funeral the next day. And some places, I don't understand it but they have a wake for four nights. I mean that's a long time for somebody to be you know laying around some place and to be shifted here and there and for people to observe.


You know, so we just have the wake one night and a feast and eat with that spirit so to speak and the next day again before we send him on a journey we eat with him because you know before you go on a journey you like to eat. So, we treat that individual good. We feast him or her and then we feast together and then we send him on his. It's not an easy thing to be doing a funeral. You know when you stand up when you do this and it might be a close friend of yours or a distant relative and then you can feel everybody's pain when they go through there. And if you take all that in and it gets you tired after you do that. And I never understood how Lee could say he got so tired after he did that until I started doing it myself. And I said, “holy man” I'm tired I'm drained. You know I think it's so important for you, you're responsible to get that spirit to the spirit world. You know all your concentration and everything man is directed on what you're doing and that's what drains you.


So, this is like another you know I think we talked a few shows back of all the reason we need to speak Ojibwe. So is another good example of why people need to know Ojibwe?


That is a good example of why you need to know Ojibwe and you know like I said before you know to do these ceremonies, you have to speak Ojibwe. You know some people, they learn a little Ojibwe and they mispronounce words. And man, if you're doing a ceremony you better pronounce that word exactly how it's supposed to be said because of you know, mispronounce a word and it's going to mean something totally different. So, when you're responsible for something like giving a name or doing a funeral man that's on you. It’ll come back on you so that's why I'm so leery about different so-called spiritual leaders or healers or anything like that. You have to know what you're saying you know. That's me though you know.


So I want to ask you about one teaching that I heard of all that kind of relates to this topic has to fingernails. Like burning your fingernails after you clip them is that something that you've heard of or?


I've heard of that although not down my way or our way here. I think further up north they save they're their hair, their nails or their if they have to get a get one of their limbs cut off, I heard and save those, you know, but not our way. I mean not our way down here. It might be somebody else’s way up north which is fine and dandy. You know when we didn’t have that teaching down here, but I have heard of that up north. So, like I said each community or each different cases is a little bit different. I don't know everything I don't.


Gaawiin geniin, gaawiin akina gegoo niin ingikendaziin. Mii eta go bangi gekendamaan izhi-wiindamaageyaan.


You know you were talking about the family is what they do, do's and don'ts and after the funeral, you know there is something that the family has to do. And, one of the things that the they have to do is refrain from any alcohols or whatever mood altering chemicals so to speak you know refrain from that because after you lose somebody you can get into a habit of doing that right if you do it and you'll get worse at it.


However, they do tell our people to live life to the fullest after you have lost somebody hold your head up and be proud and we do not, we do not cut our hair, we are Ojibwe's. We do not cut our hair, we do not quit dancing for a year we do not quit singing for a year. We do not do those. We continue singing and dancing.


What about like harvesting rice and stuff or is that a different?


And that's another thing they're after you lost somebody you cannot go out and pick fresh vegetation after the person that died. Anything you know like fish, wild rice, berries, deer meat any of those things that we, somebody has to get it for you and prepare it and then feed you - da-zhakamoonda’igooyan - and that's all we have to do and I just did a ceremony like that yesterday for a friend of mine. He lost a son back here in September and gave me some tobacco and told me to come over because he hadn't been fed and somebody's him a fish and somebody's got him deer meat. So, I went over and did that ceremony for him and now he is OK to go out and hunt and fish. And I told him you got to do this again when the bears come out you got to do this.


You gotta do this for each thing you’re going to eat?


Well yeah, the berries, the rice, and the meat you know.


Right. So, what otherwise though aside from you know harvesting stuff the other stuff you are supposed to do right. Don’t shave your head right.


No please don't. You don't want to see what's under there. Right.  


You know my dad's name was Pete Nickaboine SPELLING, and he had a brother named George Nickaboine, and a brother named Frank Nickaboine. And Frank and George always used to dance together. They were old time grass dancers. And well George you know passed away. So, Frank quit dancing for a long time. And then one day my dad and I were over in Mille Lacs, at the Trading Post and they were having a pow wow and he saw his brother Frank dancing over there. My dad got really happy “Oh, he's dancing over there”.


So, after a minute after a bit there he got a chance to talked to his brother and said, I see you're dancing again. I'm glad you're dancing. And Frank told him, well our brother George said, I dreamt about him. He was not happy because I wasn’t dancing. So I told him we used to dance together why don't you dance? So, that’s why he started dancing. And, so, you know what? They send little messages you know. You get these little dreams or little messages and to do things. So, yeah, we keep on dancing, we keep on singing, you know. It might be hard at first but also at too at our ceremonial drums we have washing away the tears ceremonies. You know after so long when someone has lost somebody we'll do a ceremony for that person,” OK you have grieved enough, you know we’ll make you dance here now, enjoy life and they gift them and make them dance and they continue on.


How close with going out and you know ricing, hunting and whatnot is it up to the person to decide like how close they were to this person that they don't want to do that or?


Immediate family and well you know, sisters, cousins, nephews, grandkids, stuff like that uncles and aunts. So and then outside of that then fine you know.


The other thing I want to ask you about to before we get out here, is suicide. Like what's the kind of traditional thought of all that.


Suicide. It's a sickness your state of mind and the individual is sick his mind is not working right that's why they do that. You know people that used to commit suicide and so they couldn't send them anywhere because they would be stuck somewhere but you know if he does that on account of illness we treated it like he was sick and passed away from sickness. So, that’s how we do.


So, we're not stuck in that.