a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
He hadn’t been in any sort of hurry nor on any particular mission. He was just wandering on a nice day, enjoying the good humor of his youngest son. The boy was finally old enough to go on a long walk, enthusiastically, without whining.
The boy was in the lead, scuttling under stiff branches, hopping over downed logs, clambering over and around great broken stumps. It was Nanaboozho who was left behind, by the difficulty of maneuvering his sheer bulk through the dense woods. Where the boy scooted under without thought, the man maneuvered restlessly far to the right or the left, way around and then back again. His son had found a magical, semi-open slope to trip his way down, while the father thought well about the labor that would be involved in bringing an exhausted child back up the steep incline.
At a slight upgrade, the boy stopped to rest, in the openness of acidic non-growth under a hemlock’s sprawling arms. He let a spider crawl from one open-fingered palm to the next, as Nanaboozho approached. There was, at that moment, a cracking high above the ground, in the slight valley nearest them. Nanaboozho became aware of the wind, high up in the trees, off to the west, making its way toward them. And then, there, directly in their line of vision, where their eyes had followed the telltale sounds, an immense maple broke in two. It cracked with a violent pop, and its red-green budded top fell full-belly to the ground. It did not grasp outward and catch in the nearby treetops. It was a marvelous sight, as the downed treetop shuddered and bounced slightly, coming to a sure and solid rest. The broken trunk angled thirty feet into the air, hung in place by residual splinters of white wood.
“What a treat to see that!” Nanaboozho cried out.
He zigzagged his way carefully toward the area where the tree fell. He wanted to make sure that nothing else would fall, that he and the boy would be safe. There, he saw it, on an opposing ridge, at his own height. The tree had merely lost a giant fork, thirty feet up from the ground, immense as a tree itself, splintered away from an old wound that had weakened the great, growing thing over the span of a full decade. Now the tree stood taller, straighter, and healthier than ever before. This was the work of his father, the West Wind. Nanaboozho knew—his healing and culling of the forest itself, for miles in any direction, was a powerful, invisible force that howled out its name after it was too late to run for cover. Nanaboozho found comfort in this, in knowing that his father was always with him, wrapping himself like a cocoon around his environment, following him about on long forays, not unlike his relationship with his own boy today. And it could be years, even lifetimes, before the boy himself understood that his own grandfather had been there that day and had gifted him with the downing of that particular fork of a tree.
And so, the grown man let the child lead him on through the woods, into the places that were out of his normal routine of work and pleasure, to places he’d scarcely visited since he was very young and less of a workaholic. Lifetimes had piled their indiscretions upon his beloved forest, and ancient, fully mature mixes of hardwoods softly gave way to pine barrens, like the ones he knew from the most windblown escarpments of the Great Lakes. Naked white sand hung loosely about the shallow roots of these stunted and unhealthy trees. But unlike the dune trees, they were all the same size, the same shape, and suffered from the same malnutrition and illness. He had only seen anything this absurd back during his childhood, when a slightly older half-spirit sibling had toyed with the idea of creating his own landforms. Those trees, too, were evenly spaced, identical, and void of the scars and benefits of individual interaction with the myriad life forms of any forest. Those trees, too, had failed to reproduce and stood like living stumps, hungry for sunlight, on naked soil with no clinging underbrush to hug and lovingly humidify their parched and scaling bodies and roots.
How could Nanaboozho have wandered so far from home without noticing, so far away from the mature woods where he felt comfortable, far from the well-known paths and countryside, so familiar that he felt powerful in their midst? In his own home territory, he knew the path of every tiny bird, the swelling and recession of every rivulet. He knew every dip, where every bee had sought respite from various hilltop breezes and influenced the pollination of patches of wild strawberries. But here, here, among the stunted, poorly-tended plantation-pines that humans had cultivated to compensate for over-logging, Nanaboozho felt small, like a bug in a cornfield. He sat, awed, among the desiccated pine needles of the harsh forest floor. He combed his own mind, to get back his bearings. Nothing worked, and he rose to follow the crackling of twigs and the convoluted singing that would lead him to his playful young boy who had run ahead.
But there, on the deer trail ahead of him, between himself and the sound of the distant boy’s safety, was the Wiindigo. For all of the horror stories he had heard about these cannibalistic sociopaths, Nanaboozho was surprised to see that the Wiindigo was no bigger than he was. He was large of stature, but lean and filthy. His clothing was graying and frayed about the wrists. The forearms protruded far beyond the sleeve-remnants of the shirt, and the wrists bore prominent, protruding joint bones with pale, crisscrossed scars from the scratching grasp of thousands of dry undergrowth branches. The hands, too, were too-large and bony, painfully scarred and mounded with callouses from pawing through sterile soil in search for sweet tidbits of roots. The eyes were sunken and looked only generally in his direction, like those of a beaten dog.
“Looking for mushrooms, eh?” An arm crooked, a forearm raised up, and a dead-branchlet of a forefinger protruded from a longish hand that dangled from the jagged wrist. It was as though the Wiindigo could not quite raise an arm to point, or perhaps had chosen to save his last bits of strength for the certain kill. There was coldness in the paucity of motions, the watching without moving, with no waste of energy, no revelation of weakness or strength. The Wiindigo waited.
“Now, why does he wait?” Nanaboozho wondered. “Is he waiting for fate? Probably not. He’s waiting for me to move, to show him my plan of escape.” And so Nanaboozho found himself frozen, wasting precious moments, considering his options, fearing his lack of options. Changing into a tiny bird might be his best move. The Wiindigo would not be able to follow his quick movements among the brittle limblets of the sick trees. Fine for him, but what about the boy? For all his ability to transform himself, he could not change one creature into another with such speed and ease. It would be up to the boy to grow and learn to do these things himself. It was Nanaboozho’s job as loving parent to keep the child alive and guide him through learning processes. Although Nanaboozho was the son of the West Wind, his mother was human, and even he, Nanaboozho, had his limitations. His boy was vulnerable, due to his lack of life experiences. Nanaboozho chose to hold his ground and wait for the Wiindigo to reveal something about himself.
“So, do you want to flee?” asked the Wiindigo.
“Of course,” Nanaboozho answered, cautioning himself not to mention the boy—although there was no doubt in his mind that the Wiindigo knew about the boy. Singing and tripping, stopping to pound, clap, and jump, the child drew attention to himself. Every living thing in the woods knew he was there. Every predator knew he was there.
Perhaps Nanaboozho could distract the Wiindigo from the boy. Perhaps he might first test the Wiindigo’s reflexes. Nanaboozho snapped a naked, dry branch from one of the pines. It popped loudly. A chipping sparrow sprang from the tree, its small brown and gray wings whirring repeatedly. The Wiindigo did not startle. Smoothly, quickly, he raised his left arm, as the bird darted over his shoulder. The sparrow flew into the waiting palm, and the Wiindigo’s fingers curled around the prey. Aggressively refusing to succumb to traditional Anishinaabe cultural norms, the Wiindigo then stared directly into Nanaboozho’s eyes, smiling eerily, as he addressed him.
“You must know that I am not unreasonable, Nanaboozho,” began the Wiindigo. “I am hungry. There are no mushrooms here, no plump roots, few families of fat game at home here, only starving individuals who are, to their own misfortune, merely passing through.”
His breath was fetid. When the Wiindigo spoke, bits of rotting flesh dangled from his molars like stalagmites in a deep cave with a narrow, convoluted mouth; but the fragments swayed slightly and looked gummy, with not enough spit. He was not just hungry. He was dehydrated, too, like the sick trees among which he hunkered.
“I will give you an honest man’s chance, Nanaboozho,” rasped the Wiindigo. “I am only hungry. I am neither liar nor thief.”
The teeth were rotten, discolored and uneven. They moved freely in the swollen, sore gums of the Wiindigo’s mouth, as he spoke slowly and deliberately. At rest, the Wiindigo’s jaw hung open slightly, as he sucked air into his deprived and damaged lungs. As he spoke, he cupped the desperate sparrow between both palms, exposing long, fleshless fingers. Nanaboozho saw that the previous winter had been particularly hard on the beastly man, and that frost had split and scalded his fingers. He’d had no source of tallow to rub into the wounds of his sensitive fingertips. Nanaboozho wanted to feel sympathy for the man’s misfortune, but fear for his child’s immediate safety forced him to stay attentive and directed.
There, there, finally, Nanaboozho saw in those misshapen, large-boned fingertips, the slightest of quivers. So, this was it, the Wiindigo’s weakness—the challenge, the excitement of the gamble—all or nothing. Perhaps the Wiindigo was weaker than Nanaboozho had thought, for only moments ago, Nanaboozho had assumed that all was lost, that his fate had rested securely in the hands of the starving, cruel soul before him.
“Now, Nanaboozho, do you trust me?”
Nanaboozho did not answer.
“Your fate rests with the fate of this bird in my hands.” The Wiindigo’s narrow eyes swept slowly down and across the cupped hands he held before him like an evil offering. Nanaboozho could imagine the feel of the soft, desperate bird flitting against the constraint of the long fingers. Finally, the Wiindigo’s gaze defiantly met Nanaboozho’s once again. “Guess if this bird I have in my hands is alive or dead,” whispered the Wiindigo. He accentuated every word with his loose and too-large lips, lips that fought for control. His stale breath wound hot and prominent among the dry tree trunks. Nanaboozho dared not narrow his nostrils against it.
He stood his ground and thought before he spoke: “I cannot tell you that I think the bird is dead, because I would be wishing for its demise to save my own skin. You know that I will not do that. And, if I tell you that the bird is alive, you will crush it to prove me wrong.”
Slowly, with deliberation, the Wiindigo shifted his prize to his curled left palm only, crooked the wrist toward himself, smiled hideously, and huskily mouthed, “You choose.”
Richard Grosvenor’s father had secured a job at the mines southwest of Ishpeming by withholding the fact that his mother was a Rice Bay Chippewa from down on the northwest corner of Lake Michigan. His bottom lip swerving downward and out in perfect coordination with a suppressed beer belch, he told Richard that he didn’t have to withhold the fact that he’d been a lumberjack in order to get the mining job, which entailed raking steer manure from nearby farms into thin even layers so that the sun and wind could dry out the chunks. When it was too wet to dry the manure, which was most of the time on Lake Superior’s south shore, Richard’s dad traveled with a foreman in a company pickup truck, then trotted bucketloads of dry manure to the explosives-men at blasting sites around the south side of the mountain. It was by virtue of this initial job at the Black Mountain Mine that Richard’s father been given the nickname Shit Boy.
Whenever his foreman was busy talking to one of the fellas about the job at hand or where he’d nailed his latest big pike in one of the nearby fishing holes that hadn’t yet been rendered acrid and lifeless by runoff from the mine, Shit Boy scrutinized the quantity, tightness, and quality of the mix of dynamite, manure, and fuse that the explosives men used to fill their bore holes in the mountainsides,. He paid close attention to the hydraulic and electrical hookups that stretched from blast site to blast site, and he observed and memorized the language and the visual signals that the blasters and the foremen gave one another. Eventually Richard’s father worked his way up from Shit Boy to Flagman to Explosives Technician’s Assistant. “An’ hell, if I’da gone ta college, I’da been up there in da tower wit’ dem bosses,” he’d slur, with a wave of his hand passing precariously over the top of his amber-filled glass. During these weekend wind-downs the only other thing he ever waved at was the moose head mount behind the corner table at Montie’s Pub, and his knuckles often came precariously close to the big, twisted antlers dangling down from the wall.
“I did pretty good for myself,” he would tell his oldest child, swaying backward with the full force of another suppressed belch and the beer-induced dizziness he fell back upon to try to forget the close calls of the past week on the job, or the strings of injuries and deaths that allowed quick learners like him to move up the job ladder. “I become a full explosives technician. Took da tests and ever’ting. Hell, I only graduated eighth grade!” This, of course, had been an accomplishment, in a mining town where the sons of immigrants rarely attended more than elementary school before taking jobs in the mines, and Indians rarely got jobs anywhere.
Richard’s mother was the daughter of one of the Italian immigrant miners who had trained Shit Boy to work with explosives. Richard’s young father had taken to spending his precious free time accompanying her to sunny blueberry patches in scrubby rubble clearings around the mine sites. She picked the abundant fruits with her long brown arms exposed downward from the shoulders of her light summer sundresses, and she smiled and laughed at his jokes. She baked a good blueberry pie, too. Shit Boy brought venison, rabbits, and fish for the girl’s mother to cook. These things probably contributed to the acceleration of his on-the-job training among the immigrants who’d escaped from mining jobs in their nations of origin, only to live and work in mining and lumber mill towns wedged between Lakes Michigan and Superior.
Dark and boisterous Italians were outcasts among the fair, Protestant northern Europeans who had cleared the vast forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the nothingness that became miles of marginal, overgrazed hills and potato fields. So, it was a natural match for Richard’s parents to find one another. He married up, into acceptance and whiteness; and she married familiarity in the form of brownness, Catholicism, and men with dangerous jobs.
Richard was the oldest child in his family, the only boy in four children. He grew up watching his parents and his older relatives and his friends’ parents toil with little progress in a world of rusted cars, company stores, and shingle-sided thin frame houses. He watched streams and creeks grow lifeless and leachate-caked as the mining companies polluted the surface water with runoff. Even the job foremen found it harder and harder to find a big pike or a cache of small brook trout, and, as time passed, more and more stories surfaced about tumors found on the largest of the predator fish that had once been Anishinaabe staples.
Richard’s parents had told him it was their dream to send him up to the mining technology school over in the Keweenaw Peninsula, so that the boy could get his college certificate in engineering. Then he wouldn’t have to work with dynamite or with heavy equipment, dodging landslides in deep canyons and tunnels or on cliff-side two-tracks in blinding snows. His family had attended too many funerals over the years. Richard came to understand that he was his family’s hope. He saved up his earnings during summers of throwing bales for local farmers during the hay season, and he received a partial scholarship to the college. He didn’t much care for the responsibility of being his family’s link to better times, but Richard knew enough about lean times to take his opportunities seriously.
“Just don’t let nobody know yer father’s a goddam indyun, and y’ll do all right,” his father had told him. Identity didn’t seem to be much of a problem, though. There weren’t too many Indians kicking around up at the mining technology school, so Richard was able to keep a low profile. He knew enough to try to pass himself off as Italian, like his mother. There were a couple of Chippewa and Potawatomi girls from Baraga working in the shops and cleaning house for the instructors’ wives, but Richard went out of his way to stay away from them. He even avoided Ardis, who swept the floors at the candy store and had a smile that made Richard stop and stare. Richard wanted to buy paper sugar-dots by the sheet, just so he could watch her count them out. But he knew better, and he saved his pennies to put gas in the old Ford sedan his father had given him for his two-hour drive home on weekends, “Just so yer mom c’n see that ye’re ok an’ we can make sure ya got clean underwears.” Richard wanted to tell his father about Ardis during those weekends, but he chose not to. He’d been programmed to accept his father’s status as a second-class citizen, as Shit Boy.
After his father died, Richard left Black Mountain Mine to take a job at the Morenci Mine, down on the southern border of Arizona. Resource extraction was winding down in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the Arizona desert was, at that time, friendlier to open-pit mining. After several years Richard and his wife retired in nearby Bisbee, Arizona, a quaint wild-west former mining town with mineral and gem shops. His sons became lawyers, and one became a local magistrate judge. Richard’s father’s ethnic identity was never discussed with his children, and persisted solely in Richard’s fading memories of cold, northern days and nights and cultural apartheid.
At some point Richard’s sister, Eleanor, wrote him that the Rice Bay Band of Ojibwe had obtained federal recognition and had established a casino in a small portable building on an isolated stretch of U.S. Highway 2, with the intent of siphoning off some of the summer tourist traffic. Seeking to swell its ranks for political clout and to secure federal funding, the tribe had not established a blood-quantum requirement for membership enrollment. In an effort to overcome northern Michigan’s permanent post-industrial economic slump, Eleanor had registered herself and her own children for tribal benefits, and it looked as though her grandchildren would qualify as well. If he met the enrollment deadline, Richard might receive a small annual senior citizen stipend from the tiny tribe, and his heirs might someday earn benefits, were the tribe’s financial endeavors to succeed.
Now, Richard never really felt like he’d been a member of the Rice Bay Chippewa tribe, because pushing away from that identity had been essential to his family’s survival. When he thought about being an Indian, he thought about his father’s fear of acknowledgment and the strain of dissociating from dangerous workdays in the mine. Richard thought about stunningly beautiful Ardis and how he’d forced himself to stay away from the candy store. He thought about how amiable Ardis had been, the sparkle in her eyes, and the breadth of her smile. Richard contemplated his father’s weekends of self-loathing under the shaggy moose mount, and how, until his death, some of the oldest retired miners still referred to his father as “Shit Boy,” even if only in jest. And Richard decided that, maybe his father would want him to enroll and take the senior stipend, to somehow make up for his father’s own young journey into a lifetime of dangers that included dynamite and self-contempt, far from the north shore of Lake Michigan, where Rice Bay had once embraced his Anishinaabe relatives. If he were alive, Richard’s father might have thought that acknowledgment-via-stipend would make up for the years he’d put himself down in front of his own children, or make up for the stunningly beautiful Indian girl his son might meet and never dare marry.
Richard Grosvenor was his father’s son, and he’d somehow found identity under that mounted moose head, where his father coped with his exhaustion and hypervigilance. So, Richard found his way to the back room of the public library in Bisbee, Arizona, where the computers were kept, and he did the genealogical research that linked him to the grandmother, Marie Pinay Grosvenor, whom he’d never known, because Indians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula worked hard and died young. He acquired the appropriate documents, and he mailed in the appropriate paperwork and tried to reconcile himself with the notion that it was appropriate to still be an Indian. Thereafter, Richard used his annual “Indian”payments” to pay his green fees at the Bisbee Municipal Golf Course, where he found a bit of irrigated foliage and enough moisture to remind him of his Upper Peninsula boyhood. And he did not feel guilty. He only wished he could have his father there beside him, to tell him how much he loved and respected him.
“They’re slow learners, ‘nem whitefolks,” she says, that old lady. She’s as comfortable with herself as she is with the old, newly-upholstered wooden chair that she hugs close to the door of the woodstove, scooting it back and forth as she needs, to add a log or just to open the door, because the direct heat feels good on her knees and comforts her soul.
When I’d arrived with the sack of groceries, gleaned from a housecleaning job for an elderly summer resident on her way to winter in Indiana this year, the old lady had been listening to a monotonous drone on the television. It was a university channel of some sort. She listened to them all, and she sat and argued over her shoulder with the various distinguished professors who threw out learning curves and statistics about people of color living below the poverty line. She did this while she snipped away at long, curled sheets of thick birch tree bark, dividing her time between survival art, survival heat in the form of dry log transfer, and sipping away at weak, hot tea. Sometimes it was bagoosan, waapoos wawaskwanen, or a medicine root she’d traded for some miraculous piece of beauty she’d wrestled and wooed from tree bark.
She once showed me an image of a caribou she’d scraped into the orange inner bark of a thick rectangle of birch bark. Her scrapings always ended up in museums, she said, because not many people made them any more. Tourists bought them, then eventually donated them to institutons, garnering tax breaks greater than the sums they’d paid for their tourist treasures. She said people have told her they’ve seen her baskets in the Smithsonian Institution. She’d never been there, and she never tried to imagine what it was like. She assumed that the institution itself was more valuable than her work, and she kept producing her designs for less than minimum wage, just to make gas money, by entertaining strangers with her dexterity.
Scraping designs into the bark had been the way people decorated cradle boards in the old days, she said, because it provided nothing for a small child to accidentally ingest or get caught in an airway. She said you had to do it while the bark was fresh. Otherwise the striations in the inner cambium bark would run like an old nylon stocking, if one didn’t cut in deeply and precisely enough…and she fingered her old pocket knife when she said that. It was small, and it fit snugly in her small hands and small pockets. I never saw her make the scrapings again. She said it was too hard to get good bark any more, and that people didn’t want to pay for the labor of trying to find good bark. She found the best bark up near her mother’s old house, north of the Sault in Ontario; and sometimes young border guards confiscated her bark when she tried to bring it across the border into Michigan. It didn’t have anything to do with the legality of transporting the bark as much as it had to do with what kind of mood they were in, or if they needed somebody they knew they could get away with dumping on, she said.
One time she started telling me stories about how Native women on the Great Lakes were taken captive, even hundreds of years ago, before drug abuse and shame could be used to drag them away from their families into the cities. She said they were taken onto “party boats” for prostitution purposes, where they were taken down the St. Lawrence Seaway, and that Aniishinaabe blood was now scattered all over the world. She said it with pride, as though she felt the rest of the world was lucky to share in the bloodline, anonymous or not. She said that we are so beautiful that even the wind wants to make love with us. She said that her mother and grandmothers spoke of the waterborne prostitution only in whispers. That bit of history was tucked away like shame, living in the oral memorabilia of Indians, but never acknowledged in the official state history of the fur trade and shipping on the Great Lakes.
“You know, you go to those summertime powwows,” she would say, “the kind where people sell stuff, sitting hot in the sun, gotta act all grateful to them tourists, buy somethin’ from yuh, don’t make no minimum wage off of it.” She doesn’t like those powwows. She remembers when dancing was spontaneous and celebrated life.
“Don’t go to them no more. Used to go to ‘em,” she says, “jus’ to find folks I hadn’t seen in a while. Sometimes you could go half a lifetime without seeing somebody, find them lonesome at a powwow.” I knew that. I found my old childhood friend, Raphie, that way, lonesome for Indian company, lonesome to not feel other in a big world full of others, lonesome to feel like our Indian childhoods were valid. We mail each other Christmas cards, and we talk on the phone every couple of years, to exchange stories about our families and to tell Indian jokes that nobody else understands.
“You know how that MC, he says at that powwow, ‘Nish’naabe wimen, dey’re da most beautiful wimen in na world!’ You know how they say that?” And I do know. It makes me feel pretty every time I think about that, about our beauty. It makes me forget that I’m an outsider when I leave that reservation, that powwow, that community.
“Well they don’t say it ‘cause dere wives will be mad at ‘em if they don’t. They say it ‘cause dey believe it. From our ancestors’ mouths to their ears.” And she nods her head and rearranges herself in that chair, feeling beautiful.
I would no more expect her to hear arguments to the contrary than I would expect the droning professors on the television to acknowledge and respond to her. I giggle softly, and I repeat, “From our ancestors’ mouths to their ears.”
Lois Beardslee is an award-winning Lacandon/Ojibwe author and illustrator. She is the first Native American to win the Michigan Notable Book Award, for her latest book, WORDS LIKE THUNDER, New and Used Anishinaabe Prayers (Wayne State University Press 2020), which received a silver medal in the 2021 Midwest Book Awards. Her work celebrates the strengths of Indigenous people while addressing contemporary issues like climate change, socioeconomic inequality, and racism in education.