Tribal College

Nanaboozhoo and the Wiindigo

(Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this history appears in the TCJ department Voices.)

Long ago, the Ojibwe people were sick. A terrible epidemic was killing them. There was a man called Ode’imin. Ode’ means heart in Ojibwe, and his name explains his connection to his emotions. Ode’imin got sick and died. In death, he traveled west to where it’s more beautiful than the sunset. When he got to that river that he would have to cross to the other side, the spirits asked him, “Why are you grieving, Ode’imin?”

Ode’imin answered, “Because my people are dying.” The spirits told Ode’imin that he was to return to the Ojibwe. He was to tell them that their teacher was coming to teach them about minobimaadiziwin, the good life. Their teacher would bring to the Ojibwe their rituals and ceremonies to help them get over the hills in their lives, the historic trauma that we have experienced since contact.

Nanaboozhoo is the name of our teacher, and Wiindigo—otherwise known as colonization—is the name of the monster that was killing us. Colonization and historical trauma travel together. Known to the world, historical trauma was committed against the Jewish people in Nazi Germany during World War II. This history of genocide is told the world over. Yet the genocide committed against the Indigenous Americans is not known. Historical trauma is committed against an entire “people,” in our case, the Ojibwe of the Leech Lake Nation. That trauma is passed down from generation to generation and exhibits itself in the behaviors, both psychological and physiological, of our people today. These aftereffects of historical trauma are called historical loss symptoms. Depression, anger, suicide, dysfunctional parenting, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, and diabetes are examples of these loss symptoms. The loss symptoms occur because of the traumatic and historical losses of our peoples. Kathleen Brown-Rice lists three historical losses: loss of people, loss of land, and loss of culture.

In the stories of the giant cannibal, Wiindigo could be in Florida one moment and by taking one step he could be in Minnesota the next. He killed our people, sometimes tearing apart the children, elders, and women, and tossing their body parts here and there as he moved on, knowing full well that we couldn’t enter the place more beautiful than the sunset—often thought of as heaven—without all our body parts.

In building the dams on the Mississippi River, which runs through our reservation, 42,000 acres of land were flooded. We are water people. Our villages and burial sites were next to the lakes and rivers. When the settler society built its dams to provide energy for the mills in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and also to help float the logs downriver to support the logging industry, the Ojibwe people were not asked how we would be affected. The effects were devastating, destroying our wild rice beds, cranberry bogs, villages, and flooding our gravesites.

As time unfolded and stories were told, Nanaboozhoo was called upon to kill the Wiindigo. One day he would, but it would only happen after he experienced many failures, including the loss of his people’s faith in him. Indeed, Nanaboozhoo’s name meant “foolish,” according to Basil Johnston, a renowned Ojibwe elder, linguist, and author. But Nanaboozhoo loved his people and learned from his numerous mistakes. Even though he left the Ojibwe people long ago after they lost faith in him, he said he would return if the Ojibwe needed him again, if they believed in him again. This also is an example of the loss of culture. Nanaboozhoo represents our ancestors—those who gave us our rituals and ceremonies, our culture and language. These same things are what we are now, what we are picking up again at our tribal colleges and communities. We give thanks and acknowledgement to Nanaboozhoo.

In our migration story, it’s told that we originally lived north of Maine along the Atlantic Ocean. Seven beings came out of the ocean one day and told the people that they were to move to the place where food grew on the water. We traveled along the St. Lawrence Seaway and around the Great Lakes, both north and south, until we came to that place where manoomin, wild rice, grows in the water. Even though we couldn’t depend on the annuities in later years, we could always depend on the manoomin and the fish of the waters to feed us. In our migration story, we talk about the things that we dropped along the way as we traveled. Those things have to do with culture and language, with our history.

It was Nanaboozhoo’s older brother, Maudjeekawis, who inspired the Ojibwe to write their history on birchbark scrolls, draw petroglyphs on rocks, and to tell our migration story each time that we met in Mdewiwin ceremonies. Ojibwe people are oral people who understand that agreements made in documents like the 1855 treaty that established the Leech Lake reservation could easily be forgotten or broken. We were told to always pass our history and stories down orally. We were told that a time would come when we would once again pick up those things we had dropped along the way. Of course that is true when students are required to take two semesters of Ojibwe language and are able to learn about colonization in the Introduction to Anishinaabe Studies and the History of Leech Lake courses. Still, on that migration, we lost our land, our children to the boarding schools, our people to disease and despair. After all, Wiindigo was a giant.

According to Lenore A. Stiffarm (Gros Ventre), Indigenous Americans have experienced the longest, continuous genocide in the history of the world. In The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, Stiffarm writes that there were approximately 12,000,000 Indigenous American people and over 500 nations in 1520. Between 1520 and 1524, there was a pandemic that crossed the land of North America, Nanaboozhoo’s Turtle Island. This sickness is said to have killed three quarters of the Indigenous Americans living within the contiguous boundaries of the United States. That means that within a four-year period, 9,000,000 died. For the Ojibwe, history and legends were passed down orally. This type of tragedy consequently showed up in our legends, Nanaboozhoo battling the Wiindigos, Nanaboozhoo always hungry and searching for food, Nanaboozhoo angry and in despair that the Wiindigos were killing his people.

In my family, a story is told about my great-great grandmother, Marie Johnson. She was born around 1850 and grew up on the Red Cliff Reservation in northern Wisconsin next to Madeline Island. It is the 7th stopping place, as told in our migration story, where food grows on the water. When she was a teenager, she was raped by a White man. They said that he had red hair. Marie became pregnant and was then banished from Red Cliff. She traveled by foot and canoe to the Mission area on Lake Andrusia, which is on the Leech Lake reservation where my family is enrolled. It’s said that her first child, a girl, had red hair. Her second child, Isabelle, was born around 1870. Isabelle is my great grandmother.

When my great-great grandmother was pregnant, the Sandy Lake Tragedy occurred for the Ojibwe people. In Holding Our World Together, Brenda Child, an Ojibwe historian, writes that the Ojibwe were told that they would receive their annuities, money, food, and other goods at Sandy Lake instead of Madeline Island. They were told that the annuities would be given out on October 29, 1850. Accordingly, 5,500 Ojibwe from northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota gathered at Sandy Lake, north of Mille Lacs Lake, but the annuities weren’t there as promised. The people of Sandy Lake had experienced a rough season for growing, gathering, and providing food for themselves. They weren’t able to help the thousands of Ojibwe during this cold time of year. Consequently, at least 150 people died at Sandy Lake from dysentery, measles, and hunger. It is too often cold when the Wiindigo wanders amongst our peoples, when we are weak and hungry.

Loss of people walks hand-in-hand with loss of land. During this period of time, the first territorial governor of Minnesota was Alexander Ramsey. As governor, he was also the territory’s Indian superintendent. He knew that his political career depended on his ability to open up land for settlement. His intent at the time was to remove the Ojibwe in northern Michigan and Wisconsin to the Minnesota territory, thus opening up their reservations for settlement. He also wanted the annuity monies that had been given out at Madeline Island in the past to be spent in the territory of Minnesota. Monies were spent to hire government employees, survey land, build roads and schools, and pay bills amassed by the Ojibwe and owed to the traders and land speculators. Annity monies that the Ojibwe actually received were spent in the Territory of Minnesota.

For the Ojibwe, it was December 3, 1850, when a partial annuity payment arrived. It was a three-day supply of food. The territorial governor and Indian agent, Alexander Ramsey, thought that if the Ojibwe were brought to Sandy Lake during the very cold weather of October, November, and December they would remain there because our roadways—the lakes and rivers—would be frozen. However, many of the Ojibwe decided to return home. Brenda Child writes that another 250 Ojibwe died walking home. The 400 Ojibwe recorded as dying were from Wisconsin and Michigan. Child writes that there were no numbers kept of the Ojibwe from northern Minnesota who died returning home.

It’s estimated that 1,500 of the 5,500 Ojibwe who camped out at Sandy Lake were from northern Minnesota. We don’t know for certain how many of them made it back alive, having to walk 120 miles in early December back to Leech Lake, or 140 miles to Cass Lake. But we do have our stories about their experience.

Child writes about a family who walked home to Leech Lake. There was a father, the mother, the mother’s brother, a 10-year-old son, and a 2-year-old daughter. Halfway home, the mother’s brother got sick and died. They stopped to bury him. Two days from Leech Lake, the children got sick. The son died and the father carried his dead son on his back. Next, the 2-year-old daughter died. The mother carried her dead daughter on her back, and both parents returned home to Leech Lake carrying their dead children. Sandy Lake became known as the place where their people died.

Like the parents carrying their dead children on these trails of death, historical trauma is carried in the memories and bodies of the people. Those who were originally traumatized pass the trauma down to their children, and they to their children, and so on. Traumatic boarding school experiences, such as the helplessness resulting from sexual exploitation, can be seen as present-day historical loss symptoms in which our men beat or sexually exploit women and children.

The Ojibwe experienced many more traumas. That is the way of the Wiindigo. A story is told of the Wiindigo running amok amongst our people and killing them. There were thousands of Ojibwe and many villages before the Wiindigos came. The Wiindigos were killing everyone, so a foolish Ojibwe man challenged a Wiindigo to a race. If the Ojibwe man won, the Wiindigo would leave the land of the Ojibwe. They raced, and the Ojibwe man lost. After that, the Wiindigo continued killing our people.

There was another Ojibwe man named Cheengwun (Meteor) who became a person gifted to give the Ojibwe spiritual names. In a dream, Cheengwun traveled up past the stars to a place unimaginable in its beauty. There he found an old grandma who made children run upon the surface of a lake. In his dream, the grandma told Cheengwun a story about the Wiindigo killing all the Ojibwe. She traveled around to find out who was left. She gathered the remaining Ojibwe children and took them with her and made them practice running upon a lake, back and forth, all day long, day after day, in preparation for the next race with the Wiindigo. There were 15 children remaining and each time a race occurred, another child died. The grandma was the last one to race the Wiindigo.

This lake that the Ojibwe children ran upon symbolized their subconscious. A historical loss symptom occurs with the loss of culture. The Ojibwe were made to feel ashamed of themselves as a people in the process of assimilation. They didn’t know who they were. Their culture, language, and rituals and ceremonies were taken from them through forced removal to new lands and the boarding school experience. Families were fractured. When the children met Cheengwun, he asked them what their clans and their names were. They didn’t know. Water is a healing source for the Ojibwe. When one goes into healing ceremonies, they go into the water so to speak, into their subconscious. There they can begin the healing of their spirits and emotions. At this point, however, the children only ran on top of the water.

Eventually Cheengwun raced the Wiindigo and then its brother. He defeated them both. This last Wiindigo begged for mercy from Cheengun who had had the dream, the vision, that he could beat the Wiindigo. This Ojibwe man knew the Wiindigo to be a liar, and he slew him. Then the Ojibwe man raced around this land and slew the other Wiindigos. The few remaining Wiindigos ran away. It’s said that the Wiindigos ran and hid in the North. As the story ends, Cheengwun holds ceremony and gives Ojibwe names to the children—the names by which the universe will know them. They no longer have to run on top of the water. They begin to know themselves as Ojibwe.

This Wiindigo killed us in many ways, taking our land and culture. In 1880, dams were constructed on Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish. Our reservation is currently 50% water. In Minnesota, the third, fifth, eighth, and twelfth largest lakes are on our reservation. The lakes are now reservoirs, no longer natural. We are water people. We harvest wild rice and eat fish. We gather swamp cranberries. Our homes and villages were next to the lakes and streams. They were our “roads.” Our gardens and graveyards were also next to the water. Water levels on these lakes were raised 9 to 11 feet and flooded 42,000 acres of our land. The water destroyed our rice beds that grow best in two to three feet of water. According to Anton Treuer, a noted Ojibwe scholar and language professor, the flooding resulted in clear cutting, poverty, dependence on annuities, destruction of gravesites, malnutrition and starvation, illness, and death. With the completion of Winnibigoshish Dam, not only were 62 square miles of land flooded, but we also experienced a smallpox epidemic. Wiindigo continued to eat our people up.

In 1887 when the Northwest Indian Commission came to convince us to remove to the White Earth reservation, thus opening up the Leech Lake reservation to settlement, the commissioners had noted that there were bones sticking out of the ground from flooded cemeteries. It had been agreed to remove the graves to higher ground for reburial, but that became another broken promise.

Wiindigo continued to take our people and land. In 1887, the Dawes Allotment Act was passed. On Leech Lake, we were to be allotted 40 acres of farm land and 40 acres of sugar bush land. Maple sugar was also of great importance for our people as a sweetener, as candy, and as a trade item. My great-great grandmother, Marie, and her daughter, Isabelle, knew exactly how many large birch bark baskets full of maple sugar to make to last a full year. They would set up their sugar bush camp up on Big Lake north of the mission where they lived. It was the Ojibwe women who collected and made the maple sugar in the past. The land up by Big Lake was sugar bush land, and today, this 40 acres is fractionated. There are 26 pages of people who own a fraction of the remaining 15.13 acres. I am one of them. On the 10th page of the Bureau of Indian Affairs title status report for this allotment, is my mother, Dorothy Howard. She held 1/72 of the 15.32 acres. My mother passed in 2014, and I now hold 1/144 of the 15.32 acres. My family’s holding is one of the largest.

But back in 1889, when the Minnesota Rice Commission came to Leech Lake, Cass Lake, Winnibigoshish, and the other Pillager reservations established in 1855 during the reservation making era, Commissioner Rice told us that we would be the richest Indians in the world if we agreed to the Nelson Act of 1889, which would implement the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act. He was wrong. Instead, we experienced extreme poverty and loss of land.

At the negotiations held on the Leech Lake reservation, the Ojibwe people gave their ultimatum to the Wiindigo. They told the commission that they would not discuss selling any more land or allow the cutting of anymore trees, or removing to the White Earth reservation until the back matters had been settled. These included the loss of nearly a million acres of land in the 1847 treaty, illegal cutting and selling of trees, irregular or non-payment of annuities, and the flooding of the land. Sturgeon Man from the Winnibigoshish reservation said that we owned the pine, that we would sell it to support ourselves, and that we had hired an attorney and promised him $5,000 of Ojibwe fund monies to right the past wrongs.

The head of the three-man commission, Henry M. Rice, responded and said that the Ojibwe didn’t own any land, couldn’t sell one tree, and had no control over the reservation. Rice said that the government wouldn’t even listen to the attorney, and we couldn’t pay the attorney out of our fund. By then, we were annuity-dependent. All we had left to trade was our land, and our land base was becoming smaller and smaller. Commissioner Rice said that if the Ojibwe wouldn’t discuss allotment, the commission would leave. The Ojibwe agreed to the Dawes Allotment and Nelson Acts, and touched the pen, one man after the other. Someone else made their marks of agreement—an “X” upon the document. At the same time, Federal Dam was completed on Leech Lake and 78 square miles of land was flooded.

So Wiindigo continued to eat up our people and land. In 1906, the first experimental U.S. forest was established. Today, 75% of the land within the Leech Lake reservation is this Chippewa National Forest. Because of the huge stands of white pines on our reservation, the logging industry deforested our lands and caused environmental problems such as run-off, loss of blueberries, and even contributed to the decline of making cradleboards for our babies, according to historian Brenda Child. In order to gather blueberries today, another one of our sacred foods, we must travel to other counties where the jack pines remain intact. The U.S. Forest Service came up with the idea of harvesting trees and then replanting the stands with trees such as the red pine that grows particularly fast and are a profitable crop. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reports that of its original 864,158 acres, nearly 300,000 acres are surface areas of the three largest lakes, part of this is due to the dams constructed in the late 1800s. Less than 5% of land is currently held in trust by the band.

That Ojibwe man who slew the Wiindigo has always lived here.  Leech Lake is 50% water, lakes, streams, swamps, and the Mississippi River. We have 44 wild rice producing beds on our reservation, and more wild rice naturally grows here than anywhere else in the United States. In our legends, it says that someday, there might come a time of great hardship when food won’t be readily available to us. Consequently, we store 100,000 pounds of finished wild rice and can feed our people for 10 to 15 years with it.

During the self-determination era, which began in the 1960s, our reservation challenged the U.S. government and in September 1985, the United States, in an out-of-court settlement, agreed to pay the Leech Lake band $3,390,288.00. The agreement concerned the flooding of 178,000 acres of land and damages to villages, gardens, and cemeteries. We also now have the right to decide what levels of water that the lakes should be at because wild rice grows best in two to three feet of water. This is an example of the Leech Lake Ojibwe becoming equal partners about decisions concerning their homeland. It was a result of government-to-government relationships.

Because all land within a reservation’s border is considered Indian Country and even though we only have 5% of our land remaining as trust land, we retain and actively control civil regulatory jurisdiction over the reservation and its resources. We have our own law enforcement officials and court system, our own lawyers and judges.

In the migration story, it’s said that we dropped many things along our journey. These things included our language and culture. My father, Simon Howard, was five years old when he was sent to boarding school in 1918. At that time, the people were poor and his grandma was taking care of him. She simply could not feed him, so she sent him away to school so he would be fed. Unfortunately though, the older boys bullied the younger boys and took away their food and any gifts received from home. My dad talked about being hungry and how the little boys were losing weight. The school eventually had the older girls sit with the little guys so that they could eat. Internalized oppression is another example of historical loss symptoms.

Yet my father grew up and graduated from Flandreau Boarding School. He returned home and was elected to sit on the tribe’s Reservation Business Committee. He and many others who experienced the assimilation era, the Great Depression, the Indian reorganization era, World War II, and the Termination era (1953-1968), where the federal relationship with 109 reservations was cut, helped to slay the Wiindigo.

Those old time Wiindigo slayers of the Termination era were wise and resilient. They united with other Indigenous American nations and organizations like the National Congress of American Indians. The American Indian Movement was formed at the end of this era in 1968, and by the 1970s, the self-determination era began with huge numbers of Indigenous Americans enrolling in college, producing crops of Indigenous lawyers, authors, and activists.

The Ojibwe began remembering and picking up the knowledge that we had dropped along the way during our migration. In 1975, Ojibwe high school students walked out of the racist Cass Lake High School, and the people established the reservation’s Bugonaygeshig School, a K-12 school located in the woods. In 1990, Leech Lake Tribal College was established. In 1993, Sean Fahrlander became the college’s first graduate, earning an Associate of Arts degree in Anishinaabe language and culture. He is now fluent in Ojibwe, an educator, and a storyteller.

We continue to pick up those things taken from us by Wiindigo. At Leech Lake Tribal College, we teach that we are peoples of a nation. We have our own history as a people, our own land base, governance, and language and culture. We are not ethnic minorities. We study historical trauma in order to understand the historical loss symptoms we currently experience. Most importantly, we are healing ourselves. We’ve gone into the water to heal our spirits. Nanaboozhoo left us long ago. He and his grandma got into a canoe and paddled away because our people didn’t believe in him anymore. He said he might come back if we began telling his stories again and needed his help. “Nanaboozhoo,” I say, “We need you. I tell my grandsons your stories, and they want to know more and more. They’re dreaming their own five and six-year-old Ojibwe dreams, those little guys.” We are now building our own nations.

Once I had a dream. I dreamt of these two old Ojibwe grandmas. They were naked and their dead bodies were hanging from a coat rack in a meeting room in which I sat with others. The others were not Ojibwe, and they could not see the two grandmas. I kept trying to get them to see the two grandmas. They just ignored me. That morning when I woke, I took the pipe that I care for outside, and I talked to those two old ladies. I told them that they could go home. I told them that things were okay now, and that we were healing; we would take care of things. The grandmas could rest…in that place more beautiful than the sunset.

Bezhigobinesikwe Elaine Fleming is an Ojibwe storyteller, jingle dress dancer, and chair of the Arts and Humanities Department at Leech Lake Tribal College.