The Origin and Spirit Powers of the Birch Tree
Boozhoo! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizookewigamiginaanong (Hello! Welcome back in our Storytelling Lodge)!
In the traditional world of the Anishinaabe Peoples, a MITIG or tree, is alternately or simultaneously MANIDOO (a spirit), and BEMAADIZID (a person). A tree is regarded as a carved image of BIMAADIZIWIN, or life. Mitig gives life, serving all the People’s needs. In return, the People can give nothing but for their songs and chants, and BIINDAAKOOJIGEWIN, offerings of ASEMAA (tobacco).
The ancestors believed that, if you want to know what happened in the past, before the time of the oldest person alive, you should talk to the mitigonabi-aya'aag, the spirits in the trees.
The tree persons that are considered the most esteemed and eminent (sacred) throughout Anishinaabe Aki, the land of the Anishinaabe Peoples, are WIIGWAAS the birch, GIIZHIK the cedar, ANINAATIG ("Man Tree") the sugar maple, and AZAADI the poplar/mountain ash.
Yet, paradoxically, Wiinabozho also opens a dark window on the soul, revealing all that is bad in human nature. He is basically a manidoo in nature and essence before anything else; outward appearance is only an incidental attribute of his incorporeal being. One of the many good deeds Wiinabozho performed for the good of the People was that he had blessed their beloved birch tree.
The straight and tall composure, the beautiful snow-white color, and the reverence that our ancestors held for the birch tree inspired Zhaawano to name his youngest son ‘Wiigwaas’, who was born in 1989 in the Midsummer Moon, the month of July – which is the time of year when the birch bark harvest draws to an end.
|'Wiigwaas': Pen and ink drawing by Zhaawano Giizhik|
(SPIRIT OF THE BIRCH)
When I am in tears
you silently calm me
your gift to all people
you are the soft hairs
of our mother the earth
when laying amidst you
I know I am loved
standing in the forest
praying from my soul
I know you are close
and take my words
straight to her heart
female spirit of the birch
how generous you share
I give thanks to you
I honor you...
- A poem by Simone McLeod
A sacred story of the birch tree
There is an old aadizookaan or traditional (sacred) story, related by the late Gilbert Oskaboose from the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, about the origin of the birch tree. Below is a summary, a free adaptation of his “The Legend Of The Birch Tree” (1988).
“Many moons ago, after a bloody battle with a warring Nation from the South that took place in what is now Northern Ontario, the aayaanikaaj mishoomisag (ancestors) buried their most beloved son and most honored warrior, who during his short life had listened to the name of Wiigwaas. In the time of Waabigwani-Giizis (Flowering Moon, or May) out of Wiigwaas’s grave grew a sapling, straight and tall, his bark possessing the truly enchanting color of new-fallen snow! Hereupon GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, sent Noodin, the Wind, to tell the People about the birch and how he could help them in countless ways. And from that time on the Anisinaabeg harvest the bark from the time the leaves of the birch unfold until the end of Aabitaa-Niibinoo-Giizis, the Midsummer Moon (July).”
|Ojibwe Anishinaabe Spirit writing migration story on birch bark|
Throughout the past until this day, the usage of birch bark as a means of recording the creation stories, songs, history, symbolic images, and world view of the People, has been of great importance in passing along history and stories to succeeding generations. Wiigwaasabakoon or birch bark scrolls carry a myriad of complex geometrical patterns and shapes etched on the soft surface of the bark. These bark sheets are an amazingly time-resistant material and can remain intact for many centuries (some date back to a 1000 years or more!). In case a scroll conveys traditional teachings, for example about the origins of the Midewiwin, or songs and details of Mide rituals, it is called midewigwaas (plural: midewiigwaasag). Many writings include astronomy, rituals, family lineage, songs, and migration routes. The recordings of the up to 1000-year-old canoe routes followed by Anishinaabe migrants and traders are probably the oldest known geographical maps of Turtle Island (North America).
|Waaginogaan wiigiwaam, a domed wigwam covered in birch bark sheets|
At the end of the Flowering Moon, some Anishinaabe communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin hold an annual ceremony that reconnects humans to Wiigwaasatigoog, the birch tree:
An Ojibwe Birch Tree Ceremony
“Many of the trunks are so thick that two men could
not join hands around them. The sap flows late in the big trees. Now, when the moon of flowers has slimmed to a narrow curve, the bark will peel in broad, heavy sheets needed for canoes. It is time for the annual ceremony that again connects humans to trees. The Wiigwaasaatig will gladly give their tough, pliable skin to Wiinabozho’s People.”
One day Wiinabozho (for this is how he is called when talked about from the storyteller’s perspective) asked Nookomis what was the biggest fish in the lake. She replied that there was an enormous fish that lived by a rock ledge but it was very powerful and would harm Wiinabozho. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.
Wiinabozho climbed to the highest cliff and discovered a nest of the Thunderbirds and saw their babies. He turned into a rabbit so the Thunderbirds would bring him to their nest for their babies to play with. Wiinabozho stayed in the nest for a long time; the babies were cruel to him and tossed him around. Eventually Thunderbirds went away to hunt for more food for their babies. Wiinabozho turned back to a boy; he clubbed the baby Thunderbirds and pulled out their feathers. Before their parents could return, Wiinabozho jumped from the high nest with the bundle of feathers but he was knocked out, but he was not killed because he was manidoo (a spirit).
When they returned to their nest, the angered Thunderbirds flew after Wiinabozho!! Thunder rolled from their beaks and lightning flashed from their eyes. Wiinabozho ran for his life clutching his bundle of feathers, but soon grew so tired he began to fear he would be caught. As the Thunderbirds reached for him with their claws, Wiinabozho saw an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. Wiinabozho crept into the hollow in the nick of time. The Thunderbirds ended their attack because they knew they could not reach Wiinabozho through the birch bark. Wiinabozho was safe. After the Thunderbirds went away, Wiinabozho came out and proclaimed that the birch tree would forever protect and benefit the human race.
You can still see the short marks on the birch tree made by Wiinabozho to commemorate the sharp claws of the Thunderbirds which almost killed him. The Thunderbird parents put "pictures" of their baby birds with out-stretched wings into the birch bark so the sacrifice of their children would always be remembered.
to kill the great fish that lived under the rock ledge.
Wiinabozho has blessed the birch tree for the good of the human race. And this is why lightning never strikes the birch tree, and why anything wrapped in the bark will not decay. Birch bark is useful for house coverings, canoes, containers, utensils, tinder and in many other ways. The Ojibwe Anishinaabeg traditionally honor the wiigwaasaatig by offering a gift, such as tobacco, when they use this tree.”
Miigwech for reading and listening and bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga: please come see us again
- The above aadizookaan (sacred Ojibwe story) is freely adapted from The Legend of Winabojo and the Birch Tree, in How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts, by Frances Densmore. Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1974.
The two-prong ring shown above – consisting of a two-wire shank - is made from sterling silver. Although the ring design is reminiscent of the classic Navajo-style, its symbolic theme is based on Anishinaabe tradition. The elegantly stylized silver leaf symbolizes Wiigwaas, the king-child of the Thunder Beings. The blue color of the free-form Kingman turquoise I cut to match the silver leaf stands for Zhaawanong, the warm south, the dwelling place of Wiigwaas’s winged Fathers, while the red in the coral depicts the blood relationship between Birch Tree and the Thunderbirds.
Simone McLeod (her traditional name is Aki’-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is an Anishinaabe painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962 and a member of Pasqua First Nation, Saskatchewan. She belongs to he Name doodem (Sturgeon clan). She feels special kinship with her mother's people, the Azaadiwi-ziibi Nitam-Anishinaabeg (Poplar River First Nation) of Manitoba. Simone descends from a long line of Midewiwin seers and healers and artists. Her artwork has been appreciated by several art collectors and educational and health care institutions from Canada, as well as by art lovers from all over the world.