The Origin and Spirit Powers of ᐧᐄᐧᑳᐦᔅ the Birch Tree
In the traditional world of the Anishinaabe Peoples, a MITIG (ᒥᐦᑎᒃ ) or tree, is alternately or simultaneously MANIDOO (ᒪᓂᑑ ; a spirit), and BEMAADIZID (ᐯᒫᑎᓯᑦ; a person). A tree is regarded as a carved image of BIMAADIZIWIN (ᐱᒫᑎᓯᐧᐃᓐ), 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 (ᐊᐦᓭᒫ; 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 (ᒥᐦᑎᑯᓇᐱᐊᔭᐋᒃ ), 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 (ᐧᐄᐧᑳᐦᔅ ) the birch, GIIZHIK (ᑮᔑᐦᒃ) the cedar, ANINAATIG (ᐊᓂᓈᐦᑎᒃ; "Man Tree") the sugar maple, and AZAADI (ᐊᓵᑎ ) the poplar/mountain ash.
Wiigwaas, also called Wiigwaazhatig or Wiigwaasimitig, the white birch tree or Paper Birch, is perhaps the most beloved of all the members of the Great Tree Nation...The reason for this is twofold: the great usefulness of ᐧᐄᐧᑳᐦᔅ the birch to ᐊᓂᐦᔑᓈᐯ(ᒃ) (Anishinaabeg), and his connection with Wenabozho – yet these two reasons are really one, for everything that is a benefit to the People is traced to Wenabozho, the great aadizookaan (supernatural being) who taught the Anishinaabeg how to survive in their natural environment - and yet, by his foolish actions, gave them an endless supply of humor.
Yet, paradoxically, Wenabozho 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 Wenabozho 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
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
“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
Just like the buffalo would do with the peoples of the Plains, or the caribou with those of the subarctic, Wiigwaasaatig provided the Woodland Peoples with food, clothing, and housing, and all kinds of utensils. His sweet and nutritious onzibaan (tree sap) could vie with that of the Maple tree. His bark (wiigwaas) gave the People materials for the covering and roofing of their wiigiwaaman (wigwams, houses), their clothing, their jiimaanan or canoes, aagimag (snowshoes) and odaabaa’iganag (toboggan), their utensils (makakoon or storage boxes for corn and maple sugar), jiibaakwe-akikwag or cooking pots, dishes, cones, waaswaaganan or torches, and a host of other things, and, of course, their fine works of art (i.a. mazinashkwemaganjiganan or birch bark transparencies/dental pictographs on birch bark). Also, the ancestors used birch bark in dyes and medicines.
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
An Ojibwe Birch Tree Ceremony
Anishinaabe harvesters, who are aware of the fact that the bark of the Paper Birch is a winter staple for their relative the Moose, are very respectful of wiigwaasaatig, often putting down asemaa (tobacco) in respect and thanksgiving, before stripping the bark. Because of its value, they harvest birch bark carefully – by cutting only through the outer layer of the bark - , so that serious damage to the tree is avoided and the continued life and growth of the tree is insured. There’s a period of time in the spring, usually in May or in June, when the outer bark of the tree more or less spontaneously loosens from the tree’s trunk. This is when Anishinaabeg strip the bark away from the tree. Some people who know birch well can tell when the bark is loose just by looking at the tree’s leaves.
But there is more to the birch tree then its practical applications or what is available from surface information! Wiigwaasatig also has a metaphorical-side of meaning, which we will try to explain by the following stories and illustration.
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:
“This is a place of birches. The Hungry Winter is over. The Anisinaabeg have come here for the sacrifice. They have guided their canoes through rapids roaring the frenzy of Spring to reach this quiet, sacred grove.”
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 Wenabozho’s People.
Now the oldest man of the group stands before the oldest tree in the grove. In a quavering but determined voice, he speaks the ancient words of gratitude and asks forgiveness of the trees that he would cut. He goes on speaking, very softly now as he places asemaa (tobacco) at the foot of each birch. When he has finished his intimate prayer, he offers the smoking pipe to the East, South, West, North, Sky and Earth.
Early the next day they walk through the grove, admiring and honoring the marked trees. These had been selected, after a custom, in such a pattern that their removal will provide light and space for promising saplings. At each tree chosen, the sacred asemaa is offered again to the six points, and a little is placed in the Earth between the roots.
The first axe-man speaks softly to his birch, explaining the necessity of cutting it and thanking it for the gift it is about to make. He chops from one side only so the butt remains attached to the stump after felling. His son has placed poles across the fall area to avoid damaging the bark and to keep the trunk off the ground for peeling. He watches in reverence as his father swings the axe. The great tree crashes down, its branches waving like desperate arms of a fallen man! It shudders for a moment, than lies still. Did it hear the prayers and accept the offerings?
The father makes the first cut. He holds the knife blade at an angle so that the knife and bark will be comfortable together. Two men pry off the bark with sticks, carefully, so that it will not split. They roll it tightly but gently into compact bundles after which they are tied with basswood strips and carried back to camp.”
|Drawing by Zhaawano. The birch is depicted in the center of Anishinaabe Universe. Click here for more reading.
One day Wenabozho (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 Wenabozho. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.
Wenabozho 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. Wenabozho 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. Wenabozho turned back to a boy; he clubbed the baby Thunderbirds and pulled out their feathers. Before their parents could return, Wenabozho 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 Wenabozho!! Thunder rolled from their beaks and lightning flashed from their eyes. Wenabozho 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, Wenabozho saw an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. Wenabozho crept into the hollow in the nick of time. The Thunderbirds ended their attack because they regarded birch trees as their own children! Wenabozho was safe. After the Thunderbirds went away, Wenabozho 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 Wenabozho 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.
Wenabozho fixed his arrows and went home. With these arrows he was able
to kill the great fish that lived under the rock ledge.
Wenabozho 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.
Glossary of Ojibwe words written in syllabics:*
ᐯᒫᑎᓯᑦ — bemaadizid
ᐱᒫᑎᓯᐧᐃᓐ — bimaadiziwin
ᐊᐦᓭᒫ — asemaa
ᐊᓂᐦᔑᓈᐯ(ᒃ) — anishinaabe(g)
ᒥᐦᑎᑯᓇᐱᐊᔭᐋᒃ — mitigonabi-aya'aag
ᑮᔑᐦᒃ — giizhik
ᐊᓂᓈᐦᑎᒃ — aninaatig
ᐊᓵᑎ — azaadi