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Friday, August 5, 2022

Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 13: Living the Mashkikiikewin Life


"Living the Mashkikiikewin Life"


Ojibwe Midewiwiin


Boozhoo, aaniin! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ninga-aawechige miinawaa noongom giizhigad!

Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, a place of love and knowing. Let's share another teaching today!


Apane mino-bimaadizin miinawaa dibaamenimon. Gego ani-izhaakegon Wiindigoo endaad. "Always live well and be moderate in what you do. Don’t go where the Wiindigoo lives!" - Anishinaabe proverb


Let's talk about food today. Food, and medicine, that is generously given us by our mother, the Earth. Too often mankind mistakes prosperity for profit and does not respect the rules of a fair relationship with our mother anymore.

So, let's talk about the topic of today's story:, "living the Mashkikiikewin life. " But first, let's define what "living the Wiindigoo life" is.

Modern Anishinaabeg (Natives) have at least four Wiindigoowag, or sins. They are: sugar, unhealthy fat, synthetics and... convenience. Although at first glance seemingly an exaggeration, I believe there is much truth in that statement.

What's a Wiindigoo you might wonder? “Betag!” our ancestors used to tell their children and grandchildren, “Gaagige weweni onji ashwaabam wiindigoo! Aabanaabin bezhigo bimose’an ingoji! Be careful! Beware of the Winter Cannibal! Always look out for him!"


Wiindigoo and the Bear Healer art print


So there it is. A Wiindigoo is the Cannibal, the hideous Ogre who lives in the North. and regularly invaded the lands, the minds, and the souls of our ancestors in order to devour their flesh, wipe out their clans, and make their minds go insane. Although brave warriors managed to overcome the Wiindigoowag and banished them to the far north for good, the wiindigoo is still among us in spirit! His traumatizing footprints are still very much around us! While in the old days meant to keep unruly children in check, today, wiindigoo aadizookaanan (wiindigoo stories) are essentially cautionary tales about isolation, self destruction, greediness, and selfishness. They teach us the importance of living moderately, and of community spirit, of a strong sense of responsibility toward the collective.

The wiindigoo is nowadays a metaphor for many bad things that threaten and poison us as a People — such as forced removal to new lands and the intergenerational trauma caused by the boarding/residential school experience, racism, cultural appropriation, large-scale and systematic exploitation and pollution by multinationals of our lands and waters, the rampant violence and substance abuse in our own midst, and, last but not least, the widespread child abuse and sexual aggression against our young women and men, committed by outsiders as well as by our own people. In a deeper sense, however, Wiindigoo symbolizes the spirit of excess, of lack of moderation. In particular: our unhealthy eating habits, our overindulgence to unhealthy food. This is the biggest and most dangerous enemy of us all, haw sa, even more lethal than the before-mentioned dangers that threaten us and the generations that come after us.



Wenabozho, the "Great Hare," semi-spirit and beloved benefactor of the Anishinaabe Peoples, tends the sacred Fire and offers smoke from his pipe to the four directions. He is depicted here with two eagle feathers and a mide-miigis (sacred shell) in his hair. Leaves of the purifying giizhik (cedar) and a makak (birchbark basket) filled with nutritious manoomin (wild rice) are depicted in the foreground. Detail of the painting "Living the Mashkikiikewin Life." ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik.

It is no secret that our ancestors lived much healthier lives than most of us do today. They were fishers and hunters and farmers and gatherers of seeds, berries, and roots. Their diet was filled with vitamins, natural sugars, and healthy animal fats. The only processed foods they knew were manoomin (that sacred grain that grows on water, often erroneously called "wild rice"), zhiiwaagamizigan (maple syrup), and nooka'iiwagwaan and nooka'iskawaan (pemmican made of, respectively, dried meat and dried fish mixed with berries). All very nutritious and high in unsaturated fat, minerals, and antioxidants. No added preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other man-made food additives that are bad for a person's health.

Frybread, and "Indian Tacos" you say? When our ancestors were deported from their land and onto reservations in the 1800s, they were kept from their traditional agricultural foods such as maize, beans, and squash and healthy meat given to them by their relatives the elk, moose, buffalo, deer, and rabbit. Rations of flour, salt, sugar, and lard took the place of those traditional foods.  Then, later on in time, modern society "topped" this by introducing white rice and genetically modified corn and building factories on our lands that systematically contaminate the lakes and rivers  which results in toxic drinking water and heavy-metal poisoned fish and manoomin (wild rice). So, since the rez folks only had access to flour, salt, sugar, and lard, this new "Indian tradition" came about. This is where the frybread (or bannock as our relatives north of the border call it) and "Indian Taco" came into being. 
So we're basically looking at an evolution of Native cuisine triggered by grim circumstances.  Frybread, or bannock, became a new staple dish in our communities. Our not-so-long-ago ancestors often added dried fruit or spices to the flour, then fried the dough in a small amount of oil over a campfire. Later on, influenced by intertribal powwows, all kinds of unhealthy stuff was added to make it a "taco." Since then, a life without this round, doughy, deep-fried treat that makes the mouth water just thinking about it has become unfathomable.


Fry bread recipe


There are roughly two ways of looking at this phenomenon. It is often said that frybread is a modern symbol of Native persecution and perseverance, of ingenuity and cultural sustenance. Others, like Cheyenne/Muskogi writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo, said that frybread is "the connecting dot between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations and slow death...." And," she added ironically, "frybread has replaced 'fire-water' as the stereotypical Indian staple in popular culture."

Anishinaabe rock musician Keith Secola put it even more concisely : "Frybread has killed more Indians than the federal government."*

Geget, for sure, it's no exaggeration to say that nowadays fry bread and Indian Tacos are so intrinsically embedded in our culture that most of us can’t imagine going without. But has it always been our tradition? Nah. Our pre-contact ancestors had no flour, nor did they have beef, processed (chemically produced) sugar, hydrogenated frying oils, dried cow’s milk, butter, and Cheddar Cheese. They never heard of those things.

Geget, so yeah. there is no doubt that our ancestors lived the Mashkikiikewin life.

Okay, so...what does Mashkikiikewin mean? The verb mashkikiike means, "gather (or produce) herbal medicine." The noun mashkiki is a contraction of the verb mashkawizi, which means "have strength, or power," and aki, which means earth. -ike means s/he makes, produces, or gathers. The verb is related to the word mashkikiiwinini, which means "medicine man." More literally: "man who makes or gathers strength from the earth." Mashkikiikewin, therefore, denotes, "Living like a man (someone) who is of the medicine making and in doing so, gathers strength from the earth."

Our ancestors lived according the cyclical rhythm set by, as they called it, aandakiiwinan, the seasonal changes. Mashkikiwan and aniibiishag (medicines; medicinal plants and medicinal herbs) as well as editegin (berries and fruit) were of utmost importance to them, in terms of nutrition and healing illnesses. Traditionally, the Ojibwe
odoodem (clan) of nanaandawi’iwewin (healing) is represented by the otter - as well as by the turtle, the frog, the rattlesnake, the water snake, and the mermaid/merman.

It is the teaching of the Midewiwin, our age-old Anishinaabe society of the Good Hearted Ones, that every tree, bush, plant, and fruit has a use. Bimaadiziwin, health and long life, represented to our ancestors a central guideline in life and a code for upright living, and those who had knowledge of plants and fruits and their medicinal and ceremonial use were most highly esteemed among their communities. This knowledge often came directly from manidoog (the spirits), particularly from bawaaganag, spirits in animal form visiting the healer in a dream or vision. But not all herb specialists received their knowledge directly from the spirit world. Many herbalists — generally called Mashkikiiwininiwag - were specialists possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious properties of an enormous variety of plants, herbs, roots, and berries. These medicine persons were often women, and therefore referred to as
mashkikiiwininiikweg ("Female Medicine Men") or mashkikiikewikweg ("Women Who Are of the Medicine Making"). These herbalists, either male or female or two-spirited, had great knowledge of that what the earth offered them, and they were keenly aware that certain plants and roots produce a specified effect upon the human system.

miinan miinawaa wiingashk miinawaa Wenabozho Ookomisan wiinizis miinawaa miigis


A Gete-Anishinaabe (Elder) sits at Gimishoomisinaan, our Grandfather Water Drum.  He is ganawishkodawewinini — a firekeeper of his People. A Mide- zhiishiigwan (Ceremonial Rattle) sits on top of the drum head. Ishkode, the sacred fire, is lit in front of the Midewigaan (Medicine Lodge). In the foreground are depicted a makak (birch bark basket) filled with miinan (blueberries), a medicinal plant called Wenabozho Ookomisan Wiinizis (Wenabozho’s Grandmother’s Hair: "Indian Paintbrush"), a mide miigis (a sacred sea shell used in ceremonies), and a braid of the purifying wiingashk (sweetgrass). Detail of the painting "Living the Mashkikiikewin Life." ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik.

Some of the fruits and berries that grow abundantly in summer, such as miinagaawanzhig (blueberries) and bagwaji-ode’iminan (wild strawberries, literally: wild heart berries) were traditionally not only used for food and medicine, but also had a strongly ceremonial function. Berries were often associated with makwa the bear. In the old days, when a person was fond of, let’s say, cherries, the people would say: "Look, there goes a bear".

Our ancestors approached life in a sacred manner. GAA MIINIGOOYANG: “That Which Is Given to Us” used to be a notion that was central to their worldview. Gaa miinigooyang refers to the traditional Anishinaabe belief that everything we have is given to us by Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery, as a gift that we must humbly give thanks for.

Traditionally, the philosophy of gakina gegoo, or inter-dependency of all things, lay at the heart of the economic system of our ancestors: the individual was dependent upon his community for survival, the community was dependent on nature for survival, and nature was dependent on the Spirit World for survival.

The traditional definition of wealth has always been the ability to have enough to share with the community, and to give away what one does not strictly need in order to survive. Sharing with each other and giving away more than one receives were therefore the greatest of the virtues…When taking a mashkiki (plant), ojiibik (root), or mashkosiw (herb), one always explained to its spirit why it was being done, and offered some asemaa (tobacco) in return. While putting asemaa in the hole one would respectfully tell the spirit of the dug-up plant or root that the spirits allowed it to grow in that certain spot for the benefit of mankind and that the tobacco is been given in return so that the plant will do it’s best to make the medicine work. This is the way it has always been done and always will be done.

Now. It has taken us Anishinaabeg many strings of lives to develop our bodies so that we coexist peacefully with gaa miinigooyang - the natural foods that Aki provides us with. However, due to land loss, reservation politics, internment in Catholic horror factories and a myriad of mental health issues resulting from it, most of us Anishinaabeg (although not all!) lost touch with the old Ways. This development only took three to four generations to complete. This means that we haven’t had the time to develop resistance to many of the foods and diseases that modern society throws at us. Foods that are manufacturing processed and contaminated with all sorts of synthetic substances. Fish contaminated by heavy metals and drinking water poisoned by plastic bottle producers and oil and gas spills because of leaking pipe lines and devastating health effects caused by nuclear waste from power plants that were put on our lands. Whole communities, particularly in Canada have been and still are being e
xposed to large amounts of radioactivity, causing  nausea, vomiting, hair loss, diarrhea, hemorrhage, destruction of the intestinal lining, central nervous system damage, and, ultimately, death. It also causes DNA damage and raises the risk of cancer, particularly in young children and fetuses. 

And when not poisoned by those silent serial killers that live in our lakes and rivers our bodies are daily being ravaged by processed foods that we, out of free will, buy in the stores. Foods that are often difficult to digest and consist of extreme amounts of refined sugar and a myriad of chemicals. All this poison results in widespread and intergenerational diabetes and cancer - and ditto mental issues! - that havoc our communities in much higher rates than most non-Native People that have settled on our Turtle Island.

So, what we don't need is more Wiindigoowin. What I would call: living a m
ass media-fueled consumerist life style. What we do need is Mashkikiikewin  what I would call, living a life based on gathering medicine. More literally: gathering strength from the earth. Because strength can be found in the earth, not in factory products.
I think we all know  or ought to know  by now why the first three Wiindigoowag (sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and synthetics) are extremely unhealthy for us. The Internet provides us with all the information we need to know about healthy and unhealthy food, and there is simply no excuse not to know about these things. But what about the fourth Wiindigoo? Convenience? How so, convenience? Why is convenience a Wiindigoo?

Our modern eating habits are based on just that: convenience. The world has turned in one big convenience store. So, in a way, one could say it isn't so much the unhealthy foods that threat our lives and health; it's convenience that makes us into unhealthy people. It's convenience that is the most Wiindigoowin of all Wiindigoowin! It’s convenient to go to the fast food joint. It’s convenient to microwave our TV dinner. It’s convenient to fill our shopping cart with bags of sugar and snacks and chemicalized beef and baloney and white bread and rice and ketchup and candy and lemonades and soda pops and six packs of beer instead of picking berries or harvesting manoomin and maple sap and buying honey and nuts and fruits and healthy drinks and lean meats  in short, foods that are loaded with natural sugars. vitamins, and good fats that don't clog your veins.

We all can be Mashkikiikewin. We all should be mashkikiiwininiwag, and mashkikiiwininiikweg, medicine men and women, leading a healthy life. Get informed about the properties of the foods and medicines you prepare and consume. Ask yourself each time you put something in your or your children's mouth, is it good or bad for me and them? Why is it good or bad for me and them? Get informed and use the knowledge that is out there in your everyday life to defeat the Wiindigoo. Stay away from a consumerist life style that entices you into bad habits. Avoid disease and work toward having a healthy body and mind. Live the Mashkikiikewin life.

Let's all start here and make a change. Remember,
90% of disease is driven by our lifestyle choices. It's time we step up to the dinner plate and have a hard look at what we put on it. Let's beat the Wiindigoo and become a true Anishinaabe again.

Ahaaw sa. Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Well, that is the end of the today's teaching. Thank you for listening to me. Giga-waabamin wayiiba giishpin manidoo inendang, I will see you again soon, if the Great Mystery wills it. Mino bimaadizin! Live well!

* "Fry Bread" by Jen Miller.

Miigwech to Russell Littlecreek, a member of 
(the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians), whose writings inspired me to write this blog post.
Art illustrations by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2022
"Living the Mashkikiikewin life." Visit the website for details."Wiindigoo and the Bear Healer." 

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