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TEACH: Native Peoples of the Region

6 | Oral tradition

Bear Claw totem pipe. Click for larger image.Native Peoples, especially among the Ottawa and Chippewa of Michigan and Wisconsin, regarded the black bear with reverence as their relative and "grandmother." Although some tribes did not hesitate to kill the bear when in need of food, they sought to appease his spirit with elaborate apologies. A bear hunt was a great event, as were all hunts, to be undertaken with much preparatory ceremony.

The Sleeping Giant
This legend is told around the twin ports of Fort William and Port Arthur in the Thunder Bay region of Ontario. This accounts for the great rock mesa on the edge of the harbor.

Long ago, in the days when the gods roamed the earth, Nanabooshoo lived with his spouse on distant shores of the lake. Evil days came upon the world; the mighty hunter could find no game in the woods, and the fish did not enter his nets. His squaw, tormented with the agonizing pains of hunger, chided and scorned him, until, enraged beyond control, he smote her with his great war club and she fell lifeless at his feet. Horror-stricken, he fled the wigwam and into the night. The wailing wind shrieked accusations in his ears; the spirits of the rocks and trees rebuked him. Before his horrified eyes rose the specter of his murdered wife, haunting him as he sped onward. Finally, half-crazed with terror and remorse, he staggered and fell backward into the waters of the lake. The Great Spirit took pity upon the giant and conferred the boon of rest by turning him to everlasting stone.

Text quoted from "The Sleeping Giant," from Lake Superior, The American Lake Series, by Grace Lee Nute

Stories from Iroquois Oral Tradition (regarding creation)
The Attawandaronk, parents of the Huron-Iroquois, displayed in one of their villages near the Niagara River a crude statue of a woman called Ji-gon-sa-seh (the Mother of Nations). According to Onondaga tradition, she is considered the lineal descendant of earth's first woman and was created together with the first man in a "garden of Eden" located on one of the two branches of Sandy Creek, which merge to flow northward to Lake Ontario.

Another story concerns a pregnant woman who fell from heaven to the back of a giant turtle, which expanded swiftly into the continent of North America. The woman bore twin sons, the Dark One and the Good One. Quickly maturing, they wrestled for mastery. Their struggle shook the earth and caused a mighty storm to be loosed with winds that scooped the earth into valleys and raised rocks and soil to form hills. The Good One finally threw the Dark One down with such force that he crashed through the floor of the world and fell into the fiery lake that is the molten core of the Earth. From his endless torment the Dark One eternally sends up troubles for the Good One and tribulations to his children.

"Stories from Iroquois Oral Tradition (regarding creation)," from Lake Ontario, American Lake Series, by Arthur Pound

The Megis Shell
Megis Shell.According to the teachings of the Chippewa (also known as the Anishinabe people), it was the sacred Megis Shell that first guided the people to the rich regions of the Great Lakes, most notably to the prized waters of Gitchi Gummi (big water), or Lake Superior. The Megis Shell was last seen near Madeline Island, which was a settling point for the tribal people migrating from the eastern shores of the continent. Today, the abundance of the Great Lakes to which the Megis led the Anishinabe people has been somewhat diminished, but the people have not, and their love for Gitchi Gummi has not. The people have endured, and as one with the land and the water, will endure long into the future.

Megis Shell photo and legend, courtesy Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission

Legend of Sleeping Bear
This legend relates that there was once a terrible forest fire on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, which drove all the animals into the water. Among them were a mother bear and her two cubs who, to escape the flames, struck out for the Michigan shore. They swam for several days, but the cubs became confused in the smoke and before reaching the land their strength gave out. The mother bear, on landing, paced the shore for days, calling in vain for her children, until at length she too became exhausted and fell asleep. Sand swept over her and there she still lies, looking out upon the lake, and to reward her devotion the Great Spirit created North and South Manitou Islands where the cubs sank from sight. Here they remain to this day.

From Lake Michigan, American Lake Series, by Milo M. Quaife

More legends: Iroquois: How Chipmunks Got Their Stripes

Photos: 'Bear Claw' totem pipe of the Kebecanung Chippewa (c.1984), Minnesota Historical Society; Megis Shell photo and legend, courtesy Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission. Legends: "The Sleeping Giant," from Lake Superior, The American Lake Series, by Grace Lee Nute; "Stories from Iroquois Oral Tradition (regarding creation)," from Lake Ontario, American Lake Series, by Arthur Pound; "Legend of Sleeping Bear," from Lake Michigan, American Lake Series, by Milo M. Quaife.

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