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TEACH: Native Peoples of the Region

7 | Oral tradition about the lakes and land

Respect for the Great Lakes
High cliffs on Lake Superior.The Great Lakes were bountiful sources of food for the Native Peoples and, therefore, well respected and often the subject of spiritual practices.

Native Peoples, especially in the Lake Superior region, are known to say a prayer, accompanied sometimes with a gift of tobacco, whenever they pass a remarkable or dangerous place on the Great Lakes.

It was also the Native Peoples who first noticed that Lake Superior's outline resembles a bow and arrow, of which the cord is the south shore and the arrow is the Keweenaw Point of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The north shore is the bow drawn back for action.

Outlet of Lake Superior
To understand this story, one must know that the fisher is an animal in the marten family, a relative of the mink, that was formerly a common inhabitant around the lake. In the Ojibwe language, the Great (Big) Dipper constellation is the Great Fisher star.

The story goes that as Nanabooshoo was out walking one day, he heard a pleasing song. Hastening to the spot whence it came, he reached the shore of Lake Superior and saw a Great Fisher holding the shores together by leaping back and forth from shore to shore while he sang:

    The shores of the sea meet together,
    The shores of the sea meet together.

Nanabooshoo watched and listened in rapt admiration for a time and then exclaimed, "Could I do that, too?" So the Great Fisher allowed him to take his place, warning that Nanabooshoo must do exactly what he had just seen and heard and that never by any chance must he sing:

    The shores of the sea draw apart,
    The shores of the sea draw apart.

The Great Fisher went off and Nanabooshoo leaped back and forth singing:

    The shores of the sea meet together,
    The shores of the sea meet together.

The shores were held together and all went well until a day or two had passed. Then Nanabooshoo began to grow weary and wonder what would happen if he sang the other song. So he began to sing:

    The shores of the sea draw apart,
    The shores of the sea draw apart.

He immediately fell into the lake and when he came to the surface, not a piece of shoreline could he see! He began to struggle and to call on the Great Fisher for help. The Great Fisher heard him and returned, singing the original song and leaping back and forth. The shores drew together once more and Nanabooshoo was saved.

Preserving the Circle of the Seasons
The ongoing health and well-being of the Earth as she moves through the changing circle of her seasons each year is of major importance to the Ojibwe people. Traditional recognition of the inter-connectedness of all living things contributes to a holistic view. "It is with thanks that life is taken so we might live," the Ojibwe say, "but we must also seriously consider the well-being and preservation of all species and look forward to the needs of the Seventh Generation."

As those that walked before us provided for the well-being of today's people, so must we think of who will walk the Circle in many years to come.

The Earth's water system is compared to the human circulatory system in Ojibwe thought. "Water, as it flows through the rivers, lakes and streams, seeps through underground passageways or spurts out of the Earth's surface as an artesian well," they say.

Water, known as "nibi" in Ojibwe, is the source of life and, as such, becomes the responsibility of women. Nibi must be protected, kept pure, for all life now and to come.


Photo: North shore of Lake Superior, Great Lakes Commission. Legends: "Outlet of Lake Superior," from Lake Superior, The American Lake Series, by Grace Lee Nute; "Preserving the Circle of the Seasons," Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.

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