Stories from the Land of Crane and Turtle, Part 3
"Zhoomin and the Vision of the Dancing Corn Plants"
Gashkadino-giizis (Freezing Over Moon); November 9, 2017
An allegorical tale about an Ojibwe boy who had a vision that restored Maize to the Anishinaabeg...
How the Gift of Corn Was Returned to the Ojibwe Nation – a traditional story retold by Zhaawano Giizhik - with illustrations by the author, Simone McLeod, and the late Daphne Odjig
Origin, use, and meaning of Indian Corn
Maize, or Indian Corn, is said to be the only staple food crop developed and domesticated by man and as such largely dependent upon humans for its growth to maturity. Within living memory, corn, the sacred seed, has fed the mouths, the hearts, and the spirits of many generations of Anishinaabe Peoples that live in, or nearby, the southern regions of Gichigamiin, the North American Great Lakes. Manidoo-imin, Mystery Seed, they called the plant; a more fitting name could not have been coined for this mighty spirit-warrior-plant with its tall and gracious posture and bright colored silken hair crowned by nodding green plumes, which traveled all the way to the American Great Lakes from its native home in Central Mexico trough trade from nation to nation.¹
Kernels were dried and stored for later use or used as a commodity trade item. The Ojibweg also roasted corn and ground it into banagizigan (hominy). Corn was often used by the Three Fires Anishinaabeg (The Ojibweg, Oodaawaag, and Bodéwadmik) to mediate relationships with French explorers.² The French learned that to the Anishinaabeg, manidoo-imin, or in its contracted form, mandaamin, meant more than food; to them, this unique plant was nothing short of a manidoo (spirit) that played an important spiritual role in their culture and truly signified a way of life.
Evidence to mandaamin being deeply embedded in Anishinaabe culture and ceremonies are the many aadizookaanan (traditional, sacred stories) that have been shared generation to generation for many hundreds of winters. These traditional stories, revealing the deep-seated cultural values that mandaamin holds in our culture and traditional worldview, are wrapped in metaphors and symbolism filled with mystery and healing powers. Even today these stories have a strong educative, even didactic, purpose and function in our traditional society.
Although mandaamin became the mainstay of our People’s diet for hundreds of years, it isn’t native to North America – or Turtle Island as our ancestors called it; maize was originally developed by the original Peoples of central of the high plateaus of Central Mexico.
These ancient farmers in Mexico who went by the name of Toltec noticed that the maize plants were not at all the same in appearance; some grew larger than others, and some kernels were tastier. They decided to select the best plants that got desired characteristics and cultivated them for the next harvest season. This process was called selective breeding, from which the modern maize originated.³
Aadizookaan (the story)
Many summers ago, a parentless Ojibwe boy lived in the heart of Anishinaabe Aki (Land of the Ojibwe Peoples), close to Naadowewi-gichigami, nowadays called Lake Huron. His name was Zhoomin (Grape) and he belonged to Mikinaak doodem, the Snapping Turtle clan, known as the healers of his People. He lived by himself in a wiigiwaam (wigwam) in a remote part in the forest. His People knew him to be of exceptional short stature, introverted, pensive, generally mild in manner, and always thoughtful of others, and it escaped no one’s attention that he spent much time in solitude and fasting. Some people that lived in a nearby summer village, situated near the mouth of a river that flowed into Naadowewi-gichigami, suspected the short-statured boy was capable of taking on qualities of a manidoo, a spirit; it was even gossiped by the less pure-minded that he had been seen dancing at night on river banks and steep rocky slopes with the memegwesiwag - hairy-faced, dwarf-like creatures that were famous for their medicine – and, on different occasions, with the mischievous bagwajininiwag – little spirits who inhabit the sandy shores of lakes…Some even claimed the boy had been seen in the company of mishiinimakinakoog, strange turtle spirits who made a habit of dancing on high moonlit cliffs or ‘rowing’ through forests, and who were occasionally heard shooting, but seldom seen…of course, this was all hearsay, based on rumors and never proven to be a fact…
In reality, each morning at sunrise Zhoomin left his wiigiwaam to venture off to remote glades in the dense woods or sit upon some high bluff overlooking the big lake. It was in such places that he listened to the world and the manidoog and aadizookaanag (guardian spirits) and the animals that live in it and he often sought meaning and self-discovery by addressing and invoking them through dreams and visions. During his many expeditions through the woods and over the mountain trails of Anishinaabe Aki the boy thoroughly and extensively examined the trees, the plants, and the flowers which led him to understand the mysterious properties and the medicinal use of all things in nature. His observations of the day filled his mind with pleasant ideas and dreams and at night he returned to his wiigiwaam and had the most vivid and meaningful dreams about the things and beings that he had encountered in the daytime. During his expeditions he noticed that most plants and fruits, including manoomin, the sacred grass that flowers in shallow freshwater marshes and along the shores of streams and lakes, grew wild without much help from his People. When he became older and became more and more aware of the spirit of the landscape and the things and beings that surrounded him, he started to wish for a dream that would reveal what he could do to benefit his People.
“I believe a manidoo (Mystery, Source of Life) permeates and guides all things and it is to this manidoo that I owe all things,” he often said to himself. “I wonder if this Source can make it easier for my People to acquire enough nutricious food to be able to survive the winters without being solely dependent on catching fish and harvesting manoomin in the lakes and rivers and collecting berries, nuts, and roots and hunting and trapping animals in the forest. Geget sa, for sure, it would be a good thing indeed if there were no need any longer to hunt animals or catch fish every day for our food! Therefore, I must address, through dreams, the spirits of the Universe and invoke the spirits of the plants. Through fasting I must find my Guardian Spirit and find ways to help my People.”
Now, ut happened that one day in early spring Zhoomin was visited by four Elders who lived in the nearby village and who were members of the Midewiwin, the Medicine Lodge of his People. The Elders informed him that for some time now the Ojibweg who lived near the lake as well as their relatives who lived in other parts of Anishinaabe Aki had suffered from severe crop shortages of mandaamin, the mystery food that for many generations had provided sustenance for the People. They suggested that someone, or perhaps the People as a whole, had done something to offend the Maize Manidoo. The Elders, worried because the crops had stopped growing enough okanaakwag (corn cobs) to keep the communities fed for an entire winter, had heard of the boy’s legendary knowledge of plants, herbs, roots, and berries coupled with extraordinary observational and dream powers, and they appointed him to speak to the spirit of the maize to learn why the mystery food the Anishinaabeg so much depended on had become so scarce, and why the few plants that had survived were getting leaner and thinner by the year.
The oldest of the four Mideg (Midewiwin persons) who visited Zhoomin’s wiigiwaam - his name was Giiwedin (North) and he belonged to Nooke doodem (the Bear Clan) - then addressed the boy, relating to him the sacred story about how many generations ago the Maize Manidoo had come to their ancestors and gifted them with mandaamin, the seed of wonder.
“Ningwiz, my son, listen to what I have to tell you"
“Ningwiz, my son, listen to what I have to tell you for the story I am about to relate to you is filled with meaning and direction. Ningad aadizooke! I will tell you now a sacred story! It is the story about the strange maize manidoo called Manidoo-imin who a long time ago came from a faraway land in the south and visited our People to bring them the great gift of corn, thus providing sustenance and nutrition and helping them to survive even the harshest winters.
Many strings of life ago, a stranger arrived in Anishinaabe Aki – Land of the Ojibwe Peoples. His coming was foretold by Nookomis, an aged grandmother who lived by a remote lake with her grandson Wenabozho, only a few days before she went on her journey to the Spirit World to join her ancestors.
"Nanabozh (for this is how she usually called her grandson), I am growing old, but before I walk on to the spirit World you will do something for me and your People."
"I will do as you say Nooko," replied Wenabozho. "But what is that you want me to do exacly?"
"I cannot tell you much noozis (my grandson)," his grandmother said. "But soon you will find out more. As soon as it’s my time to leave this world, take your canoe and cross over the big lake and once you’re there you will know what to do."
Soon after Wenabozho’s grandmother undertook her last journey toward the land where her ancestors lived. Her loving grandson buried her not far from the wiigiwaam by the lake. Next, he jumped into his canoe, and because he is half human half manidoo (spirit), thus gifted with magical powers, it took him only a few hours before he reached the opposite shore of the big lake.”
“What Wenabozho saw next was just too amazing and impressive to take in quickly and to put in words ningwiz, my son, but let me try,” said Giiwedin, as he was watching the attentive boy with a twinkle in his old friendly eyes.
About half a mile down shore stood the tallest minisiinoo (warrior) Wenabozho had ever laid eyes on...
“About half a mile down shore stood the tallest minisiinoo (warrior) Wenabozho had ever laid eyes on,” the old man resumed. “His gibide’ebizon (vest), azhiganan (leggings), and aanziyaan (loincloth) were the brightest green and yellow, and his wiiwakwaan (headdress) was made of fine brown tassel that hung down his broad shoulders. As the gichi-minisiinoo walked slowly toward Wenabozho, who was trembling with excitement, the tuft of nodding green plumes on his head stately nodding with every step he took, he spoke:
"Boozhoo! I am a mighty warrior and I come from a land far to the South. I have been sent to you by my People who live in the sky. I have been told that you are Wenabozho. I know you wish to do good things for the Anishinaabeg."
When Wenabozho asked the tall stranger what the wanted from him, he answered that he wanted to test how brave Wenabozho was. If Wenabozho could put him down, his life and that of the Anishinaabeg would be richer; if not, the Anishinaabeg would be hungry forever.
‘You must wrestle me to death; only by defeating me you will be able to learn the secret that will help the People who depend on you for survival,’ the tall warrior added.
Although in size Wenabozo was no match for the stranger, he was certainly no coward and, with his his grandmother’s words still ringing in his ears and feeling courage growing in his heart, he decided to accept the challenge.
A great magic battle that was felt troughout waawiyekamig (the Universe), and tayaa! when after three rounds Wenabozho proved to be the strongest, the tall minisiinoo pleaded him to carry his body in the canoe to the other side of the big lake where Wenabozho’s grandmother wiigiwaam stood, find a clearing with soft and fertile soil, then strip his garments, clean the earth of weeds and roots, and to bury him.
"When you have completed your task, let my body rest in the ground. Do not led weeds grow on my grave. Soon you will know how you can help the Anishinaabeg," the dying warrior spoke.
Wenabozho obeyed the warrior’s last wish and after his return the people of the village buried the foreign warrior next to Wenabozho’s grandmother’s grave. Whenever Wenabozho came to pay his respects to his beloved grandmother, he paid his respects to the buried Maize Manidoo that had come from the South as well.
In the beginning of the Heart Berry Moon, hoowaah! Wenabozho and the people of the village noticed to their amazement a tall and graceful plant...
In the beginning of the moon called ode’imini-giizis (Heart Berry Moon, the month of June), hoowaah! Wenabozho and the people of the village noticed to their amazement a tall and graceful plant, such as they had never seen before in Anihinaabe Aki, growing on top of the warrior’s grave. It had bright colored silken hair crowned by nodding green plumes – strikingly resembling the headdress the tall stranger had worn on the other side of the big lake – and from its side hung clusters of milk-filled ears of corn, golden and sweet. No one person in Anishinaabe Aki, not even the oldest and wisest members of the Midewiwin, could say what the plant was.
“So this is how it happened, ningwiz,” the Mide Elder who went by the name of Giiwedin concluded, “that two moons later, during manoominii-giizis, the wild rice harvest moon (the month of August), our medicine people sampled the yellow kernels of this strange plant, and declared them to be good. ‘Manidoo-imin’ they called the new plant, a seed or berry of wonder. All the Anishinaabeg troughout the land feasted on the ears of corn, and they thanked trough ceremony and song Wenabozho and the manidoog for bringing them this new Sacred Food of Wonder. By his death Manidoo-imin had given life to the hungry Anishinaabeg!
Enh, as Mandaamin was adopted by our Peoples that live in the southern regions of gichigamiin, the Great Lakes, it changed forever Anishinaabe Bimaadiziwin - our Traditional Way of Life. Some Anishinaabeg gave up hunting to till the land. Most of us Anishinaabeg, however, blended hunting and tilling the land as a way of life and providing sustenance for our families.
Giiwenh, thus is the story of how Mandaamin came to our People ningwiz. The tale I just shared with you is a powerful parable about sacrifice and bravery and taking good care of gifts from the Spirits.”
Zhoomin perceived seven spirits coming down from the sky, advancing toward him in a circle, dancing in a sacred manner...
The old man whose name was Giiwedin paused for a short while and then concluded: “For now, ningwiz, you are expected to return to your daily walk of life and your dreams. We know that soon you will receive a powerful vision that will be to the benefit of us all. Ahaaw sa ningwiz, ambe ani-maajaadaa! Let’s get going my son, be truthful and walk with your head high and love for the spirit world in your heart.”
The four Mide elders left Zhoomin’s wiigiwaam at dusk. The following morning, Zhoomin, understanding what was expected of him, undertook a makadekewin (vision quest). During the quest he fasted in solitude in an open glade deeply hidden in the forest north of the big lake. The boy fasted until after seven days and six nights he received a powerful life-guiding dream, as had been predicted by the Mide elder who had referred to him the story of the Origin of Corn. Around noon on the seventh day – the golden light of the sun streamed into the glade - suddenly a mysterious green light streaking across the sky sparked the boy’s spirit that had become fuzzy caused by the hardships of dehydration and food and sleep deprivation. In his mind's eye he perceived seven spirits coming down from the sky, advancing toward him in a circle, dancing in a sacred manner. The sky spirits were richly dressed in briljant greens and yellows and they wore plumes of green and yellow feathers on their heads that waved as they danced toward the boy, their every movements graceful and dignified.
"We have been sent to you," said the ogimaa (chief) of the sky-visitors who sat down in front of Zhoomin, the other six spirits forming a semi-circle behind him. "I have come to instruct you a I will be your bawaajigan mayaajiiging (Guardian Spirit). I carry with me wisdom, healing, and love. I will give it to you if you will grant my wish and take my wisdom and love back home to your People. The men and women of your People will love and honor my People well for these gifts of life for they will understand that I once in the long ago was their life-giver and provider. I summoned you in your dream to be nimizhinawe (my messenger) and to make it known to you that from now on I shall abide with you and be your teacher and helper during the long quest that you are about to undertake in search of ways that will benefit your People."
My People have observed all that you have done to prepare yourself for your Vision Quest, said the Sky Spirit to Zhoomin...
"My People, the spirits that permeate the Universe, observed all that you have done to prepare yourself for your Vision Quest. We understand and acknowledge the secret wish you have been harboring in your heart for some time now…a kind and honest desire to find ways to benefit the Anishinaabeg," the Sky Spirit continued. "We are pleased that you only seek strength to do well and not seek to achieve medicine in order to make war or use it to seek the praise of warriors. You genuinly believe that bimaadiziwin, a long, wholesome, and balanced life, is acquired through following the Sacred Teachings of the Midewiwin. You have always honored the Four Orders of Creation, which are physical, plant, animal, and human and there’s no place in your heart for envy, selfishness, hostility, and disobedience; instead, sharing, honor, truth, and learning by observation are virtues that you place a high value on. To preserve the medicinal qualities of plants to aid the people’s longevity has always been your main concern. Therefore I and my six brothers have come from the sky to instruct you, and show you how you can do your People good. I will also show you how to obtain Good Medicine that will fulfill your greatest wish. First, your spirit name shall be Manidoo-wanzh (Spirit Plant)."
After a thougthful silence the Sky Ogimaa who had the appearance of a corn plant continued, “Listen well ningwiz, for the dibaajimowin (history) that I am about to relate to you is filled with truth and direction. As you already know, in the long, long ago Mandaamin, the sacred corn, arrived from the South to the world and the hearts of your People. Corn changed the way of life for your ancestors and became a way of life for most Anishinaabeg who live in the land of many lakes. In trading for corn, you ancestors also learned how to grow and care for corn.
At first the Anishinaabeg took care of to this great gift from the South as great gifts are supposed to be treasured. Corn had made it easier for them to fill their bellies in the late summer and fall and to survive the cold winters in Anishinaabe Aki.
But over time the corn plants which flourished by the myriads on many mandaamini-gitigaanan (fields) that were once well-tended, became so common that tayaa! your ancestors forgot to mark their beauty and nutritious and spiritual qualities and their rich and juicy taste! Ehn, they even forgot about the sacred origin story that I related to you a few moments ago! And before long even the men and women of the ancient Lodges stopped honoring the legacy of the origin story of Mandaamin in their sacred ceremonies!
The Anishinaabeg had taken the corn plants for granted!
And why should they not? Why should they care? Wasn’t there more than enough corn for everyone, not just for the People but also for your relatives the mice, raccoons, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, insects and the birds – the crows, the ravens, the ducks, the blue jays, the turkeys, the pheasants, the doves, and the pigeons? So, the Anishinaabeg grew more than they needed, they cooked more than they could eat. They ate only the choice parts, throwing out what they regarded as worthless…. There was so much corn so the Anishinaabeg figured there was no need to nurture let alone honor it.
But alas! the harvests of corn dwindled little by little...
But maajiikamig (alas)! the harvests of corn dwindled little by little so that at first people didn’t notice what was taking place and, if they did, didn’t care. And this is why, when the yields of the crops started to dwindle and the quality and richness of their fruit slowly but surely diminished, almost no one seemed to care, almost no one deemed it necessary to become alarmed. After all, why should they be concerned? Was the cycle of scarcity and abundance not just a part of the natural order of things, a logical development in the process of bimaadiziwin, life itself? Yet atayaa! Woe betided the Ojibwe Peoples! it was by reasoning like this, that your ancestors began to overlook the need and responsibility to honor and look after the gifts given to them by the spirits. Enh, your ancestors, who were once the wisest of all Anishinaabe Peoples, seemed to have closed their eyes to the original Teachings that the spirits and their messenger Wenabozho had conveyed to mankind in the beginning of times...
So, it happened that not before long the mice, the raccoons, the crows, the ravens, the blue jays and many other relatives of the animal world started to become affected by the scarcity of the sacred food of wonder whose crops once covered the gardens and fields as far as the eye could see. Their fatness decreased and their bellies screamed for food. Although the Anishinaabeg vaguely sensed that something was not quite right – the once rich plants became less rich and the fields became less and less fruitful - it were our smart relatives the mice who were the first to be alarmed, and, naturally, in the longer term the other animals and birds and finally the Anishinaabeg themselves, since they too depended heavily on the nutricious kernels that the mandaaminag used to yield in abundant quantities.
The few plants that still grew in autumn were smaller than usual and dried out quickly, their leaves brown, brittle, and cracked. Eventually, oonyooy! one fall there were no corn plants to be seen anywhere! The Anishinaabeg finally started to worry and even to despair, and one year, when it was time for the Ojibwe summer villages and for individual families to split up again and set out farther inland for their winter lodges, everyone became alarmed and started to blame each other for the crop failure. So it was in the time of year called Manoominike-giizis4 , which would soon become known to your ancestors as The Autumn of the Disappearance of the Maize, when more and more conflicts were reported and famine and desperation were at its highest, that a Great Meeting was called. Mizhinaweg4 were sent to all four corners of Aki (the earth) to call upon all the spirits and Anishinaabeg to congregrate and sit around a huge campfire on the northern shore of the big lake; everyone was invited, eveyone attended… but maajiikamig, it was too late… the corn was gone forever… and this is why until today your People, the Ojibweg and the other Anishinaabeg, depend on hunting and collecting berries and harvesting wild rice yet still have a hard time filling their bellies in the fall and during the long, cold winter season…
Geget sa, the men and women of the Anishinaabeg, by wasting corn and treating it as unwanted left-overs and by neglecting to honor and paying it proper respect, no longer deserved corn as food to keep them alive and in good health. The message that we bring to you today niijii, is that if your People start mending their ways and giving back to corn the respect that it once garnered, the sacred Mandaamin will revive and be restored to the fields in quantity to keep the Anishinaabeg well fed once again...”
The Sky Spirit dressed in green and yellow garments handed over to the boy a bowl filled with seven corn cobs...
The Sky Spirit dressed in green and yellow garments handed over to the boy a wiimbinaagan (bowl) filled with seven corn cobs, explaining that each cob represented a Teaching that the spirits had given to the Anishinaabeg while they still lived in the Dawn Land on the borders of the Great Salt Sea. He instructed the boy to bring the cobs to his People and have them bury the dried kernels in the soft soil so as to revive the crops that had become extinct a long time ago. Then, bidding the boy giga-waabamin naagaj (Until We Meet Again) he and his six brothers returned to their home in the sky, dancing in a semi-circle and surrounded by the same mysterious green light that had foreboded their arrival…
As soon as the sun rose the boy Zhoomin, who now went by the name Manidoo-wanzh, weakened by the fast but nevertheless determined, walked to the village near the mouth of the nearby river and told Giiwedin and the other Mide People about the message the Maize Manidoo from the Sky World had conveyed to him in his vision.
Handing over the bowl of corn husks to Giiwedin, who had related to him the story of the Origin of Corn, he spoke as follows:
“Noose, my Father, these plants are a gift from the Seven Sky Spirits that came to me in my vision. I believe their ogimaa (leader), who in appearance and demeanor resembles the ancient warrior from the South you spoke about in your story and who long ago blessed our ancestors with the gift of corn, is my personal Guardian Spirit. I believe the instructions he gave me is the answer to my Quest, my secret heart's wish. No longer will our People need to hunt and trap animals every day for our food. As long as we take care of this new gift of corn and pay it the respect it deserves, the earth will open up again and give us plenty of good food for our living."
By the end of the Moon when the Leaves Bud the summer village hosted a ceremonial gathering and a feast was held in thanksgiving for all past harvests...
That same day the Elders of Manidoo-wanzh’s People sent out mizhinaweg4 who invited all Anishinaabeg that lived close to the Great Lakes. By the end of Zazibagaa-giizis, the Moon when the Leaves Bud (the month of May), the summer village hosted a jiingotamog (ceremonial gathering or pow-wow) and a wiikwandiwin (feast) was held in thanksgiving for all past harvests. All the Anishinaabeg present that day promised that in the future they would bury or burn the husks or make something useful from them as a mark of respect for the Maize Manidoo that in the long ago had come from the south and gifted them with the sacred Food of wonder.
From that day on the Anishinaabe corn planters of the Land of Many Lakes honored the Spirit of Maize by offering asemaa (tobacco) when they planted the kernels, and again when they harvested the crops.
This is how the Ojibwe boy Zhoomin successfully completed his Guardian Spirit Quest, and this is how Manidoo-wanzh (or Wanzh), as he is presently called, became known by his People as a great visionar and the savior of Indian corn ...
Giiwenh. So goes the Teaching Story about how the Spirit of Corn came to the Anishinaabeg, how they lost the corn and how it was eventually returned to them... Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to my storytelling today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.
¹ Source: Basil Johnston: Honour Mother Earth (pages 40-43)
² Source: Ordwipedia: Corn by Laura Humes
³ Source: Difference between Corn and Maize
4 Manoominike-giizis: Wild Ricing Moon, the month of August
Mizhinawe, plural mizhinaweg: messenger; pipe bearer
About the author/artist and his inspiration
Zhaawano Giizhik , an American currently living in the Netherlands, was born in 1959 in North Carolina, USA. Zhaawano has Anishinaabe blood running through his veins; the doodem of his ancestors from Baawitigong (Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Michigan) is Waabizheshi, Marten.
As an artist and a writer and a jewelry designer, Zhaawano draws on the oral and pictorial traditions of his ancestors. For this he calls on his manidoo-minjimandamowin, or 'Spirit Memory'; which means he tries to remember the knowledge and the lessons of his ancestors. In doing so he sometimes works together with kindred artists.
To Zhaawano's ancestors the MAZINAAJIMOWIN or ‘pictorial spirit writings’ - which are rich with symbolism and have been painted throughout history on rocks and etched on other sacred items such as copper and slate, birch bark and animal hide - were a form of spiritual as well as educational communication that gave structure and meaning to the cosmos that they felt they were an integral part of.
Many of these sacred pictographs or petroforms – some of which are many, many generations old - hide in sacred locations where the manidoog (spirits) reside, particularly in those mystic places near the lake's coastlines where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground and the underwater meet.
The way Zhaawano understands it, it is in these sacred places invisible to the ordinary, waking eye that his design and storyteller's inspiration originate from.
Photo credit: Simone McLeod.
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