Chi-mewinzha: Ojibwe Stories from Leech Lake

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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University of Minnesota Press (2015)
112 pages

Review by Elaine Fleming

It’s said in the Ojibwe migration story that on our journey to where wild rice grows on the water that we would drop many things along the way. The Ojibwe of whom Mezinaashiikwe, Dorothy Dora Whipple, writes are the people of Leech Lake. And one of the many things dropped to get here to this reservation, which is 50% water, was our language. Our elder begins with the story about the giant leech that was once seen in Leech Lake, giving the fifth largest lake in Minnesota its name. The giant blood sucker rose out of the water on a cloudless day. Suddenly a small dark cloud appeared and the thunderbirds made lots of thunder and killed the leech. It’s the last time the giant leech was ever seen, according to the elder.

This is a bilingual book, which helps us to pick up the language once dropped during the assimilation era (1870–1934). As is appropriate, the first page of each story is written in Ojibwe, the following page in English. As explained in the introduction by Wendy Makoons Geniusz, the book’s purpose is to revitalize Ojibwemowin and to keep it for future generations.

Born in 1919 in Boy Lake, on the eastern side of Leech Lake, Dorothy Whipple was brought up speaking Ojibwe. Since then, she has long worked with many Ojibwe language revitalization projects. Wanting to catch the interest of children, Whipple incorporates illustrations—such as one of the giant blood sucker rising out of the lake—that have a comic book feel.

As a student of Ojibwemowin, it’s important to note that many individual learners are unable to take Ojibwe language classes. If that’s the case, Chi-mewinzha provides these learners the ability to study Ojibwe language alone. One should also note that the book is written in the double vowel system, which is extremely important in revitalizing the language.

The book is a splendid example of the Ojibwe oral tradition of storytelling. The stories are diverse, ranging in subject matter. Chimewinzha means long ago. Consequently, some of the stories are from long ago, such as the teaching shared about why we give an offering of tobacco during thunderstorms. Another story about offering tobacco has to do with Whipple’s brothers who were soldiers going off to World War II. Prior to their departure, many old ladies and community members gathered. The soldiers were told, “Don’t fight in the water. Don’t, and you will all come home…You don’t know where you’re going to go fight. Always put down tobacco.” Whipple’s brothers always put down their tobacco—and they came home.

A more recent example of Whipple’s storytelling is found in the last story, “Bear Saved my Life.” Whipple relates how she could barely walk, but was healed by the bear in a ceremony performed in Washington, DC. The medicine man asked her what her clan was, and Whipple replied that it was the bear. The medicine man then said that the buffalo was angry at her and how bear had scared him away during the ceremony. Bear was now protecting her.

In the Ojibwe migration story, it’s said that a time would come when people would go to the elders and ask them to teach us. Dorothy Dora Whipple is one of those elders. In Chi-mewinzha, she accomplishes her mission to share and teach Ojibwemowin and the culture of the Ojibwe people. The diversity of stories told illustrating the Ojibwe oral tradition and the language itself is paramount in learning about the Ojibwe people. We are truly blessed with the knowledge of our elders as we pick up the things that we dropped along the way to the place where food grows on the water, Leech Lake.

Elaine Fleming (Ojibwe) is chair of the Arts and Humanities Department at Leech Lake Tribal College.


2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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