For the Ojibwe, history and legends are passed down orally. There are the stories of Wiindigo, a giant monster, a cannibal, who killed and ate our people. Colonization was our Wiindigo.
Colonization and historical trauma travel together. That trauma is passed down from generation to generation and exhibits itself in the behaviors, both psychological and physiological, of our people today. These aftereffects of historical trauma are called historical loss symptoms. Depression, anger, suicide, dysfunctional parenting, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, and diabetes are examples of these loss symptoms.
Long ago, the Ojibwe people were sick. A terrible epidemic was killing them. There was a man called Ode’imin who got sick and died. In death, he traveled west to where it’s more beautiful than the sunset. When he got to the river that he would have to cross to the other side, the spirits asked him, “Why are you grieving, Ode’imin?”
He answered, “Because my people are dying.” The spirits told Ode’imin that he was to return to the Ojibwe. He was to tell them that their teacher was coming to teach them about minobimaadiziwin, the good life. Their teacher would bring to the Ojibwe their rituals and ceremonies to help them get over the hills in their lives, those sad and traumatic times that all experience.
Over the years, the Ojibwe experienced many traumas. That is the way of the Wiindigo. A story is told of the Wiindigo, running amok amongst our people and killing them. There had been thousands of Ojibwe and many villages before the Wiindigo came. The Wiindigo was killing everyone, so an Ojibwe man challenged Wiindigo to a race. If the Ojibwe man won, the Wiindigo would leave. They raced, and the Ojibwe man lost. After that, the Wiindigo continued killing our people.
Another Ojibwe man had a dream that he could defeat the Wiindigo. In his dream he talked to a grandma who shared a story. She told the man that she had traveled around to find out who was left. She had gathered the remaining Ojibwe children and took them with her and made them practice running upon a lake, back and forth, all day long, day after day, in preparation for the next race with the Wiindigo. There were 15 children remaining and each time a race occurred, another child died. The grandma would be the last one to race the Wiindigo.
This lake that the Ojibwe children ran upon symbolized their subconscious. They didn’t know who they were. Their culture, their language, their rituals and ceremonies had been taken from them through forced removal to new lands and the boarding school experience. Families were fractured. When the children met this Ojibwe man, he asked them what their clans and their names were. They didn’t know.
Eventually the Ojibwe man raced the Wiindigo and then its brother. He defeated them. This last Wiindigo begged for mercy from the Ojibwe man who had had the dream. The Ojibwe man knew the Wiindigo to be a liar, and he slew him. Then the Ojibwe man raced around this land and slew the other Wiindigos. The few remaining ran away, it’s said to the North. As the story ends, the Ojibwe man with the dream, the vision, gave the Ojibwe children their Ojibwe names, the names by which the universe knows us.
The Wiindigo killed us in many ways and took our land and culture. We continue to pick up those things taken from us by Wiindigo. At Leech Lake Tribal College, we teach that we are people of a nation. We have our own history as a people, our own land base, governance, language, and culture. We are not ethnic minorities.
Once I had a dream. I dreamt of these two old Ojibwe grandmas. They were naked and their dead bodies were hanging from a coat rack in a meeting room with many people. The others were not Ojibwe, and they could not see the two grandmas. I kept trying to get them to see the grandmas, but they just ignored me. That morning when I woke, I took the pipe that I care for outside and I talked to those two old grandmas. I told them that they could go home. I told them that things were okay now and that we were healing; we would take care of things. The grandmas could rest…in that place more beautiful than the sunset.
Bezhigobinesikwe Elaine Fleming is an Ojibwe storyteller, jingle dress dancer, and chair of the Arts and Humanities Department at Leech Lake Tribal College.