A long time ago, and right now …
A powerful spirit called Original Man had stabbed the leader of the Water Spirits, an underwater Panther. This violent account is described in a type of narrative that is considered alive by the Anishinaabe people. These sentient narratives are called Atisokaanag in the Ojibwe language. There are many ways to describe these stories, but they certainly are not fairy tales, tall tales, myths, or bedtime stories. The Atsokaanag are told only in the winter time, but Ojibwe theories about time are presented within the stories themselves. The stories are a time within time, or a nested time. The concept of time within the stories elude what Mark Rifkin calls “settler temporal formations” that support the idea of a “homogeneous measure of universal movement along a singular axis.The time references of Atsiokaanag are plural and multifold. This particular Atisokaanag is a history as consciousness — or, a history beyond — about how the great ancestor of the Anishinaabe people, Original Man, caused an end of the world. World ends and beginnings are cycles, which may foil the very concept of a final end and a singular beginning. Likewise, our apocalyptic Atisokaanag can be seen as introductions to yet another re-creation. Imagining ourselves, Indigenous people, as thriving and robust through settler-imposed apocalypses has become an integral part of Indigenous Futurisms. Grace Dillion, Anishinaabe author and coiner of the term Indigenous Futurism, writes of Native Apocalypse that,
It is almost commonplace to think that the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place. Many forms of Indigenous futurisms posit the possibility of an optimistic future by imagining a reversal of circumstances, where Natives win or at least are centered in the narrative.[i]
At the end of the world we recognize that we’ve been here before, and we know how to return once again to a beginning. In keeping with Rifkin and Dillion’s descriptions of history and story in varied temporal Indigenous formations, I’m offering only a semblance of an Anishinaabe Atisokaanag on these pages, temporarily associating a version of the Atsokaanag with the land that is now a former swamp, the land that is currently called Chicago, a place at the heart of Anishinaabe territory.
Starting again, and from somewhere in the middle of the Atisokaanag, Original Man stabbed the Panther in the armpit as an act of revenge because the Panther had directed the Water Spirits to kill Original Man’s wolf nephew. They killed the wolf not realizing that this particular wolf was Original Man’s most beloved relative. As Original Man fled the scene of the attack, he longingly remembered his nephew. He thought about seeing the wolf’s mangled, half-eaten body on the shore. He thought to himself that the Water Spirits must not have recognized the wolf as his kin, but he also remembered that his nephew had violated an agreement they had maintained with the Water Spirits. Just before his death, the young wolf had been intently hunting a deer and had forgotten to keep an obligation when crossing water. The details of this obligation will not be relayed here, nor will Original Man’s Ojibwe name be mentioned. Often when Native stories are told, their retelling inadvertently welcomes Non-Natives to utilize and exploit them for their own purposes. Non-Natives have long extracted Indigenous knowledge and practices to enhance their own artistic or argumentative pursuits, sometimes under the belief that they are elevating Indigenous things. One risk of partially retelling the story here is it burdens the reader with carrying the story in their memory, while not owning or possessing it. That burden is an obligation and a request. The obligation within this Atisokaanag, the wolf’s obligation, was different. It consisted of a small chore that was to be completed every time Original Man’s kin crossed a body of water. Had the wolf taken the time to honor the Water Spirits request, they would have granted him safe passage. While Original Man remembered his nephew’s death for failing to honor such a small chore, he began to weep. It might not bear a direct connection to this story, but there is a lake called Wolf Lake on the Southern tip of Chicago that is called Mawi’igan (He/She Weeps Lake) in Anishinaabemowin. Original Man profusely wept as he remembered the wolf. The word used in this story in Ojibwe language is gagiibwaabimo. This word means that a person’s eyes are swollen shut from crying so much. The Original Man wept until his eyes swelled shut, and he became unrecognizable.
Original Man is often unrecognizable to those he interacts with within the Atisokaanag. The Water Spirits may not have recognized the wolf as Original Man’s nephew, but if they had, would they have been obligated to make a special concession on his behalf? The rigidity of their agreement would have become porous. Recognition and acknowledgement are about power. Briefly moving from one apocalyptic narrative to another, we shall consider the state of Native people under the colonial power of the United States. As a result of decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court, now referred to at the Marshall Trilogy, Native nations in the United States have federal recognition as “domestic dependent sovereigns” or nations.[ii] The sovereignty of Native nations is contingent on the legitimacy of the United States’ authority to recognise. Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson writes about the politics of refusing recognition in Mohawk Interruptus. Simpson states that refusal, “raises the question of legitimacy for those who are usually in the position of recognizing: What is their authority to do so? Where does it come from? Who are they to do so?”[iii] For Original Man, shrouding his identity is a form of denying others the power of recognition. Denying recognition and changing presentation is a feature of what Anthropologists and scholars often refer to as a “trickster.” Original Man is often regarded in scholarly spaces as a “trickster” or cultural hero who messes with things. Recognition is one of the things he messes with. In the book Native Provenance, Ojibwe author Gerald Vizenor writes about his fictional works, stating, “The tricksters in my stories turn federal agents into mannequins, monsters, and mooks, outplay reservation politicians at their own casinos, and persist in the academic creases of irony and visionary stories of survivance.”[iv] Original Man in this apocalypse is determined to see his world through to the other side, all while subverting the power of recognition to achieve his desired outcome.
Original Man had assumed that he had killed the Panther when he had stabbed him in the armpit, but while he fled he came across the Old Toad Woman, a renowned doctor, on her way to treat the Panther’s wound. Since his eyes were swollen shut from crying, the Old Toad Woman didn’t recognise him at first. Original Man inquired where the Old Toad Woman was going, and the moment after she told him she quickly realized her mistake. He killed her, skinned her, wore her skin to visit the Panther in disguise. This is an abrupt and curt retelling of what happened to the Old Toad Women. It may appear, at first, that this Atisokaanag has the misogynistic trappings of European narrative tropes, but a European cultural lens is inappropriate here. In this context, “old” does not mean “powerless.” “Toad” doesn’t mean “ugly.” “Woman” doesn’t mean “vulnerable.” Atisokaanag are living expressions of cosmologies and diplomatic orders: in this context Old Toad Woman is a powerful entity who has political allegiance to both land and water. Original Man could only have approached the Old Toad Woman in an unrecognizable condition. In this way, he continued to utilize the power of being disguised, stripping her of the power of recognition. Dressed in the Old Toad Woman skin, Original Man returned to the Water Spirits’ encampment and was given access to the wounded Panther. As he passed through the door of the Panther’s lodge he noticed that it was covered in his nephew’s freshly tanned skin. He composed himself, redoubled his efforts, slayed the Panther, and fled. As a result, the enraged Water Spirits began to flood the earth. It should be noted that the Water Spirits were taking land away, trespassing by proxy with water in retaliation for the slaying of their leader.
The colonized mind is fixed in favor of settler mentality. Histories are reframed in this mindset to promote the idea that Native Americans had no concept of land ownership, which may be true for some nations, but all Natives understood trespassing. Legal agreements, contractual obligations, and treaties are not solely the invention of Europeans, nor did Europeans introduce these ideas to Native Americans. Even after the long implementation of policies aimed at eradicating us, there are over 570 Federally Recognized Tribal Nations in the land that is now referred to as the United States of America. Natives nations have co-existed with strict international agreements to maintain peace long before European incursion. We practice treaty-making with each other, maintain and respect protocols with animals and plants that live in our environments, and, at times, we went to war or entered into new negotiations among nations when agreements were broken. Many of our Atisokaanag serve as cautionary histories that provide legal precedence about violating our obligations to each other, animals, or spiritual order.
As Original Man fled for the second time, he noticed that all of the animals were fleeing in the same direction as him. Original Man looked behind him to see that the animals were all running to higher ground to escape the rising water. Original Man saw a tall white pine at the top of a hill. He ran to the tree and began to climb. As the water kept rising, other animals joined Original Man on the top of the white pine. They asked the Original Man to help them, and he welcomed them as best as he could. After some time the tree top was nearly submerged. Original Man spotted a giant log floating in the distance, so he and the other animals swam over and climbed onto it. All of the animals knew that Original Man was a powerful spirit and that he would only need a small amount of soil to regenerate the earth. They all contemplated the depth of the water and the risk of retrieving some earth. First the loon, who is known for being a remarkable diver, leapt into the water. After a long while passed, the animals grew nervous. The loon’s lifeless body bobbed up onto the surface of the water. Original Man splayed the loon’s foot flat but found no mud. He then breathed on the loon and the loon came back to consciousness. The beaver asked if he could try for a bit of earth, and slipped quickly under the surface. He too returned dead with nothing in his paws. After each animal had attempted to retrieve some earth had failed, the muskrat approached Original Man. The muskrat said, “Let me try. Everyone has risked everything, and I should try too.” Original Man agreed to let the muskrat go. After what had seemed like a day, the muskrat’s body appeared on the surface of the water, limp and waterlogged. Original Man opened the muskrat’s little clenched fist. All the animals were amazed to see that the muskrat had succeeded in bringing back some earth. Original Man used this earth to regrow the land and save the animals. Today this Atizokaanag is referenced in our diplomatic gesture of giving tobacco. The proper amount of tobacco offered is equivalent to the amount that fits in a muskrat’s clenched paw. Original Man took the earth, revived the muskrat, and thanked the muskrat for his sacrifice. Today the muskrat’s descendants are eternally rewarded with long lives, adaptability, and they choose to live in and on the water, in swampland.
Binewijiid (or, a temporary end to the Atisokaanag).
The word earthdiver is widely used by anthropologists to describe creation narratives involving animals diving down to pull up a bits of earth to recreate the world. In a poem by Heid Erdrich (Ojibwe) titled, “The Theft Outright After Frost” the animals, which may very well be humans, are referred to as “her darling mudpuppies.” The poem connects land stolen by settler deeds to the re-creation Atisokaanag,
Such as we were we gave most things outright
(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes
And tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today … )
We were the land before we were a people,
earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,
Or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth —[i]
The muskrat’s dive takes place beyond settler time and outside of settler constructs of place and possession. In this way, the muskrat’s journey underwater is also a journey of colonial resistance and Indigenous renewal as we revitalize our languages and histories. The authors of “Muskrat Theories, Tobacco in the Streets, and Living Chicago as Indigenous Land” write about the muskrat’s motivation, and by extension Native peoples’ decolonial desire,
And sometimes muskrat dives for remaking home lands.
Diving through the settler colonial fill, we have started to retrieve the good lands that still flow. Relearning to see and story our relational dynamisms with land and water, is making way for decolonizing projects in land currently named urban and ceded.[vi]
The muskrat’s dive should not be understood in terms of metaphor, neither should decolonization. Decolonization must be understood as an imperative for survival, actionable, and urgent. It is also important not to redraft Indigenous re-creation stories of the world as similar to settler destruction rebranded as “development,” “cultivation,” or “place-making.” These are the goals of settler colonialism. In the influential paper aptly titled, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”, E. Tuck and W. K. Yang write that,
In order for the settlers to make a place their home, they must destroy and disappear the Indigenous peoples that live there. Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place – indeed how we/they came to be a place. Our/their relationships to land comprise our/their epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies. For the settlers, Indigenous peoples are in the way and, in the destruction of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous communities, and over time and through law and policy, Indigenous peoples’ claims to land under settler regimes, land is recast as property and as a resource.[vii]
Colonial land grabs are acts of war, and utilizing water, removing or flooding land is a proxy tactic. Chicago is a former swamp, with a former lakefront, with former animals and former plants which have been forcibly changed by settlers digging canals, filling in swamps, lakes and the shoreline, changing the direction of rivers. These violations did not happen under the governance of Niswi-Mishkodewin (Three Fires Council), a government consisting of representation from the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi nations of Anishinaabe people. Anishinaabe people have continually lived in Chicago and have witnessed the violent transformation of our land. Even though the land has changed, one thing that has stayed consistent is that the city is located on Anishinaabe territory. The only thing that allows for the occupancy of non-Natives on the land now called the United States of America are treaties signed between the United States and Native nations. Treaty rights are also the rights of settlers.[viii] Despite the United States’ own Constitution that declares treaties the “highest law of the land”[ix] the United States has broken — or is in violation of — every treaty it has ever signed with Native Nations.[x] The treaties can be seen as leans on the land, binding agreements, and those who violate them should suffer consequences. One consequence could be that when the U.S. is in violation of these treaties, the land would be seized by Native Nations and put back into collective Native ownership, but the militarized colonial occupation of Native lands by the United States precludes such actions. Whether non-Native Americans occupy ceded or unceded land, broken treaties render the land stolen, and may take an apocalypse to reset the power imbalance.
Atisokaanag are told in the wintertime, when there is snow on the ground, when the spirits are considered asleep, and we don’t run the risk of unintentionally calling upon them. As I write this in January of 2020, there is no snow on the ground in Chicago. There is an irony in writing about a living apocalyptic/re-creation story, while the parameters of its survival are in jeopardy. What happens when global warming takes the last of the snowfall in our traditional territories? What happens when wintertime comes but snow doesn’t? Do these sacred narratives, who are considered animate, lose their lives when they are no longer performed? The answer may lay within this particular apocalyptic Aatizokaanag. We will adapt and re-create our teachings to accommodate our changing world, we will re-create the world and survive as we have before. Joy Harjo, United States Poet Laureate belonging to the Muscogee Nation, aptly wrote in her poem A Postcolonial Tale, “Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff. This is the first world, and the last.”[xi] Harjo folds the first and last world into a daily lived experience, a reliable Native futurity that is no less miraculous than cataclysmic events.
To understand the re-creation of this Atisokaanag, how the Atisokaanag’s survival is no underachievement, and its retelling as an act of decolonization, one must also understand how our nations relate to place. Our places are often named after plants and where medicines grow. “Chicago” is an abbreviated form of the Anishinaabemowin word for “the place where wild leeks grow.” Place names that refer to food and medicine aid in survival, but they convey respect to other beings, their agency and relationships to place. The relationships of animals, places, and teachings are confessed in the roots of our language too. The morpheme that connects the elements of this Atisokaanag is musk, misk, or mask. These are related to the Algic root word for ‘red.’ The Anishinaabemowin word for medicine is mashkikii. Mashkiig means where our medicines are collected, and medicines are what is used to restore balance. The musk morpheme lent to the English word muskrat as well as the English word muskog which means bog. Mashkiig is (mis)translated into English as swamp. The utilization of Anishinaabe words in English language is not respectful of these relationships, it is only another theft in the language of thieves. The colonial idea of swamp erases Indigenous philosophies and epistemologies, and omits those who have celebrated and have been part of these places from time-immemorial. The survival of the Atisokaanag is important because it animates our connection to the muskrat, mashkiig and mashkikii, embodies our respect for human and non-human reciprocity, celebrates our interdependencies and the shared survival of medicine and animals.
Decolonization can be the joy-filled work of language revitalization, harvesting one’s traditional food and medicine, or anything that doesn’t center the colonial self. Theorists are starting to call this work Indigenization, because it must include and center Indigenous people. At times settler colonial desires seem so overwhelming and normalized, that it becomes hard to envision other ways. It is important to remember there are intimate relationships with our landscapes and animals that speak to Indigenous peoples’ sense of belonging all around us.
When I was in college, I didn’t use the word decolonization, and I didn’t know that Ojibwe language acquisition would be an important part of larger struggles for decolonization later on. Learning Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota came with some experiential learning opportunities. My teacher Pebaamabines (Dennis Jones), would take the students up to his reserve near Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada, to an Ojibwe Language Camp that he runs even to this day. He is a member of Nigigoosiminikaaning (Little Otters’ Playground) First Nation, but in English the community is often referred to as Red Gut. One spring we were driving out to the language camp along a narrow dirt road he had built through a wooded marsh. Along the way the road was entirely washed out and the truck’s tires kept spinning out in the mud. At one point we had to drive through what looked like a creek. I asked why the road was in such terrible condition after seeing it in excellent condition the previous spring. Pebaamabines let out a sigh and said, “There was a pair of beaver who had been maintaining a dam upstream. Last winter, we apparently trapped the wrong beaver.” The loss of the road was a hard and concrete lesson in beaver-human reciprocity.
I live in Chicago now, a city forged through prolonged erasure of Indigenous people. Pebaamabines’ lesson about an intimate and consequential relationship with two beavers maintaining a dam is hard to imagine happening in a city mounted under reinforced concrete. I need to remind myself that the parameters of Chicago’s settler-induced apocalypse are not infinite. The roots of the smallest sapling can crack concrete, perhaps the roots of wild leeks can too. This desire and ability to shed settler constructs is a part of Indigenous Furturism(s) that Grace Dillion refers to as biskaabiiyang,
an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of “returning to ourselves,” which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world.[xii]
Bishaabiigang is not going back in time, but is “returning to ourselves.” That is what decolonization is. It is the change Indigenous people go through to find healing. It can be found in places where we heal, the place where medicine, our mashkikii, is collected — in mushkiig. It can be found in our languages, our logic, our Atsokaanag, and especially in places where it is needed most, places like Chicago.
[i] Dillon, Grace L. Walking the Clouds: an Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, 2012: 8-9.
[ii] “Native American Policies.” The United States Department of Justice, 18 Oct. 2018, www.justice.gov/otj/native-american-policies.
[iii] Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014: 11.
[iv] Vizenor, Gerald. Native Provenance The Betrayal of Cultural Creativity. University of Nebraska Press, 2019: 151.
[v] Erdrich, Heid Ellen. Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems. University of Arizona Press, 2012: 119.
[vi] Megan Bang, Lawrence Curley, Adam Kessel, Ananda Marin, Eli S. Suzukovich III
& George Strack (2014) Muskrat theories, tobacco in the streets, and living Chicago as Indigenous
land, Environmental Education Research, 20 (1): 37-55.
[vii] Tuck, E., and W. K. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indi-
geneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 6.
[viii] “Dear White People: You Have Treaty Rights, Too.” Healingmnstories.wordpress.com, 27 Jan. 2020, healingmnstories.wordpress.com/2020/01/23/dear-white-people-you-have-treaty-rights-too/?fbclid=IwAR011dwOfHMvOP1gX6IUqIDMB7chFWunGYDgBOZky-lm7JoTqQLrXuQS60M#more-13447.
[ix] U.S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 2.
[x] Deloria, Vine. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: an Indian Declaration of Independence. University of Texas Press, 2000.
[xi] Harjo, Joy. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. W.W. Norton & Co., 2004: 104.
[xii] Dillon, Grace L. Walking the Clouds: an Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press, 2012: 10.