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LAKE SUPERIOR MAGAZINE / OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1992


Naniboujou
and the
Thunderbirds

TRICKSTER OF
OJIBWAY LEGENDS

 

written by MARK SAKRY
illustrated by CARL GAWBOY

Once when the earth was very young, the spirit-child Naniboujou was born.  His father was the wind.  His mother walked the earth among human beings, alone.  She had powers she did not know.  All the earth spirits were afraid, for they knew the powers of Naniboujou.
    His mother disappeared into the air the instant he was born, so Naniboujou lived with the old woman he called Grandmother.  They lived alone on the shore of Lake Superior.
    As he grew older, Naniboujou helped his grandmother.  He brought her fish and mushrooms and wild roots.
    One day, when he was a young man, Naniboujou asked his grandmother; "What is the greatest fish in the lake?"
    "Do not ask me that question," she replied, "for he is a very large fish who could do you much harm!"
    Naniboujou asked, "Can he not be killed and eaten like other fish?"
    "No," his grandmother replied, "for he lives deep in the water off the edge of that cliff.  No one has ever had the wisdom to reach him.   He is very powerful!"
    Naniboujou thought a long time about the great fish.  He climbed to the top of the cliff and sat for many days.  He stared down into Lake Superior.   Then, suddenly, one day the Wind spoke, and he climbed back down from the cliff.
    Naniboujou fashioned a great bow of ash and an arrow of cedar to kill the fish.
    Then Naniboujou went to his grandmother and asked, "Grandmother; do you know of any bird whose feathers will make this arrow fly forcefully?"
    "You are impertinent," she scolded. "The only bird is one who lives in the sky beyond that cloud.  You would have to go there to get the feathers you want."
    Naniboujou had to have those feathers.  He went again to the top of the cliff to find a way to get them.  After a time, the shadow of a great eagle-like bird passed over him.  It was Thunderbird.
    Naniboujou, being very artful, changed into a small rabbit.  The bird swooped to kill him.
    "Thunderbird, stop!" cried Naniboujou.  "Am I not truly an artful little creature?  Would I not make a good playmate for your fledglings?"
    Thunderbird landed next to Naniboujou.  Truly, he was a clever rabbit.  He said, "I will not kill you.  Instead I will bring you to my children to be their playmate."
    Then Thunderbird swept Naniboujou away to his nest in the sky.
    When he got to the nest, Thunderbird said to his fledglings, "I have brought you a very clever rabbit to play with."  And he gave them the rabbit.
    His wife said, "Do you not know Naniboujou the man-spirit is on the earth?  Are you so foolish that you bring him here?  Why did you bring this rabbit?"
    Then Naniboujou pretended to sleep and he let the fledglings do what they wanted to him.  Thunderbird said, "Is he not truly an artful creature, after all?  You mustn't worry about this rabbit."
    Thunderbird and his wife were seldom at their nest, as they were hunting food for their children.  Naniboujou suddenly said to himself one day, "These brats treat me as though I am just a plaything.  Don't they know I have come to take their feathers?"
    Naniboujou changed back to a human being.  The little thunderbirds shrieked.  Quickly Naniboujou stripped their feathers from them.
    Naniboujou actually took more feathers than he needed to make his arrow fly with force.  Now the fledglings would never fly.  He tied the feathers in a bundle and jumped away from the nest.
    Because he was a man-spirit, Naniboujou was not hurt when he came to the ground.  Then he heard the sky open.  It was his father the Wind.
    Suddenly, there was horrible lightning.  It was the flashing eyes of the thunderbirds.  Thunder boomed over the earth.  It was the thunderbirds' voices.  The thunderbirds sped at Naniboujou with their talons.
    Naniboujou clutched the bundle of feathers he had stolen.  He would never give it up.  He ran this way and that to get away from the thunderbirds.   Even though he was a man-spirit, Naniboujou feared he would die.
    The booming and flashing, the blowing and crashing, finally caused Naniboujou to tire.  He grew perplexed.
    Then, quickly, Naniboujou crawled inside a hollow birch tree that had fallen.  The talons of the thunderbirds almost got him.  The hollow birch tree saved his life.
    The thunderbirds boomed, "Our king-child, the birch tree, has offered you its protection!  Now we cannot touch you!"  And, indeed, Naniboujou had fled to the protection of one of their very own children.  Now he was safe from the thunderbirds.
    Their eyes flickered off toward the heavens.  Their voices faded.   The Wind rolled away the clouds and left Naniboujou in a wake of tears that was rain dripping from the leaves.
    Then Naniboujou stepped out of the log.  He was changed.
    Naniboujou said, "From now on, human beings will find the protection of this tree useful in many ways.  Anyone standing under it will find shelter from lightning and storms.
    "Its bark will make their lodges.
    "Their food will not spoil in it.
    "And it will have many more uses.
    "But," Naniboujou said, "anyone using the bark of the birch tree will make generous offerings to it."
    Thus the birch tree was blessed by Naniboujou, and he left all the feathers of his bundle inside the hollow log except for those which he needed to fix to his arrow and kill the great fish.
    Then the man-spirit went to the shore of Lake Superior and killed the great fish.
    To this day, human beings will find the marks of Naniboujou in the tree's bark.  They are little dashes.  They will also find patterns of the little thunderbirds.  LSM


Mark Sakry, a resident of Brimson, Minnesota, last contributed "Frank Hill: Carving Art Down to the Bone" to Lake Superior Magazine.  He tells us that at one time he lived with the Dakotah people on a reservation in South Dakota.

Carl Gawboy was born in Cloquet, Minnesota, grew up in Ely, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota in Duluth.  He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and lives in Bennett, Wisconsin.


This modern interpretation of an authentic Ojibway legend is based on an original translation by ethnobotanist Frances Densmore, who refers to the legendary hero as Winabojo.  Densmore spent many years among the Ojibway in Minnesota at the turn of the century.


LAKE SUPERIOR MAGAZINE / OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1992
Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1988

Story Illustrations

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