LAKE SUPERIOR MAGAZINE / OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1992
written by MARK SAKRY
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.
illustrated by CARL GAWBOY
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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