Part 1

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going?

In her amazing book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer wants to propose an answer which is not in sync with the Big Voice of dominant American culture. Her answer comes from the little voice of her ancestors, the Potawatomi First Nations people. 

The answer is Nanabozho. We come from this mythical First Person, we are like this mythical First Person, and we are following in the footsteps of this mythical First Person. 

Nanabozho is his name—and he is a trickster figure, an embodiment of aliveness, a shapeshifter as well. So he does not always or even often take on human form. Often, the form he takes is that of a big rabbit. Think Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny and Nanabozho aren’t exactly the same, but there’s enough of a resonance there (think sense of humor, think craftiness) to make this worthy of mentioning.

Look at this petroglyph. Do you see the big bunny ears? Interestingly, throughout the world, in many ancient cultures, the rabbit is revered as one of the main forms that the Trickster takes….

Nanabozho is actually known by over 36 different names, because all the tribal people speaking the Anishinaabe language (of which the Potawatomi is only one) know about this Great Rabbit and they all celebrate him as the First Person, who was created by the Great Spirit Gitchie Manitou.

Gitchie Manitou created Nanabozho from the four world elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and he is born part human, part divine. He is put on Turtle Island, which is our world, and Nanabozho sees that it is already populated by plants and animals. He learns that he is “the younger brother of Creation” having the least experience on how to live and thus the most to learn.

Gitchie Manitou then gives him a purpose. The Great Spirit says to him, NOT “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”—NOT this. The Great Spirit, instead, says, “Learn how to walk through the world in such a way that ‘each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.’” 

These are the Original Instructions. Do this. Learn how. 

But Nanabozho has a “problem.” He has a voracious appetite, an unbridled sexuality, an inexhaustible curiosity, and a habit of disrupting settled structures and patterns. So, as he begins to walk through the world, his way of walking very often looks like selfish buffoonery. He comes to learn the hard way what happens when he lets it all hang out—as we saw in the story that Judy shared a moment ago, where Heron teaches Nanabozho a new way to fish. The new way is super effective, and it allows Nanabozho to satisfy his total greed. He fishes in his lake until there’s no more fish. Meanwhile, at home where all the fish are drying on a rack, Fox comes and eats them all up. Nanabozho returns home only to realize that his greed has hurt him. All the fish are gone. There’s no more to be had. He learns a key rule: never take more than you need.

Nanabozho is viewed with great respect and affection by all Anishinaabe speakers. Though he can be a selfish buffoon, he learns from his antics. He is never intentionally cruel or foul. And his stories—which are hilarious—teach humans as they deal with their own voracious appetites, their own unbridled sexuality, their own insatiable curiosity, their own rootlessness. Just like humans, Nanabozho lives within a dilemma: he wants immediate gratification of all his desires, but he also wants a well-ordered society, and you can’t have both. So how to find the right balance?

Here’s another story that shows Nanabozho dealing with his insatiable desires. One day, he was wandering through the woods when he came to the shore of a small lake.  Suddenly, he heard a great commotion overhead. He looked up and saw a flock of geese. The geese were weary from their journey from the North where they had spent the summer, and they were preparing to land on the lake. Nanabozho saw the birds come to rest on the water with a great flurry and folding of wings. His stomach grumbled and his mouth started salivating and all he knew was that he needed to eat them all up, every one, ASAP!

But first he had to come up with a scheme. If he just jumped on them, he’d catch only one or two. Quickly but quietly he went back into the woods, and he peeled off strips of cedar bark and made a long rope. Then he returned to the lake, slipped into the water, being careful not to disturb the weary birds. He swam under them and tied their legs together with his cedar rope. At the same time, he tied each goose to the next one so that he could pull them all up on shore together.

At first, all went well. Nanabozho was so cunning and swift that the geese did not notice him or know what was happening. But his greed finally got him into trouble. Instead of being happy with a few geese, he went on to tie up the whole flock. Just as he was finishing, he had to come up for air. He made such a loud whoosh that he frightened the geese. The first goose to fly up was in the middle of the rope and all the others followed.  As they rose from the lake, they formed a V because they were tied together, and Nanabozho dangled at one end.  He shouted to the birds to stop, but the geese only beat the air more desperately with their strong gray wings. Just then the birds flew over a stretch of soft, swampy ground. Nanabozho let go of the rope with a shout and landed in a bed of oozing mud.

As for the geese, they continued on their way, still flying in a V because of the rope that joined them together.  Wild geese have been flying that way ever since, as you can see if you look up into the autumn sky when they go calling past. Some think they can hear a note of laughter in their cries as they mock Nanabozho for failing in his trick.

That’s the story. But for it and for all the stories, the time-context is not meant to be linear. Time that flies like an arrow, in only one direction, is from Big Voice dominant American culture. But Nanabozho time is circular. Robin Wall Kimmerer clarifies this by saying, “In the way of linear time, you might hear Nanabozho’s stories as mythic lore of history, a recounting of the long-ago past and how things came to be. But in circular time, these stories are both history and prophecy, stories for a time yet to come. If time is a turning circle, there is a place where history and prophecy converge – the footprints of the First Man lie on the path behind us and on the path ahead.”

The fact is, we humans are still trying to learn how to deal with our voracious appetites and greed. 

We humans are still trying to find the right balance in life. 

We humans are still trying to “learn how to walk through the world in such a way that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.”

Says scholar Paul Radin in his book entitled The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology: “Nanabozho’s task is to grow up and to see that human beings grow up with him.”

Can we grow up with him? 

Can we follow in Nanabozho’s footsteps?




Part 2

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going?

Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, ‘The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.’” Kimmerer continues: “This same observation is heard from some contemporary scholars who see in the social pathologies and relentlessly materialist culture the fruit of homelessness, a rootless past. America has been called the home of second chances. For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.”

That’s what she says. Amen. And, if time is indeed a turning circle, and not a straight-line sort of thing, then, in our going, we (the colonists) can follow in Nanabozho’s footsteps. His way of growing up and finding the right balance between his voracious appetites and the needs of culture (“becoming indigenous to place”) can become our way as well. 

So, it is said, when the Creator Gitchie Manitou set Nanabozho upon Turtle Island and gave him the purpose of walking through the world in such a way that ”each step is a greeting to Mother Earth,” the first place he went was toward the rising sun, where the day begins. He went East, which reminds people that every day is a chance to learn, a chance to begin again. East is the direction of knowledge, and there Nanabozho learned that Mother Earth is the wisest teacher and that he could make a unique contribution to wisdom by closely observing all the plants and animals, by speaking with them, coming to know them intimately—and in this way discerning their true names. 

Such was the mythic path, and so may be our future. What’s true now is said well by Kimmerer: “Most people don’t know the names of these relatives; in fact, they hardly even see them. Names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.” Kimmerer then wonders, “I’m trying to imagine what it would be like going through life not knowing the names of the plants and animals around you” and she suggests what this might in fact feel like: “species loneliness” which is “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation.”

Can you relate to this state of being, this “species loneliness”? Do you know the names of the plants and animals around you? I sure don’t for the most part. Maybe some or even many of us don’t know. So there is this deep sadness—which probably is “unnamed” or misnamed and explained away as the symptom of something else….

Yet should we follow in Nanabozho’s footsteps and journey to the East, and take upon ourselves the task of learning the names of the plants and animals and coming to know them, well, this becomes a way of healing. So get that plant and animal identification app on your smart phone and use it regularly. Find other ways to heal the estrangement. 

Nanabozho went East, and so can we.

But the journey runs on, and it came to pass that Nanabozho traveled to the land of birth and growth, the source of the world’s warm winds and the green of Spring. The South is this land. Nanabozho traveled South, and here, the task he took up was learning how to live by watching and mimicking his elder siblings the plants and the animals. Says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “When he needed food, he noticed what the animals were eating and copied them. Heron taught him to gather wild rice. One night by the creek, he saw a little ring-tailed animal carefully washing his food with delicate hands. [Nanabozho] thought, ‘Ahh, I am supposed to put only clean food in my body.’” Kimmerer goes on to say that this is also how Nanabozho learned to make things: “Beaver showed him how to make an ax; Whale gave him the shape for his canoe. […] In his mind, Grandmother Spider’s web became a fishnet. He followed the winter lessons of squirrels to create maple sugar. The lessons Nanabozho learned,” Kimmerer continues, “are the mythic roots of Native science, medicine, architecture, agriculture, and ecological knowledge.”

Such was the mythic path, and so may be our future. Kimmerer thus speaks of “the Nanabozho way” which we can take today, which is the way of “bio-mimicry,” or looking to nature for models of design. From science and engineering to environmental literacy to climate change, bio-mimicry can serve as a framework for discovering innovative solutions. 

Examples of biomimicry are fascinating. Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings of flying machines were based on his observations of birds. Velcro came from George de Mestral’s observation of burrs and how they stuck to his dog’s hair. He studied these burrs under a microscope and noticed the simple design of tiny hooks at the end of the burr’s spines. These were able to catch anything with a loop, such as fur and fabric, and he went on to replicate this synthetically. The result: velcro!

Should humanity double-down on bio-mimicry, the result would be an increase in the number of earth-friendly policies, products, and services, meaning that as we walked upon the land, each step would indeed be a greeting to Mother Earth….

Nanabozho went South, and so can we.

But the journey runs on, and it came to pass that Nanabozho traveled to the land of the medicine healers. The North is this land. In the North, the medicine teachers “gave him [sweetgrass] to teach him the ways of compassion, kindness, and healing, even for those who have made bad mistakes, for who has not? A path scented with sweetgrass,” says Kimmerer, “leads to a landscape of forgiveness and healing for all who need it. She doesn’t give her gift only to some.”

As in all things, Nanabozho learns the hard way. In one story, he went into the woods and encountered a great many men with clubs. He asked what they were doing and they replied, “We are going to get the boy that your people wagered in the game; you had better join us or you will be killed.” Nanabozho decided to do this in order to save the honor of his people. Quickly, he got so caught up with their purpose that, when they arrived at his village, Nanabozho went right to his own lodge and began to kill his family. He killed the old people and the two boys and was about to kill the baby girl when someone stopped him. Then he was like someone waking from a dream and felt very sorry for what he had done.”  

Such is the mythic path, and so may be our future. The story puts its finger on anytime we get caught up with some collective movement and lose track of ourselves and our values. Before we know it, we find ourselves channeling the oppressor, the Big Voice of dominance. It can happen to everyone. 

Thank Gitchie Manitou for sweetgrass. Gitchie Manitou makes sweetgrass available to all, because all need it. 

Nanabozho went North, and so can we.

But the journey runs on, and, finally, it came to pass that Nanabozho traveled to a place that was completely unlike the other three. It was frightening, full of earthquakes and wildfires. The West is this land. Nanabozho went West, and there he came to learn about power and its different sides. The Firekeeper himself, says Kimmerer, came to Nanabozho to say, “All powers have two sides, the power to create and the power to destroy. We must recognize them both, but invest our gifts on the side of creation.” Here is how Nanabozho learned the great lesson of balance—the need to find the right balance in all things. 

As in all things, Nanabozho learns the hard way. But the reason why he is so beloved by all the many tribes speaking the Anishinaabe language is that he learns from his mistakes. He does grow up, and he seeks to help humans to grow up with him. Just like him, people can take too much and exceed the capacity of plants and animals to keep on sharing of themselves. People can fall into patterns of greed and abuse, and the results are terrible for human wellbeing also. 

So the story goes: when Nanabozho walked through the world, he took note of who was flourishing and who was not, of who was mindful of the Original Instructions and who was not. He was dismayed when he came upon villages where the gardens were not being tended, where the fishnets were not repaired and the children were not being taught the way to live. Instead of seeing piles of firewood and caches of corn, he found the people lying beneath maple trees with their mouths wide open, catching the thick, sweet syrup of the generous trees. They had become lazy and took for granted the gifts of the Creator. They did not do their ceremonies or care for one another. He knew his responsibility, so he went to the river and dipped up many buckets of water. He poured the water straight into the maple trees to dilute the syrup. Today, maple sap flows like a stream of water with only a trace of sweetness to remind the people both of possibility and of responsibility. And so it is that it takes forty gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup.

Such is the mythic path, and so may be our future. 

May we recognize our human power. Power like fire, power like earthquakes. May we see clearly the duality—how it can heal and how it can harm. 

Nanabozho went West, and so can we.

Where do we come from

What are we

Where are we going? 

Nanabozho, we come from you and now may we follow in your footsteps. 

May we go East and South and North and West, like you. 

Help us find the balance. 

Help us learn to walk through this world 

in a way 

that each step is indeed 

a greeting to Mother Earth.