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? 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, brings us into indigenous wisdom teachings. It must feel so bittersweet to her, to usher her fellow Americans into this traditional wisdom with the pride of knowing how right on it is, yet the long history leading to the present cannot be erased, which is a history of White dominant culture at war with Native Americans: if not killing them, then, with their children, striving to re-educate them to White culture ways, striving to erase any trace of Indian culture in their hearts and minds. 

Make no mistake about it. Kimmerer’s offering in Braiding Sweetgrass reflects generosity of the highest order. Her tears are tears of sadness mixed with joy. The wisdom she wants to share with us is just too important to hold back. 

From the book’s beginning to end, Braiding Sweetgrass is a gift of love. And what a gift to have been able to dwell within it all year long, once a month, as we together—this moving, growing spiritual community—have reflected on the pressing and high-priority realities of climate change, of humanity’s relationship to nature, and, above all, of 

Where we come from

What we are

Where we are going. 

So, now, in this last installment of our year-long sermon series, we are introduced to the indigenous wisdom teaching that Windigo nature is in each of us. “This is why,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Anishinaabe elders … remind us to always acknowledge the two faces—the light and the dark side of life—in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.”

You may have already encountered a traditional teaching story that dramatizes this internal dualism very well. It goes something like this: 

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is all about greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is quite different. It is all about joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

That’s the traditional story. Have you heard it before? 

But now I want to adjust things somewhat. Let’s call one of those inner wolves Windigo. Windigo is the inner wolf characterized by greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. “Windigo,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.”

I want to say more about the inner Windigo, but I don’t want to leave the other inner wolf hanging. As for that other inner wolf, let’s call it Nanabozho. Nanabozho, you may recall from a previous sermon of mine, is another figure of indigenous myth, the First Person created by Gitchie Manitou. Gitchie Manitou creates him out of the Four Elements, breathes life into him, and then gives him his purpose, says, “Learn how to walk through the world in such a way that ‘each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.’” The only thing is, Nanabozho has a “problem.” He is a trickster figure. 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 tricky 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 illustrated by the time when Heron taught Nanabozho a new way to fish. The new way was ultra effective, and it allowed Nanabozho to satisfy his total greed. He fished in his lake until there was no more fish. Meanwhile, at home where all the fish were drying on a rack, Fox came and ate them all up. Nanabozho returned home only to realize that his greed had hurt him. All the fish were gone. There was no more to be had. He learned a key rule that day: never take more than you need.

You see, I’m urgent for you to hear that the situation with our two inner wolves is not a boring echo of what we know in Christian myth as a battle between Satan vs. God. It’s not absolute evil vs. absolute good. It’s not an all-or-nothing, black and white sort of thing. It’s not any of that. It’s less tidy, more complex, more … human. 

On the one hand, there’s the inner Windigo part that’s so wrapped up in his own fear and pain that he can’t empathize with anything and anyone beyond him. On the other hand, there’s that other inner part—the Nanabozho part—which has definite potentials for goodness but, to get there, he has to work through his tendency towards selfish buffoonery. This inner Nanabozho part is never intentionally cruel or foul; he’s just ignorant and must learn the hard way. He lives within the distinctively human 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? 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.”

The real question that traditional wisdom poses before us, through the story of the two wolves, is this: can a person dis-identify from the drama of the inner Windigo wolf? Can a person, through the exercise of their will and the direction of their conscious focus, gradually learn to not get so caught up in the fear and the greed? Instead, can their focus be more on the cultivation of the inner Nanabozho, who is tricky, yes, but has growth potential through the roof? 

It’s a tall order. Native wisdom about Windigo, I believe, reflects cutting-edge biological science about our evolution-based bodies and brains, which are tuned to the negative. Psychiatrist Russ Harris explains: “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger. […] The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and avoid it. The primitive human mind was basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.” “Evolution,” Russ Harris, goes on to say “has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, to evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.” 

That’s the origin of the inner Windigo. That’s the root. As long as we have evolution-based brains and bodies, there will always be that existential anxiety and fear and the impulse to stay safe through aggression and greed. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Our inner Nanabozho wolf can definitely come out the winner. 

But it won’t be easy. 



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? 

Indigenous wisdom has an answer: we come from a struggle of inner parts: “two wolves.” Our choices around that define who we are, and where we will go. 

One inner wolf is Windigo: rooted in our evolution-based bodies and brains which are tuned towards negativity, which are incessantly anxious, which tend towards self-centered aggression and greed.

The other inner wolf is Nanabozho: he has immense appetites and, because of ignorance, can get into trouble through his scheming and trickery. But his heart is essentially good, and the more he grows up, the better his actions turn out to be, with better consequences for all concerned. 

We must, says indigenous wisdom, always acknowledge these two faces within—the light and the dark side of life—in order to understand ourselves. “See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.” In other words, do not get caught up in the Windigo’s negativity-based, fear-based drama. Feed the inner Nanbozho wolf instead. Help it satisfy its desires in ways that become a blessing for all. 

But this is obviously easier said than done. 

The main reason why is suggested by what we at West Shore now know as the 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism (but which, in the end, after the two-year process of amending Article 2 of the UUA Bylaws, will probably have a different name). For now it is the 8th Principle, and this Principle speaks of “systems of oppression” and the need to “dismantle” them. 

Essentially, a system of oppression is the inner Windigo which has become externalized and free-standing. It reflects entrenched patterns of behavior that are handed down to future generations, and those future generations don’t necessarily know any of the stories behind why those behaviors were invented to begin with. All they know is that this is the way the world works. All they know are the pressures of being socialized to the system, of “getting with the program,” and if they resist—if we resist—we risk losing the love of our primarily caregivers and community. Which in turn triggers even more Windigo feelings of anxiety and fear, feelings of greed and aggression. 

On March 27th of this year, a mass shooting occurred at a school in Nashville, Tennessee. Three nine‑year‑old children and three adults were killed before the shooter was shot by police. In the wake of this, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee awarded final passage to a proposal that would further protect gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers and sellers against lawsuits. And then we saw this in the news: the Christmas card of Tennessee Rep. Andy Ogles, who represents the district that the school is in: 

This Christmas card (sent in 2021) came with a statement: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference — they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”

All of this—the inner Windigo fear, its externalization through gun culture, legislators defending gun culture immediately after yet another instance of gun violence, the very picture of a family where you see children socialized into gun culture and they don’t really have a choice in the matter, it’s about avoiding the loss of love and connection—all of this is Windigo. 

This is just one of the “systems of oppression” that our Unitarian Universalist 8th principle is talking about. Just one. There are so many others. We know it. So many other -isms (sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, on and on) which crystallize and deepen the inner Windigo anxiety and fear and greed. 

With specific regard to humanity’s relationship with the land, Robin Wall Kimmerer is quick to call out what she calls the “neoclassical fallacy that human consumption has no consequences.” She says, “We continue to embrace economic systems that prescribe infinite growth on a finite planet, as if somehow the universe had repealed the laws of thermodynamics on our behalf. Perpetual growth is simply not compatible with natural law, and yet a leading economist like Lawrence Summers, of Harvard, the World Bank, and the U.S. National Economic Council, issues such statements as, ‘There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind at any time in the foreseeable future. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.’” Kimmerer concludes: “Our leaders willfully ignore the wisdom and the models of every other species on the planet—except of course those that have gone extinct. Windigo thinking.” 

Preach it, sister! 

Preach it! 

And we are preaching it, with her. West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church exists to create justice-hearted people who will go out into the world and lead with Nanabozho energy and not Windigo energy. 

This church exists to call out Windigo in ourselves and in the world and to proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. 

The theology of this church, the sermons of this church, the music of this church, the religious education classes of this church, the committees of this church, everything we do (whether or not they are explicitly tied to social action initiatives) are all about the creation of a kind of character in people, where the emphasis is on Nanabozho maturity and positivity and creativity. Nanabozho knows better than anyone what it’s like to screw up. Nanabozho falls down again and again and again. But he gets back up. That’s the point! He gets back up and tries again, and eventually, he succeeds. 

Windigo in ourselves and in this world is powerful. 

But never forget, so is Nanabozho. 

Choose Nanabozho. 

Don’t let your fear about the immensity of Windigo get the better of you. That’s just more Windigo!

Feed Nanabozho. 

Focus your will. Focus your priorities. 

Do what you can. Do what you are called to do. 

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Let that be where we are coming from.

Let that be what we are.

Let that be where we are going.