History, Prophecy, or Sacred Text?

Written By: Ojijaak

 

Early in my college days, I registered in Old Testament, because I was required to complete two credits in either Religion or Philosophy, and the class was described as a history rather than an examination of beliefs. Indeed, my instructor presented the history of a people recording their accomplishment, laws, military victories and defeats, and, only in background, their evolving relationship with their deity. I liked the course so well that I later registered to take New Testament in order to complete my required Religion/Philosophy credits. That was a mistake, but not for discussion here.

I should state that I am not what many if any people would view as a traditional Christian. Most American “Christians,” and all of those who describe themselves as evangelistic or born again would likely classify me as a heathen. They have evidently chosen to disregard that pesky admonition about judgment being reserved to higher authority. Nonetheless…

Imagine yourself living as early homo sapiens. There are no cities. There are no schools or churches as we know them today. You live in a group of extended and inter-connected families. You arise with the sun and work at the tasks necessary to life: Hunting game, gathering wild fruits, nuts, berries, weaving fibers or perhaps animal hair and fur to make clothing and shelters. You learn to manage fire for warmth and cooking, and you learn to make and use tools to make all of your tasks more efficiently accomplished. When the daylight ends, you retreat into your shelter with the others of your group for greater safety. Perhaps you share stories or even create explanations for your existence.

You and your group members are intelligent. You are, as your progeny shall always remain, curious. What are the stars? What plants and animals are useful, and which are to be avoided? What is in the world around us? Where are we? Who are we, and where did we come from? Are we alone? Imagine the wonder that you would feel as a member of such a community. Imagine the questions that your own observations would prompt. Remember that, being a human being, unanswered questions are anathematic. All questions must be answered.

It is not difficult to imagine that during those ancient evenings, theories were expounded and discussed. Ultimately, the most reasonable explanations for all of the questions would be accepted as truth, and the beginnings of theology were born. Among some communities, systems of recording these stories and explanations were adopted. In others, traditions were passed from generation to generation orally. texts as a “salvation history” of a people recording their accomplishment, laws, military victories and defeats, and, only in background, their evolving relationship with their deity. I liked the course so well that I later registered to take New Testament in order to complete my required Religion/Philosophy credits. That was a mistake, but not for discussion here.

I should state that I am not what many if any people would view as a traditional Christian. Most American “Christians,” and all of those who describe themselves as evangelistic or born again would likely classify me as a heathen. They have evidently chosen to disregard that pesky admonition about judgment being reserved to higher authority. Nonetheless…

Imagine yourself living as early homo sapiens. There are no cities. There are no schools or churches as we know them today. You live in a group of extended and inter-connected families. You arise with the sun and work at the tasks necessary to life: Hunting game, gathering wild fruits, nuts, berries, weaving fibers or perhaps animal hair and fur to make clothing and shelters. You learn to manage fire for warmth and cooking, and you learn to make and use tools to make all of your tasks more efficiently accomplished. When the daylight ends, you retreat into your shelter with the others of your group for greater safety. Perhaps you share stories or even create explanations for your existence.

You and your group members are intelligent. You are, as your progeny shall always remain, curious. What are the stars? What plants and animals are useful, and which are to be avoided? What is in the world around us? Where are we? Who are we, and where did we come from? Are we alone? Imagine the wonder that you would feel as a member of such a community. Imagine the questions that your own observations would prompt. Remember that, being a human being, unanswered questions are anathematic. All questions must be answered.

It is not difficult to imagine that during those ancient evenings, theories were expounded and discussed. Ultimately, the most reasonable explanations for all of the questions would be accepted as truth, and the beginnings of theology were born. Among some communities, systems of recording these stories and explanations were adopted. In others, traditions were passed from generation to generation orally. In either case, being the sort of beings that we are and were, we have respected the knowledge of our ancestors. Their stories and explanations, often containing truths and firsthand observations have become the basis for our traditions and beliefs.

Among those whose histories have come to us through oral tradition are the Algonquian peoples. These are the Native Americans whose homes extended from the Middle Atlantic American coast northward into the Canadian Maritimes, and from there, westward to the Great Lakes and into the prairie. At this westward Algonquin frontier are the Ojibwe, or Ojibway, or, if you insist upon it, the corrupted name of Chippewa. They are Anishinabeg, the People, and their language is an Algonquin dialect that they call Ojibwem. They have maintained an oral tradition which has come to be known as the Seven Fires Prophecy, and it is their explanation and their history of how they came to be both who and where they are. Among some, both Ojibwe and others, it is viewed as sacred text.

Neither time nor space permit me to fully recount this history here. If one is interested, The Seven Fires story is readily available through various websites. Some are better than others, so should you wish to explore them, read as many as you can, but in any case, r3ead more than just the first that your search engine coughs up. For our purpose, I shall relate only the most basic story here.

The First Fire is widely held to refer to the Anishinabe living at the Great Water, the Atlantic Ocean and closely associated with the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki people. The Anishinabe were told that they would rise and follow the Midewiwin Lodge, searching for a turtle shaped island, which they would find at the end of each journey. The Miidiwe were and are a secret “medicine” society of the Ojibwe. They are the scholars, the teachers, the healers, and the repository of history. From the Great Water, the Anishinabe migrated westward to the area of modern Montreal. At this place, the Nation grew to a great people, and settled the valleys of both the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Over time, the Midewiwin lost influence among many of the people. It might be presumed that Kitchee Manitou (Great Mystery, Great Spirit, God, if you wish) became discouraged with the Anishinabe. The way of the Sacred Shell was lost, which would suggest to me that there might have been some among the people who disapproved of the perceived disregard for tradition. At any rate, it was foretold that a boy would be born to point the way back to traditional ways. I equate this boy with Nanabush, or Nanabozho, the son of Winona, grandson of Nokomis, and the greatest of the Midewe. He is the subject of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” Others would say that Nanabush was a child of the much later settlements around Lake Superior.

In any case, the realization of the Second Fire is said to have come at the place of the third fire, which is believed to have been the Round Lake, or Lake St. Clair, near modern Detroit. Here, the group dissolved and split into various sub-groups including the people who are known today as the Potawatomi. These southern people lost their way both physically and spiritually, and it was a Potawatomi boy who responded to a dream and pointed the way back to the Round Lake and a reunification with the Anishinabe in the Council of Three Fires. From this, the people followed the stepping stones until they arrived on Manitoulin Island, the Fourth Stopping Place, and yet another turtle shaped island.

Manitoulin Island at this time became the cultural center of the Ojibwe. From this place, the people migrated westward again to the site of present Sault Ste. Marie, where they were encountered later by French voyageurs, which was the first recorded meeting of Ojibwe with Europeans, although we know that almost one thousand years earlier, Algonquian people would have been aware of Viking settlement in the Maritimes. It is likely fom this old tradition that the Fourth Fire Prophecy said, “You will know the future of our people by the face the light skinned people wear. If they come wearing the face of brotherhood then there will come a time of wonderful change for generations to come.”

A second prophet spoke to the Fourth Fire Prophecy saying, “Beware if the light skinned people come wearing the face of death. You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. You shall know that the face they wear is one of death if the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat.”

The Ojibwe found the French to wear the face of brotherhood, and the people prospered and increased. Later exposure to the English and, later still the American people came to a different result. This was probably the genesis of the Fifth Fire Prophecy which warned against turning from traditional ways toward one who would come among the people with a promise of great joy and salvation. Those who accepted this promise would “cause great destruction of the people.”

The Sixth Fire Prophecy was even more discouraging: “Grandsons and granddaughters will turn against the Elders. In this way, the Elders will lose their reason for living…they will lose their purpose in life.” It would seem that this is a way of saying that the younger people among the Ojibwe sought to accept more of those things that they perceived as benefits of white culture, while the older generation was reluctant to part with the traditional values and mores. Trade goods including iron cooking utensils, blankets, and weapons would have been a part of the boon, but just as certainly, alcohol would have been present as well, and it would have been used to assist the white people in forcing trade agreements that greatly disadvantaged the Ojibwe.

Thus we come to the Seventh Fire Prophet who was said to be young and possessed of a strange light in his eyes. His “prophecy” said that at the time of the Seventh Fire, a New People would emerge and that they would retrace their steps to find what they had left by the trail. Their steps would take them to the Elders who will be asked to guide the New People on their journey. If the New People remain strong in their quest, the Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. This is a call to return to tradition and to ancient knowledge. Today’s Ojibwe are a proud people. Many are working to preserve their heritage and to learn their language. We are the People of the Seventh Fire.

Among some, especially since the Pan-Indian movements of the Sixties and Seventies, there is acceptance of an Eighth Fire Prophecy. While I am not one of these, the Eighth Fire brings me to my own statement for which I have brought you through this lengthy review of the prophecy, or history, or, as I would have it, the salvation history of my people. I do not dispute the wisdom of the Eighth Fire Prophecy which suggests that if enough people of all colors and all faiths turn from the path of materialism and divisiveness toward a path of respect, wisdom, and spirituality, environmental and social disaster can be avoided. While it is not strictly a part of our heritage, no Midewe can reject the premise of the Eighth Fire; it is what we and our ancestors have taught from the time of our First Place by the Great Water.

 

We are responsible to one another. We are all the children of the Creator, and it is of no consequence by what name we know him, he is our Father. We all walk the same earth, we are required to care for her, she is our Mother. I am not more than you are, and you are not more than any other. We should be honorable when we speak with others and we should refrain from speaking of others unkindly. I am Waanaki. I am of the Ojijaak clan. I am Midewe.

These are the words of Ojijaak.

 

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