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When the North American Indians saw the Western European wayfarers and missionaries erect crosses, they were scandalized by an act they regarded as profane. For them, the erection of wooden memorials, called totemic staffs (dodaem-wautik), was conducted only as part of a funeral ceremony. These monuments were symbols of death, reminders of the afterlife and the afterworld, and tokens of the survivors' love and respect for the departed. Hence, for the strangers and their missionaries to implant a monument of death on an occasion other than a funeral and in a place other than a burial ground was a mockery of the dead.
The wayfarers' and missionaries' misconceptions about Anishinaubae life were drawn from their observations of aboriginal ceremonies and language. One such major misconception was related to the Anishinaubae notion of God. The chief cause of the misunderstanding was the term manitou, which from the beginning was interpreted to mean only spirit. Naturally, this narrow interpretation of the term distorted the essential truth of what the Anishinaubae people meant. The inference that followed was to be expected--that the aboriginal mind was incapable of conceiving or expressing any but the simplest of the abstract.
Thereafter, whenever an aboriginal person uttered the word manitou, Western Europeans thought it meant spirit. When a medicine person uttered the term manitouwun to refer to some curative or healing property in a tree or plant, they took it to mean spirit. When a person said the word manitouwut to refer to the sacrosanct mood or atmosphere of a place, they assumed it meantspirit. And when a person spoke the word manitouwih to allude to a medicine person with miraculous healing powers, they construed it to mean spirit.
Western Europeans took it for granted that aboriginal people, being of simple heart and mind, believed in the presence of little spirits in rocks, trees, groves, and waterfalls, much as the primitive peoples of Europe believed in goblins, trolls, and leprechauns. Men and women who addressed the manitous were believed to worship spirits, idols.
But most aboriginal people understood their respective languages well enough to know from the context the precise sense and meaning intended by the word manitou or any of its other derivatives. Depending on the context, they knew that in addition to spirit, the term also meant property, essence, transcendental, mystical, muse, patron, and divine.
Therefore, when the Anishinaubae people predicated the term manitou of God, they added the prefix "Kitchi," meaning great. By this term they meant "The Great Mystery of the supernatural order, one beyond human grasp, beyond words, neither male nor female, not of the flesh." As a being of the supernatural, transcendental order, Kitchi-Manitou cannot be known or described in human corporeal terms. What little is known of Kitchi-Manitou is known through the universe, the cosmos, and the world. Kitchi-Manitou is the creator of all things, all beings, including manitous.
According to the creation story, Kitchi-Manitou had a vision, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, sensing, and knowing the universe, the world, the manitous, plants, animals, and human beings, and brought them into existence. The story represents a belief in God and in creation, an explanation of the origin of things; it also serves as an example for men and women to emulate.
Following the example set by Kitchi-Manitou, every person is to seek a dream or vision within the expanse of his or her soul-spirit being and, having attained it, bring it into fulfillment and reality. Otherwise the dream or vision will be nullified. Furthermore, every person is endowed with the gift of a measure of talent or aptitude to enable him or her to bring the vision or dream to reality, to shape his or her own being, as it were, and to fashion an immediate world and destiny. But finding this substance deep within one's innermost being is not an easy task. One must descend to the depths or ascend to the very heights of one's soul-spirit being, by means of a vision or a dream, to discover and to retrieve that morsel of talent or aptitude. Sky Woman, the mother of the people who called themselves Anishinaubae, used her talents to re-create her world and that of her descendants from a morsel of mud obtained from the bottom of the flood waters. Nana'b'oozoo, the central figure in Anishinaubae mythology who also symbolizes human potential, re-created an island, his world, from a clutch of soil retrieved from the bottom of the sea. Had he not done so, he would have perished.
With the creation of the physical world and the beings in it, the work of Kitchi-Manitou was complete. Kitchi-Manitou had done all that needed to be done. From that moment on, the onus was on men and women and their cotenants on the Earth--the animals, birds, insects, fish, and plants--to continue the work put into motion by the Creator. Kitchi-Manitou had furnished them with all they required to fulfill their visions and purposes.
Kitchi-Manitou had done everything that needed to be done and had provided all the means for humankind's well-being, growth, and accomplishment, so Kitchi-Manitou was finished with the world and would take no further part in humankind's affairs.
But was Kitchi-Manitou's abdication from the world and its affairs an act of disinterest? On the contrary, creation was seen as the highest act of selflessness, of generosity, that anyone, manitou or other, can perform--the sharing of one's gifts. And Kitchi-Manitou's grant of freedom to human beings to seek and fulfill their visions and dreams according to their individual abilities was an act not only of generosity but of trust.
And what obligation do the recipients and beneficiaries owe their benefactor for the abundance and variety of benefits received? What would be the most fitting gift to tender to Kitchi-Manitou in recompense for all the things they received? Nothing. There was not a thing that human beings could offer Kitchi-Manitou in return, other than to imitate Kitchi-Manitou in the exercise of selflessness and generosity. By giving and sharing one's goods, knowledge, experience, and abilities with the less fortunate of their kin and neighbors--the elderly, sick, widows, and orphans--human beings could emulate Kitchi-Manitou.
From the innate sense of gratitude felt by most men and women sprang the practice of offering thanksgiving on public occasions and in private.
At the commencement of grand council conferences, at the assemblies of the Medaewaewin (Grand Medicine Society), at negotiations for peace, and at the beginning of festivals, the Pipe of Peace Smoking Ceremony was performed with the prefatory words, "Let us conjoin all our thoughts, intentions, dreams, and aspirations and all our petitions and prayers in thanksgiving to Kitchi-Manitou for having bestowed upon us such bounty and beauty beyond imagination . . . and for granting us such increase in our days as to enable us to gather together in communion as in days of old . . . to enable us to see our children's children." The words were formal, addressed to Kitchi-Manitou as if the Great Benefactor was distant.
For men and women, who often lived on the margin of existence and worked on the border of hardship and danger in the midst of plenty, the presence of Kitchi-Manitou and other manitous was immediate. Their experiences as hunters, fishers, and harvesters constantly reminded them that the success of their expeditions and the yield of their crops depended not so much on their skills or experience as on such intangibles as chance, the goodwill or ill will of the manitous, and the efficacy of their medicine. If success depended solely on skill or patience, the outcome of every expedition would have been assured, but human experience taught them that this was not so. Some hunters consistently returned from the forest empty-handed, while others came back with more meat than they could carry or consume. How were these outcomes to be explained? What did the one hunter possess that the other did not? Both used similar weapons and had similar skills and opportunities, yet one emerged from the woods with his back bent under the weight of meat, whereas the other returned with nothing for his children.
How could one account for such occurrences except in terms of the sanction and will of the manitou guardian who presided over the well-being of his hunted-animal victim? The successful hunter had gained the goodwill of the manitous and ultimately of Kitchi-Manitou by petition, the performance of rituals, and the exercise of due respect for the remains of the victim. The Manitous: The Supernatural World Of The Ojibway. Copyright © by Basil Johnston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.