“Zhi-shay’,” he began hesitantly.
“I don’t know my life purpose.”
“Sure you do,” I replied. “Part of your purpose was determined before you were even born. It’s just not clear to you yet because you are still young.”
“When will I know?” he asked.
“The Creator made us, you, me, all of us here, your family. It made us for a very special reason.”
“So I don’t need to go seek my vision?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Wolves do not need to seek a vision.”
“Our purpose and reason for being,” I said,
“Is to be wolves.”
The Wolf’s Trail tells of Zhi-shay’, an elder wolf, and a litter of young wolves living somewhere on the side of a hill overlooking the river that flows through Nagahchiwanong in northern Minnesota. Zhi-shay’, who knows the whole story of the parallel relationship between wolves and the Ojibwe going all the way back to the Beginning, sharing it with his nieces and nephews, and us. Replete with universal lessons, The Wolf’s Trail is the story of the Ojibwe, told by wolves, of what they were and have become, and the promise of their becoming.
|Publisher:||Holy Cow! Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Out of nothing he made rock, water, fire and wind. Into each he breathed the breath of life. On each he bestowed with his breath a different essence and nature. Each substance had its own power, which became its soul-spirit.
From these four substances Kitche Manitou [Creator] created the physical world of sun, stars, moon and earth (Johnston, p. 12).
Chapter One – The Naming of Aki
I am of the wolves from the hills that overlook the river that flows through Nagachiwanong, the bottom of the big lake, Gitchi Gumee, the one that bears the likeness of a wolf. This has been our home for so many generations we have long since lost count, since the times after the retreat of the last glacier, the one before that, and before that.
I’m old I suppose, nine winters, certainly old for a wolf. I first realized it when the pups began calling me Zhi-shay’, Uncle, and started asking me all kinds of questions because I supposedly possess knowledge, have wisdom. I don’t know about that. Zhi-shay’, Uncle, they said, tell me about this. Uncle, tell me about that. At first I’d say I didn’t know. Then they’d walk away and I’d hear them whispering. He knows, he does. Or he doesn’t know. Maybe we should ask another uncle who knows something. Maybe this uncle is dumb. Most of the time though, I’d say, later. Tonight, tomorrow night, after I have gotten approval through Giniw, Golden Eagle, the beta male, and then Ogema, Leader, the alpha male, after the hunt, after this, after that, we’ll gather in circle.
We’ll talk story.
So I went to confer with Giniw first.
“I want to talk story with the pups, they’ve been asking.”
He gave me that look, begrudging, that’s his job, and took me over to Ogema.
Neither is much for words.
The alpha said. “Tell them everything.”
So that’s what I’ve done.
I wasn’t sure where to even begin. I mean, I could go on and on with stories forever, if I was allowed to.
So I asked the pups.
“Where do you want me to begin?”
“Zhi-shay’,” they said, “tell us about the humans. Start with them.”
Even pups seem to possess an inherent understanding of the parallel relationship that exists between wolves and humans.
“What about us wolves?” I inquired back. I tease them like that sometimes. Most of them don’t even know it is teasing. I continued.
“Maybe you could ask about us. We are, after all, wolves.”
“But we heard you know all about the humans,” my youngest, smallest nephew said looking up at me. I call him youngest nephew because he was the last born in his litter and the smallest.
“We want you to tell us about them. Just in case.”
“Just in case what?” I asked.
“Just in case we ever come upon them somewhere along the trail,” said youngest nephew.
So several evenings later we gathered in circle and I told them the beginning story about wolves and humans, and in succeeding nights whenever I wasn’t too tired from a hunt, or too full of meat or too hungry after too many days of unsuccessful hunts, or busy moving from camp to camp, or wanted to simply talk story, I’d continue on with the stories.
I thought it was important that I begin with the story of the creation, the Beginning. Young ones need to know the Creator’s story of the universe and the place of wolves within the creation. Maybe someday when the pups are older and some of them become lost they will remember the teachings inside the story and it will help them find their way back onto the trail.
Here’s the first one.
“Gather together,” I began that night. “Ears in front. Tails behind.
This is the story of the Beginning, when the Creator made everything from nothing, and when all was made, how it sent First Human and First Wolf, Ma’iingan, to walk aki (earth) and name all things. The story is what connects us to humans and explains the special relationship we both have with the Creator. So tonight I want you all to listen hard to me.”
“Who is the Creator?” It was youngest nephew. He was a talented, albeit persistent questioner. He continued.
“Is the Creator a wolf or human?”
“That’s a good question,” I replied. “I think the Creator is both, and everything else. I think the Creator is whatever it wants to be, whenever it wants to be. The Creator is the sky and air, winds, rain and thunder. The Creator’s essence, its perfect goodness, love, is in everything non-living and living, including us. When we do good things the Creator’s love lives through us.”
“I don’t understand, Uncle,” he continued his inquiry.
“I know,” I replied. “I don’t understand it all myself. I just know it is the truth.”
“Will you tell us when you understand it all?”
“No, I’ll keep it a secret and I won’t tell anyone, ever,” I replied. I was teasing, of course. I think he knew I was teasing because after I said it I nudged him with my snout and sent him rolling.
“Let me tell the story now,” I said.
“This is the beginning story of wolves and humans told through the eyes of wolves. I suppose that is appropriate because both wolf and human are parallel beings whose ways have many similarities.”
“What does that mean, similarities?” one of the pups interrupted when I used that word.
“It’s the opposite of being not similar, but I really don’t know” I said deadpan back at the lot of them. To be truthful, I’m not even sure what it means myself. Then I continued.
“What’s similar?” I don’t know who asked it, but it came from somewhere in the huddle of ears, snouts, fur and tails.
“Bizaan. Quiet,” I said. “Listen.”
I need to say that often, it seems.
“So I’ll begin with the story of the creation and naming of aki, earth. Even the humans would be able to recognize the story,” I said, “as familiar, similar, different.
This is the story as I have been told. Although there are other versions of the story among the various tribes of humans, the essential teachings remain the same, so we should use the lessons inside the story to live and treat one another. Among wolves this story has remained unchanged since the Beginning, when it was lived by Ma’iingan, the first Wolf, who along with First Human, was given responsibility for naming aki (earth).
In the beginning there was nothing for a long, long time but the Creator. Then the Creator had a dream, a vision, about aki (earth) and all the planets, stars and galaxies. In the dream, all things of the universe were made of rock, fire, water and air. On aki (earth) and other selected worlds the Creator dreamed of living and non-living things.
The dream went on the longest time.
And when the Creator awoke, it made the dream real. Out of nothing the Creator made a burst of pure energy in the form of light, and from that came the four original substances – rock, fire, water and air - and from these came everything in the Forever Sky, the universe. All of the stars and star clusters, all of the gaseous clouds and galaxies, all black holes, all voids in their complete blackness as well those places of both light and dark matter, all planets that circle all stars, all moons and comets and asteroids, dwarf planets and their moons. And on some worlds the Creator made life in so many forms they would be unrecognizable in other worlds, and yet each was made to represent the Creator’s unique expression of itself. And to all life the Creator breathed some of its very essence, and that is the Creator’s love, Zaagi'idiwin. For all life, in all forms scattered throughout Gaazhige Geezhig, the Forever Sky, is a living expression of that love.
On aki (earth) the Creator took some of the earth and molded and shaped it and created life in all its diversity, from tiny, single cell organisms to dinosaurs and whales, plant and animal beings so numerous in their variety that we have yet to identify them all. And among the animal beings the Creator made the many kinds of wolves, in all sizes and colors, mannerisms and dispositions, and placed them in the great garden that is aki on which to run and play and hunt upon. And when all of the other things were made, the Creator made First Human, the last animal being of the creation.”
“Were we always wolves, Zhi-shay’?” youngest nephew asked.
“Sometimes in my dreams I am a bear or a fish, and once I was a bird,” he continued. The other young ones chimed in as well, a mouse, a mosquito, even a tree.
“I do not know if we we’ve always been wolves. Some of the stories say our early ancestors were small creatures, rodents that ate insects and crustaceans. Over time, the stories say, some chose to remain small and became the mice, moles, voles, squirrels and chipmunks we wolves sometimes feed upon. Others grew and became deer, moose, badgers and wolverines, woodchucks, weasels, bears, porcupine, and beaver. Somewhere along the way, the stories go on to say, our wolf ancestors developed an appetite for the flesh of other animals, and eventually divided along several paths, one becoming canines and the other felines. The felines, bobcat and lynx and panthers are the wolves’ distant cousins. Canines became fox and coyotes and dogs, and us. Dogs were wolves that moved in and among the camps of humans, eventually becoming their companions. Wolves chose to remain free, wild. And I have heard stories of other close relatives, jackals and dingoes, and wild dogs, living in distant places, in lands our ancestors may have migrated to or from long ago.
I suppose because I have an innate curiosity to wonder of such things, one night when I was young and these stories were being told I asked the elders what our ancestors were before they were small rodents, and thereafter each of the stories took many evenings in their telling. And if I am to accept the truth in the stories, then I would say before we were rodents we were salamanders and lizards. And before that we were fish that came out of the sea to live on land, and before that we were creatures without bones, crustaceans, jellyfish and the like. And sometime before that, the stories say, plants became plants and animals, animals. And before that we were indistinguishable, neither plant nor animal. And before that we were tiny organisms, too small to see with the naked eye.
I remember asking what we were before that and was told, as always was the case, to come back another evening when the stories would be continued. And so when it came time I returned and listened in wonderment of it all.
Before there was life in all its sizes and shapes and varieties, I was told, there was aki, earth. And I was told the earth herself is a living being, made of water, rock, air and fire - the original substances that make up all of earth, all planets, moons, stars, and galaxies, and that each of these four elements makes up each and every living thing. That same night, very late, when the stories had been told all throughout the evening, until it was almost first light, I asked, and what were we before we were all of that? What were we before aki?
We were the matter of the very first stars, of nebula.
And what were we before that, I asked?
We were a burst of pure energy in the form of light, I was told.
And before that we were nothing.
So there I was, that night after the final story had been told, the last of the young pups that hadn’t long fallen into sleep. Even then only the eldest of the wolves remained awake as well, my grandparents and an old uncle. And I, almost too tired to speak, my voice raspy, had two final questions.
Grandfather, I asked, and what was there before there was nothing?
The Creator, he said.
And what is the Creator made from, I continued?
Zaagi'idiwin, he said.
There are other stories, of course, of how we became wolves. Some would say we have always been. That the Creator, rather than take all the eons it would take for life to develop and evolve and become what it has become, decided to create us out of nothing to what we are today, straightaway. That story is a much shorter one to tell and goes like this:
We were nothing.
Then we were wolves.”
Youngest nephew had to interrupt me at that point.
“I like that second story better, we were nothing and then we were wolves,” he said,
“We don’t look anything like frogs or fish.”
I didn’t know what to say in return so I just continued on with the story.
“I am not sure which of the stories to accept as truth. These are questions only the Creator can answer. I only know I was born one day, long ago, and the earth was new to me. I was just a little pup when our mother carried us, my brothers and sisters and I, one by one by the scruff of the neck, and pulled us from the deep, dark warmth of our den. And I remember when we broke through onto the damp surface of aki (earth) I breathed the cold, fresh air of outside for the first time and there, all around me were all of my cousins and aunties and uncles, all licking and nudging me with their noses. And I remember I protested as best I could from all the attention I was receiving. I remember it was dark with the sliver of the moon shining through the trees and a soft wind, the kind that comes in the season of an early summer evening when the leaves are still new.
That was all a long, long time ago.”
Then I told them about the naming of aki, earth.
“So Ma’iingan, first wolf, didn’t know why he was the one chosen. Why he was the wolf who would walk with First Human and name the new earth. He only knew he was, and for that reason he became the first teller of this story. Sometimes however, even now, given the passage of many winters, I consider how the collective story of wolves and humans would be different if the Creator had chosen some other animal being than Ma’iingan (wolf) to walk with First Human and give names to all that is aki (earth). What if the Creator had chosen deer, moose, eagle, coyote, or fox? Whole other stories would have emerged from the moment of that choice.
This is what I know about wolves and humans. Both place high value on family. Neither is made to live their lives in solitude. Few of either ever choose to do so. For either human or wolf who is alone is really someone who is searching, for another human, another wolf. We belong to something greater, the tribe or pack. Both humans and wolves need friendship and lifelong bonds with family – parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents. We excel only when we cooperate. And we struggle physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually when we are alone. Each needs other humans, other wolves, in order to be whole and find purpose.
Both humans and wolves care for our elders. Our young are in need of education. Our young adults learn to become their own unique beings, asserting themselves and eventually affecting the whole of our communities. And within each of our communities there are leaders - ogema, or alpha, of each gender. Our mothers keep the family unit cohesive. And should either of us lose our mothers an entire family may disintegrate.
Both humans and wolves bond like few other animals. The feeding of the group and defending of territory are paramount for both. Each cares for the sick and injured. Knowledge is transmitted across generations – wolf culture, human culture. When a companion dies, each grieves. The better hunters of each share their skills and knowledge with others, especially the young. They adapt these skills to changes in geography, prey and environmental conditions.
And finally, in dogs, the wolves that mutually, with humans, chose each other as companions to live in and amongst each other’s homes and communities, humans rely on the dog’s wolf skills. Humans use the wolf’s natural territorialism to train their dogs to guard their villages, and to protect their herds they have utilized the dog’s ability in maneuvering large herd animals. They have used the dog’s strong sense of smell in hunting and retrieving the kill. And perhaps most importantly, dogs have focused the keen observation skills they inherited from their wolf ancestors to understand humans better than any other creature, to know their human companions even better than most humans.
Still when I consider the circumstances upon which Ma’iingan, First Wolf, was chosen to walk with First Human and name the earth, and wonder of all the possibilities, in the end there is this, the story:
In that time soon after the Beginning, ni-mama aki (Mother earth) was new and without names, so the Creator called First Human to council and asked it to walk upon aki and name all things.
First Human was humbled and honored to be the ‘way-ay (namer) of all the things of the new earth. So it began its long journey. And it was in wonder at all it saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched.
And as it traveled aki, First Human noticed that other creatures had someone in which to share their life journey. Some traveled in large groups and pods, flocks and others as mating pairs. Still others traveled as families – fathers, mothers, and children, and others with their extended family – grandfathers, grandmothers, aunties, uncles and cousins.
So First Human prayed, asking the Creator for someone to share in all the wonder. And Creator took pity on First Human and sent Ma’iingan (Wolf) to walk with, as a friend and companion, and to share in the naming of all of creation. And I have imagined when the Creator’s voice called Ma’iingan and he stood before the Creator for the first time and was trembling in fear and whimpering, tail between its legs.
There he stood, eyes cast down. And in my imagining only once and for a brief moment did he have enough courage to look up, and all he saw was a bright light of pure energy, of love.
Then the Creator called Ma’iingan and when he tried to respond not even a whimper escaped its mouth. And when the Creator told him of his task he did not wonder or question, for he, like First Human, was honored and humbled to be the ‘way’ay, namer, of things.
So he joined First Human then. They were not friends at first. When he first encountered the human he must have felt a great sense of fear toward it. Here, it thought, is a predator unrivaled by any other creature, an animal it sensed had the potential, even sometimes a predilection to kill others simply for the thrill of it. So you can understand that his first instinct was to run. In turn, First Human must have acknowledged Ma’iingan as a predator as well, a worthy companion.
One of the natural differences to overcome in order to get to know the other right from the start was their inability to communicate with one another. Human’s verbal language is complex, a spoken language of words and sentences with which the wolf was completely unfamiliar. Wolves communicate best by howling, visual posing and body language. They must have spent many days just getting to know each other’s ways. Initially, I imagine, the wolf began to respond to human’s body language. Then it learned to recognize individual words, and eventually linked the words together to understanding basic sentences. The human learned to recognize that the wolf’s keenest sense, and the way we communicate the best, our sense of smell. For we wolves smell things long before we see them. We identify the kind, numbers and variety of things using our sense of smell. We mark our territories with urine, and identify it by scent. We recognize each other through our scent. So maybe you can also understand how difficult it was for the wolf, given its sense of smell, to be even near Human, whose strong body odor it must have found revolting.
With time, however, they learned the other’s language. And as they traveled and began undertaking the task for which they had been honored, they became friends, and eventually, brothers.
To become brothers they had to overcome a natural reticence to be with each other. They both acknowledged right from the beginning that First Human was the alpha, the dominant male, and the wolf the beta, submissive only to an alpha. Ma’iingan would never challenge First Human’s right to dominance, and human never willfully exerted its dominance over Ma’iingan. That was the unspoken understanding they both acknowledged at the time they first met.
Along the journey, they faced challenges that strengthened the bonds with each other. On bitter evenings they huddled together for warmth. Ma’iingan shared the warmth of his fur with Human. Human built a fire and taught Ma’iingan to respect its power. And there was a time when Human cut himself on a sharp rock, and Ma’iingan showed him a plant it could chew and put on the wound to stop the bleeding and aid in healing. And Ma’iingan used its strong sense of smell to locate other animals long before Human knew of their presence or whereabouts, and led it to them so they could be named. Human removed burrs from Ma’iingan’s paws, and rubbed its legs when they grew sore from long days of traveling. And Ma’iingan used his ability to herd animals when they ran in fear of them, so they would come closer to them and name them. In turn, Human used its skill with words to offer up names. So through all of this they came to know and eventually, trust the other, and became friends. And maybe because the process of naming consumed so much time, and they found themselves relying on the other’s knowledge and skills all the time, they moved beyond friendship to considering each other as brothers.
And as they walked and grew in their friendship and respect for the other they saw how all of the things of aki were beautiful, how everything was connected and related to the other, and that each had a purpose and reason for being a part of the creation. Everything is sacred. For all things come from Creator’s dream. And to honor the Creator and all of creation they gave everything the most beautiful of names.
They named all of the many kinds of wind, sky and clouds, and stars, moon and sun, daylight and darkness in all the languages of aki. And in the same way they named each of the oceans, and all of the rivers and lakes. They named the many different types of mountains, plains, deserts and forests. They named all the different grasses, flowers, and trees. And then they named each of the many kinds of animals – insects, fishes, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. They named all of the sounds – thunder, waves, wind, even the creaking of trees, and all the voices and singing of the animal beings, for their voices are the music of aki. Then they named the emotions as well – joy, laughter, anger, and sadness.
And their journey of naming went on for a long, long time.
Then when they were done they returned to where their journey had begun and stood before the Creator, who spoke to them, saying: ‘Now each of you will go your separate ways. Ma’iingan, you will partner and multiply. Your packs will run forever through the beautiful fields and forests. Your songs will honor the whole of the earth and sky. To honor your work, and to remember your kinship with humans, the face of Gitchi Gumee (Lake Superior) will bear your likeness.
And you, First Human, will also partner and multiply. Your tribes will forever walk this land. You will be responsible for caring for this beautiful garden that is ni-mama aki (mother earth). For the whole of aki, all living and non-living things, all plant and animal beings are your elder sisters and brothers, all of the things that grow, fly and crawl, run and swim. All the rocks, water, air and fire are in your care. This includes the smallest to the largest of things.’
Then Creator said that to forever remember the close kinship of wolf and human, whatever happened to one would befall the other, for both there would be times of great happiness and great sadness, of hope and despair. For that is the way of things. And the Creator said these things that would one day become true: One day, the Creator said, each of you will be hunted to near extinction. Each of you will lose your lands. But those difficult times will not go on forever, the Creator said.
‘Someday you will live out my beautiful dream for you.’
Both human and wolf stood before Creator and gave thanks, and offered sacred asemaa, tobacco.
Before they left, First Human and the wolf stood facing each other. The human scratched the wolf’s ears and rubbed the top of its head with his hands, its fingers going through the soft fur. Ma’iingan rolled over onto his back in submission and human rubbed its belly. It licked First Human’s hand and whimpered.
‘I will miss you.’
They both said it at the same time.
And then First Human went one way,
and Ma’iingan the other.
Mi-iw. That is all.”
Table of ContentsContents
Chapter One – The Naming of Aki
Chapter Two - Zaagi'idiwin
Chapter Three - The Wolf’s Trail
Chapter Four - The Camps
Chapter Five - Crossing
Chapter Six - The Prophets
Chapter Seven - The Arrival
Chapter Eight - The Boy
Chapter Nine - The Place by the River
Chapter Ten - Little Girl, Little Boy
Chapter Eleven - The Time of the Sixth Fire
Chapter Twelve - When We Were Hunted
Chapter Thirteen - Little Boy
Chapter Fourteen - Youngest Nephew, Little Niece
About the author
Maybe you are out walking on a trail and see the footprints of a wolf in the mud, the tracks a day or two old, or fresh, imprints large or small, or nearly washed away by rain, or partially covered by fallen leaves. Each possibility has a story about a wolf that happened upon the trail the day before, or a moment ago, of it tracking a rabbit or hunting mice or voles, or following the scent of a deer. And that moment of finding the tracks contains a part of the whole of the wolf’s story. Of when it was just a pup, born into a pack that lives somewhere in the vicinity of the trail, of roughhousing with its sisters and brothers and cousins, learning to hunt, becoming the alpha female or male or being the beta, mid-level wolf, or omega, leading, losing its role as alpha with age and the arrival of another who was bigger, stronger, smarter, or always being a mid-level wolf, or omega, the submissive one. And then, one day, yesterday, the day before, today, a moment ago, it came upon and followed a trail, and on that day in that season you also happened upon the same trail. And the moment you came upon what you came upon, a footprint, a wolf, you entered the story - the wolf, you.
That is how this story was born.