Below, you will read a story told by Nova Whetung, the daughter of Pacific Wild’s post production manager and editor, Darryl Whetung, who is of Anishinaabe ancestry. This story and others like it, Nova says, are important because they teach values of respect and remind her of her family’s storytelling history.
“Many years ago, there was a family preparing for a hard and cold winter season, soon arriving to an Ojibway winter village on the Great Lakes of Ontario.
A young girl was in her wigwam (birch bark house), daydreaming of a warmer place to be. Her Nokomis (Grandma) interrupted her dream and said, “My girl, I need your help to get the wiigwaas (birch bark) to patch the holes in our wigwam — the cold is coming.”
Nokomis said to her granddaughter, “In the forest you will come across ten birch trees. You will strip the trees of their bark, but before you do so, you will honor wiigwaas (birch) by saying a prayer and saying miigwetch (thank you) for your gift that keeps us warm.” Nokomis then said, “Grab two sacks of manooman, our wild rice, from the Elder who lives by the lake and bring it home. Then, you must ask the geese for some feathers to stuff our blankets and keep us warm.” The young girl nodded while her Nokomis told her, “The geese will be leaving soon to go somewhere warm, so be as quick as you can.”
The girl set off on her task with a new plan: to go somewhere warm with the geese.
When the girl arrived at the birch trees, she took the bark from wiigwaas without saying a prayer or expressing her thanks. Instead, she rolled the bark into a giant solid scroll. The scroll was strong like a sturdy branch.
She carried the birch bark scroll to the Elder by the lake and collected the two bags of wild rice, again without expressing her thanks.
The girl carried her scroll and the sacks of wild rice to the place of the geese, who were organizing their families to leave for the winter. “Geese, I offer you these bags of rice, and in exchange you will wrap my arms in feathers.” The geese happily agreed by honking loudly. The girl then said, “I will hang on to the birch bark scroll with my teeth and flap my feathered arms while two of you each hold an end of the scroll with your beaks to support me in the air.” The geese agreed.
Nokomis heard the sound of the geese flying above. When she looked up, she saw her granddaughter flying through the air. The girl waved a wing goodbye as she flew over her worried Nokomis. The girl flew over the Elder, who sat proudly by his bags of rice. When he looked up, he saw the girl flying above him. She smiled, then waved a wing and shouted, “Look at me!”
Suddenly forgetting that she was hanging onto the scroll with her teeth, the girl fell down from the sky and landed on the bags of rice beside the Elder. The geese then dropped the scroll, which landed on the ground beside her.
Nokomis, who was crying over her granddaughter, was happily interrupted by the Elder approaching the wigwam with the girl. The girl apologized to her grandmother for only thinking of herself. With the feathers on her arms she stuffed the blankets, and with the scroll from the birch she patched the wigwam. With each patch she gave thanks to the birch. The Elder, who was noticing the girl’s hard work, gave the family two more bags of wild rice.
Wrapped in a feather blanket and eating rice with her family in the warm wigwam, the girl finally found the place where she was the warmest.”
When asked about the moral of the story, Nova says it is to respect and give thanks for all gifts that are given and to openly share your own gifts with all beings in our world. At eleven years old, Nova is wise beyond her years and loves learning about her Anishinaabe culture and language from her father and Papa. In many Indigenous cultures, stories are the primary mode of teaching, making some of life’s most important lessons accessible and interesting for younger generations.
While storytelling is central to the Indigenous worldview, westerners often fail to grasp the value and importance of Historical Oral Traditions. Many who listen and learn through a colonial lens are caught up in what we like to call “facts”. We tend to believe only what we can see and immediately quantify, or what we have ourselves experienced. The fault here is that we lose respect for the teachings of those who precede us and dismiss the wisdom of elders, favouring the latest data.
I recently visited the Skw̲xw̲ú7mesh Líl̓wat7úl (Squamish Lil’wat) Cultural Center (SLCC) in Whistler. After telling the Lil’wat story of Skalula, the great owl who scoops children out of the woods after dark, our guide asked who in the group believed the story. Most gave a soft, sympathetic smile but shook their heads.
“No, there is no giant owl picking off kids at night in the Pemberton valley”, they said while fidgeting nervously.
Our guide countered, “I say maybe. Maybe there is. But even if there is not, this story has proven highly effective in teaching children to respect their parents when they are told to be home before dark.”
Therein lies the power of storytelling — of using imagination, art and humour to teach life’s lessons. Indigenous Peoples have always known this, and it is our turn to listen. Listen to the stories — the horrific stories of injustice and inhumanity committed against First Nations during colonial history. They hold great importance, but so do the beautiful stories that precede those – stories like Nova’s. In these stories, we can glimpse the ingenuity and worldview of the people who managed to live in harmony with the earth since time immemorial. This is a way of being we must integrate if we stand a chance at a better future.
At this point, as a Canadian, I would be hypocritical if I continued to explain or analyze these matters using westerner words. I will leave it at this: for me, and those like me, more listening is needed. More learning is needed. Now is the time to lean into a different way of knowing — one that is rooted in a deeper worldly intelligence, an intuitive and intergenerational kind of knowledge passed down through stories like Nova’s. Within these stories we can find medicinal and scientific knowledge, governance structures and universal truths. This humble way of being and knowing travels through the practice of sharing stories. It is the way many Nations keep their history alive and intact so they can send information from one generation to the next.
The last word here will come from the the Skw̲xw̲ú7mesh and Líl̓wat7úl peoples, from a text called A Teacher In Life on display at the SLCC:
“A Teacher in Life reminds us there’s more ways to learn than just reading a book. Nothing was written down for the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations, everything was an oral tradition. We said and practiced over and over until we understood enough to teach our children and their children’s children.”