Warren Petoskey’s book spans generations and explores many timely issues in American life from a Native American pespective. He writes about the healing power of the natural world, the struggle to survive abuse, the wisdom shared by husbands and wives and the spirit that preserves communities across time and space.
In his chapter Affirmation, he tells about memories passed down by an aunt who winds up playing a huge role in his life. Here are excerpts from that chapter:
My earliest memories of Waganakising are of visiting my Great Auntie Ella Jane Petoskey’s home near Seven Mile Point. Waganakising is the place where our summer grounds were located. In the Odawak language the word means “it is bent,” and refers to a great white pine that grew on the shore…
My visits to see her were mystical and ethereal in so many ways. Great Auntie entered the world in 1880 and walked on in 1972, at age 92, so she witnessed the dramatic transformation of our people. She was a survivor of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, one of the first and most notorious of the Indian boarding schools.
I heard Great Auntie speak in the beautiful, poetic language of our grandfathers—Anishinaabemonwin. … The rocks, trees, waters and Mother Earth knew this language. At the age of 6, on one of my visits, I remember taking my shoes off to feel this place with the soles of my bare feet. The sensations rose up my legs, filled my heart and touched my soul.
I knew even then, though I did not live among our people, that I was Waganakising Odawa. That knowledge fueled my long search for my true home and family and a greater understanding of my identity. The dreams I experienced spoke to me of a good life and of a time when there was peace and sanctuary for us as a people—a way of life that I still long for.
I heard Great Auntie speak of our Odawak village. … She described children at play and the adult activities that permeated the village each day. It was not hard for my child’s imagination to envision that long-vanished place. Perhaps the reason I could “see” it was because of my ancestry—or maybe it was just because I wanted to know it so badly.
Great Auntie told me how Odawak women hummed as they prepared meals, thinking good thoughts over the food so their famlies would think good thoughts as they ate it. She told of young girls being taught by their mothers, aunties and grandmothers, knowing that one day they, too, would be mothers, aunties and grandmothers; and of young men being taught by their fathers, uncles and grandfathers, knowing that one day they would fill those positions.
In the old days, there were no greater offices than those of Clan Mother and Elder. Traditional people still hold and treasure those positions today.
Great Auntie told me that a squirrel could climb a tree along Lake Michigan and never touch the ground until it reached the banks of Lake Huron, on the opposite side of what today is the state of Michigan. She said the canopy from the giant trees prevented sunlight from reaching the earth. She said there were clear pathways through the forest because of this, but that is no longer. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the lumber industry destroyed all but a few remnants of the state’s virgin forests.
We knew that the great bounty we enjoyed did not belong to us. We believed the Creator had placed us here to be caretakers of His garden. That garden was our tabernacle, where we worshiped and revered our lives.
It was considered dishonorable to even consider trying to dominate the environment. We saw ourselves as mere strands in the Creator’s great weaving of life-giving things. We hunted, fished, gathered and gardened. We gave thanks every day for these gifts. We always gave thanks.
We knew that the things the Creator had spoken into existence were all part of a web, and that each strand was dependent on every other strand. We called the rocks “grandfathers,” believing they spoke to us of Mother Earth’s unfathomably long history and of our own relationship to Her. We did not view rocks as inanimate objects, but counted them among the many life-giving things the Creator had spoken into existence. Many of us still believe these things, though sadly, we are too few.
Grandmother Sun and Grandmother Moon were our teachers. We knew we were only a part of the vast universe: not greater or lesser, just a part. So it was a part of our consciousness to recognize and honor the interconnectedness of all living things. …
While we, the Anishinaabeg, were the caretakers of Turtle Island, human beings could drink from any stream and consume fish and venison without fear of contamination. The environment around us was not considered a “wilderness,” and it only became so with the arrival of the European Waisichu (a Lakotah word that means “fat-takers”). …
I loved visiting Great Auntie in her cabin in the middle of the woods. She touched my life in a way no one else could. I could see the ancestors and the life we once had through her eyes and her stories.
I live today in this altered state, knowing there was a time when the Waganakising Odawa were the only people inhabiting this place. I have no desire to be anything but Indian. When my time comes to walk on, I know my spirit will return to its origin. It is my wish that my bones will rest here at Waganakising with the bones of my ancestors in this circle of life.