The Anishinaabek are but a microcosm within the living world. For thousands of years, the Earth has welcomed my Ancestors. The geography has encapsulated the stories, histories, and cultural knowledge from the ground our children dance upon to the berries we eat. The land buries the ancient memories until we are ready to dig up the elemental wisdom. I embody my territory’s geographies and store blood memories of my ancestors in every shape and form. I reconnect with these memories through our sacred geography. In this piece, I will weave in the story of death and birth in the way we embody the land.
When we die, our spirit leaves the body. However, once we have passed on, our relations will still stay close to our bodies to ensure that we are prepared for our journey to the Spirit World. Traditionally, our bodies were buried by forests. We selected a burial site and left markers on the trunk of the tree or with rocks. We lined our graves with cedar to ensure the spirits of our Ancestors remained protected. Before we laid our bodies to rest, we placed tools and some possessions to help us cross the jiibay ziibi (milky way). We wrapped them in birch bark because the white birch possesses antimicrobial properties. Over time, our physical beings were absorbed into the ground, returning to the soil that our moccasins previously walked on. The rain and water that flows in the ground assisted in breaking down our deceased loved ones. The worms and insects partake in their feast.
After a few decades, our departed Ancestors are reduced into microparticles. They become part of the nutrient cycle where trees and plants absorb their microelements. Thus, our Ancestors have become part of the landscape, taking form in various flowers, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and medicines.
The cycle of life continues. The living harvest the goods that are produced from trees and plants. We eat to sustain ourselves, make tools to aid us in our work, create transportation vessels, engage in creative arts, and utilize medicines for healing. Every piece of our Ancestors is memorialized within the landscape. The Anishinaabek look at life with everything to be imbued with spirit. We honour each bit that is taken from the Earth.
The mitigoog are extensions of our families. They are the Elders Helpers who possess all the Earth, wind, fire, and water elements. We understand this sacredness they carry. We are aware of their complex structural system. Some of the micronutrients of our Ancestors have been taken in by the roots of the mitigoog and they are embedded within the life of the tree. The tree’s growth provides a home to the smaller animals, like squirrels, chipmunks, and birds. Trees also shelter us. Amikwag (beavers) have an interdependent relationship with the land and mitigoog. Understanding this complexity, we have built our own wigwams in reflection of amik’s home. Whether living or dead, mitigoog provide homes to many beings.
The Ancestors’ fragments grow within the leaves, budding and blooming flowers, and producing fruits and nuts. In the summer months, they can be carried away by the pollinating bees. They live within the nest and can be found in the honey. In the winter months, I drink the water that flows from the Earth upwards and out of the tree. We tap the maple trees, where we drink and harvest the sap. A continuation of our long relationship with the maple tree, we work consistently during the sap season to make maple sugar. These micronutrients undergo this rigorous process, but they serve to create a delightful treat that lasts into the next season.
Back then, the trees lasted centuries. Today, their lives do not span as long as they used to, due to capitalist resource extraction. We understand that our lungs have an integral relationship with the mitigoog: we exhale, and they inhale; when we inhale, they exhale. Together we share a sacred breath. Those trees produce the oxygen that fills our lungs. The Ancestors that have passed on have given us the ability to continue our future. We are forever intertwined.
The plants and trees are the shawls of Mother Earth. The plants blanket her with lush greenery and golden browns with pops of colours throughout mnookmi (spring) and niibin (summer). As dgwaagi (autumn) approaches, some plants wilt their leaves and turn to their restful state, or some will die, returning back to the ground. Their breakdown takes a few years to be fully absorbed back into the land. During bboon (winter), the remaining plants are laid to rest, waiting for mnookmi to arrive again. Once the snow melts, they wait for the sun to shine warm and bright; they wait for the photosynthesis process to begin. The Ancestral micronutrients take their temporary residence in the berries, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, and medicines. When we consume these, our bodies break down the nutrients, and it is absorbed into our system. We store their memories in our consciousness.
When we are in times of turmoil, we often turn to the land. We reconnect and walk amongst our Ancestors and the Spirits. Sometimes we pick the medicines we need to help us. When we light up mshkiki (medicine), the smoke that is expelled takes away our heaviness, the microparticles of our Ancestors help to carry up our worries, thoughts, and prayers to Gzhe-Mnidoo (Great Spirit); like the shawls of mothers, aunties, and grandmothers, she is there to protect us and nurture us. Plants are always willing to help us, and this is why we offer off semaa (tobacco): To honor the spirits. To commemorate the life they just gave up to help us. To honor our reciprocal relationship that we have with the natural world.
Water is essential to life on Earth. They are the veins of the Earth that supply life throughout Turtle Island. The water travels everywhere; whether through evaporation, condensation, or precipitation from the lakes or the sea. It can travel peacefully or furiously in the streams and rivers that criss-cross through our Ancestral territories. Water carves out landscapes—even the toughest of formations. As Anishinaabek, we respect the water and honor our connection to biish. We understand the influence Nookimis Giizis (Grandmother moon) has over the water. We can pray to the nimkii bineshii (thunderbirds) for water during fires or times of drought. We give thanks for the spring waters that nourish us. We honor the life that is given to us because our mother carried us in the womb. We are all inherently connected to water because the beginning of our lives have been within it.
We return back to the water once we leave the Earth. Our bodies will become liquified and we seep back into the Earth. As the water naturally filters throughout the ground and soil, we will drink from the rivers and bays that sustain our lives. The natural cycle of life begins and ends with water.
The land grounds my children. Before we are born, our spirits travel the Star World looking for a place to expand our knowledge. Once we select our parents, we travel down like a shooting star. Our mothers nourish our growing fetus from berries, mushrooms, wild rice, teas, fish, deer, and other crops and animals. We take her nutrients that she nourishes herself with from the land. When we are born, our parents hold a ceremony for us, bury our placentas in the ground to keep us connected to our Ancestral territories. Our spirit will know where home is no matter the distance we travel. Like death, our placenta is returned, storing our mother’s energies, our energies, and our intentions on Earth.
Anishinaabemowin (Odawa Language)
The Anishinaabek know that the land is fundamental to our existence. The People operate within the natural laws and participate with the living world, and within it; we are active and creative participants, tying our nature to spirit. Our intellectual framework stems from the land. Anishinaabemowin, our language, is a description of our land. Our moccasins have travelled Turtle Island learning the Anishinaabe inaadiziwin (way of life). We collect teachings and stories, learning how to live in a responsible relationship with nature. We walk the meadows and mountains; we paddle the rivers and bays; we sing and dance; we war and love the way our Ancestors have because they reside within the land. We inherently collect their stories, memories, language, struggles, and survival in our blood because of the food we eat and the teas we drink. Even though our sacred instructions are carried out from generation to generation, there is an unspoken conversation of natural laws.
Our Nation speaks Anishinaabemowin. The tongues have spoken words that have been nurtured from Turtle Island. The language is verb-based, and we used it to describe the land, weather, nature, and places. It is a core component to Indigenous ways of thinking. The language carries a big piece of our sacred geography. When we speak Anishinaabemowin, we learn about our relationships to the geographies, histories, and stories of the land. Our minds begin to process the world differently.
What stories does the land hold?
Our Ancestors can hear us, feel us, and see us through our struggles and our triumphs. They know our pain and our happiness. Healing comes from the land. When we step upon the ground, we reconnect; we are reassured that they are with us.
The death process is part of the regenerative continuum of the natural order. The journey does not end, but instead continues beyond what we can comprehend at this stage of our lives. The land will continue to teach future generations about who we are and how we lived. When we need to recall ancient memories, they are stored within us. I am connected to my Ancestors, and I am accountable to future generations. That is why we need to walk in a good way so that we heal ourselves to help heal them. It is but our understanding of the circle of life. We are Anishinaabe: we embody the place, space, and language of the land. Anishinaabe Aki (Anishinaabe Land) stories are never-ending because they are an extension of our bodies and minds.
Published on 20 June 2021
Barbara Wall, Nancy Shawanda, Lindsay Shawanda, Rose Linda Peltier, and Brett Belanger.
Special thanks to Samantha Butwell for her work on this series.
Photograph by Alyssa Bardy.