In honour of National Aboriginal Day on June 21, we at Canada Writes are presenting our own contribution to the CBC's groundbreaking 8th Fire project: "The Way Forward," an original series by some of the country's leading and emerging Aboriginal writers.
Here, Manitoba-based writer and professor Niigaanwiwedam James Sinclair on an epic struggle and what it can teach us about change.
How the Thaw Creates the World
By Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair
The change is coming—as it always does.
Reminds me about how we got here.
From the spring thaw.
It begins usually around March. Or, in the Anishinaabe language, the time we call Onaabani-giizis—“the moon of hard crusted snow.”
There’s a story about this time.
It tells of when Biboon (Winter) and Ziigwan (Spring) fight. Biboon is stubborn and vain, refusing to leave the beautiful world he creates. Ziigwan is patient and secure, knowing that—no matter how much Biboon resists—he will give way.
They struggle. The ice cracks. The wind blows. Sometimes Biboon simply refuses to go, like a child having a tantrum. Always, Ziigwan tolerates him.
Finally, Ziigwan is left to do her work. She inspires the plants to grow, the animals to return, and the sky to clear. This is why March has a second name: Aandego-giizis—“the moon the crow returns.”
This story teaches about commitment in relationships. The bond between Biboon and Ziigwan is a shared set of rights and responsibilities forged through constant communication and dedication. Another word for this: a treaty.
Every time I hear this story, I learn something new about the hard work relationships require. The dedication. The creativity. The love.
Anyone trying to relate to someone like Biboon knows what I mean.
The world is a great storyteller. As a professor, writer, and storyteller to a five-year-old, I’m asked to listen to and read it all the time.
What I often see are stories of creation; the processes living beings share in the common interest of life.
In our language we call this ndinawemaganidog, "we are all related"—a philosophy that lives throughout Anishinaabeg history, literature, and politics.
What I also see, for the good and the bad, are stories that destroy and divide. Try to erase and remove others. Forget that we are relatives.
We have lots of stories to direct us. We don’t have to look anywhere else.
In my own work, I see Anishinaabeg who articulate ndinawemaganidog in ways that have never been interrupted. I hear traditional stories that explain how every being in the universe carries gifts and each are necessary for life to be shared in its fullest form.
In today’s novels, songs, and poetry, Anishinaabeg artists explore how human beings constantly forge identities, communities, and ties with living entities like water. They tell stories filled with truth and power.
They also remind us how human beings have a lot to learn about responsibility, respect, and relationships.
Like the cycles and connections that make up Anishinaabeg life, our ever-changing stories interpret our world and, hopefully, help create it.
Stories like these prove that forces like English, the internet, and pollution influence our cultures and communities, but they do not end relationship-making practices—unless we let them.
Like the struggle between Biboon and Ziigwan, the change always comes.
We must expect it.
All we have to do is listen, learn, and act with a sense of history, relationship, and the world as we move into the future.
Niigaanwiwedam James Sinclair is a professor of Native Studies and English at the University of Manitoba. He is the co-editor of Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water and the forthcoming Centering Anishinaabeg Studies:Understanding the World Through Stories.
photo credit: Aaron Pierre Photography