Monday, July 16, 2012

Ojibway Heritage

What would it be like to wake up every day in a sane, healthy, life of wildness and freedom?  Imagine stepping outside at dawn, and observing a landscape that remained as the creator made it, undefiled by the catastrophe of industrial civilization — a gentle misty morning of peace, fresh air, and good energy.  You pause and offer a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for the gift of another day to celebrate the perfection of creation. 
This is not easy to imagine, because we no longer live like human beings.  Our culture provides us with almost no information about living in harmony with the land, because that is not the nature of our culture.  Memories of our own wild ancestors have been erased by the passage of time, and by the sharp turn we made when we surrendered our freedom.  We have forgotten who we are, and how to live.  We are lost.  Our entire way of life is lost.
Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage, pulls back the curtains, and allows us to explore a healthy way of life.  It’s disturbing to read this book, because it illuminates how far we have strayed from the path of balance and good life.  It carries us to a sacred mountain, far above the toxic smog of civilization, and helps us remember things of great importance.
Johnston is an outstanding storyteller.  His book describes Ojibway culture to those who are not close to it, in a manner that outsiders can easily comprehend and appreciate.  We learn about wild freedom — a way of life similar to how our wild ancestors once lived.  It’s a world of sharing and cooperation, honor and morality, a world of overwhelming reverence and respect for the natural world and the family of life.
The Ojibway people inhabit a vast region in the middle of North America, on both sides of the US-Canadian border.  They have always avoided the political unification of all Ojibways because they cherish independence.  Nothing was more abhorrent to them than the notion of submitting to control.  They were free people who enjoyed living in free communities.
Community had greater importance than the desires of the individual.  Each individual was entitled to food, clothing, shelter, personal inner growth, and freedom.  For all other matters, the permission of the community was sought.  The people were consulted for guidance, so that the custom and will of the community was respected.
Each community had chiefs for various purposes, and they became chiefs based solely on their merits.  If anyone lost respect for a chief’s abilities, they could ignore him.  His influence was based on persuasion, not authority.  Those who followed his lead did so voluntarily.
Stories were powerful cultural tools.  They encoded the moral principles of the society.  Always tell the truth.  Respect your elders.  Always be thankful for food, for life, and for your powers.  Seek wisdom and peace. 
Stories provided guidance on hunger, courage, generosity, fidelity, creation, death, transformation, history, and all matters that related to life and being.  On a simple level, a child could find meaning in them, but they could also be understood on deeper levels by adults and elders.
Males were expected to quest for a vision.  “No man begins to be until he has seen his vision.”  Every person had different gifts and powers, and the self-discovery of vision provided purpose and meaning for their existence.  Women fulfilled their existence by bringing life into the world, so a vision was optional for them.
Boys were ready to begin questing for their vision by the age of 12 to 14.  They would be ceremonially purified, and then spend four days alone in a remote quest lodge, with no food.  Rarely was the first attempt a success.  Sometimes nothing happened, and sometimes the vision was incomplete.  Quests were made every year, until a complete vision was finally received.  A man was not considered to be an adult until he received his vision.  One fellow didn’t receive his vision until he was 50.  This was not a cause for shame.
Your vision was personal and private, not to be shared.  You had a sacred obligation to pursue and complete your vision.  Straying from your path was not unusual, but it was seen as betraying your vision, and “such a state was tantamount to non-living in which acts and conduct had no quality.”  To avoid this, men and women went on annual retreats to review their lives, and verify that they were still on their true path.  The Ojibway were big on living with integrity.  I like that.
They were also big about personal independence.  “The individual and his individuality were inviolable; his vision was equally inviolable.  No person was to surrender to another; no person was to seek dominion over another man or woman.”  They weren’t into playing master and servants.  Likewise, no person could own the land. 
Johnston talked at length about healers.  There were both medicine men and medicine women.  A few boys and girls displayed special gifts of curative power, and they were trained in the art of healing.  Part of the training process was observing what animals ate when ill, because they possessed knowledge of medicinal plants.  Some of the trainees became herbalists, and others advanced to become philosophers.  Illness was seen to be a punishment for a failure to live a good life, so healers attempted to guide patients back to upright living.  They analyzed dreams, and provided advice.
Every year, healers gathered for the Midewewin ceremony, by invitation only.  The initiation process took at least four years, before a healer earned the full rights and privileges of membership.  An important component of the healer’s initiation was learning the history of the Ojibway people, so that they had a solid understanding of the path of life, and the gifts received from the grandfathers and grandmothers.  People couldn’t enjoy good health and good life if they were disconnected from their history.
This book reminds us of who we once were, in the days of our wild ancestors.  It allows us to gaze into a mirror and observe the wounded beings that we have become.  It presents us with a portrait of a coherent culture, living intimately in harmony with nature.  We see a beautiful picture of what life could be like, following the collapse of industrial civilization, several generations down the road.  It’s precious information for people who are in contact with reality, and seeking dreams for a better tomorrow.
A better tomorrow will not come to our descendants automatically.  It must be envisioned, and then the vision must be fulfilled.  “A man or woman begins to learn when he seeks out knowledge and wisdom; wisdom will not seek him.”
This is a small book, but it’s loaded with fascinating information.  I have just scratched the surface here.  It’s an important message.
Johnston, Basil, Ojibway Heritage, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1990.  [Originally published in 1976.]


Suzanne Duarte said...

Thank you, Richard. This book is indeed an important source of guidance for envisioning a saner, healthier, more fulfilling future for our species. However, now that we have a serious overpopulation problem, I feel that the old traditions that held that "Women fulfilled their existence by bringing life into the world, so a vision was optional for them," should be revised. A woman's vision is just as important as a man's in the world we now inhabit, and having children might not be the best contribution a woman can make. ;-)

What Is Sustainable said...

Suzanne, very true. Two visions are better than one, and too many two-leggeds spoils the ecosystem.