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Nature and the Concept of Power Among
Mississippi and Lake Superior Ojibwa:
Reflections of Paul Buffalo
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Paul Buffalo Meditating Medicine.
the Lake Superior area respected their land and lived in intimate spiritual
contract with nature.(2) Living and inanimate
things shared the same life spirit, from which early Ojibwa inhabitants
took their spiritual strength. They shared the land with the animals, mythological
peoples, spirits, and deceased relatives and friends. Because of their beliefs
Ojibwa peoples could communicate with the supernatural world through nature.
In 1850 George Copway (Kay-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh), himself an Ojibwa and
missionary working in the region south of Lake Superior, wrote of his people
and their beliefs:
The skies were filled with the deities they worshiped and the whole forest awakened with their whispers. The lakes and streams were the places of their resort, and mountains and valleys alike their abode. All the remarkable spots in the country were considered their favorite resorts. These were the peaks of rocky cliffs; the clefts of craggy mounts. Waterfalls were thought to be their sporting scenes.
The sky was the home of the god who held a watchful care over every star. They heard him whisper in the gentle breeze, or howl in the tempest. . . .
The constellations of stars were council gatherings of the gods. The brightest were ruling spirits, appointed by the Great Spirit as guardians of the lesser ones. . . .
The earth teemed with all sorts of spirits, good and bad; Those of the forest clothed themselves with moss. During a shower of rain, thousands of them are sheltered in a flower.
The Ojibway, as he reclines beneath the shades of his forest trees, imagines these gods to be about him. He detects their tiny voices in the insect's hum. With half-closed eyes he beholds them sporting by thousand on a sunray. In the evening they are seen and heard. `Above, below, on every side. . . .'(3)
Ojibwa received their power and strength from nature, a personified life force. They observed natural signs and used medicines to maintain order, prolong life, and promote goodwill among friends and relatives. "Powermen"--more commonly referred to as medicine men or medicine doctors--looked to the land for support. Ojibwa conceived power as a force supporting physical, psychological and spiritual abilities. Individuals who earned respect and good reputations for wise use of power inevitably renewed that power by communicating with the land, its animals, and its plants.
Vitalization and renewal of power through nature is, in the Ojibwa traditions, a very personal experience. Those who have developed special powers, or special use of power, often speak only of the broad outlines of their experiences. Mr. Paul Buffalo (Gah-bah-bi-nays)(4), however, in the last thirteen of his seventy-seven years, systematically recorded most of his beliefs and left a legacy of approximately four thousand pages of life history materials. Mr. Buffalo's mother, herself a medicine woman, told her oldest son shortly before she died that she had a dream revealing that one day someone would come to record their Indian ways of life. She told him that when that time came he should speak of those things she had taught him. It is thus that we have a rare personal statement about some of those beliefs.
A descendant of Pezeke (Chief Buffalo) of Lake Superior, Paul Buffalo was born near the fork of the Leech and Mississippi Rivers in 1900. In his early youth he witnessed the traditional ways of northern Minnesota Ojibwa and their continuing encounter with the white man and his roads, railroads, river boats, values and ways of life. He participated in the early logging activities of northern Minnesota, and during the 1930s acted as a councilman and representative of his people. Mr. Buffalo had a gift of recounting "campfire talk" of the old days and of making his cultural principles, values, and perspectives on history relevant to present times. Although baptized in the Christian religion, Mr. Buffalo continued native Indian practices. His knowledge of Indian religion and ways of life, and his awareness of present-day concerns and problems, gave him rare insight into the beliefs of his people.
Paul Buffalo's life history provides a very personal statement about his people and their relationship to the land of Lake Superior. His narratives reflect a belief in the interrelationship of all things of nature that is, paradoxically, straightforward but intricate. Great and profound questions about the universe intermingle with reflections on experiences of a robin's song. The simple and grandiose coexist in a natural world, and are of equal importance in one's personal life. Death, illness, health, life, law, emotions, friendship, religion, diet, hope, and a thousand facets of life interact as parts of a natural world. Underlying these freestyle narratives are a basic statement about this interrelatedness of all creation, and a self-renewing excitement of nature. Although Paul Buffalo speaks with extensive experiencing of, and very long familiarity with, the natural world, his attitude is not dulled by habit. After three-quarters of a century his approach to nature remains fresh and sensitive, and, often, one of awe.
The selections which follow yield no specific definitions, but rather tend only to foster the beginning of understanding. Paul Buffalo's "definition" of power is elusive, particularly to persons in academia generally more accustomed to crisp statements of identity and classification. If, however, one were forced to classify and identify, it could be said that power is here viewed as a neutral, synergetic assisting-ability whose good use regenerates itself.
Power is normal and natural, and available to everyone who takes interest in things of nature and life. But paying attention to and taking an interest in nature is not enough to actually obtain power. To "receive" power one must consistently "practice" that attention and interest. Power requires action, and is not passively received. Once obtained, one ought to continually use power for the good, thereby increasing it.
To explain power, Mr. Buffalo himself eventually turns to the universal phenomenon of two persons who at a single moment have come to a co-empathetic understanding of each other through a genuine interest in communicating. Attention, interest, sincerity, honesty, and satisfaction combine to "empower" that experience. We might alternatively say that the two people have "tuned into each other's wave length" and have each achieved both an intellectual understanding of a message and a spiritual or emotional feeling towards the other. However described, the experience is one of spiritual fellowship. That which in such situations transcends simple communication and understanding is power. It is present, as Buffalo says, like magnetism, gravity and electricity.
He would go on to say that if you take interest in nature, pay attention to the signs of nature, and "practice" your interest in nature, that same power generated in special interactions with friends is now again generated in you. That same power comes from talking to the trees and the birds, and the sun and the stars, and the owls and the robins, and the dogs and the moles, and all of those other things which Paul Buffalo and his people noticed and loved.
In Paul Buffalo's words:
. . . In our life we use ground up bark, powder, and a little wild roots.(5) It's a mixture of natural things, but that's not all. The medicine doctor that empowers those natural things goes through something when he makes that mixture. Indian doctors fast when they make medicine. They don't eat for two, three, days. They don't eat and that way they get out the spirit. They go through a ceremony like a priest would. A priest blesses everything, and that's what an Indian powerman will do too. Indians sing for power, they fast, and they talk to the birds and trees, telling them what their medicine's for. They talk to a tree, and before they take its medicine they put tobacco to that tree. Then they smoke their pipe. . . .
This world's nature you know, and the trees are living. They can't talk, but there's something in a tree for you to use if you know how to use it. You talk to them trees, you talk to a bird, you talk to a dog. You learn. The dog'll understand you. A horse is smart, and he'll understand you too. Ya, talk to the trees. That's what it is you do, and it's almost then that your power commences. Then you got power. . . .
See, the Indians know nature. They get their full power through a fast and by paying attention to nature during that fast. The Manitou(6) put them on earth. Indians naturally recognize what's given to them to eat and utilize. They exercise their power by words, and maybe by signs. . . .
When you fast, pretty soon you begin to see things by signs. Pretty soon through reading them signs you realize what has to be done while you're living. Pretty soon you realize your work. You have to work for the future, because you're only living here for a while and then you go to the next world.
Where we going?
To the sun. Did anybody ever go to the sun? Can anybody describe what the sun is? Where are the scientists who tell what the moon is? Why does that moon stay up there? Why does that sun stay up there? Who knows about the sun? Show me a piece of that sun in my hand. Who knows about it? That's the place to find after we're done on earth. . . .
That sun's a big thing, and it gives light to the earth. We shouldn't meddle with that like they did with the moon one time. Our place is on earth. We should respect the earth and everybody on it.
But sometimes people try to overpower one another. So you overpower? Well, what good is it? If you overpower the other one, what good does it do? We all die anyhow. We just leave what we discover back of us. We just leave it to the next person, and it keeps a-going that way. The sun is a great thing and we should leave it alone.
Stars! Stars are great too.
Yeah, that's something. It's a great earth, and there's miles and miles of it. There's miles and miles of sun too. The Great Manitou is back of the sun, and He'll take care of that sun. The earth goes 'round and 'round, still we see the sun and the moon and the stars. That's something, eh . . . ?
The Indian knows all that stuff, you know, and they know the signs of this earth too. They really know that! They really know the warning signs from nature; that is, they really know when something's going to happen. They go by unusual sights and unusual signs.
A bad warning sign sometimes comes when you're camping. You'll have a camp somewhere, and all the once when you're sleeping somebody will holler out, just like a person, "Kaayi-kay-kayi-kaay-iaay. Kay-ay-hay-ay Hu. Hu. Hu. [silence] Kah-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka. Huu. Hu. Hu." That's an owl. It's a bad sign. Sure as heck that means bad news. It's a bad warning. After you hear an owl call out like that, it isn't long 'till you hear that something bad happened--like death! Somebody's going to die. That owl warning means you'll hear that somebody died.
Some signs mean sickness, and some mean death. Sickness is warned by a fireball, mostly. Fireballs mostly mean sickness. Fireballs are unusual signs which mean sickness is coming. . . .
Sometimes you'll see these moles on the road, on their back. That isn't good neither. It's a bad sign to see them moles with the peaked nose lying on their back. Oh, that's a bad one. If you ever see a mole on his back, look out! What I say is true. You ask everybody. All these Indians believe that when them moles lay on their back that's unusual. If you see them, that's unusual. But when you touch him, that son-of-a-gun will go. He's just playing 'possum; he's playing he's dead.
Speaking about unusual signs, you got mah-wing-gway, the crying eye, too. If I don't feel good my eyes shake. A party that feels that in their eye will say, "Maybe I'm going to be sick. Maybe I'm going to see somebody sick, or maybe I'm going to see death." Indians know those warnings.
That owl is bad. It's bad. But then the fox is bad too. The fox will holler like a person, sometimes: "Gah-gah-kah-kay-yah-ah-kah-way-ga." It sounds just like he's talking. "Bah-uu wuu. Wu-u. Wu. Wu." A wolf will do that too. That's bad. . . .
This morning I walked out to the alley behind your house and went about half-a-block, then I turned around and came back. As I stood there I heard a robin calling for rain. "I'll bet it'll be rain," I though. It's supposed to rain. It did rain awhile, sprinkle, already. Them robins go "kik, kook, kook, kook," when they're calling for rain. We watch all that, and listen. "ChI-kook. ChI-kook." They want rain. But maybe it could be something else that they're telling us. Robins got bad news too, once in a while. When they give a warning for bad weather, somebody's going to feel it and see it, and know what to expect. 'Course robins aren't so bad, but they're bad enough, sometimes. It seems just like they're talking to you sometimes. "ChI-koo-luk-luk-luk-luk-luk-look," they talk like that.
All them animals got signs, and some of them really have bad ones. But the signs have to be something unusual. One springtime during mating season I heard an owl make a noise. It was in April during sugar time,(7) when I was just a boy. I said to the old timers, "I hear an owl making a bad noise, `Chuk-kouk-kuk-kuk.'"
"Oh, that's nothing," they told me, "they're mating this time."
Indians know the habits of the animals, and they don't pay no attention to certain things. When animals are mating, for example, we don't pay any attention. Same way with a wolf or a fox. When they're mating they make all kinds of noise. . . .
A lot of times white people see all that stuff, but they don't take notice of it. Then, later on, when they need help, the answer is there, but they don't remember this warning.
We know them warnings. White people call it "superstitious" or something. They call a person that believes in signs and warnings "superstitious." The Indians are superstitious. Even the priest says that. If you ask the priest, "What is that [animal] sign for? What does that unusual sign mean?" he'll say, "oh, you're just superstitious." But the Indians says it the other way: "Ah, it isn't a very good sign. . . ."
It's scary. I get scared when I get to thinking about what I've seen--and I've seen lots. I think lots about the power that comes to me through those signs. I think about power, and what power means. I think I know what it is and I use it, but you can't just explain what it is. When the Manitou is working with you, and you're working together with the Manitou, you have power. Power's just like magnets. When you have power it's just like your body is magnetized. It's almost the same as the gravity of the earth. Everything's got an electric form--seeing, sight, vision, hearing, the earth, gravity, and the Spirit. When you use power, you call as much of that form to you as you can. The more you call it, the easier it is to call, and the more you have of it. If you use your power for the good, that power will increase. But you have to take interest in things! You have to show that you`re interested in the things of this world. Then you'll begin to get power.
The power is will power, that's what I mean. If you have the will power, you can do anything. You can do anything when you have the will power. If you exercise that will power enough and in the right way the Spirit will begin to work with you and you'll have real power. You'll be empowered. That's what I mean when I say power. You have to believe strong that there is somebody working with you. Then when you work with somebody for the good, you feel good. When you work for somebody--like when you work for the dead--you'll end up with even more power because you're helping the dead-that-left through your words that they hear. It isn't easy to get to heaven, and when we help the dead-that-left we gain power. When we die we have lots of places to go through. We're going to be checked on before we get to heaven. How wonderful it is up there! But, we have to be purified to get there. So when you work for the dead on earth as they leave, He'll give you power. In that way you'll gain a little power through your own will.
It takes a lot of will to get power. You expect that. But you know you can get an answer if you have the will power. If you want power you're willing to go without eating, even if you get hungry. That isn't going to hurt you. But something else comes. He serves you, you see, He answers you. He gives you your power.
Once you have power it stays with you as long as you believe in that. If you join that belief in power, and, if you believe strong in that, you get so that your belief continues to get stronger. You commence to believe almost like Christian Science. Our belief is pretty near like Christian Science. We believe in the God, the Manitou, but we also believe in trees. We believe in everything. We respect everything.
Believe and respect, and practice with that power, and after awhile you'll commence to be a staff [member on a degree] of the Indian belief, Midewiwin(8). You believe in Grand Medicine when you're in the Midewiwin, and, when you believe strong, you're heading for a Midewiwin staff. . . .
Grand Medicine's more a doctoring work, but to doctor with the Midewiwin you have to get extra empowered. You have to go through special empowerment. Then, when you get to a certain staff [degree] of the Midewiwin, you are able to doctor in an Indian way. But first you have to go through the necessary training. You have to be a perfect man and go through(9) signs, and fast, and show that you've worked up to that. Anybody can go after power, but only certain ones can doctor in the Midewiwin. If you lay Midewiwin power onto the hands of anybody who can't control their outrage and temper, they won't last long. I don't think someone like that would carry the power very long because it would work on him. If a person's temper is too rough they begin to lose respect for that power and it starts to back-work on them. . . .
Somebody that's well-considered has to be the one to exercise Midewiwin power. To be accepted into that you have to answer all views. You put your own view(10) out, and if the view by others is that your's is good, they'll accept it. But if your views are no good, others won't accept them, and you'll not be accepted with the Midewiwin. Your view is important to show your abilities, to show that you're able, that you're qualified.
Mide(11) throw their medicine. Indian power lets you throw your medicine; that's our beliefs. And when the Mide are doctoring, that's Indian doctoring, they use the same medicine that I first spoke about. When a person's joining the Midewiwin, the Mide confirm him by throwing their power into him. When that medicine power hits the joiner you could see him flinge. Ohh, that's a great thing!! That's the way they'd confirm somebody. After a man's been confirmed, he's a medicine man and he belongs in a medicine group. He's a Mide, a Grand Medicine man, and he belongs to the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society.
Indians respect that.
Why do we want to have Grand Medicine and all that stuff? With Grand Medicine you have to know how to handle it. You believe in and you respect all animals. You respect all trees. You respect the waters. We use tobacco when we go across the waters. When we do these things we get an answer, don't we? What we do will get an answer. When a hard winter comes and we're in danger, we talk with the Spirit. You practice like that and believe in it and the Manitou and His power will come closer to you. That is the same with the Manitou. You believe in the Manitou and you practice, and you make perfect; that's what respecting the belief means. . . .
Grand Medicine gives life to the Indians when they respect one another, respect the birds, respect the animals, respect the nature of the timber outdoors. It gives them life because these timbers and things are given to them for medicine. They use certain parts of the wood and bark for their medicine. That's natural, it's given to them, and it works. They have power in that medicine, but they have to go through fasting, and they have to go through certain meditations to get that power into that medicine. When they do the necessary requirements called for by the question that arises for use of this medicine, they can empower the medicine. After it's empowered, the medicine is used by the Indian doctor, or by anybody. But to use the medicine you have to show that you believe in it. You have to show that you're looking forward for this medicine to act up. Without believing in nothing, it's no use. If you don't believe in nothing on earth, it's no use for you to use that medicine. You have to believe in all things. . . .
Grand Medicine is just a part of our religion. The Indian understands nature and believes by the nature of this earth. They study nature and they practice what they learn. And when they do that, they understand nature even more. The birds are given to us to clean out the insects. They clean up certain parts of the earth--insects, vegetation, bugs, worms, and all that. The big animals are given to us to eat on. Nature--that's what the Indian looks at!
Indians study the same things as the white man. They see that there is a Spirit somewhere, and they're looking forward to find that Spirit in our lives. And this Spirit that we wish to find someday will meet us again when we're through on this earth. When we get together at a Grand Medicine meeting, or just for a lecture, we listen to a good sermon--which is just the same, pred'near the same, as the sermon in any church we go to. They tell us to do good, and you'll be paid good. And if you do bad, it's bad for you. But the more good you do, the more well you feel. If you do a good turn for anybody, you'll feel good. If you do bad things, and don't do people right, well, there's something in your mind that starts working that isn't good for it . . .
You have to practice all of these things before you get to be perfect. If you don't practice, you can't exist. If you don't practice anything, you're not interested in that, and if there's no interest, there's no power. It's just like somebody talking to you while you're trying to talk to somebody else. There's no interest and no power in there. There's no satisfaction if there's no interest. But if you mean what you say, and say what you mean, and have your mind on what you're talking about, then, that's power. See? You empower that talk by paying attention and having interest. . . .
Ya, I think the Great has given us a good way of life. That's the way the Indian lived, years ago. Nowadays, everybody does good terms in their own ways. You can see a person(12) by their action, by the words they talk, by the language they use, and you know that in his ways he's sort of a nice person. Action speaks louder than words in this world, and you can tell a person according to what he believes in and how he lives. When action speaks louder, that means that you can see a guy by the way he acts, by the ways of life that he carries, by the life that he likes, by the way he's brought up, and by the way he takes interest in things.
If he's a very nice man and he's coming to you for doctoring, you can tell if he's looking forward for a nice life on earth. But if you don't feel well when he comes to you, there's something wrong with that person. His body may not be well. He might be illed by some disease, or by some germ, or he might have teeth trouble. He may be ailed, if he's not normal. Ailments disturb the mind of the people, and when you're ailing you don't take interest in life. Any ailment will disturb your mind. . . .
If a person has no ailment, if he purifies and is active, if he acts normally, if he's trying to be perfect, and tries to carry his life, then he's happy in life and you can talk to him. You can talk sense to him if there's no ailment in the body that goes to the brain. If an ailment, any ailment, goes to the brain, it aggravates him and pains him, and he's thoughtless(13) and doesn't know what you're doing. But if he's thoughtful, that's where your medicine can work. . . .
So when there's something wrong--if you don't feel good, if you don't have the right function, if you don't have the right appetite, if you don't sleep good--there's something wrong and you don't take interest in things. If you've overdone something, if you overdo in some parts of your life, it's time to regulate that. It's time to study that, it's time to go to a doctor. Whatever doctor you go to, he'll study your ailment and he'll know what's wrong with you. You'll find out what's wrong in your life, and he'll probably give you good advice, which will help you. If somebody advises something for you,(14) you have to use that right--the same as you use medicine from a white doctor. If we get a person Indian medicine, he has to use it right. If you use too much medicine, the doctor will find that you use too much. But if you use not enough, he'll know by the function of your heart that's drumming your life. . . .
Ya, that's a wonderful thing. We still use that method, and they always used to use that method in the past. That was their law. You couldn't laugh at a Indian years ago, or poke fun at him, because they were so powerful. They had power, and they'd just look at you and whatever they thought of you, that's what would happen to you.(15) They didn't have to move, they'd just look at you. . . .
But, you can do just so much with your power, you can go just so far, and that's life. If we had continuous sunshine, what would happen? What would happen if we had cloudy days continue, if it continued cloudy and cloudy day after day. I don't think that'll happen. I don't think that could happen. In places it might happen, but nature will take care of herself. Nature is a big thing. You have to study the nature. You have to figure out why things happen. You have to eat. You have to eat so much of the food that'll work in your brain. You have to eat so much of the food that'll work in your muscles. You have to speed that body motor up with energy, at times when you need the energy. Then there ought to be idlement, I'll say a good vacation. It don't take so much. But you have to take care of your life. You have to take care of yourself, take care of others if you can. You have to take care of those who are with you in your group, so they'll all begin to see.
Don't cry. If you do cry maybe it will be cloudy again, and that means trouble in your life. You'll cry tears and then you can't see a brightening when it's there. When you don't cry you show appreciation to the sun and the moon that brightens up, gives you light, makes things grow--like vegetation, and the stuff you eat. You have to appreciate what nature's doing for you. The spirits, the Great Spirits, are doing all these things during the rest hours at night. You have to rest too, and if you do then there's no drawback that you can cry over.
You're given life on this earth and it's up to you to go around and appreciate it. By appreciating that life, you have to thank for what you have got. You have to appreciate it by speaking to yourself and your heart saying that you appreciate what has been done in the past. That's what I do. I do that. And the trees are living and birds are singing. Birds sing too, they sing, and talk amongst themselves. If we did hear them talk we couldn't understand them anyhow, but we know they're singing. It's nature, of all things! Oh, this is the world to study! It is the answer to your life. When you practice this with your friends you'll see a good life.
With growing concern about nature and environment, the lessons Paul Buffalo taught, and the perspectives he and his people have to offer, renew a centuries-old respect for the interrelationships between people and their natural environment. In nature there is power, a spiritual force to be used in daily life. This is still true, as it was true for Paul Buffalo and those Ojibwa whom Copway described in 1850.
1. Uncertainty surrounds the origin of the name "Ojibwa." Historians frequently suggest the name originally meant "to roast until puckered up," referring to a style of moccasin with a puckered seam worm only by the Ojibwa. The name "Chippewa," by which the Ojibwa are frequently known, is thought to be a result of misunderstanding and faulty recording of the native word "Ojibwa." Most Ojibwa consider their appropriate name Anishinaubag, or more popularly Anishinabe, which means something like "real or genuine people." Cf., "Early Indian Life in the Lake Superior Region," Timothy G. Roufs, in Duluth: Sketches of the Past, Ryck Lydecker, Lawrence J. Sommer and Arthur Larsen (Eds.) Special Bicentennial Volume of Duluth's Legacy Series, Duluth, Minnesota, 1976, p. 45 (reprinted in The Minnesota Archaeologist, Vol. 37, No. 4, (November 1978) pp. 157-197.
2. Publication of this material is done in memory of Paul Peter Buffalo who died June 28, 1977. I wish to thank Stanley E. Aschenbrenner, Priscilla Giddings Buffalohead, W. Roger Buffalohead, Susan Collins Mulholland, Robert E. Powless, Kathleen Smyth Roufs, David M. Smith, and William Stockdon for their review of and/or assistance with all or part of this article.
3. George Copway, The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation. Boston: 1850, pp. 147-149.
5. The following materials are excerpts from tape recordings made by Paul Buffalo over a twelve year period. Original tape materials have been transcribed and edited, and those initial editings were personally read and approved by Mr. Buffalo. This paper brings together some of his ideas relating to power which appeared in the transcriptions. Editing here was done primarily for continuity and clarity, and focused on syntactical changes. Considerable material has been deleted due to space limitations. All concepts, and terms used for concepts, are those used and/or invented by Mr. Buffalo. If there was a question about a statement or interpretation, Mr. Buffalo's original terms and expressions were maintained. It is intended that both the original and the edited transcriptions will be publicly housed at an appropriate center in the future.
7. During the spring of the year when they make maple sugar.
8. Grand Medicine Society.
9. I.e., observe and respond to.
10. This refers to something like a general philosophy of life as it is believed and lived. To "answer all views" means that your beliefs and behaviors should be consistent, compatible with those of the others who also hold a "view," and able to withstand evaluation by others of the Midewiwin Society.
11. A person of the Midewiwin.
12. You can see what a person is like.
13. Doesn't think about things in nature and how things in nature work, and doesn't think about how people are supposed to behave.
15. They would use jibik or negative power to put something like a hex on you, but usually they didn't like to do this if they didn't have to. What Paul Buffalo is saying here is that power, which is neutral, can also be used in a negative way, and if you laughed at a powerman he might use his power in that way on you.
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