L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Nanabozho and the Algonquin Story of the Creation
of the World
[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]
[More information on Nanabozho may be consulted at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians site.]
Nanabozho. The demi-urge of the cosmological traditions of the Algonquian tribes, known among the various peoples by several unrelated names, based on some marked characteristic or dominant function of this personage. Among these names are Jamum, Kloskap (Gloskap), Manabozho, Messou, Michabo, Minabozho, Misabos, Napiw, Nenabozho, Wieska, Wisakedjak, and their dialectic variants. The etymologies proposed for these several names are most probably incorrect, wholly or in material parts.
Nanabozho is apparently the impersonation of life, the active quickening power of life - of life manifested and embodied in the myriad forms of sentient and physical nature. He is therefore reputed to possess not only the power to live, but also the correlative power of renewing his own life and of quickening and therefore of creating life in others. He impersonates life in an unlimited series of diverse personalities which represent various phases and conditions of life, and the histories of the life and acts of these separate individualities form an entire cycle of traditions and myths which, when compared one with another, are some' times apparently contradictory and incongruous, relating, as these stories do, to the unrelated objects and subjects in nature. The conception named Nanabozho exercises the diverse functions of many persons, and he likewise suffers their pains and needs. He is this life struggling with the many forms of want, misfortune, and death that come to the bodies and beings of nature.
The true character of the concept embodied in the personality called Nanabozho has been misconceived. Horatio Hale, for example, calls the Chippewa Nanabozho a fantastic deity, declaring him to have no relation to the Iroquois Te'horo n 'hiawa'k'ho n ', whereas he is in everything but minor details identical with the Iroquoian conception embodied in the latter personality. Few, if any, of the characteristic acts and functions of the one may not safely and correctly be predicated of the other, and it is a remarkable parallel if the one is not a concept borrowed by the people of one linguistic family from the thought of the other. If independent creations, they agree in so many points that it is more than probable that the one suggested the other. Even the play of popular interpretation and etymological analysis have made like errors in the events connected with the life history of each. In the Iroquois legend the brother of Te'horo n 'hiawa'k'ho n' is reputed to have been embodied in chert or flint, a statement based on a misconception arising from the common origin of some terms denotive of ice on the one hand and of chert on the other. A like error gave rise to the Chippewa name for chert or flint (?miskwam ), which signifies 'ice-stone,' and the connection between malsum, 'wolf,' and ma'halic, 'a flint or chert,' also a name of Chakekenapok, the brother of Nanabozho. The confusion is that the ruler of winter, the ruler clothed in frost, ice, and snow, is identified with chert or flint, in Iroquois too, because of the identity of origin between the terms for crystal or sparkling ice and the smooth glistening surface of chert or flint.
In Potawatomi and cognate tradition Nanabozho is the eldest of male quadruplets, the beloved Chipiapoos being the second, Wabosbo the third, and Chakekenapok the fourth. They were begotten by a great primal being, who had come to earth, and were born of a reputed daughter of the children of men. Nanabozho was the professed and active friend of the human race. The mild and gentle but unfortunate Chipiapoos became the warder of the dead, the ruler of the country of the manes, after this transformation. Wabosso ('Maker of White'), seeing the sunlight, went to the northland, where, assuming the form of a white hare, he is regarded as possessing most potent manito or orenda. Lastly, Chakekenapok, named from chert, flint, or firestone (?fire), was the impersonation originally of winter, and in coming into the world ruthlessly caused the death of his mother.
Having attained the age of manhood, Nanabozho, still feeling deep resentment for the death of his mother, resolved to avenge it by the destruction of his brother Chakekenapok. The two brothers soon grappled with each other. Chakskenepok finally turned and fled, but Nanabozho pursued him over the world, finally overtaking and striking him with a deerhorn or a chart, fracturing or chipping pieces from various parts of his body, and destroying him by tearing out his entrails. The fragments from Chakekenapok's body became huge rocks, and the masses of flint or chert found in various parts of the world show where the conflicts between the two brothers took place, while his entrails became vines. Before the Indians knew the art of fire-making Nanabozho taught them the art of making hatchets, lances, and arrowpoints.
Nanabozho and Chipiapoos dwelt together in a land far removed from the haunts of mankind. They were noted for excellence of body and beneficence of mind, and for the supreme character of the magic power they possessed. These qualities and attributes excited the bitter antagonism of the evil manitos of the air, earth, and waters, who plotted to destroy these two brothers. Nanabozho, who was immune to the effects of adverse orenda and from whose knowledge nothing was barred, knew their snares and devices and hence eluded and avoided them. He, however, warned Chipiapoos, his less-gifted brother, not to leave their lodge or to separate from him even for a moment. But, disregarding this admonition, one day Chipiapoos ventured out of the lodge and went on the ice of a great lake, probably lake Michigan. This temerity was the opportunity sought by the manitos, who broke the ice, causing Chipiapoos to sink to the bottom of the lake, where his body was hidden by the manitos. Upon returning to the lodge, Nanabozho, missing Chipiapoos and surmising his fate, became inconsolable. Everywhere over the face of the earth he sought for him in vain.
Then he became enraged and waged relentless war against all manitos, wreaking vengeance by precipitating a multitude of them into the abyss of the world. He next declared a truce in order to mourn for his brother, disfiguring his person and covering his head to indicate grief, bitterly weeping, and uttering from time to time the name of the lost and unhappy Chipiapoos. It is said Nanabozho secluded himself for six years in his lodge of mourning. During this truce the evil manitos, knowing the unlimited powers of Nanabozho and recollecting the destruction of the vast numbers of manitos by their metamorphosis to gratify his anger, consulted together to devise means for pacifying Nanabozho's wrath; but through fear of their great adversary their plans came to naught. At last four of the manitos, hoary with age and ripe in experience and wisdom, and who had not been parties to the death of Chipiapoos, undertook a mission of pacification. Having built a lodge of condolence near that of Nanabozho, they prepared a feast of welcome, filling with tobacco a pipe the stem of which was a calumet, and then silently and ceremoniously moved toward their antagonist. The four ambassadors severally carried a bag made from the entire skin of an otter, a lynx, a beaver or of some other animal, which contained magically potent medicines and powerful fetishes. Arriving at the lodge of Nanabozho, they chanted to him with ceremonial formality their good intentions and kind greetings, and asked him to be pleased to accompany them to their lodge. Moved by these greetings, Nanabozho uncovered his head, and, arising, washed himself and then accompanied them. On his entering the lodge the manitos offered him a cup of purification medicine preparatory to his initiation into the Midé, or Grand Medicine Society. Nanabozho partook of the draught, and at once found himself completely freed from feelings of resentment and melancholy. Then the prescribed ritual was performed by the manitos. The proper dances and the chants of the Midé were chanted, and the four manitos, humanized primal beings, gently applied to Nanabozho their pindikosan, or magically potent medicine-bags, which, after ceremonially blowing their orenda or magic power into him, they cast on the ground. At every fall of the medicine-bags Nanabozho became aware that the melancholy, sadness, hatred, and anger that oppressed him gradually left, and that beneficent. affection and feelings of joy arose in his heart. On the completion of his initiation he joined in the dances and in the chanting; then they all ate and smoked together, and Nanabozho expressed thanks to his hosts for initiating him into the mysteries of the grand medicine.
To further show their good will, the manitos, by the exercise of their magic powers, brought back the missing Chipiapoos, but, owing to his metamorphosis, he was forbidden to enter the lodge. Having received a lighted torch through a chink in the walls of the lodge, he was required to go to rule the country of the manes, where, with the lighted torch he carried, he should kindle a fire that should never be extinguished, for the pleasure of his uncles and aunts - namely all men and women - who would repair thither. Subsequently, Nanabozho again descended upon the earth, and at once initiated all his family in the mysteries of the grand medicine. He provided each of them with a medicine-bag, well supplied with potent medicines, charms, and fetishes. He also strictly enjoined upon them the need of perpetuating the accompanying ceremonies among their descendants, explaining to them that these practices faithfully observed would cure their diseases, obtain for them abundance in fishing and hunting, and gain for them complete victory over their enemies.
Some hold to the doctrine that Nanabozho created the animals for the food and raiment of man; that he caused those plants and roots to grow whose virtues cure disease and enable the hunter to kill wild animals in order to drive away famine. These plants he confided to the watchful care of his grandmother, the great-grandmother of the human race, Mesakkummikokwi, and lest man should invoke her in vain she was strictly forbidden ever to leave her lodge. So, when collecting plants, roots, and herbs for their natural and magic virtues, an Algonquian Indian faithfully leaves on the ground hard by the place whence he has taken the root or plant a small offering to Mesakkummikokwi.
It is said that Nanabozho in his many journeys over the earth destroyed many ferocious monsters of land and water whose continued existence would have placed in jeopardy the fate of mankind. It is believed by the faithful that Nanabozho, resting from his toils, dwells on a great island of ice floating on a large sea in the northland, where the seraphim of auroral light keep nightly vigil. It is also believed that should he set foot on the land the world would at once take fire and every living being would share with it a common destruction. As a perversion of an earlier tradition, it is said that Nanabozho has placed four beneficent humanized beings, one at each of the-four cardinal points or world quarters, to aid in promoting the welfare of the human race - the one at the E. supplies light and starts the sun on his daily journey over the sky; the one at the S. supplies warmth, heat, and the refreshing dews that cause the growth of the soothing tobacco plant, and of corn, beans, squashes, and all the herbs and shrubs that bear fruit; the one at the W. supplies cooling and life-giving showers; lastly, the one at the N. supplies snow and ice, enabling the tracking and successful pursuit of wild animals, and who causes them to hibernate, to seek places of concealment from the cold of winter. Under the care of the man-being of the S. Nanabozho placed lesser humanized beings dominantly bird-like in form, whose voices are the thunder and the flashing of whose eyes is the lightning, and to whom offerings of tobacco are made when their voices are loud and menacing.
Like the Iroquois and Huron sages, the Algonquian philosophers taught that the disembodied souls of the dead, on their journey to the great meadow in which is situated the village of their deceased ancestors, must cross a swift stream precariously bridged by a tree trunk, which was in continual motion. Over this the manes of the justified pass in safety, while the shades of the vicious, overcome by the magic power of adverse fate, fail at this ordeal, and, falling into the abyss below, are lost.
Another and equally credited tradition is to the effect that a manito or primal man - being formed a world which he peopled with man-beings having the form but not the benevolent attributes of man, and that these primal man-beings, doing nothing but evil, finally caused the destruction of the world and themselves by a flood; that having thus satisfied his displeasure the primal man-being brought the world again out of the waters and formed anew a fine looking young man, but, being alone, the latter seemed disconsolate and weary of life. Then, pitying him, the primal man-being brought him as he slept a sister for a companion. Awaking, the young man was rejoiced to see his sister, and the two dwelt together for many years in mutual amusement and agreeable discourse. Finally the young man dreamed for the first time, and he related his dream to his sister, saying that it had been revealed to him that five young man-beings would that night visit their lodge, and that she was forbidden to speak to or in any manner recognise any of the first four who would seek admission to the lodge, but that she should welcome the fifth when he would seek admission. This advice she followed. After their metamorphosis these four primal young man-beings became respectively Sama or Tobacco, who, receiving no answer from the sister, died of chagrin; Wapekone or Squash; Eshketamok or Melon, and Kojees or Bean, who shared the fate of the first. But Mandamin or Corn, the fifth, was answered and welcomed by the sister, and he entered the lodge and became her husband. Then Mandamin buried his four comrades, and soon from their graves sprang up respectively tobacco, squashes, melons, and beans in such quantity as to supply them for the year, and tobacco enough to enable them to make offerings to the primal man beings and to smoke in council. From this union sprang the Indian race.
In one version of the prevailing Algonquian cosmogonic story it is said that, before the formation of the earth, there was only water; that, on the surface of this vast expanse of water, floated a large raft on which were the animals of the various kinds which are on the earth and of which the Great Hare was the chief. They sought a fit and firm place on which to disembark; but as there were in sight only swans and other waterfowl, they began to lose hope, and, having no other, they requested the beaver to dive for the purpose of bringing up some earth from the bottom of the water, assuring him in the name of all the animals present that, should he return with only a single particle, it would produce an earth sufficiently spacious to contain and nourish all. But the beaver sought an excuse for refusal, saying that he had already dived around the raft and had failed to reach the bottom. He was pressed so strongly to make anew so worthy an attempt, however, that he took the hazard and dived. He remained without returning for so long a time that the supplicants believed him drowned. Finally they saw him appear nearly dead and motionless. Then all the animals, seeing that he was in no condition to remount the raft, at once interested themselves to take him into it. After examining carefully his paws and tail, they found nothing. But the little hope left them of being able to save their lives compelled them to address themselves to the otter to ask that he make an attempt to find earth at the bottom of the waters. It was told him that his own safety, as well as theirs, depended on the result of his effort. So the otter yielded to their urging and dived. He remained in the depths of the waters a longer time than did the beaver, but, like him, he came to the surface without success. The impossibility of finding a place to dwell where they could subsist left them nothing more to hope, when the muskrat offered to attempt to find the bottom, and he flattered himself that he would bring back sand. Although the beaver and the otter, much stronger than he, had not been able to accomplish the task, they encouraged him, promising even that, if he succeeded in his attempt, he should be the ruler of the whole world. The muskrat then cast himself into the waters and bravely dived into the depths. After remaining therein nearly an entire day and night he appeared motionless at the aide of the raft, belly uppermost and paws closed. The other animals carefully took him out of the water, opened one of his paws, then a second, then a third, and finally the fourth, where there was a small grain of sand between his claws. The Great Hare, who was encouraged to form a vast and spacious earth, took this grain of sand and let it fall on the raft, which became larger. He took a part and scattered it, which caused the mass to increase more and more. When it was of the size of a mountain he willed it to turn, and as it turned the mass still increased in size. As soon as it appeared quite large he gave orders to the fox to examine his work with power to enlarge it. He obeyed. The fox, having learned that the earth was of such size that he could easily take his prey, returned to the Great Hare to inform him that the earth was large enough to contain and nourish all the animals. After this report the Great Hare went over his work, and, on going around it, found it imperfect. He has since not been disposed to trust any one of all the other animals, and ever keeps on enlarging the earth by ceaselessly going around it. The rumblings heard in the caverns of mountains confirm the Indians in the belief that the Great Hare continues the work of enlarging the earth. He is honoured by them, and they regard him as the god who has formed the land.
Such is what the Algonquians teach regarding the formation of the earth, which they believe is borne on a raft. Concerning the sea and the firmament, they assert that they have existed for all time. After the formation of the earth all the other animals withdrew into the places most fitted to them, where they could feed and find their prey. The first of these having died, the Great Hare caused men to be born from their cadavers, even from those of the fish which were found along the banks of rivers which he had made in forming the earth, and gave each a different language or dialect. Because some ascribed their origin to the bear, others to the elk, and thus to all the different animals, they believed that they had their being from these creatures.
Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 331-335.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College