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Trust in the Unseen:
Building An Ethical Relationship With Nature in Traditional Algonquin Society

Copyright © 2015 Evan Pritchard

My Mi'kmaq and Wampanoag ancestors were part of a Native American culture that later scholars have named "Algonquin." Some of our people call this group "Kitchi-Atik-Woagun," (in Lenape) "the race of people who wear the deer skin." Interestingly, the core of Algonquin territory, from Prince Edward Island to the Potomac and west to the Mississippi, matches that of the northern boreal white tail deer. This Algonquin family, with over eighty-four nations still in existence, tends toward an earth-based spirituality with a respect for Mother Earth as a living being. Algonquin tradition as it is observed today still gives us a window into an ethical system that strives to include nature, or Mother Earth, as a partner. As a benevolent creation of a divine super-being the Lenape call Keshelamukum, the natural world is a paradise for those who know how to work with it. By encountering nature consciously in the mutually-inclusive realm of the spiritual, Algonquins work to develop trust in nature just as they would with a fellow human being. Here I will share three stories that symbolize different aspects of trust through the Algonquin worldview: interpersonal trust, trust as respect for the natural world and its processes, and a sacred land trust.

This body of lore and practice in which indigenous people enter into understandings and agreements with natural forces through dreams, visions, and rituals is almost entirely forgotten in North America, but it was certainly a key to survival in what is now New England and the Atlantic coastal region. Rare was the colonist who even recognized it, no less understood it, when encountered. Some today speak of "shamanism," using an Altaic word made popular by French scholar Merce Eliade in the 1950s, but most fail to realize that the goal of the shaman is not just to have visions for personal spiritual empowerment but to enter into negotiations with spiritual forces in the landscape in order to come to agreements and to build trust for the mutual benefit of all species, including human beings.

Interpersonal Trust: The Way of the Heron
Algonquins developed a sophisticated non-violent system of ethics which in recent years has been called "The Way of the Heron." Herons sometimes use their huge wingspan to stop fights between other birds. They are the peacemakers. Early on, I learned that the heron's name in Mi'kmaq, dum-gwal-ee-gun-idj, means "his neck is broken." One story from the oral tradition tells how the heron got that remarkable crook in his neck in a violent incident from his youth. He realized through personal experience that violence is not the answer, and vowed to prevent violence any way he could, with an eye toward fairness to all.

I remember hearing comments from Mi'kmaq, Ojibwe, and other elders from all over the continent about how herons break up fights. A Cree elder, Keewaydinokway, a Heron Clan Mother, taught gatherings of women The Way of the Heron, an oral tradition about peacemaking, and much more. In this tradition, parties build up trust over time with other parties by making realistic agreements, keeping their word, gift-giving, inter-family marriages, treaties, and practicing ceremony and ritual together.

William Commanda, of the Anishinabe Nations and my adopted grandfather, was internationally respected as a peacemaker. Also a bird lover, he talked about herons and their peaceful ways. One morning we were out on the land enjoying a ceremonial circle of several hundred Algonquins. An elder from another nation, in fine buckskin, came in with his entourage and began to yell at us, telling us we were on the land of his ancestors. (He forgot details of the series of treaties involved.) He angrily told us we were doing our ceremonies all wrong. It looked like there might be a fight. William Commanda stood there and let him finish his tirade, respecting the man as a future friend and ally, even as he vented. Then Grandfather spoke in terms of love and respect, and said that even though he strongly disagreed, he would continue to love that man as a brother. He walked up and shook the man's hand. The chief fell down to the ground like a stone, and did not get up for quite a while. Then, as others pulled him up, he hugged William Commanda and wept for a long time. Commanda's masterful use of The Way of the Heron helped to engender trust between the two tribes represented, and there was never another exchange of anger between the two chiefs.

Trust as Respect for the Natural World: Maysingw, Keeper of the Game Animals
Keeping in agreement with, and in balance with, thousands of other species was a full time job for shamanistic societies along the Atlantic Coast, and was handled largely on the spiritual level, with the help of local visionaries. The "Lenape League" was no exception. This sub-group of the Algonquians, a yet-cohesive cluster of nations (called "Delawarian" by scholars) that includes Mohican, Munsee, Unami, Wappinger, Matouac, Nanticoke, and Piscataway/Conoy, plus the nomadic Shawnee, steward a land that reaches from the Potomac to the Canadian border. Their manetawetk (or visionaries) address offerings and concerns to a well-defined network of spirit beings that represent the interests of animals, plants, and elemental forces. Using these languages, Manetawetk might appeal to Kitchi Manitou, or "Great Spirit," which is in all things, to Keshelamukum, the "Thinking Grandfather," who dreams us all into being but is distant, and whose four helpers are fire, air, water, and rock, to one of the twelve manitouak, spirits who dwell on each of the twelve levels of light (pi tao pane) in the sky, to Mother Earth, called Kokumthena by some, a living being who speaks to those whose ears are open and who often merges with Quasquem (pronounced "haskweem"), the "Yellow Woman," or "Great Corn Mother"; or perhaps most significantly, to Maysingw, The Keeper of the Game Animals. Let us first focus on Maysingw, and in the next section we will turn to Quasquem, the representative of plant life.

Maysingw's main duty is to keep a balance between hunter and prey, so that people have food to eat and skins to wear but do not hunt deer and other four-leggeds to extinction. But this woodland spirit has other duties as well, one of which is to look after children, and to help train young boys to be ethical hunters. As one might imagine, many a poor hunting trip has been blamed on Maysingw's efforts to protect the game, so it is important for hunters to have a deep-seated trust in Maysingw. The following story shows how that trust was first established.

Three Lenape boys were wandering in the forest when they saw a strange, hairy person with his face painted half black and half red. "I am Mesingw. I have taken pity on you and I will give you strength so that nothing can ever hurt you again. Come with me and I shall show you my country!"

He took the boys into the sky to a range of mountains reaching from north to south. While he was showing the boys his country, he promised that they would become strong and wise hunters, able to discern where and when to hunt without causing harm. In later years, when the boys had grown up and were hunting, they used to see Maysingw occasionally, riding on a stag, herding the deer together, and giving his peculiar call, "Ho-ho-ho!"

A series of earthquakes came. The people met to worship in a large bark house, hoping to stop the earthquakes. They worshipped, sang, and prayed all winter for relief.

Just after springtime came, they were holding a meeting one night when they heard something making a noise in the forest: "Ho-ho-ho!" The three men recognized the call of Maysingw. They went outside and found Maysingw in the woods, and asked him what he wanted. "Go back and tell the others to stop holding meetings and to attend to their crops," he answered. "Do not meet again until the fall, when I shall come and live with you. I will give your people help through a new ceremony, the Big House. Carve a mask of wood to look like my face, painted half black and half red, as mine is, and I shall put my power into it. When the man who takes my part puts the mask on, I shall be there with you, and in this way I shall live among you. The man must carry a turtle-shell rattle, a bag, and a staff, just as I do now."
The earthquakes stopped, and the Lenape kept the ceremony and the mask ever after.

The word may- signifies "wood" or "forest," while -sing- signifies "place of." The -w is similar to the suffix -way, signifying a state of being. But Maysingw is much more than a spirit of woodland places. As "The Keeper of the Game Animals," Maysingw is the intermediary spirit between human beings and animals hunted and killed for food. Lenape hunters respect the life of the animal on whose flesh they depend for survival, and are acutely aware of the need for constant reconciliation between them. The hunter calls on the Keeper of the Game Animals to intercede on his (or her) behalf both before and after the kill. The ethical hunter will first ask this woodland spirit to guide him to the game, which in most cases cannot be known ahead of time by rational methods. If the hunter is unworthy, Maysingw will not cooperate, and will not guide him to game. If worthy, when game is spotted, the hunter then places tobacco on the ground and asks the game telepathically if it would allow itself to become food for the hunter's family. The hunter trusts that if the deer or other game runs away, it is the will of Great Spirit and not a cause for sorrow.

According to the Algonquin, all game animals are telepathic, and can see whatever spirits are hanging around the hunter. If the hunter's wife is expecting, for example, the future child will be hovering around the hunter, scaring off the game. The hunter will attach a toy-sized bow and arrow to his back to keep the infant boy spirit behind him, or a toy mortar and pestle if the baby will be a girl, determined by whether the child rests low or high in the expectant mother's belly. If the animal does not move, it is generally taken as acquiescence, but in stories the animal often bows or bends forward in a gesture of surrender. The hunter fires the arrow only if the animal shows this sacrificial intention. It is universally understood that if the hunter does not make an offering first, his hands will sooner or later become stricken with arthritis and he will no longer be able to pull the bow string. Some older white tail bucks are so large and powerful that most hunters are unable to fire at them. Only those given permission may fire. Maysingw, in his full form, rides on the back of such a buck, herding the deer, and perhaps freezing unworthy hunters in their tracks. This mental paralysis phenomenon is still known as "Buck Fever."

Even after putting down his quarry, the hunter remains respectful toward his prey. He offers tobacco again to the animal and to Maysingw, and requests that this relative be given another life-to be reincarnated again. The willing animal, not the hunter, is seen as the heroic warrior and champion of the people. Maysingw then carries the spirit of the game animal to another incarnation on earth. If this happens, the hunter is released from having to make further offerings toward the animal, but is expected to remember that he, too, might someday have to sacrifice himself for the good of his people.

The Algonquin tradition holds that before the colonists came, the manetawetk (visionaries) would call the game animals to the hunters by repeating certain sacred words and sounds. Maysingw would then herd the game to the place where a spirit fence was built-any partial enclosure, not capable of holding in the animals except by magical power. As Paul Tobacco Cashman writes in his book The Circle of Lenapehoking, "Hunting is here seen as a cooperation between humans, animals, and the spirit world. The animals are a willing sacrifice…. It is more like a sacrament connecting all the participants to the spiritual reality. It reminds the humans, death also awaits them. When the time comes the human will be the willing sacrifice."

A Sacred Land Trust: The Corn Mother
No discussion of Algonquin ethics regarding our proper relationship with nature would be complete without mentioning the honoring of plant spirits. Tobacco is used as an offering before picking any plant or cutting down any tree, and prayers and songs are offered as well, both at planting time and at harvest. This type of offering is like a contract in European law, a contract made between humans and plants. Words alone are not enough; it should be put into action. When I asked my elder William Commanda what I should do if I needed an herb from the wild and did not have tobacco on me, he said to give whatever I had, even a quarter, to leave it there as a gift, because nothing in life is free. Unless the Algonquin people make these offerings and observe other rituals of respect to the elder plant of each plant group they collect from, and unless they practice the Gum-mween Dance Ceremony of Thanksgiving to the Great Corn Mother once a year, they believe their crops will fail, and they will lose the favor of the Great Spirit, which encompasses all life.

The Gum-mween is a visible form of thanks, not only to the Great Corn Mother, but to the much greater spirit of Mother Earth as well, who represents all edible plant life and oversees the abundance of nutrition in all its forms, including corn. It is an obligation and sacred trust for Lenape people to do this. If a problem arises between people and the plant spirits in a given year, such as unethical breeding, planting, or harvesting practices, a warning is received by one of the a-la-pa-cte or "dreamers." It sometimes arrives in the form of a sign (Kee-gay-no-lay-woagun) seen during the Gum-mween ceremony, and appropriate action can be taken.

The Gum-mween ceremony lasts six days. Called by the a-la-pa-cte, the community's "dreamers," a large house is erected for the Gum-mween and used for nothing else. Two council fires burn inside, and the people assemble by tribes, the Turtles, the Wolves, and the Turks (Turkeys) separately. Two singers sit down in the assembly, using sticks to beat time on two dried and rolled up deer skins. The leader gets up and, accompanied by a turtle shell shaker, sings extemporaneous verses to a tune he has chosen. As he describes his dream in music, he dances, while the other participants dance and sing and beat time. All assembled can participate in dancing the Gum-mween. Leaders change as the ceremony is repeated day by day for six days. When the first one has told his dream, he hands his shaker to the next one, who relates his dream in words of his own making, but sung in an old, well-known tune he has chosen.

Deer meat is served each morning. Twelve hunters are sent out for deer meat before the festival. No other meat is allowed. At sundown each day those gathered are treated to a teaching by the oldest wise man of the nation. Once during the six days, about an hour after nightfall, cedar branches burn on the fire in the center of the house, filling the house with incense that ascends to the Great Spirit. When the dreams of each a-la-pa-cte have been sung, the ceremony concludes with an eastward invocation to the Great Spirit, thanking it for their last year of life and requesting to see another Gum-mween next year. The Great Spirit, or Kitchi-Manitou, is a presence that encompasses all things, including "He Who Dreams us Into Being" (sometimes called "Creator"), the Great Earth Mother, and Corn Mother as well. Kitchi-Manitou, too, must be part of the agreement, expanding the circle of trust to all corners of the universe.

Broken Trust: Warnings from Mother Earth
Various descendants of the Lenape and other Algonquin peoples continue to warn of a breakdown in communication between human beings and the living entity called Mother Earth. They believe that just as a person will eventually retaliate when trust is continually broken, so will the great biomass we call nature eventually turn on our frail species if we continue to treat it as a dead "thing" to be bent to our will without respect or consideration. We are already seeing the results in our weather patterns and in our health. If we disrespect natural law, we cannot expect to trust nature to be very respectful in return. Given the rise in the use of harmful technologies by the people of planet Earth, I wonder if we will soon be able to trust nature at all. By honoring the Way of the Heron, the Keeper of the Game Animals, and the Corn Mother, our people hope to help restore planetary harmony by cultivating trust and respect - between people and people, people and animals, people and plants, and ultimately between people, Mother Earth, and the Great Spirit. From personal choices to communal ceremonies, these respectful observances remind us of our connection to and reliance on our Mother for the continued well-being of our people. By building trust we become trustworthy stewards of our land, and respected participants in the spiritual and physical cycles that maintain our shared life.

Recommended reading:

  • Paul Tobacco Cashman, The Circle of Lenapehoking (2003), city, state: Xlibris, especially page 89.
  • Lewis Henry Morgan, The Indian Journals, 1859-1862 Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1959, reprinted, New York, NY: Dover Books, 1993, especially page 65.