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