In March 2010, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre’s annual Science and Career Fair. Two participating schools from the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in Nelson House, Manitoba invited me to visit their community. So in November 2010 I spent two days with the students, teachers at the K-8th grade Otetiskiwin Kiskinwamahtowekamik School, and the 9-12th grade Nisichawayasihk Neyo Ohtinwak Collegiate.
After a day of school presentations in early November, I was invited to a community gathering of shared songs, the music of flute, hand and water drums, and stories from several storytellers. Joe Mercredi, a school cultural coordinator and a wonderful storyteller told several stories, after he played the flute – a six-hole flute made of mountain juniper by Navajo flute maker Jonah Thompson. Joe makes flutes, too, but he chose this one for this night because “it has a sweeter voice than his own,” he told me recently. Joe also helped me remember the stories he told that night two months ago. He told me that all stories are related to each other. How we remember them depends on what we need to learn at the time.
His first story is a variation of the Dakota Woodpecker Flute story. A poor young boy with no male relatives lived with his mother. He was friends with the chief’s daughter. They were good friends and spent much time together. When of age, he asked the chief for her hand. The chief questioned his ability to support his daughter. He was mortified and left the camp. After some days he fell asleep under an old cedar tree and was woken up by a woodpecker up in the tree. This being in the time when animals could speak to men, a conversation ensued and the young man was gifted with the first flute. In the end the two become a couple and the young man found fame and fortune as a flute maker. This story can be found in one of the Joseph Bruchac series “Keepers of the Earth/Sky/Night/Life” books.
Joe then held his Dreamcatcher, and told this story. Red Willow Woman was a woman who taught the children in her community until her death, and, when given the choice by the Great Mystery to be returned to her people, she chose to return as a red willow to demonstrate that every one has the ability to achieve greatness if one reaches beyond one’s limits. Red willow forms the frame of the Dreamcatcher.
You can see the big dipper stars (or Fisher stars) on the right side of the woven web within the red willow frame. And you can see a chaotic jumble of stars on the left. The legend of how Fisher became the Big Dipper and how animals of long ago decided to share summer and winter, and how the fisher came to be in the northern sky is told by Murdo Scribe, and is known as Murdo’s Story.
Long ago, in one part of the animal world and bird world it was always summer and in the other half of the world it was very cold with no warm weather. The northern animals and birds had to find summer. Fisher (a small wolverine) carried summer, and the summer animals chased him. They shot at him and an arrow hit Fisher and took him to the northern skies, with the summer. Fisher still lives in the northern sky, and summer is now shared with all animals and birds everywhere. Fisher can be found circling the North Star. Some people call him the big dipper.
The Dreamcatcher is formed from two willow branches depicting strength and softness intertwined — the need for give-and-take in a respectful loving relationship. Joe decided to map the Big and Little Dippers in the Dreamcatcher. But just like in the Wisakechak story of the Milky Way, he mapped the big dipper, but the trickster, Wisakechak decided to mess up some of the stars. You can see an extra star in the big dipper.
Legend tells that Wisakechak was meticulous in his placement of the stars, but Fox wanted Wisakechak to play with him, and got tired of waiting for him to finish so he grabbed the blanket of stars and scattered them all over the place. Those stars represent the Milky Way. If you look in the winter sky you will see Wisakechak (sometimes spelled Wesakaychak and many other ways, too) pointing to the Pleaides, which figure in many other legends. Wisakechak is represented by the constellation Orion.
You can see the big dipper stars in the web of the Dreamcatcher. The handle star, Alkaid is near the top of the Dreamcatcher , and you can see the bowl stars at 3 o’clock. There is one “extra” star woven into the web near the bowl, put there by the trickster, Wisakechak. And you also see the other stars from the blanket of stars Fox threw into the sky on the left side of the Dreamcatcher below the center hole. You’ll also see the thirteen tie-points, where the sinew is tied to the willow hoop. These thirteen ties represent the 13 new moons of a year.
After Joe finished his stories of Red Willow Woman, Wisakechak, the Fisher stars, and the Milky Way, he walked over to me and gave me his Dreamcatcher. As I look at my Dreamcatcher now, three months after my visit, I can still hear the drums, the flute and the stories of the stars I heard in Nelson House that snowy November night. Now, when I read Murdo’s Story I can see how all of these stories are related.
Murdo Scribe was born in Norway House, Manitoba and was a World War II veteran with the Canadian Army. After the war he returned to a life of fishing, trapping and seasonal work. In 1975, he was appointed coordinator of the Traditional Individualized Education Program with the Native Education Branch of the Manitoba Department of Education. He wrote many stories based on his own experiences and those of the elders he had known.
I thank Joe Mercredi, who is a master storyteller, maker of flutes, weaver of dreamcatchers for sharing these stories with me. I must also thank science educator Wilfred Buck, of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, who I met two years ago at the NYAA (Ontario) Starfest when he gave a talk about Atchakosuk: The Spirit Lights Up Above . I have been slowly learning more about the spirit lights above. Two years ago, Wilfred ended his presentation with a quote from one elder, “We are blessed to live under a blanket of stars.”
I will do the same.