The Muskrat

Sarah Schroeder

Sarah Schroeder

Nourish The Word

I find the Anishinaabe story of a flood fascinating. I’ve seen it compared in William Whipple Warren’s History of the Ojibways with the flood of Noah. But I see a different comparison when I read it. I see something else I recognize. Here is a version from Basil Johnston’s The Manitous, chosen for its brevity.

According to tradition, Kitchi-Manitou (the Great Mystery) created the world, plants, birds, animals, fish, and the other manitous in fulfillment of a vision. This world was flooded. But while the earth was under water and life was coming to an end, a new life was beginning in the skies. Geezhigo-Quae (Sky Woman) was espoused to a manitou in the skies, and she conceived. 

The surviving animals and birds observed the changes taking place in Sky Woman’s condition as they clung to life on the surface of the of the flood waters. They set aside whatever concerns they might have had about their own fates and asked one of their fellow survivors, the Giant Turtle, to offer his back as a place of rest for Sky Woman, who they then invited to come down. 

Upon settling on the turtle’s back, Sky Woman asked for a moiety of soil. Only the muskrat, the least of the animals, was able to retrieve the soil from beneath the flood waters, and Sky Woman took the pawful of soil and etched it around the rim of the turtle’s back. She then breathed the breath of life, growth, and abundance into the soil and infused into the soil and earth the attributes of womanhood and motherhood, that of giving life, nourishment, shelter, instruction, and inspiration for the heart, mind, and spirit. Only after she had done these things did Sky Woman give birth to twins, whose descendants took the name Anishinaubaek, meaning the Good Beings. In time, other nations labeled their fellow Anishiniaubaek with other names, such as Ojibway (Chippewa), Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Algonquin, and Mississauga. 

The island where the Anishinaubae people were born continued to grow until it became a continent, the Land of the Great Turtle, as North America is commonly known to many North American Indians. By virtue of Sky Woman’s creation of an  island that grew into a continent and then her giving birth to her children on it, the Anishinaubae people and other North American Indians believed that the continent was given to the firstborn natives of this land. Kitchi-Manitou and Sky Woman granted ownership and stewardship of the land to the native in joint tenancy with the manitous, the birds, animals, insects, and generations still to be born. (The Manitous, Basil Johnston p. xv)

A striking similarity is in the form of the humble muskrat, in whom I see the person of Christ in likeness and sacrifice. Similar to this muskrat, described as the least of the animals, the God I believe in also accomplishes great things using small things (“…by small and simple things are great things brought to pass, and small means in many instance doth confound the wise.”RE Alma 17:8)

A longer version of this tale can be found in Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage. It says, “Finally, the least of all the water creatures, the muskrat, volunteered to dive. At his announcement, the other creatures laughed in scorn, because they doubted this little creature’s strength and endurance. Had not they, who were strong and able, been unable to grasp soil from the bottom of the sea? How could he, a muskrat, the most humble among them, succeed when they could not?” There was nothing about the muskrat that inspired confidence in his peers. It was not obvious that he could succeed.

Likewise, the prophet Isaiah of the Old Testament prophesied something similar about Jesus.

Yeah, even doth not Isaiah say, Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is not beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men — a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him. He was despised and we esteemed him not. RE Mosiah 8:2

As the muskrat, in his sincerity, was mocked by his peers, so was Jesus mocked by his.

The deadly descent of the muskrat below the flood waters puts in mind the descent of Christ below the sins of mankind. Here is the the muskrat’s task described in Objiway Heritage, “When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil. Where the great had failed, the small succeeded.” In Edward Benton-Benai’s book, The Mishomis Book, the muskrat does die, while also succeeding in his task.

Here is an explanation of Christ’s descent:

The Lord experienced all the horror and regret wicked men feel for their crimes when they finally see the truth. He experienced the suffering of their victims whose righteous anger and natural resentment and disappointment must also be shed, and forgiveness given, in order for them to find peace. He overcame them all. He descended below them all. He comprehends it all. T&C 161:21

The flood causes widespread death in this tale, and symbolizes death. Only the creatures who could fly above it, or swim within it were able to survive on their own merit, but the third part of creatures, the land dwellers, required the sacrifice of a muskrat in order to reborn on a new earth provided through that sacrifice. In this, I compare the flood to a spiritual death, and not just a physical one. The way I understand spiritual death is a separation from God and the path He created for us, or to phrase it another way: living in disharmony with the Creator and the purpose that we were created for. The scriptural term for this would be sin (though there’s so much misunderstanding about this word that for clarity’s sake I prefer not to use it). The Lord Jesus descended below our sin, and provided the way for our escape and back to harmony with God. Coincidentally, (or maybe not!) the way the scriptures teach for our escape also involves water. A familiar phrase in the scriptures calls this being “born of water” (“…Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” RE Testimony of John 2:2), symbolizing our spiritual rebirth. How appropriate that birth is symbolized in this story as well! An application like mine of this tale, captures not just a singular moment in time (such as the atonement of Christ or a global flood), but a destination for each individual to reach in their own lifetime. In the form of baptism, our own submersion in water represents our death to our old ways, and our birth, when we emerge, to the Creator’s ways. Necessarily undertaken with a sincere and contrite heart, this act is completed when the Creator baptizes us by fire and the Holy Ghost (similar to the breath of life from Sky Woman), and we go from being physically born to also spiritually born. This is what is called entering the gate onto the Creator’s path, and this is where our journey into the mystery of the unknown begins. This is just my personal application on this tale, but one I find a treasure trove of meaning in.

While a flood is deadly, water carries an opposite meaning in many, if not all cultures. In the Anishinaabe story of creation by Gitchi Manitou (the Great Spirit/Mystery), he gave water the powers of purity and renewal. How interesting that a force of death is also the means to make things clean. I believe we see these powers in the telling of this story, and in the practice of baptism that Jesus both did Himself and instructed us to do as well. 

This beautiful story of the creation of a people, sounds very much like the spiritual birth of a people to me. A birth of a purified people who were considered good in the eyes of a nurturing mother/entity, and perhaps in the eyes of Gitchi Manitou as well. If this is where this people began on the path of the Creator I can see why it would be a path worth remembering and passing down in tradition.

Is it possible that these things from different sources are teaching the same principle from the same teacher? Both speak of themes of being born of spirit and of water. Both potentially lead the mind to themes of spiritual purification and rebirth.

There is much more I would like to address on this topic and this tradition.

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