This bears similarity to different scriptural books, where a people have forgotten their way, and stand in need of a reminder. Each divine teacher or prophet who provides that way for others shares a similar role as Nana’b’oozoo’s in his version of the flood. A good scriptural comparison can be made to John the Baptist, who provided a symbol of death and life through an ordinance of water, similar to the symbolism that is described in the Anishinaabe Flood tradition. He also taught the people, providing a restoration from error to truth, making the path of the Lord straight, or making the way of the Lord clear again so that those he taught could follow it. He taught the way of the One who made salvation possible, Jesus Christ, just as Nana’b’oozoo acknowledges and accepts muskrat’s offering, and is saved by it.
In Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage (along with other books I have referenced in past posts), there is an account of “an event in the history of the Anishnabeg.”
It begins, “According to accounts, a large group of Anishinabeg left their homeland in search of the Land of Abundance. Thinking that such a land lay to the east, the band travelled for many years in the direction of the morning. They at last came to a great ocean whose waters were salt. Unable to go further, the Anishnabeg settled on the lands of the salt waters. So long did they remain that the men and women forgot their origin.” p.87
When reading this, I wondered to myself why they believed this Land of Abundance was in the east? In Edward Benton-Benai’s The Mishomis Book is a passage from another tradition that says, “As the boy stepped inside he noticed that the door of the lodge was facing the Sun in the West and that the Seven Grandfathers sat in the East–the place his uncle told him was the source of all knowledge.” The Seven Grandfathers in this tale are powerful spirits tasked by the Creator to watch over the Earth’s people. The uncle mentioned is a “son of the Creator.”
The information in these two traditions combined has led me to wonder if the people moving east signifies not just a physical move, but also a spiritual one. Perhaps they were seeking this Source of all Knowledge?
In response to the search of this people, some tales describe an otter emerging from the water, others describe a “megis shell” (cowrie shell) that emerges from the water and hovers over them. “While our forefathers were living on the great salt water towards the rising sun, the great Megis (sea-shell) showed itself above the surface of the great water, and the rays of the sun for a long period were reflected from its glossy back. It gave warmth and light to the An-ish-in-aub-ag (red race),” History of the Ojibways, William Whipple Warren.
Both the otter and the shell are symbols that come from the water, the element known to the Anishnaabe for its power of purity, an apt symbol in both Christianity and the Anishinaabe for spiritual renewal. In fact, the megis is a symbol of the Anishinaabe religion in its entirety (“‘My grandson,’ said he, ‘the megis I spoke of, means the Me-da-we religion,’” History of the Ojibways, William Whipple Warren; “…the little shell symbolized the return to the true path to find fulfillment and to resume purpose,” Ojibway Heritage, Basil Johnston p. 88)
The event involving the megis shell mirrors the idea of restoration told in Nanabush’s flood. They, like Nanabush, were a people in need of returning to past knowledge. The megis shell or otter emerging from the ocean likely would have turned their minds to other things held in tradition that emerged from water to the salvation of their people, such as the muskrat. It would have turned their minds to the very beginning of their people. It also invokes similar imagery found in the Old Testament concerning the pillar of light that was with the camp of the Israelites rescued from Egypt. This megis shell, accompanied with visions of its interpretation, guides a generational migration that takes the Anishinaabe from the shores of the East Coast to where they can currently be found spread in a wide swath westward. The visions leading them onward spoke of finding a turtle island, stating that one would be found at the beginning of their journey and one at their end. The imagery of the turtle island is symbolic too of the turtle island in the flood of Sky Woman and then Nanabush. Another reference to restoration. And though the Anishinaabe pinpoint specific islands at the beginning of this migration and at the end, perhaps the use of “turtle island” in their visions was meant to refer to the first turtle island, the one at the beginning of this people where they became people approved of in the eyes of their mother, Sky Woman, and their Creator, Kitche Manitou.
Perhaps the turtle island at the end of their journey is their return to that initial state, a return to harmony with the Creator and the purpose for which they were created. Which leads to this question: Has that second island truly been reached yet?
The symbolism of the megis shell was preserved in ritual of the Anishinaabe Midewiwin Society. The word Midewewin is broken down by Basil Johnston this way, “The term is probably a contraction of the word ‘Mino’ (good) and ‘daewaewin’ (hearted). The word may also mean ‘the sound’ or ‘sounding,’” Ojibway Heritage p. 84. An initiate had to prove themselves worthy of joining the Midewiwin. One part of that initiation involved what follows below:
“Then the presiding Midewewinini or Midewequae (man or woman) shot the candidate with the Midemegis (a shell). The candidate fell dead, unmoving. The Midewewinini revived him with the breath of life, as Odaemin the first medicine man regained life. The candidate stood, renewed, and new.
“Such was the dramatic way in which the state of nonexistence and resurrection were demonstrated. The candidate now was not what he was before, but transformed. He had been reborn.” Ojibway Heritage p.87
“By rising from the dead the candidate demonstrated a power; it was also an evidence of the power of the medicine men and of the Midewewin. The initiate gave up a former way and a previous life and in rising up, assumed a new. The Midewewin took away one life and mode, conferred something not possessed before.” Ojibway Heritage p.88
Jesus describing being “born anew” from scripture:
“Nicodemus said to him, If I believe this, can I ascend in this life, or will it be accomplished only in the afterlife? Jesus answered, In the name of Father Ahman I say to you, Except you receive the ordinance of baptism to join the new dispensation, and thereby forsake your sins and receive forgiveness and an outpouring of the Spirit, you will not ascend to God’s presence in this life or the life to come. All who are devoted to the ambitions of the flesh remain imprisoned by the flesh, and those who are born anew through the ordinances, receive the Spirit of Truth, and are able to know the record of heaven by the Spirit of Truth. Do not question if what I say is true because the Spirit of Truth confers light, knowledge, and understanding of the mysteries of heaven within every soul who receives it.” T&C The Testimony of John 2:2
Other scriptural references describing something similar:
“Now I say unto you that ye must repent and be born again, for the spirit saith, If ye are not born again, ye cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness. Yea, I say unto you, Come and fear not, and lay aside every sin which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction. Yea, come and go forth, and shew unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism. And whosoever doeth this and keepeth the commandments of God from thenceforth, the same will remember that I say unto him, yea, he will remember that I have said unto him, He shall have Eternal life; according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit which testifieth in me.” RE Alma 5:4
“For, said he, I have repented of my sins and have been redeemed of the Lord. Behold, I am born of the Spirit. And the Lord said unto me, Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women — all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people — must be born again, yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters. And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. I say unto you, Unless this be the case, they must be cast off. And this I know because I was like to be cast off. Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning; and I am born of God. My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss, but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was wrecked with Eternal torment, but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.” RE Mosiah 11:28
Here we can see how similar the symbolism of baptism and that of Midewiwin initiation truly are, both invoking water or a symbol of it, both symbolizing death to an individual’s old ways, and birth into a new way. Both championing a “return to the true path.” Both with teachers who facilitate periodic restorations to that path. Perhaps the spirit of the Creator is in all those who have come teaching of a restoration to His ways.
Perhaps both traditions, long ago, were once practiced even more similarly…