Travelling, An Element of Anishinaabewiziwin: Part I

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

I’m looking for an Anishinaabemowin word for “travelling” as in “we travel”, “we are preparing to travel”, “we are travelling”, “we will be travelling a long distance”. I’m looking for this word, as it’s understood in its physical sense, and I’m looking for the meaning of this word—the Anishinaabe meaning. For me, our words have always simultaneously brought the world together and illuminated it, making it bigger. This word and meaning would bundle my stories, reflections, and experiences about travelling, particularly traveling as an important element of Anishinaabeweziwin—all the elements that make up Anishinaabe life. Travelling also, as an important element of being Anishinaabe woman, particularly in a world that is invested in keeping Indigenous women settled, domesticated, dependent, and silent. This bundle would allow me to anchor myself deeper into the spirit of who I am as Anishinaabe, who we are as Anishinaabeg; anchor myself deeper into the spirit of who I am within who we are. It would house an element of all those elements that make up Anishinaabe woman in Anishinaabegogamig.[1]

In the absence of a word and a meaning, what I have are stories and reflections. What I have is the spirit of Anishinaabeg (physical) travel without a name. Part one of this story comes from my most recent travelling experience. Over time I’ll add layers to it.

Returning to Nogojowanong from Naminitigoong through Bawating

A week ago yesterday I found myself driving my longest distance in one period of time—from Naminitigoong to Nogojowanong. About 1200 kms in about 15 hours. I departed with my family at 11 a.m. and arrived home at 3:30 a.m.  Niminitigoong is what the Ottawa (Odawa) Anishinaabeg call one of their homes—Land Beneath the Trees.[2] English Americans call the city they built there, Manistee, Michigan. Nogojowanong is what the Mississauga Anishinaabeg call one of their homes—Mouth of the River.[3] English Canadians call the city they built there, Peterborough, Ontario.

I imagine such a trip would have been epic, taken as it would have been by waterways and trails, with jiiman (canoe) and bmose (walking), the way we got around for thousands of years. I re-think this and re-consider: our people would not have described aspects of their life with such grandeur. I imagine that the trip, once it was decided it would be made, would have been carried out pragmatically and without excessive pomp. In my case, however, it was epic as I did not have my relatives with me to provide companionship, support, and safety into the late night and early morning; I was alone for a good portion of the trip with my girl and Facebook friends who so graciously shared their best ‘travellin’ tune’. Hiy hiy. For me it was epic because it came with a lot of fears and worries.

Getting my girl home in time for the first day of two-week summer day-camp program and saving cash that would otherwise be spent on a motel room were important. Being safe—as in ensuring I was alert enough to i) drive and ii) watch out for waawaashkeshiwag miinawaa moozo (deer and moose)—was top priority. I laid semaa, whispered a pray to the wiingaashk that sits on my dash and to the wesiinyaag manidooyaag (animal spirits); I let migizi miigwan (golden eagle feather) do his work—flying around here and there from my rearview mirror, the a/c and open-window air giving him movement. I imagine my ancestors would have done something similar but maybe, travelling a lot by water, they would have asked for kindness from pinesiwaag (thunder beings), miizhu biizhu (water lynx), or nebaunaubaewuk (merpeople). They may have asked for kindness, like I did, not because these beings would be out to harm them—just like deer and moose are not out to harm us—but because we know we are interfering in their surroundings by virtue of moving through their landscapes and we know they have their life that will not stop simply because we have a trip to take.

There was a brief stop in my first home—Bawating—to drop off “Niece-y” and grandbaby niece and to pick up our kitty and some beads to continue the remaining nine-hour trip home. Bawating is the Ojibway name for our traditional gathering place where Gichi Gaming (Lake Superior) and Odawa Zaagi’gan (Lake Huron) meet. It is also the fifth stopping place on the Anishinaabeg great migration from Gichi Ziibing, the mouth of the St. Lawrence.[4] Settler colonialism has seen our place become re-named, re-landscaped, and re-intentioned and today it is popularly known as Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It is divided by a Canadian-U.S. international border that is arbitrary tothe Anishinaabeg.[5]

We were returning from a three-day Anishinaabe language and culture camp hosted by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The camp is located mid-way along the eastern shore of Mishikenh Gaming (Lake Michigan). The camp was an interesting experience that will likely come up in another entry at some point.

This trip came with a lot of fears, doubts, and hesitations. Most of my trips do. I know my family is at the mercy of those chi-wesiinyaag (big animals) and our daaban (vehicle) when we are travelling. At some point, after all the things that can be controlled for are considered—maintenance, cash in pocket, roadside assistance service, insurance for abroad, respectable VISA balance, etc. etc.—I inevitably take a deep breath, lay my asemaa and ask gizhe manidoo (the great, kind mystery) and my pawaaman (spirit protectors) to look out for us. To bring us safely to where we are going and to bring us safely home.

This usually does the trick.

But the mind—the colonized mind—has a funny way of letting doubt interfere with humility, faith and pragmatics. I immediately go back to words James Dumont shared with students in an undergraduate class on Native Identity, Culture, and Behaviour in 1995-1996: doubt is a tool of colonization. I remind myself of this. But I do something else too: when she is sleeping in the back, the music suggestions have been played out, and it’s just me, the high-beams, the bush, the occasional transport, and Nokomis (grandmother used here in reference to tibi giizis—the moon) this is what I get to thinking about to fill up the space where doubt once dwelled:

My mom. Ngaashi. She was a traveler. She travelled by foot three times with her sisters up that trap-line to where her step-dad was. Three times my mom and my aunts left Pelican Residential School and made it to him successfully. Two times, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came and got those kwezensag (that’s “little girls” in my language) and brought them back to school. The third time my mom and aunts, as little Anishinaabeg girls, were left alone by the RCMP and the school system.

I think of this, this story my aunt told me.

And I think of her even more, my mom, the traveler. She was a hitchhiker. Something her second daughter, my unknown younger sister, has in her bones too. Ngaashi hitched to New Orleans once. Wanted to go; went. Likely didn’t think of it as ‘epic’—and she was alone. She travelled to Winnipeg; didn’t like it; left. Went to Sault Ste. Marie; liked it; stayed; had her babies; lived her life; died. I know this, in part through my aunt; in part, because I know something of my mom’s story of my own accord. So, I think of my mom and my aunts, and my sister, and it makes me proud in a humble way. It makes me want to ‘hunker down’ and just do the thing that’s got to be done. It makes me know I have this in my body; my bones; my cells; my d.n.a..

And I let my mind wonder a bit more broadly to imagining about all the women in my mother’s line—my grandmother and great-grandmother and so on—whose travelling stories I do not know and will likely never know. I think of those women, travelling with people, on their own, or alone with their children.

And I know I can do this.

On the road alone at night, with Nokomis rising up, I also think of the other women I know today who are traveler’s. Whose trusty jiiman is a daaban. Who travel, travel, travel. Going here and there doing maadjiimaadiziwin—moving life connected through the generations.

Shirley Williams. Odawa Anishinaabekwe. Gichi Piitzijid (Elder). Anishinaabemowin Chi Ekinomaaget (Language Professor). Water walker and ceremonialist. Academic. Traveler.

Mary Jane Metatawabin. Mushkego esqauo. Grandmother. Poet. Musician. Philosopher. Language speaker. Warrior. My last visit with her was a few weeks ago. It started abruptly at 5 a.m. with her banging on my door. She was returning from an all day and all night round-trip. The purpose: to bring some zhoon (short form for zhooniyaa which means money) to family who needed it.


The first time I met MJ I was returning from Fort Albany to Bawating. She caught a lift. It was a five-hour drive that was just the right amount of time for the story she had to tell. I was tired and although I weaved in and out of consciousness I learned a few things that stick with me on the road. One, the Mushkego word that means “not to be arrogant; do not think that you know what is going to happen up there ahead of you, in the future”. I’ve since forgot what that word is and have asked again what it is; we both forget. Two, I learned that the curves along the Chapleau River are beautiful, scary, and cutting. I learned that MJ’s method for negotiating them in her daabaan is to “just dance the curves” and go. That’s it—just go. Don’t be arrogant to think that you know what will happen up ahead the road there, just dance the curves.

Edna Manitowabi. Odawa Anishinaabeg. Gichi Piitzijid. Artist. Singer. Storyteller. Plant teacher. Ceremonialist. Language Speaker. Traveler.

Josephine Mandamin. Anishinaabeg. Gichi Piitzijid. Water walker. Her daabaan has a name. She is a traveler.

I think of my mom and these women and I think, “To travel is in me. How I can I not have this?”

I think of our ancestors who travelled ALL THE TIME. Summer camp to minomingogamig (rice bed) to hunting grounds to winter camp to iskamizigan (sugar bush) and on and on and on..season after season for thousands upon thousands of years.

Pppssshh. How can I not have this?

But still that fear, worry. There is possible danger out here on the road other than animals. Weird travelers. Power-hungry, racist, sexist police officers—some not all but it’s like how russiona roulette—you never know when THAT one is the one. (If my skepticism about police officers is disturbing to anyone, please note that as an Anishinaabe woman in colonial Canada, not all polices officer—man or woman, serve and protect; some intimidate, threaten, patronize, make a person feel unsafe. True story.)

Then, I think of the Pow-Wow-ers.

Ho-lay! Can those folks travel! Warp speed. Long distance. No worries. Just go. One day I will write a science fiction story with these peeps as my muse.

Not that I’m in tight with the scene but the pow-wow-ers I know travel in groups; in vans. Men seem to take the lead in this area. Mostly my insight comes from being my amazing neighbours. But my first pow-wow-er experience was the summer of 2006. I attended a pow-wow hosted by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan with my friend whose son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren live there. All I remember is that on our return to Bawating, it was late at night. I was following behind my friends’ dad and mom, and another vehicle; we were bordered by the silhouettes of evergreens; guided by yellow headlights and rear red lights glowing off asphalt. Me? I was trying to keep up. I was thinking, “I can’t keep up with this guy. He’s driving 130.” And thinking, “Holy sheesh. Isn’t he worried about getting a speeding ticket?” Always thinking, “Oh my gosh. Pow-wow-ers eh?”

I’m left with a lot of unanswered questions about this experience. There’s some things that I think are best left in the realm of  the unknown and awe. That’s the magic, the surreal, the sci-fi of the pow-wow family-head guy. That’s the power of the pow-wow-er family.

I think of all the little kids. All of our young people here and elsewhere that have had to walk a long way to get away from harm adults have imposed on them historically and still do today. I think of their travels in this realm and beyond.

I can do this.

I think of Jiibay Kona or the Spirit Path, the Milky Way. I think of all the traveler’s who have, and will, follow that path to the spirit world as we move through the western door.[6]  With this, my physical sense of travel moves into the realm of the spiritual. I think of Jim Dumont’s experience travelling as told in class—driving on the highway to get to ceremony or wherever and entering into another consciousness as you are driving and then you ‘come to’ and you wonder where you were, how you arrived to that point safely because you were somewhere in your head. I think of all various forms of spiritual travel. I would like the words for those too. I think of Norval Morriseau’s Travels to the House of Invention and am grateful for that book.[7]

I think about my daughter; my nieces and my nephews; and, my grand-baby niece. I think about how I want them to know travel and movement across our homelands the way our ancestors did. I want their worlds to be bigger than settler/Canadian visions of what a good life looks like. I want them to have the means and confidence to move their bodies, their lives, and their spirits across our landscapes—both physical and spiritual—visiting, learning, teaching, living, loving their relatives and new friends.

Moving under a sky that was turning dark and then turning bright,  “I can do this” until it became “I did this”. Niminitigoong to Nogojowanong in one day. Me, my girl, our kitty, trusty daaban, and a lot of different kinds of relatives. Like Sky Woman. Moving through the world with her children and all her supports. *saasaakwe*[8]

[1] Anishinaabegogamig refers to Anishinaabeg homelands and is known today as the Great Lakes region; the place where Anishinaabeg live and work; the place that was gifted to Anishinaabeg. Doug Williams, personal communication, Waawshkigemonki (Curve Lake First Nation), n.d.

[2] Cecilia LaPointe, personal communication, Facebook, July 31, 2012.

[3] Doug Williams, personal communication, Waawshkigemonki (Curve Lake First Nation), n.d.; Leanne Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence, Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011, 26.

[4] Edward Benton-Benai, Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, Hayward: Indian Country Communications, Inc., 1988, 99-101.

[5] Phil Belfy, Three Fires Unity: The Anishinaabeg of the Lake Huron Borderlands, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

[6] Michael Wassegijig Price, “Anishinaabe Star Knowledge,” Winds of Change 17 (3), 2000: 50-56.

[7] Norval Morriseau,  Travels to the House of Invention, Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 1997.

[8] Saasaakwe is a shout-out to the spirits.