Emptiness and Stories

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

I was deeply saddened the morning I found out that Anishinaabe writer, cultural knower, and language speaker/educator, Basil Johnston, had started his journey. I couldn’t help but cry for the devastating loss of this man and what he gave this world.

In writing this and reading several Facebook posts about how people knew Basil, or impressions they had of him when they met him, I want to share that my sadness was not born from knowing him or having had an exchange with him. It was from that as a reader of his writing. I did not know him; I did not ever meet him in person; I did not ever attend a lecture or talk that he gave.

I just read him.

And, what he wrote, gave me life.

His death is deeply felt.

The first Anishinaabe book I ever owned was Ojibway Ceremonies. It was gifted to me by another beloved, a woman who mentored and guided me; a woman who is not Anishinaabe but is as much a part of Anishinaabe community as any Elder or newborn. Her name is Carolyn, and at the end of my first paid contract fresh out of university, she gifted me this book with an inscription that I cannot recall (and that I cannot retrieve as the book, whose pages are yellowed and falling away from the binding, seems to have been misplaced along a recent move of camps). I think in my early years of starting to learn what Anishinaabe means–as opposed to being Indian girl in a white world–she recognized how much the culture, and learning it, meant to me. That was in 1996.

Since then I have purchased several of Johnston’s books, either new from in-store or online or found in good condition (or not so good condition) in second hand bookstores. It’s been almost twenty years since I first read him and while I am not particularly interested in the easily traced influences of Christianity in his work, to this day, I read him closely.

I read him like a morning prayer or berry harvest; a collecting of sap from trees or paddle through the rice bed. I read him deeply and receive his words and ideas, his stories, as I do a raucous chuckle with a girlfriend or deep sob or critical conversation about this world we live in; as I fall in love with men who are warriors for anishinaabewiziwin, who are on the land, and who are engaged in learning; as I learn from two-spirited or queer people about how to brilliantly and righteously make space. I read him like I do the skies waiting for an eagle feather gift to float through dense, sparsely lit forest heavily populated with pine or star dust floating from jiibay miikaan (i.e. the milky way) during any season.

His writing filled the emptiness that characterized so much of my life growing up Indian girl–an emptiness I couldn’t even name before other teachers taught me about being Anishinaabe. Basil’s writing kneaded out the earth of the island that is my life, earth that was laid by my first teachers over twenty years ago. Today his writing sculpts the landscape and deepens the roots. So much of my thinking, writing, and pedagogy is influenced by his publications. This blog, Anishinaabewiziwin, includes posts which often cite him or have been completely born from his writing. His stories fill me up as much today as they did back then however it’s not like adding layers to my existence every time I open him up. It’s more like bringing others who have informed me along the way and placing them in conversation with the stories he’s documented for us; his work, in conversation with my spirit and the knowledges and people that inform it, moves like a pool of spring-fed water: tikeb, mokijiwanibiish. Over the years, the dialogue has become more sophisticated, matured, ever-moving.

His stories are forever giving.

They do not just nurture me when lonely or guide me culturally, they inform my being. They allow me be in the world in richer ways and they bring me closer to myself and my relatives. How many times have I intentionally gone to the land to deal with heartbreak? When I was younger I would just go broken and return healed or at least with less burden of pain: arrive filled with anguish, pour it out, and be filled with the brilliance of the land. And yes, this is enough. However, today, because of Basil’s writing and the teachers that informed him I can go to the land and have a conversation with so many of my relatives. I can be given guidance or support by what they have to teach. Heartbreak and healing on the land is no longer just an emotional process of emptying and filling but rather a conversation, a give and take, and growing of relationship with my relatives and a growing of wisdom.

The morning I found out Basil Johnston was on his journey, I had just returned from the land because I was out of my body with heartache. Intending to drive along a road in the country, en route, I decided to stop at an old friends place–a meadow–and take a walk along a familiar trail. I wanted to be in the morning sun and visit with the plants and animals. I knew placing myself in this space would give me perspective and an opportunity to process, get grounded:

walking away from men because of their diminishing attitudes towards anishinaabe women is an easy thing to do, even life-giving. but still, walking away from men i love, am in love with, or who are important to me never gets easier. and heartbreak, grief, anger, loss, confusion–why are we not good enough to be treated with respect as whole human beings? why only as playthings, distractions, options, a thing to be boringly endured or half-listened to, to be chipped away at, manoeuvred about so as to make room for other women. used for our knowledge or labour; drudge. particularly ‘othered’ when in that oh-so-special light that is white women, who is also ‘othered’. walking away is easy but it never gets easier.

On this particular morning I ended up walking along the trail much further than I had in the past and found another one that segued off into a cedar grove, parting in two directions. Always drawn to a cedar grove, I meandered onto this off-shoot to see what was what. I wasn’t a few hundred feet beyond the main trail and into the bush before I found a quiet, opening amongst some giizhigaatigoog (cedars). The sun shone through and I could hear a bird strangely chatting away or maybe messaging others I was there. Maybe it was telling me off: “Get outta here, pesky Anishinaabe”. Anyhow, I did what I needed to do in that quiet, gentle space. When I was finished saying my prayers and giving thanks, stretching and rejuvenating, I was drawn to say thank-you to each of the cedars which I noticed created a circle in a stand of four. I went to touch the first one to my left and was compelled to hug her. I had hugged a few ininaatigoog (maples) before and if this idea seems foolish, one question: have you ever hugged a tree? If not, do. It’s an amazing experience, especially if you are able to wrap your arms around it fully. There is nothing more solid or reassuring. Anyhow, I hugged that cedar mostly with one arm because of the slant it was on but as I was doing that and taking a moment to be there, I turned my face and pressing my cheek against her, I happened to look up. Above me in another cedar I saw gjigjigaaneshiinh (chickadee) flicker in and perch on a branch. I smiled as one of Basil’s stories filled me up. It was the one about how gjigjigaaneshiinh came to be a bird that lived in Anishinaabegogamig all year long. The story includes giizhigaatig. The moment, as fulfilling as it was, was rendered more meaningful because now, not only was I hugging my grandmother (a story that comes from a woman named Kiwedinoquay) with all the women’s knowledge and memories I have of her, but I was also able to know that I was standing in the midst of ancient relationships between giizhigaatigoog and gjigjigaaneshiinhyag. One teaching in the story Johnston tells about these is two is about being provided warmth and protection in difficult times.

Basil Johnston’s stories fill my emptiness with Anishinaabeg relationships and with the knowledge and wisdom that comes from these relationships. His stories give my own emptiness and joys a place to be and feasts them to something more meaningful. For this I will always be grateful. Hiy hiy, Anishinaabenini, Gichi Pitzijid. Dance, sing, say your name and announce your relatives with pride–our ancestors and descendents along jiibay mikaan will be so thrilled to know you have returned. Chi miigwech for everything.


Articles on Basil Johnston’s passing:

Esteemed Anishinaabe Author

Anishinaabe Author, Historian