In August 2007 we spent a month with the Wawatie family of Kokomville. Jacob and Louise Wawatie, well respected elders and teachers within the Anishnabe Nation taught me, as if I were their Little Brother, how to live in the bush.
I was pushed by them to awaken my 5 senses and learn to read the book of nature. I have still a very long way to go. It’s a book impossible to finish, but once you start “reading it” you can never stop. During that month we also learned about the hardships the Anishnabe went through, but even more about their desire and willpower to preserve their ancient old ways of life. During that months I was told many times about the Little People.
Isaac Murdoch wrote a good article about them:
Bagwajwinini, Stories of Little People
In the oral history of the Anishinabe, there is a race of magical beings that live in the forest that are referred to as Bagwajwi-Anishinabek, and they are often classified as ‘Little People’. They should not be confused with other little magical beings that are also called ‘Little People’ like the Pahiihnsag, Maymaygwasiwug or Pugawaagamik. It would be easy to confuse them, or simply bunch them all up together as ‘little People’, as they are all magical beings that are little, and live in the forest.
But what makes them unique from each other is their different set of attributes, strengths, habitat in which they live, and character. In this narrative we will explore the characteristics of Bagwajwinini and give light to this Anishinabek hero and try and give commemorative thought to this magical little forest dweller.
Just like Nanaboozhoo, Wakana, or Chibayibooz; Bagwajwi-Anishinabek also has a creation story that depicts their place of origin, as well as how they became great deities for the Anishinabek. The Odawa story is as follows:
“Long ago during the ‘Great Migration’, is when the Anishinabek first reached Mishinemakinong (Mackinaw Island). On this island they discovered a tribe of peaceful people who were very poor and wore very humble clothes. They were dressed in rags and never decorated their clothes or fancied their hair like the other tribes were so accustomed in doing. They were also a holy people that did not go to war, or engage in conflicts of any kind; as they were very kind and generous to all those who were passing through their territory. They did not speak in any language that anyone could understand, but used sign language as a way to communicate with the other tribes. The Anishinabek took kindly to these special people and adopted them into their powerful confederacy, accepting them as brothers and trading partners.
These people were simply known as ‘Mishinemakinawgo’ by the Anishinabek, as they lived only on Mishinemakinong. The Anishinabek were having a big war dance on Manitoulin Island to celebrate a glorious battle over the Winnebago. During this time, the Naadowek (Iroquois) attacked the Mishinemackinawgo and completely annihilated them to absolute nothingness. The Naadowek wanted to kill off the Mishinemakinawgo race completely so they could occupy the island, which was part of their strategy to eventually control all of the great lakes.
They didn’t succeed, as there were two survivors of this holy tribe, a young man and woman. This young couple was absolutely torn by what happened to their people and lived in great grief and despair. In order to survive, they had to live in a cave and go out only during the night to feed off of edible bark and leaves, as the Naadowek took control of the whole Island and monitored it closely for any intruders.
It was in the dead of winter when the young man and woman left their dark and shivering cold cave to make their daring and dangerous escape. They put their snowshoes on backwards and walked north through the straights between Bikwadinaashing (St Josephs Island) and Bootaagani Mnising (Drummond Island). They did this so the Naadowek would think they were going south instead of north, and it worked as the young couple made it to the North Shore of Lake Huron without any incidents. Once on the Northshore, they moved to the back bush and made a beautiful wigwam to live and prosper.
There they had many children and lived a very secluded life, only socializing amongst themselves. They did not visit the other tribes in fear of being burned alive, as they had witnessed this war act many times by the fearless Naadowek during their invasion of Mishinemakinong. One winter it did not stop snowing and this poor family was on the brink of death from starvation and loneliness. The couple truly longed for their demolished tribe and were living in agony from replaying all the memories of their past. Aki (the Spirit of the Land) noticed the desperation of this poor family, an in one mighty holy breath, blew through the smoke hole at the top of their wigwam and turned every one of them into Sacred Beings.
Once they became spirits they became happy because their race of people would live on indefinitely, and without fear or prejudice from the other war- bearing tribes. They also chose to live close to the Anishinabek who were always friends to them, but still lived in seclusion; never really being seen unless they wanted to be seen. The Anishinabe started to call them Bagwaji- Anishinabe because of their habits and extreme desire to remain secluded deep in the backwoods. The Bugwaji-Anishinabek became a mystical tribe in the forest and was quickly recognized for their great spiritual power. Many Anishinabek leave tobacco where they have been spotted, or in the spot where there may be evidence of their existence.” The End
Henry R. Schoolcraft was an explorer turned Indian agent with political undertones. In his position as Indian Agent, he did however manage to gain the trust of several important figures in Anishinabe society, and was able to transcribe and preserve several articles and documentation of the beliefs and values of the Anishinabe. Some say his work was to eventually discredit the Anishinabe, by displaying how silly there traditions were, but none-the-less his work still showcases important information into the cultural practices of the Anishinabe during the 1800s.
Here is an Ojibwa story that he published in 1856, about Bagwajwinini and it as follows:
Puck-wudj-ininees, or The Vanashing Little Men
There was a time when all the inhabitants of the earth had died, excepting two helpless children, a baby boy and a little girl. When their parents died, these children were asleep. The little girl, who was the elder, was the first to awake. She looked around her, but not seeing nobody besides her little brother, who lay asleep, she quietly resumed her bed. At the end of ten days her brother moved without opening his eyes. At the end of ten days more he changed his position, lying on the other side.
The girl soon grew up to woman’s estate; bit the boy increased his stature very slowly. It was a long time before he could even creep. When he was bale to walk, his sister made him little bows and arrows, and suspended around his neck a small shell, saying, you shall be called Wa-Dais-Ais-Imid, or He of the Little Shell.
Every day he would go out with his little bow, shooting at small birds. The first bird he killed was a tomtit. His sister was highly pleased when he took this to her. She carefully skinned and stuffed it, and put it away for him. The next day he killed a red squirrel. His sister preserved this too. The third day he killed a partridge (peena), which she stuffed and set up. After this he acquired more courage, and would venture some distance from home. His skill and success as a hunter daily increased, and he killed the deer, moose, and other large animals inhabiting the forest. In time he became a great hunter.
He now had arrived to maturity of years, but remained perfect in stature. One day, walking about, he came to a small lake. It was in the winter season. He saw a man on the ice killing beavers. He appeared to be a giant. Comparing himself to this great man he appeared no bigger than an insect. He seated himself on the shore, and watched his movements. When the large man had killed many beavers, he put them on a hand sled which he had, and pursued his way home. When he saw him retire, he followed him, and wielding his magic shell, cut off the tail of one of the beavers, and ran home with his trophy. When the tall stranger reached his lodge, with his sled full of beavers, he was surprised to find the tail of one of them gone, for he had not observed the movements of the little hero of the shell.
The next day Wa-dis-ais-Imid, went to the same lake. The man had already fixed his load beavers on his odaw’bon, or sled, and commenced his return. But he nimbly ran forward, and overtaking him, succeeded, by the same means, in securing another of the beaver tails. When the man had seen that he had lost the most esteemed part of the animal, he was very angry. I wonder said he, what dog is it that thus cheated me. Could I meet him, I would make his flesh quiver at the end of my lance. Next day he pursued his hunting at the beaver dam near the lake, and was again followed by the little man of the shell.
On this occasion the hunter has used so much expedition, that he had accomplished his objective, and nearly reached his home, before our tiny hero could over take him. He nimbly drew his shell and cut off another beaver’s tail. In all these pranks, he availed himself of invisibility, and thus escaped observation. When the man saw a trick had been so often repeated, his anger was greater than ever. He gave vent to his feelings in words. He looked carefully around to see whether he could discover any tracks. But he could find none. His unknown visitor had stepped so lightly as to leave no track.
Next day he resolved to disappoint him by going to his beaver pond very early. When Wa-Dais-Ais-Imid reached the place, he found the fresh traces of his work, but he had already returned. He followed his tracks, but failed to overtake him. When he came insight of the lodge the stranger was in front of it, employed in skinning his beavers. As he stood looking at him, he thought, I will let him see me. Presently the man, who proved to be no less than Manabozho, looked up and saw him. After regarding him with attention, “Who are you, little man,” said Manabozho. “I have a mind to kill you.” The little hero of the shell replied. “If you were to try to kill me you, you could not do it.”
When he got home, he told his sister they must separate. “I must go away,” said he, “It is my fate. You too,” he added, “Must go away soon. Tell me where you wish to dwell.” She said,” I would like to go to the place of the breaking daylight. I have always loved the east. The earliest glimpses of light are from that quarter, and it is, to my mind, the most beautiful part of the heavens.
After I get there, my brother, whenever you see the clouds in that direction of various colors, you may think that your sister is painting her face.”
“And I,” he said, “My sister, shall live in the mountains and rocks. There I can see you at the earliest hour, and there the streams of water are clear and pure. And I shall ever be called Puck-Wudj-Ininee, or the little wild man of the mountains.”
“But,” he resumed, “before we part forever, I must go and try to find some Manitoes.” He left her, and travelled all over the face of the globe, and then went far down into the earth. He had been treated well wherever he went. At last he had found a large manitoe, who had a large kettle, which was forever boiling. The giant regarded him with a stern look, and took him up into his hand, and threw him unceremoniously into the kettle. But by the protection of his personal spirit, he was shielded from harm, and with much ado got out of it and escaped. He returned to his sister, and related his rovings and misadventures.
He finished his story by addressing her thus: “ My sister, there is a manito, at each of the four corners of the earth. There is also one above them, far in the sky: and last,” continued he, “there is another, and wicked one, who lives deep down in the earth. We must now separate. When the winds blow from the four corners of the earth you must go then. They will carry you to the place you wish. I go to the rocks and mountains, where my kindred will ever delight to dwell.” He then took his ball stick, and commenced running up a high mountain, whooping as he went. Presently the winds blew, and, as he predicted, his sister was borne by them to the eastern sky, where she has been ever since, and her name is the Morning Star. The End.
What’s interesting about this take of their creation story, is there are several details that are the same. For example, both stories have two young people who are left alone, due to everyone being killed, had some hardship during winter months, and became mnidoowug in the end due to the mercy of a greater force of the land and spirit world. The differences are that they were brother and sister in the later version and that it was Manabozho who had scared them into hiding. Also in the later story, the brother went down to into the earth and was going to be killed by an underground mnido. Of course due to his magic could not be killed by this giant.
In other stories about Bagwajwenini, he is employed to kill the underground Mnidoowug, as he has the power to kill them. This makes sense. And in the later story the sister also became the Morning Star, which is also telling of how that star came to be for the Anishinabe People. Both version have an interesting take on how these little people were created and you don’t necessarily don’t have to pick one or the other, but rather enjoy them both for what they are.
My Great Grandfather Bagwajwinini was Chief of the Garden River Band of Ojibwa’s, as seen in the photo on this post, and proudly carried his name. His Grandson, Dan Pine Jr. claimed to see have seen the magical spirit of Bagwajwinini 1 smoking a Pwaagun (pipe) on a stump while going to his Grandmothers house when he was a child. He states that during this one childhood encounter, he received his gift to prepare sacred medicine, and accredits his long life and all of his healing abilities to Bagwajwinini. It would seem that the power of Bagwajwinini travels through the bloodline of this family of Medicine People.
Stories also run wild on Manitoulin Island about Bagwajwinini, as described by Sophie Corbriere, who conveyed this story to me in M’Chigeeng during a morning visit.
“Years ago, when my father was a child, he disappeared in the forest and was taken by the ‘Little People’. These ‘Little People’ took him deep into the forest and he was left there to fend for himself. After this event, he was given his spiritual name; Bagwajwinini.”
In Sophie’s account, she explains that her dad was taken away from these ‘Little People’ when he was a child. There are endless accounts of stories in Anishinabek country that tell of this harmless act of kidnapping, which always ends up with a very spiritual twist in the end which is often called a vision quest. Another commonality to many of these stories is usually only small children report seeing Bagwajwi-Anishinabek.
A common Anishinabek belief as to why children have more ‘Little People’ experiences than adults is because children still carry an uncorrupted insight for the natural world. Here is that philosophy, which was recorded by the late Carl Pine, in 2009, at Thunder Mountain, Ontario:
“Babies still carry medicine from their Mother’s Womb, which makes them very spiritual and receptive to the Mother Earth, and this also explains their encounters with ‘Little People’. I believe it is designed like this so children can be our greatest teachers on how to act properly towards the spirit of the land and all its helpers. When the babies grow into children they will say, “look at this rock, look at this stick”. They will bring frogs, bugs and leaves into the house; as they are trying to show us how beautiful Mother Earth is. As they get older and become adults, they let go of their mothers medicine and stray off into a disconnected path which can last for many years. Once they get older and become Elders, they start to crouch down and to pick up that Grand Medicine again, and began to show the people how beautiful Mother Earth is; often showing people rocks, sticks, and pointing out all of Nanaboozhoo’s creation. They also start reminding us of the ‘Little People’ that live in our forest, the awesome Spirit of the Land. The great cycle of life has made full circle.”
This belief is still strong amongst the Ojibway and my Late Uncle, Carl Pine, always had such a beautiful way to display the teachings of the Ojibwa. Before he passed away, he told me of a place located on Sagamok Reserve, which was the home of some of these Little People. The place I am referring is called Indian Head Rock, and the Little People lived up on top of the mountain near a swamp or a marsh. This place has been identified as a sacred site amongst the Anishinabek. Close to this place is a place called dosh-kob- kok, which translates to ‘Rock that splits open’. It is said that little people live inside this rock and have the power to open the rock at will.
To add to this narrative, I include my own childhood experience with Bagwajwinini:
“The year was 1980, and I decided to wake up early in the morning to see the sunrise. That is when I noticed two children playing on my window ledge, and they were only about 6 inches tall! They looked like very small at first, but when I went outside to see them, they were as big as me. We played a game where we would throw sticks and rocks at the rising sun.”
“After playing, I remember falling into a deep sleep in some tall grass with my new friends by my side. Fifteen hours later, I woke up several miles away from where I went to sleep, and found myself laying beside a small and very twisted river. Halfway home, I seen the adults who were looking for me and we made it home safely by nightfall. The period of time when I was gone is still mysterious to this day.”
“An old Medicine Woman was quickly called to investigate my mysterious disappearance and quickly dismissed anything devious. She told my mother that Bagwajwinini had paid me a visit and also blessed her home with very good medicine. I woke up early for many mornings after this event, for these little friends of mine gave me such a fantastic feeling. The only way to describe this feeling would be to explain how you feel when you closely watch the beautiful red sunrise and you know its staring back at you; into your soul.”
It is a common belief that the Bagwajwi-Anishinabek lives in little wigwams made of grass or bark, travel in littlebirch bark canoes, and are often seen in very isolated areas of our forest. Many people who claimed to have seen Bagwajwinini, also state, they have pale faces, are sometimes seen wearing cloaks or hooded garments, and are about knee high. They also do not speak Anishinaabemowin, but often communicate through mental telepathy or through dreams and almost always disappear just as fast as they have been seen. It is also common belief that those who had encounters with them were chosen for some spiritual reason that would almost certainly bring hunting luck or medicine back to the people.
We hope this article has given some insight on the Bagwajwi-Anishinabek, but there are plenty of more stories to be told by our people about Bagwajwinini, and we only offer a small glimpse. However, we hope this was an interesting collection of small stories, as our main goal of this narrative is to commemorate and give light to this beautiful race of Forest Dwellers that continue to help our pitiful Anishinabek through changing and uncertain times.
Meegwetch, thank you for sharing your story. I am originally from the Sagkeeng First Nation, and I’ve heard so many stories from my Grans, and the little people, “May May gway sii wuk” were my favourite to hear. I totally agree with you that these are more than just campfire stories, for they were sacred to our people. Please post more!
Good day Victoria !
Thank you for your writing. Your comment, being from one of the Turtle Iseland’s First Nations yourself, means a lot to me. We might consider posting a guest blogpost from you one day, talking about the Sagkeeng Nation and some stories about living in the North. I think it migh be interesting for most of the readers of this blog. Please do also follow http://www.rewildingdrum.com for blogposts on ‘Rewilding’.
Meegwhich and blessing