Here you find resources on Anishinaabe culture, language, traditions and stories that have been passed down many generations to the people of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
Winter Story Telling Series
In Anishinaabe culture, Winter is the season for storytelling. It’s the time everything goes to sleep. The ancient art of Ojibwe storytelling happens all year long, but there are some tales that can only be told when there’s snow on the ground. Stories are important teachings about the world that are passed from generation to generation. Traditionally our elders tell these stories to our children, but everyone loves taking part in waiting all year for certain traditions to be shared. Long, dark winter days and nights are the perfect way to pass the time together, around the fire, hearing our elders share the stories that are filled with important life lessons.
The Legend of Quanja Lake, Wiikwemkoong, Manitoulin
As you may know, Manitoulin is a land of legend. The Quanja Lake legend is one we all know in Wiikwemkoong. Quanja Lake is a small lake tucked into the woods within the central area of Wiikwemkoong Territory. The name Quaan Jaa referred to a being that was part-human and part-serpent. Some said it was an all seeing, all knowing protector who observed everything that went on in the land and in the lake.
We would like to share this story with you, told by Gordon Shawanda of Wiikwemkoong. If you would like to read more about this legend, we recommend: The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World, by Theresa S. Smith.
One day I was playing by the lake when an old man came by. “What is your name?” I asked. “My name is Mshiikenh (turtle),” he replied. He sat down on a stump by the low flame campfire facing the lake. I offered him tea. He helped himself gently. I remember your Grandfather well, he said. “His name was Naakoowaam (distant thunder) Joseph Zhaawonde. He was a constable in this area, South Bay, for many years; he worked with the Mounties,” he said. My Grandfather had died in 1946, 4 months before I was born, I explained to him.
I could hear Mshiikenh sipping hot tea from the old tin cup as I sat next to him. There was something about this Elder that made me feel safe and cozy and I soon found out why. “I have something to tell,” he said. The story he told me was about the terrifying Serpent they called “Quaan Jaa” who once appeared in a time of need. “The Spirit of the lake is alive,” he said.
Many moons ago strange, menacing, ‘monsters’ resembling people came to this land. They landed in Quanja Lake.
They came with violence and a scheme to kill, take, and to destroy all the animals and abduct human beings. Flames came out of their weapons. They scorched the land with fire and the village was burned to the ground. The people were scared to death. They ran for their lives. Six children were abducted and one of our extraordinary leaders named Niigan Naazhea (ahead of the light) valiantly fought them off, but was also taken with the children. The alien Invaders were not to appear again for half a century. When they would take more children.
In the quiet moments following, a brave named Negannigwani (pheasant) became the new leader of Quaan Jaa Lake. Negaanigwani is from the feathered clan, a symbol of leadership. He was instructed that he must travel to Wiikwemkoong (the bay of beavers) nestled in the valley with a cast of towering hills filled with resources. He must inform the auspicious leader Tekemah (where ability is) about the horrifying incident that took place at Quaan Jaa Lake. In those days Wiikwemkoong was the meeting place of Odawa Mnis (Manitoulin Island). To Native people the Spirit Wiikwemkoong is a ‘skillful builder’ who will bring new directions and new life back to Quaan Jaa Lake.
After the Negannigwani and Tekemah meeting they spoke to the people. They had come to believe that the aliens’ intentions were to come to earth to live among them and steal the Gchi pittendaagok (sacred values), to wipe out their way of life and to break all the Indigenous people on planet earth and slowly destroy their spirit mind.
Half a century passed before the aliens returned to Quaan Jaa Lake. In his short stay, Niigan Naazhea informed the people what was going to happen on the planet. He told his people when the age of technology arrives they should welcome it because when they do, they disarm it of any power over them. Someday machines will take us to distant places. The aliens’ living standards will be passed on to us gradually. The Native people noticed their former leader, Niigan Naazhea, was talking out of the ordinary and he even walked rigidly, except that his shining long black hair was still intact.
A decade later, the aliens once more returned to Quaan Jaa Lake, and forced more Native people to leave. This time, restlessly, waiting out of their reach was the incredible Tekemah, he witnessed the abductions. This time, Tekemah was able to evoke the monstrous serpent Quaan Jaa, to make her presence known. Danger was near at hand, and she preceded with a gigantic wave, she moved by a powerful energy force, casting a giant shadow on the startled alien invaders.
The people scrambled and made their escape as the Giant Serpent made an attack on the aliens causing an explosion from which there was no escape, and killing all the intruders. Again a great terror filled the homes of Quaan Jaa Lake. Many people were traumatized, but they were protected by the unseen force of ‘Quaan Jaa the Serpent.’ She had emerged as a tidal wave and swept the frightened people across the lake to where a huge rock stands at peace. The hairless aliens were never seen again in Quaan Jaa Lake.
On calm evenings, night Chants and the sacred Drum were often heard coming from the naked rock across the bay. Tekemah the gifted mystic knew from various findings that Quaan Jaa never showed her face in full daylight. So the Odawas chanted and drummed on calm evenings. Sneaking a look into the night skies, Tekemah could see far-off Nigan Naazhea blinking in connection and communication. Tekemah informed his people: don’t be afraid of the aliens, because we are one with the earth. After they move on, we will still be here.
Unexpectedly, Mshiikenh asked me, are you OK son? Still in a daze, I answered I’m OK, just a little shaken by your story. The old man smiled. I gladly offered Mshiikenh another cup of Naadwewashk (herbal tea). Mshiikenh explained, “our ancestors were drumming in this area for centuries, they call this place Dwe’ganing (where the Elders drum), now known as South Bay. Quaan Jaa Lake is a sacred space, powered by the sun. People came to this lake years ago to meditate. It’s a special place,” he said.
Nanabush, or Nanabozho, is a spirit who is the main character, the creator and trickster, of many Anishinaabe Winter Stories.
We invite you to listen to our elder, a film actress and Trent University retired faculty Edna Manitowabi, tell the story of Nanabush and what happens when he visits the Spirit of Winter. Edna is an Odawa/Ojibwe Knowledge Keeper, and in this Wabano Centre video she shares stories of Nanabush that she heard as a child. Click Here to View Video
Also born in Wiikwemkoong, artist and Order of Canada recipient, Daphne Odjig, is the author of Nanabush and the Spirit of Winter Daphne received the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee award, and holds a Doctor Litterarum (Doctor of Letters), the highest degree a person can hold. Her incredible life and legacy is one very much exploring. Through her art and books we connect with our ancestors and the ancient spirit of storytelling.
Here are resources on learning the Anishinaabemowin Language. The First Language of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.
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