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Meeting the Animal People

We saw wolves on the ice. There were two of them, a large dark, heavy male and a smaller duskier colored female.

We saw wolves on the ice. There were two of them, a large dark, heavy male and a smaller duskier colored female.

It was the beginning of winter and the ice had just set on the small mountain lake a few miles down the road from our cabin.

I spotted them out of the corner of my eye, two dark spots on a sheet of white.

They lingered a few days. It was the sun, I think. The last vestige of autumn sun warmed the flat pan of the lake and the wolves lay there soaking it in before the cold fingers of winter would push it from the sky.

We drove by on consecutive days and saw them. They were too big for coyotes, too large and lanky for dogs and there was something in me that knew they were wolves. Transients, headed through this territory on their way north deeper into the back country for the winter.

It felt good to see them.

There’s a lot of animal life in the area of our cabin. From black bears to bobcats, muskrats, beavers, even the odd rumour of cougars sliding out of view through the pine trees.

There are a lot of horses too on the free range lower on the mountain.

But seeing the wolves made me smile.

There’s a primeval connection to Myeengun, as the wolf is called in Ojibway, that I don’t fully understand but exists as a pull at my consciousness.

I’ve always been an animal guy.

From my earliest recollections animals have always been important. Even though I never had a pet when I was small I was always drawn to the dogs and cats in whatever neighbourhood I lived in.

I was a Young Naturalist for a while. That was a mail-in club for youngsters eager to learn the outdoors and outdoor skills.

When I was a kid it was the closest I could get to Native teachings.

Back then I never had the benefit of animal stories as told by our traditional teachers.

I never knew that Ojibway people regard animals as their greatest teachers. I never knew as a kid that Ojibway people referred to four legged creatures as Animal People.

It wouldn’t have struck me as odd though. I think I’ve always regarded them that way.

There was a time when it became clear to me.

I was walking with my uncle on the traditional land my family had once trapped on.

I’d been reconnected with my tribal family for just a short time after 20 years of absence.

Learning what it meant to be Ojibway was, and still is, a complex process, filled with surprises, shocks and sudden joys.

That day on the land with my uncle was a joy.

It had snowed the night before and there were a good couple of inches on the ground.

Sound was softened and we moved like ghosts.

Everywhere the detail of things was cut into sharp relief by the blanket of white. It was like the land was magnified, somehow heightened, and seeing it that way was like seeing it for the first time.

I was enthralled with everything.

There was a sudden set of tracks in the snow.

They cut across our path and disappeared into the thick bush like a thought.

I stood there studying them trying to determine what animal had made them. But my uncle paused, looked around us casually and asked no one in particular, “I wonder who passed here?”

It seemed an odd question. They were animal tracks yet he’d referred to them as though they belonged to a person.

He shrugged it off and continued on his way but the reaction puzzled me.

So asked him.

He told me that Ojibway people hold animals in high regard. They are spirit beings and serve as our greatest teachers. When Creator sent the Human Beings to live in this reality he called the Animals forward and directed them to remain our teachers forever.

Their teachings showed the Human Beings how to relate to the world and how to treat the Earth.

What we know of ourselves as people, like our need for community and our need to live in harmony with each other came to us from the Animal People.

As we walked he told me legends and traditional stories like how the dog came to be man’s greatest friend, why the wolverine is a loner and why the raven is black.

Each of those stories was like a world and entering them I felt bigger, sketched out more fully, given more detail and I understood why he asked ‘who’ instead of ‘what’ when we passed those tracks in the snow.

We are all related.

That’s what my people understood from the earliest times.

At the core of us all is the creative energy of the universe.

Every being and every form shares that kinetic, world-building energy, and it makes us brothers, sisters, kin, family.

Ojibway teachings tell us that we all come out of the Earth, that we belong here, that we all share this planet equally, animals and people. Walking with my uncle that day, I came to the beginning of understanding that.

Getting all of it takes a while.

It requires a spiritual understanding, a heart sense of what it all means.

The world is a feeling. That’s what my people say.

As I came to grasp the intent of that a lot of things changed for me. I don’t hunt anymore for one thing. That’s one thing that changed since that day. Oh, I’d still go out and bring home a deer or a moose if it meant survival for me and my family, but I can’t do it for the sport, for the joy of killing something or just because it’s the native thing to do.

People ask me now and then, ‘What kind of an Indian doesn’t hunt?”

These days I smile and say, “The family kind.”

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Dream Wheels and Keeper’n Me.