In the spirit of sharing Anishinaabe culture with the Trent community during this month of love, I offer a story that shows the love Nanaboozhoo has for the students here at Trent. For those who aren’t familiar, Nanaboozhoo is the greatest friend and teacher to the Anishinaabe people; winter is the only time we invoke his name through story.
The following happened a long time ago—the first winter that Trent had an Indigenous Studies department. The teaching that Nanaboozhoo gave Trent students back then is still relevant today. Such is the enduring, forever nature of his love for us.
Nanaboozhoo was over there by the shoreline that some of the university trails meander around. He was just over there waiting for something exciting to happen. It was February, there was lots of snow, and he was lonely, so he made a little fire to keep him company. He was hungry, so he made some food. Nanaboozhoo was just sitting there by that fire thinking about all kinds of things in the world. All of a sudden, he heard some sounds coming from down the trail from the direction of the university.
Well, Nanaboozhoo didn’t realize he was so lonely until he heard those sounds, those human sounds. So long it had been since the people came looking for him. He thought it must be some of those students coming from that program at the university. He was excited and had some anticipation in his belly, but he played it cool even though his heart was bursting with excitement.
He was waiting and waiting when finally, that group of people came upon his camp. They were a scraggily looking bunch of Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg characters. They all looked haggard and like they were about to leave this world or something. Their cheeks were sunken in and they had big bags under their eyes, messy hair, their winter clothes just hanging off of them.
Nanaboozhoo was intrigued. This is an interesting looking bunch of people, he thought, and smiled; so happy he was to see them.
As they approached, they said, “Boozhoo, boozhoo, Nanaboozhoo,” in very quiet, hesitant voices. Nanaboozhoo was so surprised to hear his language. His smile widened. I’m liking these people more and more.
Well, as Anishinaabeg does, Nanaboozhoo greeted them kindly and invited them into the warm circle coming from the fire and encouraged them to get comfortable. He fed them the rest of the venison stew he made. They gobbled it up. When that was done and he noticed the sparkle coming back to their eyes, he clapped his hands together and said, “Well, tell me, what’s going on friends?”
Oh! Those students, they were bursting to tell him, and all at once, they started talking, crying and going on and on. He could barely make sense of what they were saying and put his hand up, “Hoka hey Anishnaabe and the rest of youse! Relax, relax. One person please, tell me what’s going on here. What brings you to my camp?”
One Anishinaabe spoke: “Nanaboozhoo, we’re freaking out! Really! University is so stressful! We need to get good marks for all kinds of reasons—some of us need to get scholarships; some of us need to get good grades so we don’t feel stupid; some of us need to maintain our grade point average or be the best in the class so we can get rewarded; some of us just want to fit in; or get into graduate school. We’re not smart enough, Nanaboozhoo! We feel we can’t do it; we can’t keep up! We need you to help us! We know how smart you are. We know you can help us! Can you make us smart so we can get the grades we need?”
Hearing this, Nanaboozhoo tilted his head to the side, paused, and said, “HOKA HEY! I thought you all forgot about me but now I know I haven’t been forgotten! I love you all so much; I will help you. I know just the thing. Follow me!”
Nanaboozhoo took them on a trail; here and there they went. He looked around this bush and that tree until one student asked, “What are you doing, Nanaboozhoo?”
“SSSSHHH!” one of their peers quickly interrupted. “Don’t question. Just watch and learn. Sheeeesh.”
Nanaboozhoo really liked this group and he was really eager to find that medicine that would help them get smart. All of a sudden, on one of these times, he walked up to a little bush.
“Ah! Here we go,” he said as he bent down and looked real close at something there, put it into his hand and blew the snow off of it.
“Mmm-hmmm. Here we go, students. Smart berries!” He waved them all to come in closer. “Now each of you take one of these berries and don’t eat it until after I say my words.”
So, one by one, they came and took a smart berry.
After Nanaboozhoo said a few words in Anishinaabemowin, he said, “Okay. Make these students smart! Not as smart as me, but make them as smart as they need to be!” Turning to the students he said, “Nahaaw. Wiisnidi! Eat!”
No sooner did those students put their smart berries in their mouths, that they were spitting them back out and making all kinds of awful gagging sounds. “Nanaboozhoo!” they exclaimed. “These aren’t berries. These are pieces of rabbit poo!!!!!”
“A-ha!” Nanaboozhoo said, pointing towards them, smiling big and just really happy that that the medicine worked. “See?! You’re getting smart already!”