Author Notes: This article was written in August of 2008 and is an account of my experience spending three weeks with the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people of Minnesota. I choose to share this essay because few people have spent a significant time with those of the Native American culture. Native American cultures are very beautiful, and we are fortunate to have access to their teaching and wisdom. I am very grateful to all those that made this experience possible: my parents, Dr. Bruce Martin, Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Anton Treuer, and especially the Anishinaabe people.
“Who Are You?”, the old man yelled into my deescalate eyes. I stared back frantic, desiring an answer to his absurd question. “Who am I? Who am I?” Again and again the words repeated through my mind. Suddenly, I looked back into the man’s eyes staring at me from across the fire that separated us by what seemed like eternities of silence. Then we both began to laugh hysterically, smiles stretching from ear to ear. In that moment, I realized that we had found our true selves, what most individuals spend entire lives searching for. After about what seemed like 10 minutes of laughing, I said thank you and continued along with my life journey.
On Sunday May 20, 2008 at 6 PM, a group of highly enthused students gathered around a parking lot waiting apprehensively to board a vehicle that would take them to the land of the Anishinaabe people. Who are the Anishinaabe people? Anishinaabe is the name that the Ojibwe people called themselves due to the 2nd migration of people from present day Canada (Wilf Cyr). Anishinaabe was said by others to be the people of God (Dr. Anton Treuer). Some were unsure of the meaning but, as a whole, the people of Anishinaabe were proud to be given this name.
As we packed into the vehicles and pulled away from the familiar landscape of Pennsylvania State University, dialogues began to unfold amongst the individuals I traveled with. People discussed their majors, interests, family, friends, and reasons for their curiosity regarding the Anishinaabe people. These discussions began to unravel different ideas about what was to be expected of our encounter with the Anishinaabe people. Did they live like us? What were their interests? Did they hunt for their own food? Did they live in tepees? Did they hate Americans? Did they want to assimilate themselves into our culture? As the questions unraveled, there was no ignoring our excitement and eagerness thinking of experiencing the untold and sheltered world of the Anishinaabe people.
Over the course of the two day car ride, many bonds formed and battles waged. People began to challenge each others’ viewpoints and formed alliances based on common beliefs. Egos arose and developed throughout the tiny tribes of Penn State students that were quickly forming. We already began to experience the complexities of identity roles within our small travel groups. Throughout the ride, I tried to remain open minded while being conscious of my own life question, “Who Am I?”. After two days, we arrived at our destination tired and frustrated with the journey, yet excited to interact with the local natives. The town of Bemidji was quite similar to State College, with its many businesses and overall appearance, while the landscape was very different. “Where are the Ojibwe?” I thought to myself.
The first night, we went to a chain restaurant to meet our first Ojibwe. “Natives go to chain restaurants?” I was somewhat confused, naïvely assuming that the natives hunted for their own food. There we met Michael Price, his wife, and their son Che. Michael was an extremely polite and confident person that exuded a warm presence as he spoke. He seemed calm and unintimidated by the large and rowdy group of Penn State students. I was grateful that my first encounter with the Anishinaabe culture was paved by such a warm and inviting individual. He set my intentions for the next three weeks with the Ojibwe people.
When we returned from the restaurant to our dorms at Bemidji State University, an important decision was yet to be made. We had to choose the person we were to share our small living space with over the next three weeks. It was interesting to observe how people gravitated toward the easiest match instead of being willing to challenge their experience with the roommate that was originally assigned to them. Why was there a need for each person, myself included, to be with a roommate that most closely matched their own personality? The Ojibwe practice a methodology of “letting the cards fall as they will” or letting the universe decide their fate, while the Penn State students believe that they can control the situation to gain the most favorable outcome for themselves. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had no control over our roommates and how would our experience be different if we did not have this choice?
Dr. Anton Treuer – Bemidji State University – Anishinaabe activist and leader
The next morning we gathered to hear the awe inspiring words of Dr. Anton Treuer. Dr. Treuer spoke about the crisis with identity and language throughout the Ojibwe people. He was fearful because such a small portion of individuals spoke the Anishinaabe language that he believed was so vital to their culture. However, there was a movement for the reinstitution of Ojibwe language into their culture by the youth. He and others had been busy developing programs that would help students learn the language and understand more about their culture. Treuer also claimed the importance of students obtaining a “true education without lies.” He told the story of the colonization of Christopher Columbus not familiar to my ears, but the way it was perceived by the Ojibwe. He said Columbus was not a hero, but a villain who stole the natives’ land and forced them into slavery.
With so many different challenges that the Ojibwe face, could language be the savior of their culture? Later in the trip, I spoke with our guide Bruce Martin in regards to this issue. He explained that the Anishinaabe language is a structure based not on subject-object identification, but rather based on concepts of “wholeness” and “oneness”. One of the challenges that the language faces in this modern time is that a dictionary might not be adequate to define a phrase or saying. Wilf Cyr, professor of Ojibwe culture, lectured about the importance of language stating that by translating a sentence from Anishinaabe to English, an individual will only be able to interpret half the meaning. The other half is understood through experience. He also expressed that once a language dies, the culture dies with it. Although I could not understand their language, I could tell that the people that spoke it had a sense of pride and a deeper understanding of their identity. How important is language for an individual? If I was not able to speak my native language would I suffer the crisis of my identity? Questions continued to pile up as I continued my search of “Who Am I?”
On Wednesday, we met with Michael Price who took us on a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. He exclaimed that this was the exact route the Native Americans traveled during the years of the fur trade. Over this one day excursion, we were able to absorb the beautiful scenery of Minnesota and spend time sharing our impressions with each other. It was amazing to hear different views about what Dr. Treuer said in regard to the loss of identity through culture due to loss of language. I felt he made some valuable arguments, and needed to experience this truth through my own perception. By the end of the day, we were all exhausted, but still intrigued for what was to come.
On Thursday May 22, Dennis Banks spoke with us. This was the real deal because finally we were hearing stories of the interactions between the Ojibwe and the U.S.. He shared the hardships he and other Ojibwe people experienced over his lifetime. He explained that the United States had continuously broken treaty agreements and had not been a fair nation. He told us about his life in the U.S. army, his court case with the U.S. government, his fleeing from being arrested, and his wild rice and Japanese-flavor ice cream topping (maple syrup). What I found most remarkable about Dennis Banks was that he had a solid understanding of his identity. He spoke with clarity and passion, lacking hesitation in his words. He was emotional when speaking about his life and dreams for the future of the Ojibwe people. He finished by telling us of the contentment in his life and that he enjoyed nice things every once in a while. I sensed Penn State’s student spirits lifting as Dennis spoke. It was funny that this loving kind-hearted individual that stood before our group had been proclaimed as “one of the most dangerous men in the United States”, as he claimed. I did not feel the least bit threatened by Dennis. He represented an individual who was completely satisfied and content with his own identity.
Dennis was willing to fearlessly sacrifice himself for his beliefs, which is a characteristic very few people that I have met in my lifetime have. After I saw Dennis speak, I felt a strong sense of myself as well. At that moment, I realized Dennis is not only a father, a patriot, a businessman. He is a spiritual teacher. I believe he represents a spiritual teacher because he is strong, fearless, bold, conscious/mindful, and has a strong connection with his identity. That day, he taught me if you want to be happy in this life, it is essential to trust yourself and listen to your intuition. That night, I discussed my views with different people who agreed that Dennis Banks knew something that most people didn’t. He was happy and content. Where did this happiness come from? How was it that simple for him and so difficult for so many others? The message was clear: trust yourself.
The next day I had the pleasure of meeting two reputable medicine men and brothers, Dennis and Richard Morrison. They spoke to the group about indigenous knowledge and understanding. Richard spoke of the Midewiwin Lodge and the importance of spirituality in one’s existence. As we sat in the Lodge, I felt very connected with the earth and everyone around me. He told us that the sacred knowledge is very simple to understand, but difficult to practice. As Richard spoke, I began to see many parallels between the Midewiwin spiritual beliefs and my own spiritual practice. Was it possible that the Midewiwin practice had to do with finding the true identity of one’s self within?
That night, we all rejoiced in a spiritual cleansing through a sweat lodge. The lodge was done traditionally in Anishinaabe custom with the exception of Penn State students as the main participants. We were tired and emotionally drained by the experience. The intense heat scourged our bodies and allowed for us to connect a little more deeply to our inner journey. After this delightful sweat we were each given a spiritual name, mine being Debico Geeshick meaning “night sky”. The name was given to me by a medicine man in training named Dani. He told me that he saw a heart beating with veins emanating to the night sky when he was in the sweat lodge. He said that the name was given directly to him by the spirits and was to be passed on specifically for me. I felt connected to this name immediately. Like the night sky, I felt infinite, eternal, and endless spanning all across the universe. Were these names the identity of our true selves when we let go of our social identity? I found it strange that these medicine men could easily give names to us non-native spiritual seekers without hesitation. Did we have a part Anishinaabe understanding within our own spirit that was only seen by certain individuals or does everyone have this knowledge but they have not yet connected to it?
Saturday May 24, I attended another sweat lodge ceremony. This lodge was much smaller than the previous night’s lodge and was conducted in English as opposed to the Anishinaabe language. Before the sweat, I arrived at Bill’s house and helped set up. Bill asked if I was interested in going with Richard Morrison and him to get food at Walmart to which I replied “yes”. The trip was quite interesting because I got to spend time away from everyone else and observe the interactions of the Ojibwe first hand, which was quite similar to that of our culture. They discussed financial and family issues similar to our culture and joked about their own predicaments in this life. When we arrived at Walmart, Bill and Richard were talking about what we should get to eat and were asking me for my opinion. I was surprised because in our culture there is less focus on what the other people want and more focus on what the individual wants. When we returned to Bill’s house there were many people gathering to partake in the lodge. I approached a circle of children that arrived with their parents who listened to stories that Dennis told prior to their participation in the sweat ceremony. It was amazing to see the respect of the young children toward their elders.
Once the fire was ready, everyone gathered into the sweat lodge, which included the young children. As we sat around the pit, the kids were shy and intimidated about participating in the sweat. It was incredible to see the children partaking in the purifying experience. Dennis Morrison led the lodge for four rounds. The younger ones left after the second round and all the children piled out exhausted, but a braver. Once the children left from the lodge, each round became more intense emotionally and physically. By the last round people were crying, screaming, yelling, and letting go of everything that they were attached to. By the end I felt drained, yet euphoric. Although the sweat was in English, it was much more intense than the lodge the previous night. I was alive and free. It was incredible. We gathered to eat inside the house, and I felt great. We then left and headed to the PowWow.
The PowWow was interesting compared to my experience from the recent sweat lodge. There was no healthy, nutritious, or homegrown food in sight. I had just gone through a spiritual cleansing and now I was feeding my body fried and greasy foods. There was an incredible contrast in energy as well. Some people were dancing with high spirits while others were disconnected to the experience with tired looks on their faces. I did not know what to think but I was lucky to have the opportunity to observe the two environments within the same day. That night I passed out of exhaustion.
Over the subsequent weeks of observing the Anishinaabe culture, I had the opportunity to continue to meet amazing people like Ann Gibbs, Darwin Sumner, Greg Kingbird, and many others who continue to enlighten me about the Anishinaabe people. I also participated in many other experiences, including hiking, sweat lodges, and a big drum ceremony. With each experience, I grew more confident in my own understanding of my identity.
The Anishinaabe people of Northern Minnesota suffer from poverty, desperation, anguish, hostility, segregation and loss of identity. They have to work to earn an income and worry about social, economic, political, and family issues each day. They have televisions, computers, cars, and other personal gadgets similar to those of our culture. They wear similar clothing, speak English, and participate in different social and spiritual gatherings. However, the culture has incredible role models and spiritual leaders pushing for change and universal happiness. There is an incredible sense of pride, respect and appreciation for their language and heritage. Overall, the Ojibwe want the same things that their neighboring western culture desire i.e. identity, culture, stability, family, friends, and happiness.
I started the introduction of this paper with a discussion that Greg Kingbird and I had while sitting on the point of Ponemah. What I did not preface is the reason that Greg Kingbird asked me “Who are you?” That day, Greg continually reiterated that we had to find the truth of who we are in order to be happy in our lives, but everyone except myself neglected to query about what he meant by the truth. So, I asked Greg, “What is the truth?” He told me the truth is what you are born with. It is the essence of who you are. It makes you want to be a rocket scientist, a cook, a musician. I asked him how long he had known the truth of who he was. He sternly (with a large grin on his face) stated it had taken him 20 years. I then asked, “How am I to figure out the truth of who I am?” He looked at me and yelled, “WHO ARE YOU?”
Over the past 5 years, I have spent every day asking this rhetorical question. “Who am I?” or rather “What is it I am supposed to do or be in life?” I have been seeking an answer or a purpose for my existence on this planet for quite some time. I have read hundreds of philosophical texts, had thousands of discussions, met many spiritual and well-established individuals, visited several foreign countries, worked as an EMT, a lab technician, a financial assistant and spent the last 3 years at a University. These experiences now also include my most recent adventure with the Anishinaabe people of Northern Minnesota. What have I learned from all these experiences? I have learned that I, Jason Gorenstein, am the sum of all that I experience. I am the wind, the sun, the moon and the stars. I am the great teachers and I am also sometimes that which I don’t like in this world (frustration, jealousy, envy, etc.). I am grateful to have realized that each breath and moment is an opportunity for me to be more me. I am grateful to the Ojibwe people for letting me partake in their experience. I am grateful to Pennsylvania State University and Bruce Martin for allowing me to manifest this experience. I am grateful to my friends and family who have supported and continue to support me on this journey. I am grateful to the universe for giving me the opportunity to search for myself and allowing me to see the greatness in the presence of all beings. May I continue to see love, peace, fortune and healing in all.
Pennsylvania State University – Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing Course