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Anishinaabe stories preserve tradition

Amik Smallwood shares Ojibwe stories during the second annual American Indian Storytelling Event: Share our Gifts at the University of Wisconsin-Superior on Saturday afternoon. About 100 people attended the event. (Clint Austin /

Amik Smallwood smoked his ceremonial pipe briefly Saturday afternoon before beginning an old Anishinaabe teaching.

He smoked as an offering, to ask the Creator for forgiveness for telling stories during the day, rather than at night.

"I also smoked the pipe for forgiveness for you, for not knowing any better," he told the audience.

Smallwood, whose first language is Ojibwe, was speaking at the second annual American Indian Storytelling Event: Sharing our Gifts, at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe member was one of four Ojibwe and Lakota storytellers at the event organized by groups from the University of Minnesota Duluth, UWS, the College of St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College.

The stories help maintain a sense of connection to those with similar beliefs in an area that has been home to Anishinaabe people and other tribes for hundreds of years, organizers say.

Anishinaabe tradition is to tell stories in the winter and at night, when snow is on the ground and families are inside, together, before bedtime. Different bands and tribes have different beliefs about why that is, and Smallwood knows only what he was taught by his relatives and elders, he said. The teachings, both humorous and sad, center on life lessons, adventure and values, and are largely the same throughout Ojibwe Indian country.

His first lecture, as he calls it, was told with broad, humorous gestures so those who didn't speak Ojibwe could try to glean meaning from it.

He told a tale of the Creator's son -- who is the protagonist in each story because he passes on the lessons -- walking past a large swamp. On the other side he saw a very tall man waving at him. He waved back, and the other man kept waving. Because he was stubborn he returned the wave. Seasons passed and the man starved, but he would not put his arm down. Finally, the other man fell over. The Creator's son walked around the swamp, and saw that the man was a tree branch.

The lesson in that, Smallwood said, is one shouldn't be stubborn, or so set on winning.

"We're taught not to be better than anyone else; we're taught to be equals," he said.

Bill Howes, project coordinator of the Ojibwe language and culture program at St. Scholastica, said the stories are gifts passed on by each generation; stories great-grandparents learned when they were little.

"They teach us about ... a good way to live life, and they help us understand ourselves," he said. "Our worldview, our perspective, is in those stories. When those things may be missing in other parts of your life, you can find them by listening."

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member Ricky DeFoe said the oral traditions exercise the mind. Growing up, assimilation efforts kept him from hearing many of these stories, he said.

"That's why I come to these events as a middle-aged man," he said. "The language is beautiful, archaic and sacred."

Smallwood -- who runs a language and culture camp in Rutledge -- translated each of his stories, but said he only does that on rare occasions when he's not teaching students.

"When it's told in English it loses a lot of meaning," he said.

He explained that Anishinaabe stories are to remain oral, not to be commercialized by putting them in books.

"I tried to do that once ... two silver-haired uncles said absolutely not," he said.