On Nanabijou

Boat Journey

The gate to Thunder Bay, the bay, is a crevice of lake funneling from Pie Island and the Sleeping Giant, another legendary character of whom we must contend.

            It’s all perspective— he’s a rock.

            From Thunder Bay, the city, the rock looks like a giant on his back, arms folded over his chest like a corpse posed for an open casket funeral.    

            It’s all perspective— he’s Nanabijou, a demi-god. Nanabijou transformed to stone to protect a silver deposit from exploitation by white men. That’s the story I heard growing up. These spirits are wary of colonialism, of white men raping their lands; though, ironically, the story itself was penned by a Fort William alderman in the 1950’s, a fact reduced to a footnote in a tale we all know.

            Nanabijou traps us in the bay. As we round the Sibley Peninsula, confused seas become a gate for which we lack a key. ‘You shall not pass,’ Nanabijou’s voice booms in the waves and wind.  

            Defeated, I walk from Thunder Bay Marina to Waverly Library downtown. It’s the same building I sought fortress from the bitter cold on long walks from junior high to ballet class after school. I’m filled with memories, a buzz. Thumbing the stacks for astrology books. Flipping through glossy dance magazines. The abundance of children’s books, tickets to magical lands, when I was younger still.  

            The library’s changed since then. I descend the staircase, the familiar smell of rubber on the steps building anticipation. But, the downstairs once home to rows of CD’s, young adult novels, and a large room devoted to children’s books alone, is gone. The library’s noisier too; jammed tight with computers where I see patrons glued to Facebook and online games. A mom and son sit in the same worn leather chairs each day; the son’s laptop on loud volume, chiming with each click, the mom staring blankly ahead.

            I get it. It’s a place of refuge from the outside world, a place for escape. Even if that escape is now online games and social media or simply a worn chair in a dry, warm room.

            I find a section on Ojibway legends, searching for a more authentic telling of Nanabijou. I read he’s a teacher, who bestowed lessons of law and canoe-making. He’s like Prometheus. He gave the Ojibway fire by disguising himself as a rabbit and letting his fur catch aflame. It’s why the rabbit turns brown in the spring, naturally. It’s the scar from the char.   

            Nanabijou is the gate-keeper to the Ojibway afterlife. Like Zeus or the Old Testament God, he has a temper. He clubbed his wife to death in a fit of rage. There’s a rock encasing her spirit at Pie Island, though we didn’t see her there.  

            Much like Mishipeshu, Nanabijou’s not someone you want to cross.

            I read the Ojibway would climb Anemki Mountain— the Anishinabek call it this, meaning ‘Thunder Mountain’, though it is known on modern maps as Mount McKay after a Scottish fur trader— to ask Nanabijou for safe voyage by sea. It’s a billion-year old mafic sill. Magnetic energy pulses below our feet as we climb.   

            Thunder Bird lives on Anemki Mountai— a giant bird who claps thunder with his wings and shoots lightning from his eyes; Nanabijou’s pet of sorts.

            Thunder Bird is known as the enemy of Mishipeshu, but I interpret this as he is the yang to Mishipeshu’s yin. The universe is symmetrical, some say. For each bit of matter, there is an equal and opposite bit of anti-matter. Our existence is balanced and beautiful, crafted from divine.

            My husband and I hike to the top of Anemki Mountain, to a view of Lake Superior, to a view of Nanabijou and Pie Island and the crevice between where we must pass. We give an offering to Nanabijou, to Thunder Bird, and Mishipeshu, and our Christian God for good measure.  

            The next day, the wind blows fiercely. Sailboats in the Yacht Club’s parking lot topple on their sides. Motor vessels knock against the docks. A boat’s anchor strikes a power tower, breaking it half.

            ‘So much for our offering,’ my husband says sarcastically.

            ‘Nanabijou listened,’ I say, ‘He’s blowing out all the wind at once, to make way for us.’

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