Earlier that day she had watched as her dad had braided his hair -- it was black like hers, but with beautiful shiny silver strands sprinkled throughout. She looked at her own braids, remembering the feeling of being nestled between his knees as he brushed, separated, and wove. She pouted, picking at a stray split end, until her dad reached the end of his braid and secured it with the elastic kept ever ready on his wrist. He turned to look at her and smiled at the stormy look on her tiny face.Read Jake Anhanhsi McIntyre-Dilley's I'll Tell You a Story
New Westminster , BC
When I was growing up, my father was the ultimate storyteller. He was a great believer in the power of stories to answer any and all of life’s questions. Usually, it was a story that had been passed on from one of our aunties or uncles, but if there wasn’t one available, he would create his own.
The story of Nanabush discovering the four directions has always been one of my favourites- and it really was an answer to the question “Why is your hair white and my hair isn’t?”
Unfortunately, it’s hard to capture oral traditions in the written word. The story of Nanabush, Nookomis, and the four directions is incredibly more complex than 2,000 written words can convey. In my writing, I tried to capture the feeling of being a little girl on a Sunday morning, hair freshly braided, smelling coffee, and hearing my dad say “I’ll tell you a story.”
To me, the feeling behind a story is what truly makes it. I called my dad to get a refresher on a memory made when I was six, and after telling me the story once again, he said “It’s nice telling you a story right before bed. It’s been a while.”
She sat at the kitchen table, small brown face resting heavy on small brown fists, watching as her daddy poured himself a third cup of strong black coffee.
Earlier that day she had watched as her dad had braided his hair -- it was black like hers, but with beautiful shiny silver strands sprinkled throughout. She looked at her own braids, remembering the feeling of being nestled between his knees as he brushed, separated, and wove. She pouted, picking at a stray split end, until her dad reached the end of his braid and secured it with the elastic kept ever ready on his wrist. He turned to look at her and smiled at the stormy look on her tiny face.
“What’s wrong, little duck?”
“How come my hair isn’t shiny?” she asked, still inspecting the split strand. Her dad sat down beside her and pulled her warm body close to him, kissing her little head and loving her little self.
“What do you mean?”
She reached up and gently grabbed a strand of his hair, lifting it to show him how that particular piece of hair was prettier and glitzier than the rest. Her dad smiled to himself as he lifted her in his arms.
“I’ll tell you a story...
“Nanabush was sitting with his Nookomis on the shores of Lake Timiskaming, which is where the world begins -- where me and you come from, little duck. As he sat there with Nookum beside him, he looked out and saw that all the winged ones were settled on the lake. All the geese, all the herons, all the ducks--”
“Like me!” she said.
“Just like you. Although I’m not sure there was ever a duck as small as you.” He tugged the end of one of her braids then continued, “All the little ducks and the big ducks, and Nanabush realized that they must have just returned home from their winter travels. He sat there and smiled at how calm they all were -- floating happily on the lake. As he sat and watched them, Nanabush started to feel a grumble in his tummy. And Nanabush turned to his Nookum and asked her if she was hungry.
‘I could eat,’ she said, and so Nanabush started walking towards the lake to catch them dinner. He called back to Nookum as he reached the edge of the water and told her to start a fire.
“Now, Nanabush was a shapeshifter, like Coyote or Raven, so when he got to the lake he changed his head into that of a pike. With his fish head and fish gills, he could walk right onto the bottom of the lake without having to hold his breath. He looked up and saw the feet of all those geese and ducks. They were kicking wildly, thrashing all over the place to stay afloat, all out of sync.
“Nanabush realized that he needed to sing a song to them, to make them as calm below the rippling water as they were above. So he started, soft and low, bubbles forming at his mouth and popping to release the sounds of his lullaby.
“Slowly, all the winged ones feet started to move smoothly, in unison, as they danced to his song. Nanabush reached into his medicine bag and pulled out a length of rope. This wasn't ordinary rope though -- it was magic rope. It would become as long or as short as he needed it to be. He went and tied the rope to the feet of a duck, and--”
Suddenly the little girl let out a horrified gasp. “Dad, he’s not going to eat the ducks, is he?”
He paused, then said, “He was planning on eating the ducks. Let’s see what happens, shall we?”
She gave a small nod, determined to stick it out to the grisly end. Her dad patted her knee and continued,
“He tied the rope around the feet of a duck, and was happy thinking of how easy it was to catch his dinner that night. So he tied the rope around the feet of another duck, to be Nookomis’s dinner. He was about to return to the surface, when it occurred to him that it might never be this easy to catch dinner, and what would happen when they were hungry tomorrow? So he tied another two, then another, and another, always congratulating himself on thinking ahead and providing so well.
“Soon he had tied the feet of every winged one on the lake, and only then did he walk up the bank of the lake and transform back into a whole man. And as he walked, he gave a tug on the rope that bound the feet of every winged one. He was so wrapped up in his success that he didn’t notice them, one by one, start to flap their wings and take to the skies. And just as he was about to reach his Nookum, he felt his feet leave the earth and his body take flight.
“Nanabush held onto his magic rope as the birds flew- one hundred feet, one thousand feet, ten thousand feet into the air! As he grew accustomed to the flight, he looked down, and what he saw amazed him. He was facing towards the North, and as he gazed earthward from that great height he saw that there were people -- people living thousands of miles North from his village! As he was processing this thought, a gust of wind grabbed him, spinning him around and around. To his continued surprise, every direction held people, as far as he could see from that great height. Even his own people, in the East, had moved much farther than he would have thought possible.
“Now, as Nanabush was spinning, seeing all these people, and thinking all these new thoughts, he realized two things: one, he was getting very dizzy, and two, he had left Nookomis on the shore, building a fire and waiting for her dinner. So Nanabush reached into his medicine bag and pulled out a knife, cutting the rope and freeing himself from flight.”
“And all the ducks got away,” the little girl said triumphantly, jumping off his knee in a frenzy of joy.
“Every single one.” He smiled, then continued, pulling his little duck back to his lap.
“So, Nanabush was falling. He fell faster and faster, back towards the lake. And Nanabush realized that as a man, he would be crushed by the impact of his body on the water. So, clever man that he was, he transformed his whole body into a pike. When he hit the water, he slid right in, his fish body cutting through the surface like a knife through lard.
“Of course, while Nanabush was flying through the air, his Nookum had not been sitting idle. Once she got the fire built to cook their dinner, she rested for a moment, waiting for him. However, when he didn’t return, she decided to take matters into her own hands. So she reached into her bag and pulled out a piece of fishing line and a hook. She strung it up, and walked to the edge of the lake where she cast it out and sat down to wait for a bite.
“Moments later, she felt a pull. And on the end of her hook, there it was, the biggest pike she had ever seen--”
“NANABUSH!” The little girl gave an excited giggle.
“Yes! It was Nanabush! But with the hook in his mouth, he couldn’t transform back into a man. So he had to hang limply, flopping back and forth as Nookum walked back to the fire.
“Lucky for him, just before she cut off his head she removed the hook, and Nanabush quickly changed back, yelling ‘It’s me! It’s me! Don’t eat me!’
“Nookomis laughed, scolding him for leaving her without dinner. But as Nanabush told her of all the people he had seen, in all four directions, as far as he could see, she stopped laughing. ‘Nanabush,’ she said, ‘this is a great vision the winged ones have given you. You must call a council meeting and tell them all about it.’
“So they returned to their village, and Nanabush told everybody about what he had seen. All the elders and all the council agreed, this was a great vision he had been granted. They said to him, ‘Nanabush, you must go out and find these people -- learn their ways, teach them ours, and return to us.’
“So Nanabush and Nookomis packed their gear and started their journey to the North, the first direction that Nanabush had been shown when he was carried away by the winged ones. They travelled for miles, and when they reached the people of the North, Nanabush told them of his vision, and his village back home. They traded stories, they shared their medicines and protocols, and they learned the people of the North’s. After many years living with them, the people of the North said to Nanabush, ‘You have been with us, lived with us, learned with us, and taught us much. We are happy to call you our brother.’
“As a brother to the people of the North, Nanabush was given the right to wear their face paint, and when he and Nookomis left, he proudly displayed a white streak over his left eye.
“Nanabush and Nookomis travelled for many years. In each direction, they stayed with the people, learned their ways, and taught them the ways of their village back home. They lived with the people of the West, and left them as a Brother and Auntie to them, with black paint applied above Nanabush’s right eye. They travelled to the South, lived with them, learned from them, and taught them all they knew, and one day were told that they were family, forever tied to the South, and were given the right to the South’s yellow paint, which Nanabush wore on the right side of his jaw.
“Finally, after many, many years of travel, they began their journey back to the East, where the world begins. Nanabush walked differently than he had when they set out; his shoulders were stooped, laden with the cultures of other people in other places. He looked different; all the wisdom he had accumulated from his new families had pushed out all the colour in his head, leaving his hair a stark white.
“When Nanabush and Nookomis reached their home, they were greeted by the council that had bade them on their journey. And they shared the medicines and protocols of the three directions with the fourth, and the people of the East said to Nanabush, ‘You’ve done well by us -- you left us a boy and returned to us a man with a wealth of wisdom.’ And as a man of the East, he was finally given the right to wear the face paint, a deep red that he painted on the last part of his face, the left half of his jaw.
“And with that, Nanabush created the medicine wheel, a balance of the directions, the elements, and the medicines. Just like the painting you have above your bed, you remember?” he finished. She looked up at him.
“But why’s my hair not like that?” she demanded with the single-mindedness only a small girl can muster after a story of that magnitude. Her daddy laughed and explained,
“My hair is turning white because I’m learning more with you every day. Every thing that you show me, and everything I learn from you gives me more wisdom, which pushes more colour from my hair. My journey wouldn’t have started without you, my little duck.”
Her small brown face broke into a big white smile as she dreamed of all the wisdom she would gather in her lifetime, and how beautiful her hair would look.