Kitchi-manitou and Finding the Future in the Past

When I was a kid at summer camp, the counselors told us the story of Kitchi-manitou. It was an old Indian story, they said, about the creation of the world. I hated it because it made no sense. The beginning, for instance, saw Kitchi-manitou floating in an ocean talking to a turtle. “Wait,” I thought, “if he hasn’t created the world yet, then what ocean is this? And where did the turtle come from?”

It turns out that – much to my surprise – my Methodist camp counselors had the story all wrong. What they told us was partially an amalgamation of stories from various sources involving various manitous and partially a misunderstanding of these subjects altogether. This illustrates my relationship with native culture and traditions for most of my life. In short, I didn’t get it.

That’s because the people who taught me about these things didn’t get them, either. For years, I accepted the explanation that a manitou was a spirit. That’s how it was commonly translated, and I’d heard so many John Ford Indians say things like, “The spirit of the buffalo is strong in you,” and “May the spirit of the great river bless your journey.”

My current understanding of manitous is that they are sort of like a cross between gods and the Force: they are unfathomable spiritual beings inextricably bound to nature and manifesting as its forces. I don’t think native people ever truly defined the manitous. I also think they deliberately chose to leave their definition ambiguous. For example, Kitchi-manitou (or Gitchi-manidoo or Kihci Manetoowa or Kise-manitô and so on depending on which tribe/band you talk to) roughly translates as, “Greatest Mystery.”

Other manitous include Hobomok (a mischievous manitou – not unlike Loki in Norse mythology – but interpreted as the devil by European colonizers), Ae-pungishimook (manitou of the West, he is associated with death and its inevitability), and Windigo (a.k.a. the Cannibal Giant, he serves to warn against greed and excess; contemporary popular culture loves him as a horror monster). They can be compared to some of the supernatural beings with which I’m already well familiar, but the theology and mythology is unique, with no facsimile in the Eurocentic society with which I am familiar.

Once I understood this, the stories and rituals made sense. It was clear how these mythos serve to guide human action and warn against harmful behavior. Or maybe living in the environment in which this culture developed has helped my grasp of it.

The landscape clarifies the thread of logic that lead to the manitous. In that sense, Pipestone National Monument is a smack in the face. There, you can picture the first people moving through an ocean of treeless prairie for miles and then coming over a hill to see this monolith rise out of the earth, red and jagged, with a waterfall bursting forth as if from the rock itself. Their immediate reaction must have been, “Whoa! Let’s go check out that thing!” followed shortly by, “… we are but dust on the wind.”

That’s where Kansas got the idea.

Then, perhaps decades later, someone discovered that amid all of this brilliant red rock, there was a thin layer of workable stone. You could carve a picture into it. You could turn it into a bowl or a figurine. Or a pipe.

Pipes were meaningful as they were often used in ceremonies to communicate with one or more manitous. Because the layer of rock was so thin, people immediately recognized that it was a (very) finite resource and that its use should be reserved for special objects. Communicating with manitous was a the most special, sacred purpose an object could serve.

See, manitous were – and still are – big fans of respect. If you honor them, you are more likely to benefit from their gifts. To waste one of their gifts is disrespectful, so you must not be greedy. Take what you need and use what you take.

People who don’t abide by this rule must suffer the consequences – the wrath of the manitous. Leave as many bison as you can and there will be all the more bison the following year. Bison are a finite resource. Just like pipestone. And coal. And fresh water. And rainforest. And people.

It’s logical, then, that someone would come to the conclusion that the pipestone is intended to be used to honor the manitous. It fits so well with the first people’s understanding of the world. The rock is a manifestation of the manitous or a manitou’s power and a demonstration of nature’s command: humankind may ask for but a small fraction of the world and can claim no more.

This is but a fragment of what I’ve learned on my trip across Iowa to where it meets South Dakota and Minnesota. One of my goals on this trek is to study this region’s earliest art and culture, which will hopefully give me a better understanding of the world I see every day.

Also, I have learned some new ways to cook zucchini. I’ve learned that the prairie is deceptively dense with life, and carving pipestone is comparable to meditation. I’ve learned that I can touch chicken poop without retching but only if I have ready access to soap and water.

What follows is a celebration of knowledge and wisdom.

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