My partner Misty, who spent several days at sugarbush that season, got invited to fast too, and the two of us caught a ride with Brandon and his partner Liz, in their old black veggie-oil pickup. It would be their fifth year coming up to fast. We crossed into Canada in International falls and turned east into country that’s almost as much water as land, where roads weave tightly like nervous intruders around hundreds of shimmering lakes, raindrops splattered across the map. We followed along the shore of Rainy Lake, a vast convoluted grandmother among these lakes, little sister of Lake of the Woods, straddling the international border but entirely indifferent to it. After we had seen signs for this and that bay of Rainy Lake on either side of us for about an hour—the lake had us surrounded—Brandon turned off to the left and eased us down five miles of sucking spring mud covering gravel road, down to the mouth of a river that seemed, from its geographical placement, like it must have somehow originated elsewhere in the lake.
When Pebaamibines was growing up, most of his community lived on the good fishing and trapping lands here around the mouth of the Ottertail River and the bay it empties into, Nigigoonsiminikaaning (‘Where Otter Cub Berries Abound’). For the most part, when he was very young, they were left alone by people who weren’t from the community. His big brother still remembers staring baffled when a few white people came to the community for the first time. Were they so pale because they were sick? Pebaam’s mother gave birth to him while out running her trapline. Soon that seclusion changed, though, and when he was six Pebaam was taken off to a residential school 160 miles away in Kenora. He at least got to spend summers at home, but for most of the year the Canadian government had free rein to teach him how not to be an Indian, to try to make him forget his mother tongue. With him they failed, at least. Since then, though, everyone has moved their homes away from the mouth of the Ottertail; most live now in a town by the highway, the new source of bounty now that the traditions tying them to the river’s generosity have been attenuated.
But a few years ago, Pebaam reclaimed an old cabin still standing at the rivermouth, and had a couple new little bunkhouses built near it, with an eye toward creating a camp where people could come and be immersed in the old ways and the old language. These cabins were what greeted us at the end of the muddy road. They perch modestly on the giant dollops of hard granite that make up the shore there. One other cabin stands across the river, occasionally used by Pebaam’s family. Other than that, you can stand on one of those rocks and see miles of shoreline, and not one other building. And this is just one sub-bay of Nigigoonsiminikaaning, a vast spread of dark blue water nearly disconnected from the rest of Rainy Lake by a strait eight miles away, rarely visited by outsiders since fishing is only allowed for tribal members. Otters sometimes swim under the dock and make noises suddenly just to scare the tar out of the humans above them. The bay is, of course, home to a great number of spirits.
Here was the place to really practice suspending or dismissing my scientific disbelief. When I got out of Liz and Brandon’s truck I offered tobacco into the water to greet the spirit of the lake—which is only common courtesy—and settled in to the fact of being here.
I had once imagined that I knew Northern Ontario lake country. I had, after all, been coming up here since I was a baby, to Crow Duck Lake, which my grandpa discovered before I was born and to which he’s been bringing the family annually ever since. As the crow flies Crow Duck is only 140 miles from Nigigoonsiminikaaning, and it’s underlain by the same geology, so that Nigigoonsiminikaaning’s shores, made of church-sized slabs of three-billion-year-old Canadian Shield granite interwoven with impenetrable dark forest, were as instantly familiar to me as a house with the same floor plan as my childhood home. But during my last few trips to Crow Duck, it had crept in that I knew the land on only the most superficial levels.
Going to Crow Duck Lake Camp is a paradisiac experience. It is also a sort of situational childhood. It’s a full-service fishing camp; they start your boat motor for you when you head out, and when you get back they tie it up and fillet your fish for you and fry it at dinnertime. The only things you have to do are drive the boat, catch the fish, and drink the beers. You are taken care of, like when your mom used to cook for you and do your laundry. And your world is shrunk like a kid’s world: the rite of getting there—a boat ride across Big Whiteshell Lake, then a two-mile ride in a truckbed seat through the backest of backcountry—feels like how you enter a storybook. For the following week, the only places on your mental map are Crow Duck Lake, Crow Duck Falls, and possibly Saddle and Ritchie Lakes if you really feel like striking out into the wilderness voyageur-style. Even now it’s a little jarring to me to see Crow Duck placed on a map. As if it had a real location that could be put down in latitude and longitude! To suggest it feels almost like an insult.
So coming to Nigigoonsiminikaaning represented for me not only a chance to fulfill a childhood dream of going on a fast, but a chance to step out of a childlike dream state and find out what it’s like to relate to one of these lakes as a whole, adult person. That first night there, I had to admit that Nigigoonsiminikaaning seemed every bit as paradisiac as Crow Duck ever had. Pebaam helped us find places to put our stuff, and then he took us all out on the lake to set a gillnet for fish to eat the next day. Dusk was coming on and the air was chilling down. There was that water: that dark, mature water that tells stories of thousands of years of life and death, and cold, dark depths where creatures that would scare you live lives you can’t imagine. And on top, it glints in the sunset, as if to signal that despite all that, you’re welcome with it, can be part of those mysterious millennia. We got the net set and Pebaam drove us back to the cabins, and we went to bed.
When we pulled the net in the next morning, it had thirty-two walleye and a lot of pike and suckerfish in it. Pebaam got on his phone and put the word out that a fish fry was on, and then spent a lot of the day cleaning and frying them, just like when he was a teenager and made shore lunches while working as a fishing guide. Around lunchtime friends and family came down the long bumpy road: Pebaam’s mom Ogimaawigwanebiik (or Nancy), in her eighties and still tracking around in the woods like she always has; a couple of her neighbors; Ralph, an elder from further north who has a cabin on Nigigoonsiminikaaning that he stays at sometimes. I began to see one aspect of what it’s like when this place is home, not a vacation: it has a relationship to the rest of your life, and the rest of the world. This cabin was a gathering place, not a retreat.
Ralph, or PaShawOneeBinace,1 mentioned to Pebaam that he was holding a sweat lodge that same night, and that all of us fasters were invited. Now, I had come up planning to try to get to know the spirits of the land and how people relate to them. I still wasn’t entirely clear on what I thought it would mean to do that; I had come up with an intellectual understanding of what spirits might be but I certainly hadn’t fully internalized it. But I was prepared to grant they existed at least for the week, at least enough to see what happens when people who believe in them spend a while working with them closely. I had imagined, though, that this would be a subtle process: I would see spirits “out of the corner of [my] mind,” as Philip Pullman phrased it.2 I would spend some days on my fast, waiting for my mind to get bored with putting words to things so it could see the world as it is, and maybe I’d catch a sidelong glimpse of something I could call a “spirit”. I didn’t count on taking part in a sweat, where spirits are invited to come right in and make themselves plainly known to those who are looking. It would be my first. My slow introduction to Anishinaabe culture and ritual was speeding up to where I wasn’t entirely sure I could keep up.
Of course I went; I never entertained the idea of not going, once Pebaam decided he was going to go and bring along anyone who wanted to come with. Once we had the fish fry cleaned up and the family and friends had headed back to town, we loaded up on the boat. “Boozin!” Pebaam called out—‘Get on!’, imperative form of boozi. When it was time to get off, he taught us the opposite—“Booz-out!” (Cue laughter.)
If Pebaam’s cabin is at the edge of the known world, Ralph’s is off the map entirely, back through an obscure strait into a far section of Nigigoonsiminikaaning, built on a peninsula on a sheltered bay. When we arrived, there were already several people I’d never met there, and Ralph’s oshkaabewis (ceremonial helper), a young man named Stacy, had gotten a tall fire roaring in a sandy pit. To the west of the pit was a small dome, framed of lashed saplings and covered in tarps. Our boat was the last to arrive, and without much preamble or orientation we all bent down and crawled in through the little door. Dusk was falling.
If I wasn’t entirely clear on what the goal or motivation is behind an Anishinaabe sweat lodge, I think it’s because there isn’t any single fixed goal or motivation. It is not a coded message with one correct answer. Jung says, “a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.” That is, it is a way of expressing something that cannot be simplified any further, something outside the boundaries of straightforward, diagrammable conception. “The sweat lodge stands for the womb of the Earth,” Ralph wrote in a little book I found much later,3 but what that means is of course not to be understood literally and points to something even less comprehensible. Umberto Eco, asked about the meaning of The Name of the Rose, wrote, “A narrator should not supply an interpretation of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.”4 So it was probably good that I entered the sweat lodge with no particular idea of what it was “about”. I would just find out as it happened.
No two sweats proceed the same. Though the framework of the ceremony is usually fairly similar, the specifics all depend on who’s running it, how the spirits are leading them, who’s participating, and what they’re all experiencing that day. Once we had all sat down on the dirt with our backs to the lodge wall, Ralph gave the word to Stacy to start the first of the usual four “doors” of the sweat by handing in the first grandfathers. Stacy dug out a number of incandescent-hot stones from the center of the fire, brought them one by one with a pitchfork through the low door. PaShawOneeBinace used a pair of antlers to set them in the small pit at the center of the lodge, and then Stacy shut the door tight, leaving us all in there in muffled silence, with only the dim glow of the rocks to see by, and as they cooled, soon no light at all.
PaShawOneeBinace poured cedar tea and herbs on the stones, wrapping us all in a thick, humid fug. And then we started the first door with songs. When PaShawOneeBinace speaks, he sounds like any other guy in his fifties might, maybe a little more deliberate and soft. My enduring image of him has him casually leaning against a tree, in blue jeans and flannel with a cigarette, calmly talking about some of the spirits of the north country. But when he sang there in the sweat lodge, it felt as though I was hearing him from a distance of thousands of years in the past as well as right there next to me, and all points in between. With just songs he brought worlds in to the center of the lodge: the water, the stars, the four directions, the animals, the trees, the Great Mystery. I didn’t know if spirits were what I was feeling, but I was feeling something. It felt as though all of Rainy Lake was in there with us, the coolness of the night somehow with us in the dense hot air. PaShawOneeBinace sang songs the whole first door, and whether each one was a spirit, or invited a spirit in, it was impossible to tell; perhaps the best answer is “both”. He finished the last of the songs that came to him, and called for Stacy to open the door: “Baakinan ishkwaandem!” We had a few minutes to take some deep breaths of cool air as Stacy forked in the next few grandfathers.
We took the second and third doors each telling what brought us here, what prayer we were bringing with us. (I was overwhelmed enough that I could barely discern the shape of the question and had nothing very coherent to express besides gratitude.) In the fourth round, anyone who knew a song was welcome to sing it. Time passes differently in the lodge. As we went around, each moment—even, or especially, the silent ones—was full: some with singing and drums and turtle-shell rattles, some with people peeling off the layers that keep their soul shielded from the world and letting buried truths come out. Without seeing their faces, I saw the depths of the people in that lodge, caught a glance at their souls. And the spirits of Rainy Lake and Ralph’s little peninsula guided us all through.
When the last drumbeat finished reverberating and we all crawled out under the sky, it was pitch dark except for the remains of the fire, and the air chilling my sweat against me told me the night was well advanced. We walked up to PaShawOneeBinace’s cabin along a path lined with used stones—by tradition, each grandfather can only be used once—and ate a feast. All four of us who had come with Pebaam were ready to go out on our fasts the next morning. This would be our last food for four days.
In the most common spelling system (what I’ve used for other Ojibwe names and words here), this would be written Pa-shaawaniibines, but how I’ve written it is how he spells it himself. ↩
Pullman, Philip. The Secret Commonwealth. New York, N.Y.: Knopf, 2019. ↩
PaShawOneeBinace (Ralph Johnson). “The Sacred Lodges of the Ojibway”. Sioux Lookout, Ont.: WeQuenGwayWin Consultants, n.d. ↩
Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose, “Postscript”. Boston, Mass.: Harcourt, 1983. ↩