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Deep Island, pt. 11
Summer 2019 Approximately-Reverse-Chronological Catch-up, Part 3: Late May

Deep Island:


Anything that might be called “spiritual development” in my life proceeds slowly and haltingly. In the year after I spent those couple days under the pines with my name in May of 2018, I had moments that approached transcendence, like some of the days I spent bicycling around Lake Superior. I also had long periods of just muddling through, like the month I spent in a limbo between places to live, humping my big hiking backpack around Minneapolis to crash on friends’ couches and under bridges, frankly baffled as to the point of being alive. I kept up at least the outward manifestations of the responsibility I’d accepted when I asked for a name. I offered tobacco by a tree or in the water every day. Later in the year I made a hand drum for myself, fulfilling another obligation that I’d been given with my name there in the teaching lodge, the making of my izhiwan or namesake-item. And I brought the drum to the forest with me when I feasted my name again that spring, so I could break it in and “spiritualize it” (aadizookaazh). But not much of it felt like it meant anything. When May rolled around, I knew it was time to go back out on an island and attempt to reacquaint myself with the mysteries of the world.

It so happened that Misty also felt called to fast again, so together, fighting various schedule crunches, we set out from Minneapolis one evening and drove all the way to Nigigoonsiminikaaning in one night. The border guards in International Falls, I discovered, are less chummy in the small hard hours of the night when the Rainy River recedes into the darkness and the world is reduced to the sterile geometry of the floodlit customs post. On behalf of the Queen, they confiscated a Roman candle Misty had forgotten in the trunk. Piloting the little Honda Civic down the five rutted miles of gravel to the cabin like a small craft on Superior in a November gale, I had a troubling sense that all the things I’d been hoping to leave behind were riding right there in the back seat. When we made it to the end of the road, silvery hints of dawn were beginning to burnish the edge of the night, and all we could do was stumble into the bunkhouse and fall asleep.

The sun rose over the lake while we slept, marking the beginning of both of our fasts, and when we finally managed to wake up, the sunlight pierced into my half-baked mind and threw into sharp relief all the spider webs hanging off my soul. Besides us, the only other person in camp was Pebaam’s wife Laura, who greeted us with a smile I wished I could reciprocate. We’d called ahead, so she knew we wanted to go out that morning, and together we slung a canoe over the back of Pebaam’s motorboat so we’d be able to come back on our own steam, howbeit reduced by four days of fasting. She brought Misty to one of a cluster of islands around the corner from the cabin, and left me with the canoe at another island nearby.

I climbed onto my island feeling at best half alive. It was a cool, sunny day, and I fell asleep almost immediately on the rocks, still in tatters from the night of driving. I didn’t make it far from sleep all day. The sunset brought a rainbowy ring around the place where the sun had sunk below the horizon, and then an orange-red that flooded half the sky. It was the last sunlight I would see for days.

I emerged from my tent the second day into a world shushed, stilled, and chilled by drizzle. My spirits dimmed to match the weather. This time around I had no big colorful ceremony halfway through the fast to look forward to, just three more days of this island—on which I couldn’t go exploring off the little patch of rocky shore without getting soggy from the spongy dirt underfoot and the water collected on the million little twigs I would have to bushwhack through. I spotted a little gaggle of mergansers next to a nearby island, and attempted to derive meaning from watching them swim around, one of them occasionally diving or flying away. I also stared at the rocks. I found an interesting downed tree, all its roots spread through a thin mat of dirt that had been clinging to the granite until the tree blew over and took the soil with it, leaving bare rock and a standing disc of tangled roots taller than me. To keep warm I walked in circles, or I huddled in my sleeping bag, staring out sideways at the next island over, occasionally able to catch glimpses of the mergansers.

By the third day, I was having trouble seeing the point. I was wet. I was cold. I was hungry. The flat gray of the sky was disarranging my mind. I woke up that day and walked in circles on the granite shore for hours, willing the morning to pass away. When I couldn’t do one more orbit, I figured it must be around noon or one—lunchtime, I couldn’t help thinking—and pulled out my watch for the first time that day to check. It was 8:40 in the morning.

An ineluctable stream of secondhand words flowed through my head all day. A song lyric would grab hold of me for half an hour, refusing to leave even after I sang it aloud. Then just as mysteriously as it arrived it would fade and be replaced by a clever passage from a book I’d read five years ago. I would find, to my surprise, that I could reconstruct whole paragraphs from memory. I had enough experience with meditation to know that ceding my attention to these used-up words was no way to reach a greater awareness of any aspect of the world, be it physical, mental, spiritual, excretory. I dismissed them. Within minutes they were back, crowding in through the alley door in greater numbers than before.

The manidoog were out there, ostensibly. They were all over my island. But I sure couldn’t see them. In a pool in a depression on one of the granite stones I’d been orbiting, tiny water beetles swam back and forth in the algae that had grown to fit the shape of the bowl. They were very neat, perfectly inscrutable in their tiny lives made of tiny decisions. The Ojibwe word for insect is manidoons, ‘little spirit’. But they seemed more like little automata to me, more reminiscent of Conway’s Game of Life than of any cosmic truths or mysteries whose contemplation would open the world out into something strange and wonderful. Over on the other island, the mergansers paddled and dove and issued quacks too quiet to reach me. And I walked around in circles, waiting for the slow darkening of the sky that would be, absent the sun, my first signal that night was coming. Not that I would be able to sleep. I had never slept so much in my life as those first couple nights, and I’d napped through the days, waking up from each nap both pleased and dismayed to find the day a little closer to ending. I had dreams of shocking triviality: going to the mall, reading Wikipedia. Now I was slept out; my eyes wouldn’t stay closed, and I’d find myself right back where I’d always been, looking out at the mergansers’ island.

In what I presumed was the afternoon, as I was walking in circles again, I heard my name. It wasn’t a spirit, at least not an incorporeal one. It was Misty shouting from their island. “I want to go back,” they said.

I tried, unsuccessfully, not to admit to myself that I was filled with glee at having a change of pace and something actually happening. I untied the canoe and paddled over to Misty’s island, where they explained they’d fouled up their back somehow on the first night and could now only assume a small range of positions, all of them seated, without excruciating pain. They had gotten no sleep the previous night. Unworried that I hadn’t eaten for about thirty hours, I helped them pile their stuff in and paddled us back. I’ve never been more thankful for small talk.

A few other people had shown up at camp—Pebaam had passed us with some of them in his boat on our way in—and there was a fire going inside the cabin. Misty broke their fast and figured out a bizarre, contorted sleeping position on the recliner. I stayed inside awhile, enjoying light, dryness, warmth, friendship. But I set up my tent on the lawn and stuck out my fast until the fourth morning.

Pebaam and Misty helped be break my water fast. Food came a short time later when Tammy, who was there to support her daughter during her fast (which would start the next day), cooked up some strikingly orange seagull eggs that Pebaam had harvested from a little island the night before.

As soon as I’d eaten I was given a job, and found myself helping prepare things for a sweat lodge: kindling, firewood, grandfathers, repairs on the lodge frame, tarps and blankets to cover it, cedar boughs to carpet the floor. I surrendered into the bustle of activity, and felt happier than I had in days, maybe months. I was a part of something again; I was here for a reason, getting the lodge set up and learning from Pebaam’s goofy nuggets of wisdom. Pebaam busied himself frying fish, the final big meal for a whole clutch of people who were going to sweat tonight and then start fasting tomorrow morning.

Stuffed with fried walleye, we stuffed ourselves into the sweat lodge. I had never been to one of Pebaam’s sweats before. He gave the first door over to songs for the spirits. The other three doors he split equally among the nine of us: each of us could say anything we felt called to say. In situations like this I’m apt to feel anxious, the out-of-place Ohio boy in a sweat lodge far from home among people who, it seems, must have heard enough speeches from white people to last their whole lives. But when the drum and stick came around to me at the end of the second door, a gush of words poured out of my mouth, with little more self-consciousness or filtration than there was on the sweat pouring off my forehead: my journey in capsule form, my hope for the future, my joy at being in that lodge with everyone, my gratitude. When Pebaam runs ceremonies at sugarbush, sometimes when he smokes the pipe and starts his invocation of the spirits, he speaks for a solid five minutes or more straight through in Ojibwemowin, naming and thanking entities east, south, west, and north, and when he finishes and switches back to English for the benefit of the crowd, the first thing he says is, “I did not know I was going to say all that!” It’s the pipe talking, he explains—its spirit and the spirits it channels. I think, talking in the lodge, I felt for the first time something like that state. I even quoted his little epilogue when I was done. And I sang a song I’d learned at sugarbush that spring. By the end of it I was flowing everywhere with sweat and shuddering.

I was like that through the remaining two doors. When the oshkaabewis threw open the door at the end, I crawled out feeling open, everywhere open, in every pore open to the bright Nigigoonsiminikaaning evening. During my fast I’d entertained the idea that I was having the most mindnumbing time of my life in preparation for some climactic reversal in which everything would become clear. It seemed, strangely, to have come true: I had known the depths of boredom and the purest feeling of pointlessness, and now all I had was pure joy. In the evening the camp bustled with fasters getting ready to go out, and then going—some for the first time, full of excitement. (And bustled again, more modestly, when one of them called camp on her cell phone to say she’d found bear poop and didn’t want to be on a peninsula after all but a real island.) Misty’s back had clicked back into shape overnight, and we spent the night in the tent talking about our lives, how far we’d both come since we met each other, the sweat, how tremendous it was to be here, the lessons to be learned from a lifetime as a human. Life was so full, so ripe with potential and experiences. A few claps of thunder sounded in the far distance.

I stayed at camp for the next week to help out and get to know the place better. Misty had to leave after a couple days, but before they did, we shoveled sand into low spots together and cut cedar boughs for a sweat. After Misty left, Brandon and Liz showed up, and I worked with Brandon to fix the tilty dock and dig a new hole for the outhouse. (To move it we screwed long two-by-fours to the walls and assembled a crew of four to carry it to the new hole like a big gross bier.) I even served oshkaabewis duty for a couple sweats, one by Pebaam and one by his brother Don.

Fasters came and went. A number of them were students from the University of Minnesota’s American Indian Student Cultural Center, most of them on their first fast, looking as innocent and eager as puppies. There was also Joseph from Bad River, who was only 24 but already learning to hold ceremonies, and planning to start an immersion school back home. Later on two teenage girls from Lac Courte Oreilles showed up, students at the Waadookodaading immersion school. Not only were they fluent in Ojibwe, they were also quick-witted and already more skilled at questioning approved stories out of textbooks than I was at age twenty. Everyone pitched in to make the camp run. And Pebaam took us all to see local sights. On one powerhouse day I rode with him and three of the U of M students to see the Nigigoonsiminikaaning powwow grounds, then cross the water border into Minnesota and see Ober’s Island, where beloved local conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer (1884–1977) had built a fantasy world of cedar houses crazy-quilted onto a tiny, remote island and stuffed with eleven thousand books; then we puzzled at the red-ochre paintings left by unknown ancestors on granite lake cliffs hundreds of years ago; and we came back by way of an island where we raided seagull nests for late-season eggs: big, gray speckled with black, with thick shells built for the wild.

And of course we circled up on the porch to share our experiences of our fasts. Gabby, one of the U of M students, went out merely open to the idea of getting a name from the experience, as she’d heard happens sometimes, and was surprised when one actually presented itself. Then Joseph mentioned that names kept coming to him while he was fasting, and he’d eventually realized he was being given the right to name people. When Pebaam confirmed this interpretation, he gave Gabby another name that had been coming to him for her. But it wasn’t all names and revelations. One guy went out looking for clarification about the mountain lion, which he’d been told was his spirit helper, but came back with a different clarity instead, one he couldn’t or didn’t put into words. Another girl said her takeaway was mostly a kick-start to learning about her ancestral culture, which had been absent in her childhood. When I talked about my less-than-revelatory time in the rain, a few people combined ideas to say that not every fast gives you a big vision (“or as the cool kids call it, ‘vizh’,” Pebaam says)—Liz said it can be like a tree you look back at years later to find it’s a lot bigger than you remembered, even if you couldn’t see it growing day by day.

Working with the people at camp, jumping into the lake with the rest of the outhouse team once we got it repositioned, eating dinners and talking the evenings away out on the porch next to the mouth of the Ottertail, I felt that community spirit, that feeling I’ve goten at sugarbush and fasting camp and maybe nowhere else. Whatever spirits may or may not have visited me on my fast, the spirit of community was certainly thriving and feeding all of us there. It’s a spirit that’s no less important or real just because it’s makes itself clearly known. It’s the spirit that allows knowledge of all the other spirits to be passed on. While I was there in that pop-up community pitched on ancient foundations, I felt at my most alive, and though I don’t know what the people I met there are like outside camp, I believe I could tell most of them did too.

It was hard to leave. In fact I was the last to leave; after everyone else went home, I sat Pebaam and Laura’s dog Ziinzibaakwad (‘Sugar’) for a couple days before catching a ride to Fort Frances with Pebaam and hitching along on my way. When he dropped me off, I told him I planned to be back.

File under: religion, Anishinaabe, Deep Island · Places: Canada

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