GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. — The two-dozen schoolchildren sat in a circle for about an hour, enthralled, as Gordon Jourdain regaled them with tales of the Creator and the origins of their Ojibwe people. As the session wound down, one boy raised his hand and asked, to a chorus of giggles, “How did girls come to be on the planet?”
The storyteller at first kept a serious face as he told them a full answer would take hours to recount. Then he cracked a broad smile.
“The first was Mother Earth, and isn’t she beautiful?” Jourdain enthused, urging them to look outside at the sunshine sparkling on 24 inches of pristine snow, among fir-covered hills overlooking a small bay on a frozen Lake Superior.
The classroom scene at Oshki Ogimaag charter elementary school in this far-northern Minnesota village highlighted the crucial role that oral storytelling plays in Ojibwe spiritual tradition, as is the case with other Native American peoples. Believed to be in itself a gift from the Creator, the ritual telling of creation, spirits and ceremonies helps keep cultural worldviews, ethical teachings and religious experiences alive across generations.
“In Ojibwe culture, storytelling is part of the fabric that connects us to one another, to the spirits that watch over us all,” said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language and culture at Bemidji State University who has spent more than three decades working on revitalizing the language.
“Winter legends are the equivalent of Aesop’s Fables,” Treuer added. “Fun and accessible to children, but they also carry deeper messages about our view of the world.”
The late February snow on the ground outside the school was more than just a teaching point for Jourdain: Its presence was in fact vital, since Ojibwe tradition holds that many stories may be told only in winter.
That’s when the spirits featured in the tales are believed to be less active, as nature’s creatures, from majestic bears to lowly leeches, rest under a blanket of snow. The point is to avoid offending the spirits, which have powers.
“Our spirits are human-like. Just like people, you talk about them and they can take it the wrong way,” said Erik Redix, who teaches Ojibwe at the school and organized the storytelling session and another, public one later the same day at the community lodge across the street. They were the first in-person sessions since the pandemic hit, and attendees wore face masks.
The stories told that day in Grand Portage centered on the original man, Wenabozho, also called Nenabozho, and his family. They conveyed what Jourdain called the dichotomous nature of all beings, down to the ferocious winter wind that coats waters with ice but allows the fish and turtles underneath to survive.
Pacing inside the circle with animated gestures and alternating seamlessly between Ojibwe and English, Jourdain, whose Ojibwe name is Maajiigwaneyaash, told of Wenabozho’s exploration of creation and adventures such as being gifted with fire. He also recounted humorous mishaps, such as the tale of how Wenabozho once challenged a far-away figure to see who could stand tallest for the longest time, only for it to be revealed upon closer inspection to be a tree.
“We learn from Wenabozho’s mistakes, too,” Redix said.
One tale in particular, of the beaver whose tail inspired Wenabozho to invent the canoe paddle, resonated deeply with the children in the village, which for centuries has been home to Ojibwe people and takes its name from a canoe portage widely used by European fur traders.
Organizers said there has been an increased push in recent years to hold such events in schools, lodges and even pandemic Zoom gatherings. That heightened urgency comes amid a realization that the ancestral teachings should be preserved alongside the Ojibwe language that they were first expressed in but is now the first tongue for only a few older tribal members.
“This is exactly how my grandmother taught me,” said Jourdain, a native speaker of Ojibwe and member of the Lac La Croix First Nation in Ontario, who earned a doctorate in education and now directs a leading Ojibwe immersion institution in Wisconsin.