The hydromythology of the Anishinaabeg: Will Mishipizhu survive climate change, or is he creating it?

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19 Scopus citations


For Anishinaabeg people,1 our stories go back to the beginning of time with deep, endless roots. Yet our stories are also new and fresh each time they are told. To be Anishinaabe is to know that stories can be medicine and that they reveal fresh meanings for new times. This is a story about the power of story and hydromythology. It looks at the Ojibwe mythical creature Mishipizhu, an underwater panther and powerful manitou. A manitou is most easily and often translated to mean "spirit," but according to Ojibwe writer Basil Johnston, this is "the simplest of the abstract."2 For fluent Ojibwe language speakers, Johnston states, "Depending on the context, they knew that in addition to spirit, the term also meant property, essence, transcendental, mystical, muse, patron, and divine."3 Mishipizhu is a protector of natural resources and a mediator between the water, land, and sky beings. "In his role as guardian of resources he is immortal, reappearing to punish anyone who attempts to upset the balance of eco-social relations."4 This essay examines Mishipizhu narratives as critical Ojibwe hydromyths, and addresses my primary question, "Will Mishipizhu survive climate change, or is he creating it?" I am conscious of the polemics of this either/or question and pose it deliberately to flesh out the extreme ends of a spectrum of possibilities. Related questions include: Does Mishipizhu play a role in these ecologically tumultuous times? If so, what? Is there an ancestral, moral understanding of Mishipizhu, and how would this impact Anishinaabeg choices in response to climate change? I suggest that Mishipizhu hydromyths can be used today to understand critical eco-cultural changes. I argue that Mishipizhu is a powerful metaphysical icon of the Ojibwe imagination, and that his active presence serves as an important indicator of traditional ecological knowledge about a moral landscape that supports cultural resilience. Honoring what Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor called "Trickster logic," I juxtapose and entertain two contrary positions regarding Mishipizhu and climate disruption. Trickster logic or "trickster consciousness" is "a tool of liberation from any form of linear, monologic style, and universalizing theory." 5 Employing this Ojibwe strategy of analysis, I examine two positions: One sees Mishipizhu as a victim of climate change. He is "collateral damage" in the ongoing Western war against the Native world and environment. The opposite position sees Mishipizhu as a creator of climate change. His power is beyond humans, and he is orchestrating these massive shifts as a way to renew and balance the peoples and systems of the earth. Just as many Native stories and oral cycles have no definitive beginnings or endings or "closure," this analysis examines contradictory points in the interpretation of the Anishinaabeg Mishipizhu hydromyth and invites readers to enter the watershed of Ojibwe imagination.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCentering Anishinaabeg Studies
Subtitle of host publicationUnderstanding the World through Stories
PublisherMichigan State University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781609173531
ISBN (Print)9781611860672
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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