Thursday, June 6, 2013

skulking along

Those strange creatures are out there for sure, skulking along at the margins of believability, much as they move at the edges of our vision, ever only seen fleetingly. I’ve seen inexplicable lights in the sky that I always end up explaining away as orbiting satellites, but that’s not to say the appeal of that Close Encounters of the Third Kind sort of thought about stepping aboard the mothership hasn’t occurred to me—though the starship is not so much about escape as it is about transcendence. Imagine the chance to live among the stars.
Kal-gonn, take me away 
Much as I’ve seen such lights, I’ve also heard strange noises back in the woods in the dead of night. Heavy footsteps, snapping branches, and the huffing breath of some unseen, and so unknown, creature. They always keep their distance from the campsite, moving deep among the trees the way a pike swims through the thickest weeds when it knows you’re there, and if I were the kind of person who watched too many gory slasher flicks, I might worry that a windigo was out there, its lips chewed to shreds (because until it claims a body for a meal, it gnaws on itself).

I know though, even without seeing it, that that huffing, stomping shadow out there beyond the reach of the firelight is in no way malevolent. I have every faith that it is Sasquatch, a creature not unlike myself, and he, she, or it is just trying to get along from day to day, seeking after the rudiments necessary for survival, but still willing, or perhaps needing, like myself, to be drawn away from the mundane grind of doing those things that need to be done to stay fed and warm in order to indulge his, hers, or its curiosity and marvel at the sight of a pair of relatively hairless creatures sitting near fire, making peculiar gestures with their hands and arms and vocalizing in odd, thin voices that really have little to no chance of carrying from hilltop to hilltop.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


In the coming weeks, I will be posting excerpts from a set of essays I am writing and rewriting with the intent of collecting them in a book tentatively titled Strange Creatures: Windigos, Tricksters, and Bigfoot. I need a clever addition to the subtitle to convey the fact that I'm writing a book about the way that American culture draws on American Indian stories as sources for these creatures.

There are strange creatures out there, my friends, and you know it—even if you find it hard to believe sometimes.

The Lone Gunman?
You’ve heard about aliens who rocket their way over vast stretches of space to find us, but you’ve also heard that maybe they’re so advanced spiritually and technologically that they just fold the dimensions of space like some spectacularly gifted origami artist and step from their world to ours and perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, if have they have such unfathomable abilities, why do they torture innocent humans with rectal probes. Along with myself, you’ve wondered how long this has been going on.

Other strange creatures are out there as well, homegrown so to speak, as they live deep in the trackless forests. You’ve heard about them, even if you haven’t seen them. You’ve heard about the hulking shadows that leave deep footprints in soft earth, that knock branches against tree trunks in the dead of night and howl and yowl from distant hilltops, warning others of their kind against our intrusions into their place. You’ve heard tell they smell like that dense muck that composts in the black waters of backwood swamps. You’ve heard the stench will make your eyes water.

Lord Sarku
Some of you have heard about the emaciated figures that look like the people they once were but have now grown as tall as the trees and hunger endlessly for human flesh. They overtake you like a swift winter wind, seizing you in their cold arms and then consume you; worse, if you ever indulge in their diet, if you ever taste human flesh, even if it is the only way to stave off starvation—that is, even if it is seemingly justifiable—you become like them, a voracious and never sated monster with a heart of ice, feeding on the people you once loved—and who, from love, will seek to kill you. You lose your name when you become one of them; you cease to be you; you go windigo and you don’t come back.

In a less monstrous but nevertheless still uncanny manner, others of you have seen Coyote sitting at the side of the road while you’re stuck in traffic and you swear that smile on his face is near human and when you stare too long at him, he turns tail and bolts for the brush, and what at first thought strikes you as dog-like yipping turns into wild peals of undeniably human laughter. Despite your eminent good reason, you find yourself wondering if that creature was a man dressed in a coyote skin, which would be strange enough, but then you recall hearing about shapeshifters on some half-remembered documentary or reading about them in some online article, and you think maybe you saw a person in coyote form, or stranger still you wonder if what you heard laughing was a coyote in human form. You wonder why he laughed at you, until you realize that one of you is free to run and laugh while the other is stuck in the car listening to the engine idle. He’s quite the trickster, that Coyote.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Sleep was that elusive fish, that silver flash deep in the dark pool, the one that was so difficult to hook and lately Robinson Lereux had found it even more elusive than usual. 

He used to call sleep to him, talking to it as he might a pretty girl, sweetly, with a teasing smile that women really found attractive if his luck in that department was any gauge. He would coax it to come to him, to take him really, as those sweet girls so often did, and he’d fill its ears with gentle thoughts and extravagant promises he always meant when he said them. The words coaxing sleep were not always uttered out loud, they didn’t need to be, but they were there, in that constant roll of chatter that streamed inside his head. That’s where he stitched all his words together, turning them into what he needed or wanted or desired—sleep, money, a woman. It’s what he did, this talk, how he got by, and yet, while those honeyed phrases worked elsewhere, sleep had begun to resist even his slyest flatteries.

The words he depended on, that were his gift really, had begun to dissolve in his mind on those sleepless nights and unbidden images rose in their place, unspooling in his mind’s eye, driving language away. Sweet words meant to seduce sleep became images of snow melting on the surface of spruce swamps in late fall and he’d end up looking at how white the flakes looked on the black water before they dissolved. He’d see how that water absorbed falling leaves the same way it did snowflakes only it chewed them into muck and as the muck thickened and grew it pushed the water out of the swamp in thin creeks that joined into wide rivers that pulsed over the earth the way the blood pulsed through his veins. He saw himself as a swamp then and a swamp never slept, he could see that. Even under the ice in the dead of winter, it just kept chewing dead leaves into living muck, just as his words were now being dissolved into living images that pulsed within him, dream-like as it happened, only he never dreamt them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

slightly antiseptic

Chance pulled the church door open and a wave of stale air reached out at them. More sterile, than stale, Fiona thought as she followed Chance and Strep into the building, but old as well. The church smelled like its elderly congregants, gray and worn and slightly antiseptic. Tired, she thought. The building is tired of all this praising and mourning and joy. The building wants to sleep, she thought. 

They just want to sleep peacefully

Friday, March 23, 2012

why squatch

what is coming thru
A dream is just a doorway, right?

They open something up and we can walk through them.

Most of the time we don’t walk too far through them, though; we tend to stop when we find what we think is the key to the dream, and the key is usually, perhaps always, about ourselves: I see a swamp in my dream and wonder why until I connect it to the murky water of my own muddy life. Then I get it; I see what the dream means and come back out the doorway.

But when a dream is a doorway, something might come through from the other side as well; we tend to forget that given our egocentric ways. But this is what’s recently been happening to me. Something has come through that door and is writing strange words in back of my eyelids and speaking to me in a differing, but still recognizable, version of zhaaganaashiimong, the language I live in—English.

You need to know that I have been obsessed with Bugwayjinini since I was a kid. Bugwayjinini, for those of you who don’t know his Ojibwe name, is more familiar to you, perhaps, as Bigfoot or Sasquatch. I call him squatch for short—though it’s funny to call someone so tall something “for short.” And now I know why I have been so interested in him for so long. 

wun, too?
About a month ago he stepped through that dream doorway and wrote a strange word behind my eyelids. All I saw of him was a giant hairy hand, index finger extended and as he moved it up and down, he traced out the letters “W-U-N:” One, I realized when I sounded it out. The  letters glowed there in the space in back of my eyelids as if he had written them with a lit sparkler. They glowed brightly there for a moment, then fizzled out. Once it was dark, he spoke.

A few nights later he visited again. This time he traced the letters “T-O-O”—two I realized—and, again, when the word fizzled out, he spoke.

Last night, he came again. This time he wrote “T-H-U-R-D.” One, two, third made sense I realized for someone for whom English is a foreign language.

I don't know why Bugwayjinini speaks this way to me. I know he  comes to people when they're lost in the murk and mud of the deep woods (or their lives). Holler that!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


You may have missed the March 13, 2012 edition of the New York Times “Science Times” section in which the proposed law legalizing the hunting of wolves in the state of Wisconsin was discussed. The article by James Gorman appeared under the headline “Before Wolves May Be Hunted, Science, Faith and Politics Clash.”

The article is an admirable discussion of a proposed bill (and it subsequently passed if I heard correctly) in the Wisconsin legislature allowing for a “wolf harvesting” season (bureaucratese courtesy of the authors of the bill) to run from mid-October every year until the end of February. I find the idea of a wolf hunt repulsive: the only reason to hunt a wolf is for a trophy—and if the amendment allowing for the hunting of wolf by dog pack passed one has to wonder what kind of shape the trophy would be in following “harvest.” I find it both morally reprehensible and befuddlingly absurd.

What interests me about the article is not the question of the hunt itself, but rather the fact that it gives extensive space to Anishinaabe testimony opposing the hunt. While this aspect is admirable, the other part of the article that interests me is the phrasing of the headline. Where the part featuring Anishinaabe testimony heartens me, the headline disheartens me, as it is rooted in notions of that science and faith are two different worlds and that when brought into dialogue (through politics) they must “clash.” The article simultaneously legitimizes Anishinaabe knowledge and delegitimizes it as “faith,” not science. Native knowledge is not real (the way science is), it is a matter of belief, of—dare we say it—superstition. This American cultural trope of Native superstition is the all-too-obvious foundation of the headline.

Three Anishinaabe men are given voice in the article, while only one majority culture scientist is. The majority culture scientist, a professor of Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, discusses the matter of the wolf hunt in, not surprisingly, strictly materialistic terms, focusing on demography and the ability of the environment to support wolves. He feels that the woodland of northern Wisconsin can carry a capacity of 1000 wolves. The implication is that an annual “harvest” will keep the wolf population below 1000 and so save the wolves from catastrophic die-offs if their numbers grow too high. Harvest is seen as responsible wildlife management and, perhaps, it can be seen that way.

The Anishinaabe men consulted in the article feel otherwise. All three men are professionals, one is a retired professor, another is the executive administrator of GLIFWC, and the last is a scientist, a conservation biologist who also works for GLIFWC. All three men discuss the importance of the wolf in Anishinaabe sacred history. James Zorn, GLIFWC’s executive administrator points out in written testimony presented to the legislators “that Ma’iingan (wolf) is a brother to Original man” in the Anishinaabe creation story. The author of the headline chooses to read “creation story” as religion, as faith (and thus by implication, I think, as “superstition”).

It’s a good story, but it is not demonstrably true (the way, say, an environment’s projected carrying capacity for wolf populations might be). It’s interesting, as we Midwesterners say when we try to dodge the bullet of something so (seemingly) strange that we risk misunderstanding it (the way sushi is “interesting” to a hotdish grandma, or eating rough fish is “interesting” to the catch-and-release fly fisherperson).

Yet this “interestingness” of the spiritual faith in Native creation stories, ignores the knowledge—demonstrable historically, perhaps even statistically, in the best tradition of material scientism—that Zorn’s statement goes on to provide. He writes, “The health and survival of the Anishinaabe people is tied to that of Ma’iingan.”

This simple statement contains a wealth of historical reflection, tying Anishinaabe experience to the experience of the wolf in the United States. Hunted, trapped, chased from environments in which they provided very responsible wildlife management, wolves were driven to the edge of extinction by American culture and policy at both federal and state levels. Only when they were on the edge of extinction did the feds intervene and create policies to help wolf populations recover and grow.

Likewise, the same generations of Americans that encouraged wolf decimation, also encouraged the “killing of the Indian to save the man” (as Richard Pratt, architect of the Indian boarding school program, put it). Anishinaabe people saw their protected lands whittled away in these generations, saw programs initiated to “help” them assimilate to (superior, non-superstitious) American ways, and watched as their language was driven nearly to extinction here in the United States. In recent generations though Anishinaabe populations have grown and the revitalization of cultural practices, including a revitalization of language education, is spreading.

Wolf recovery and Anishinaabe cultural revitalization are coincidental from the rational perspective of Western science, but from the perspective of Anishinaabe science—of knowledge gained from ongoing experiential observation and of thorough knowledge of sacred histories of creation stories and the secular histories of the recent past—the recovery and revitalization of the wolf and the Anishinaabe in their woodland homelands are implicated in one another. Implication is a demonstrable connection: for instance, our lives as humans are implicated in the lives of the trees. We inhale what the trees exhale. It is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of fact.

The Anishinaabe resistance to the wolf hunt is not a matter of faith, but a matter of fact. What happens to the wolf happens to the Anishinaabe, history demonstrates as much. Debate about the wisdom of hunting might imply a clash, but let’s not be so foolish as to believe it’s a clash between “faith” and “science.” Let’s not let newspapers like the Times fall prey to cultural tropes about the religious superstitions of Native people that I see this headline engaging. Let’s think about ways to discuss knowledge. Let’s call Anishinaabe insight knowledge, not faith.

Friday, February 24, 2012

notes for a story

Tell a story about: Trees, flame, dreams, smoke.
Tell another story about: Trees, smoke, trout, the Aurora Borealis
Tell a story about: Strange lights, crackling sounds above the trees, the flash of a fish in
clear running water

Tell another story about: Dreams of light fish flashing through the northern sky
Tell a story about: Catching a fish
Tell another story about: Putting out the light