Thursday, September 5, 2013

the beauty fringe

The North Shore of Lake Superior was among the first places in what is now Minnesota where the Anishinaabe people came to live after their centuries-long migration from the east coast of North America. Rivers, streams, and creeks rise from many of the inland lakes along the shore and flow over hard rock that is as nearly as old as any exposed rock in the world. Waterfalls cascade, some with roaring power and others with gentle humility, over this ancient rock, on their tumble toward gichigami as the Anishinaabe call Lake Superior in Ojibwemowin (their language). The Anishinaabe displaced the Dakota Indian people from northern Minnesota and the North Shore in the decades after their arrival there (sometimes through conflict but, just to give lie to stereotypes of always-warring Indian tribes, often through treaty as well). The association of the Anishinaabe to this area is so strong that the Dakota people call the Anishinaabe hahatunwun in their language, the people of the waterfalls.

I like to think, and often believe, that my Anishinaabe heritage draws me to the North Shore, and perhaps it does, as does its rugged beauty. Fishing, camping, and hiking in that area for over thirty years lets that sort of attachment blossom as well. Driving down the county roads, humming over pavement where they are paved, juddering over gravel where they aren’t, the trees press up against the road, harboring all manner of woodland life. 

A few years back, while driving through one of the state forests up there, I pulled over and stepped into the woods along one such road, thinking it looked like a nice place to hike, and found…nothing. The woods beyond the thin few yards of trees and brush next to the road had been clear-cut, taken away and pulped or milled I suspect in the nearby town of Cloquet. Timber company lingo referred to that thin few yards of trees at the edge of the road as a “beauty fringe.” Some might call the beauty fringe a sop to tourists who just drove down the roads looking for, um, beauty, never intending to get out of their cars. Others might read it more darkly and see it as an attempt to mask such scandalously indiscriminate cutting of all the trees in the area from unsuspecting drivers. Timber companies argue that such cuts are a crucial part of silviculture and a necessary part of timber regeneration, and perhaps they are in areas that were decades ago stripped of old growth forest, but as my exposure to American Indian literature and Anishinaabe storytelling carried along, I came to see this harvest as evidence that the windigo spirit persists in this area.

One might seek the Beauty Fringe, but still
may not avoid the Cannibal Spirit

Windigo is a spirit that enters a person when they are hungry, near starvation, and transforms them from a human being into a monstrous creature. Windigo comes to us from Anishinaabe and Cree Indian teachings where it is described as an emaciated figure that looks like the person it once was, but has now grown as tall as the trees and hungers endlessly for human flesh (the Cree, who speak a related language to Ojibwemowin, call this creature witiko). In eating human flesh, even if it is the only way to stave off starvation—that is, even if it can be rationalized as justified, a person becomes this voracious and never-sated monster, its lips chewed to shreds as it gnaws on itself until it finds prey. Its heart is hardened into a lump of ice as it eyes even friends and family with hunger. A person loses their name when they become one of them and they cease to be part of that community that bore them up in the world. 

Gone windigo, a person puts his or her needs above those of their family and community, they are selfish, acting solely in their own self-interest. John Wayne, the avatar of masculine American individualism, feeds himself on Native lives and lands and hides the fact from passersby with a beauty fringe of romanticized Western history.