by Thomas Vennum, Jr.
The art of storytelling among the Ojibway, as among other North American tribes, is rapidly declining. The loss of the native language and competition from other diversions, especially television, have combined to eliminate the traditional context of oral transmission from grandparent to grandchild. In the 1950s collectors of Ojibway stories described this oral tradition as "fragile" and their timely work in recording it as at an edge." (12)
Many of the stories contained brief songs-- almost ditties-- meant to have been performed by the principal human or animal characters. These short, texted melodies were as widely known as the narratives that contained them. A story might have several songs or the same one might be repeated at intervals. Such is the case with the song presented here from the traditional story of the Ojibway culture hero, Wenabozho, and the ducks. Although clever, he was always depicted as a bungler, outsmarted on numerous occasions by animals and Indians alike. Implicit in this plot is the Ojibway love for music and dance, as enticing to the ducks as it would be to Indians. As Densmore discovered early in her fieldwork, whenever an Ojibway returned from another reservation, the first question put to him was whether he had brought back any new songs.
Densmore first recorded the song for this story from Skipping Day at White Earth Reservation in 1907. The cylinder which contained this recording appears to be missing from the Library of Congress collection, but Densmore's published transcription of the song shows only minor variations between it and the version linguist John Nichols collected from James Littlewolf (Dedaakam) of Vineland (Mille Lacs Reservation) on October 20, 1971. Littlewolf was seventy-six years old at the time. The close affinity of the two melodies is clear indication of the persistence of Ojibway oral tradition over time and distance.
A summary of Littlewolfs version of the story is as follows: Roaming the earth, Wenabozho comes across a flock of ducks. He gathers some hay which he packs on his back. He calls the ducks ashore. In answer to their questions about his pack, he tells them he is carrying songs. He builds a lodge, invites them in, and teaches them the songs, warning them to close their eyes as they dance. He sings: "Don't peek! Don't peek! You'll get red eyes if you peek." He wrings the neck of a fat duck and tosses it aside. He sings again and wrings the neck of another duck. But when he sings for the third time, one duck peeks and sounds the alarm. The ducks escape, but as the one who peeked runs out, Wenabozho kicks him in the rump. That's why that Hell diver (grebe) has a flat rump and red eyes. (13)
As performed in Ojibway:
[Spoken] Haa, mii sa gikinoo'amawaad. Akina gaye basangwaabiwag. "Akina gaye giga-niimim. Giga-niimim akina." Waa, nagamo. Ishkwaandeming imaa namadabi; ishkwaandemikaadenig imaa nagamod.Translation:
[Spoken] So he teaches it to them. They all shut their eyes. ("All of you, dance too. Dance, all of you." Well, he sings. He sits by the door; where the door was made he sings.
12. Sister Bernard Coleman et al., Ojibwa Myths and Legends (Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1962), unpaginated foreword.
13. A version of the story collected at White Earth Reservation in the late 1950s adds an episode in which Wenabozho roasts the ducks in the ground with their feet sticking out, falls asleep, and is visited by Indians who steal his food but return the feet to project from the ground. Thinking his dinner is ready, Wenabozho awakens only to discover his loss; Coleman et al., Ojibwa Myths, 76-77.
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