The Strawberry Teaching

This strawberry teaching is an excerpt from a transcript as shared by Ojibwe/Powawatomi Elder, Lilian Pitawanakwat.  To read the full transcript, please visit:



Lillian Pitawanakwat, Ojibwe/Powawatomi Elder

“The strawberry teaching is a story of forgiveness and peace. The strawberry is shaped like a heart and strawberries are known to our people as heart berries. We were taught stories like these from a very early age. In the strawberry teaching we learn something about death and about the power of change and healing and that finding peace doesn’t necessarily come from the head – it comes from the heart.” 


PrintA long time ago, there was a family that chose to no longer live in their village because of community feuding and ill will. This young family took their two little boys and said, “Let us go back into the forest, and we’ll let the trees nurture our children; we’ll let the birds sing songs to remind them of their own songs. And we’ll let the animals become their friends.” And so they packed up their little boys and went deep into the forest.

The father offered his tobacco, and asked the tree nation to give him a home. He was granted that gift and so he cut down the trees. He made a home for his family and they moved in. The boys grew tall and strong, and yet year after year they continued to play fight and wrestle. Finally when they were in their teens, their mother said to them, “It’s time for you to give up your childish ways.” And they said, “Okay mom, we won’t wrestle anymore.” But as soon as they were out of earshot from their mother, they said, “Let’s go deeper into the forest and we’ll build a wrestling ring for ourselves, so we can go out there any time we feel like it.” And so they did. They cleared some land and went there secretly, without their mother’s knowledge.

And then one fateful day the time came when the boys were wrestling and the older brother knocked his younger brother to the ground, where he hit his head on a rock and died instantly. The oldest brother was beside himself. He said, “Please, please wake up…… Mom and dad are going to kill me. Please, please answer me.” The only answer was silence. He cried and begged his brother: “Please, please.” Finally after a couple of hours, a voice told him: “Bury your brother.” And so he dug into the ground and put his brother there. He covered him up and ran home.

Out of breath, he ran to his parents: “Mom, Dad I’ve lost my brother in the forest – I can’t find him.” And, so the parents went out with him and they looked. They couldn’t find him anywhere. The father said, “I will go into the community, and seek out our relatives to come and help us form a search party so we can find him.” So they searched for ten days, and ten nights, and then they went into mourning after they couldn’t find their son.

But every day the brother would go to his little brother’s grave, and he would say, “Please, please tell me that you’re okay! Please!” And he would cry as he walked away, because he had no answer. And years went by. He carried this sadness into manhood because only he knew where his brother’s body lay.

After many years and visits to his grave, the elder brother saw a tiny plant. He watched it grow into a strawberry vine on top of his brother’s grave. Each day he watched the leaves grow and the berries come into fruition.

White heart-shaped berries appeared first. Then, over days, they transformed into big red delicious berries, luscious and sweet. As he contemplated them, a voice from inside him said, “Take a berry and eat it.” So he picked a berry and put it in his mouth.

As he ate it, he became aware, for the first time in his life, that he could taste the sweetness of life again. No more did he blame himself for his brother’s death, and no more did he blame his brother for not answering him. He no more blamed his parents for their strict upbringing. And, most of all, he no more blamed the Creator for taking his brother’s life. He was free. After all of the long years, he was finally free.


Ode’iminan (Strawberries)

Berries are an important food for many animals and people, especially in Ojibwe tradition. Berries are not simply something to sprinkle on cereal—they are one of the four sacred foods in Ojibwe culture.


Beautiful beaded ode’imin on this purse!

June is the time the wild strawberries start ripening and begin to appear, glowing like fire in the grass.  The heart shape of the berry gave the strawberry the name ode’imin.  In fact, the word ode’imin translates to heart berry.  Wild strawberries differ from the cultivated strawberries we see in the grocery store.  Wild strawberries are small; a wild strawberry the size of a thumbnail would be considered large.   And,  unlike some of their domestic cousins, wild strawberries are very sweet and have an intense strawberry flavor.  I’ve been told by people who’ve tried them that once you’ve had a wild strawberry, you will never forget it!

In the Ojibwe culture, each plant was given a soul-spirit and some believe the soul-spirit of this fruit was unique, unlike any other.  It is told that the soul-spirit of the strawberry was that of a being not admitted into the Land of Souls and who was returned to earth complete its term of being in the form of this heart-shaped berry.  Other Anishinabeg teachings portray the strawberries as “preserving marital harmony, their heart-shaped form being a reminder to those who may have forgotten, why we live with a loved one” (from Basil Johnson, Ojibwe heritage, taken from “Jiibaakweda Gimiijiminaan, Let’s Cook Our Food” a collection of recipes by Native Harvest, copyright 2003, Morris Press Cookbooks.)


Ode’iminan hiding in the grass

During the summer, when berries were abundant, the Anishinaabeg would eat the berries fresh.  They would also gather the berries to preserve for use over the long winter months.  Berries were preserved in many ways. In one method, the Ojibwe would weave mats from strips of pine bark, lay berries on the mats and leave them in the sun until they dried.  Another option was to mix the berries with maple syrup, pour the mixture onto sheets of birch bark where it was left until it was dry.  Sometimes, berries would be made into little patties.  Then, in the winter, they would boil these patties, sprinkle them with a little maple sugar and they would taste just as sweet as they had in the summer.

Traditional Native American diets were exceptionally healthy, keeping the body and spirit strong.   Many of the berries that Native people gathered, ate and preserved for the long winter months are no exception to this tradition of eating healthy foods.  Strawberries, for example, are an excellent source of vitamin C.   Just 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries provides 68 mg of vitamin C….that is 75% of the daily amount needed by men and 90% of the amount needed by women!  Vitamin C plays an important part in keeping you healthy.  In fact, some experts call vitamin C one of the safest and most effective nutrients around.  Some of the ways vitamin C helps keep you healthy include:

  •  It helps boost your immune system to prevent colds.
  • It helps cuts and wounds heal.
  • It keeps your gums healthy.
  • It helps your body absorb iron and folate from plant sources of food.
  • It keeps your blood vessel walls strong and so protects you from bruising.
  • It helps produce collagen – a connective tissue that holds muscles, bones and other tissues together.

A wild strawberry plant




Mosquito Story

Though this blog is about nutrition education in Wisconsin Tribal communities, this story about the origins of momosquitosquitoes has a nutrition link:  the mosquitoes are well nourished this year!

Enjoy this story of the mosquito as told by Red Cliff descendant, Ida Nemec.  Please feel free to leave any other legends of the mosquito that you may have heard in the comments.  Miigwetch!

Long ago in the land of the Ojibwe, everything was good. Summer brought miini-giizis, the Blueberry Moon. The people offered prayers of thanksgiving to Gitchi Manito, the Great Spirit.

Then something strange happened. One of the hunters did not return after spending the day in the forest.  Someone said, “Don’t worry; he is probably on the track of a rabbit or deer. He will return in the morning. But he never returned.  Then a woman went to the creek for water and never returned.  Later that day a grandmother went in the forest for wood, and she never returned.

The “white hairs”, elders gathered in one place. As, they talked of the disappearances in their village, a “white hair” named Waboose remembered a story he heard long ago when he was very small. The people had disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again, and suddenly he knew.  The Windigo had returned and was in the forest eating the people.

The Windigo is a terrible giant of the forest.  His ways are very strange.  You might be out in the forest sitting down or gathering firewood and you hear:  T-R-R-R-O-M-P  T-R-R-R-0-M-P  T-R-R-R-O-M-P, the great heavy footsteps of the Windigo.  You might turn around quickly or you might turn around very slowly, but you will never see the Windigo.  He has the power to turn himself into anything he wants; a boulder, a birch tree, or an old stump. You never know where the Windigo is until he has you and then it is too late!

That evening the People held a council meeting to decide what to do about the terrible Windigo. They decided they had to trap him, so they went deep into the forest and dug a deep pit.  They put venison in the bottom of the pit and covered it with birch bark, logs and sticks so the Windigo could not tell it was there.

Everyone hid in the forest behind trees and bushes and waited for the Windigo to come.  Deep in the middle of the night when it was very dark, they heard a sound.          T-R-R-R-0-M-P       T-R-R-R-O-M-P           T-R-R-R-O-M-P.  Then another sound.   SNIFF     SNIFF   SNIFF.  He was smelling the venison.  Or…. was he smelling the people?

Suddenly there was a great  C-R-R-R-A-S-H and they knew they had caught the Windigo.  Quickly the people ran to the edge of the pit and threw in glowing embers from their council fire.  Soon a great fire was roaring in the bottom of the pit.  The people were frightened and ran back to their hiding places.   When it was quiet they crept back to the edge of the trap.  There in the bottom of the fiery pit was the Windigo. And he was furious!   “I’ll get you for this” he roared.  I’ll come back again and again and again – and I’ll eat you and you and you and your children and their grandchildren forever and ever.  Terrified the people fled. This time they waited a long, long time and until there was no sound from the pit. When they returned all that was left of the terrible Windigo was a pile of ashes.   “Gather the ashes” said Waboose.  So they gathered the ashes and took them to the top of a high hill and threw them high up into the air, scattering ashes all over the North Woods. The WIndigo was no more. Gone to the Land of the Shadows.

481522799In fact, the people had almost forgotten about the terrible Windigo. Then one summer day Waboose and his grandchildren were sitting by a lake, fishing. ‘Aaaaa!” shouted Little Brother, suddenly and struck his arm.  “Oh!” cried his granddaughter and slapped the back of her hand.  “Aiee!” they both shouted as they swatted themselves here and there.

Waboose looked closely and he noticed something strange. Though there was no fire anywhere nearby, little ashes seemed to be floating in the air.  The ashes gathered in a cloud around the three friends. They were landing on his skin and BITING him! They left little bumps that itched and itched.  “It is the Windigo!  He has come back”

“Yes, my granddaughter, I’m afraid he is back and he will be coming back every summer from now on eating all of us, just as he said he would”.



dandelionHere in Northern Wisconsin, we are still seeing piles of snow remaining on what we hope will soon be green lawns.  Before we know it, we will be visited by the pops of yellow that are loved by children and despised by allergy sufferers.  The dandelion, which is mostly a weed, is a very nutritional plant.  It was used by American Indians for both food and medicine.  The dandelion is rich in vitamins and minerals, specifically Vitamin A (Source: From Blueberries to Wild Roses: A Northwoods Wild Foods Cookbook, Dottie Reeder)

The dandelion is a great example of how the American Indians believe in using everything that The Creator has provided in nature.  The leaves, roots, and even the flower can be put to use.

Leaves:  It is best to harvest when they are young and tender.  As the plant gets older, the leaves tend to have a bitter taste.  Use the leaves as you would fresh greens or steam like spinach.

Flowers: The flowers are edible and have been used in many ways including: in salads, in  beverages, or as a dye.

Roots:  The roots can be collected, cleaned and boiled as a typical root vegetable.

The following recipe from University of Wisconsin Extension Program uses the green leaves in a stir fry.

Dandelion Stir Fry

6 handfuls of dandelion greens

2 fish of choice (any small pan fish) or 1 medium fish (sucker, redhorse or salmon)

Fat to grease pan

2 onions

Salt and pepper

White sage

Cut, clean, and fillet fish.  Cut into long strips.  Chop onions.  Wash and chop dandelion leaves.  Grease metal fry pan slightly.  Place on medium heat.  Place strips of fish in pan.  Add onion, salt and pepper and a few pinches of white sage.  Let cook til nearly done, (fish is flaking and onions are transparent).  Then add dandelion leaves.  Cook until leaves are tender.  Add salt, pepper, and sage again, to taste.

dandelion2My main reason for writing about the dandelion is because of a legend my grandma told me.  It is one of my favorites from the many she shared over the years.  So, I am sharing the story of Shawondasee and the Golden Girl, as roughly told by my Grandma Dee (Delores Bainbridge, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa).

Shawondasee is the south wind.  In the summer, Shawondasee was very lazy and liked to lie in the shade of great oak trees.  He would inhale the wonderful scents of the summer and when he exhaled, he would spread the beautiful odor.

One day, Shawondasee, from his spot under the trees, sleepily glanced around at the fields and saw a beautiful slender girl with yellow hair in the distance.  He thought she was so beautiful and wanted to call her to him.  But, he was too lazy.

The next day, he looked again and spotted the slender girl with the yellow hair, still out there in the field.  He thought her more beautiful than before.  Every day he would wake and hold his breath until he saw her there in the field.

But one day, he awoke and glanced over the field.  He looked again and rubbed his eyes to clear his vision.  His golden girl was gone!  In her place stood an old woman with a head of gray.

Shawondasee was so upset that he cried out “My brother, the north wind, has played a cruel trick on me.  He has put his hand on her head and look what he has done!” Shawondasee was so upset that he gave such a mighty cry that the old woman’s hair fell from her head and she was gone.

And as we know, this is the way of the dandelion, so beautiful and yellow to start and then moving to the gray haired lady before blowing away!

Waagaagin Naboob (Fiddlehead Soup)

fiddlehead-food-fern-springApril 16, 2014

Even though 6-12 inches of snow is predicted for today in Northern Wisconsin, spring is officially here!

Early spring just after the snow has melted is the time to start looking for and harvesting waagaagin – the tightly curled shoots – or fiddleheads – of fern fronds.  Ojibwe people traditionally made use of many of the early spring greens including waagaagin.  Springtime greens were a reminder of new life after the long northern winters.

If you like the taste of asparagus and broccoli, you will probably like the taste of waagaagin.  Waagaagin are most delicious when eaten fresh though they can be canned or frozen for later use.  They taste great steamed or sautéed and work wonderfully in soup.

Some tips for harvesting waagaagin:

  • Do not take more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the young waagaagin from each plant in order to not deplete the plant.  Leave some so the plant can grow and replenish for next spring.
  • Choose small, firm, brightly colored waagaagin with no signs of softening or yellowing.
  • Harvest the waagaagin when they are 2″ – 6″ tall so you can get some of the tasty stem but while the fiddlehead is still tightly curled.  Once the head starts to unfurl the taste can be bitter.
  • Fresh waagaagin do not last long once harvested so they should be eaten or preserved within one to three days of harvesting.  They can be kept in cold water for up to 3 weeks but the taste may be compromised.

Eating traditional foods is a healthy way of eating!  Waagaagin are fat free, cholesterol free and have no sodium.  In addition, they are an excellent source of vitamin A.  Vitamin A does many important things for you:

  • —Protects lungs against the development of lung cancer and emphysema.
  • —Helps prevent the build up of cholesterol in the body – helping to keep the heart healthy and risk of heart attack and stroke down.
  • —Reduces the stress on the heart that is caused by diabetes.

There are many recipes online for fiddlehead soup.  Here is a favorite from Tribal Cooking: Traditional Stories and Favorite Recipes , 1996.  This cookbook is a compilation of recipes from Ojibwe tribal members throughout Wisconsin and was published by the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council in Lac du Flambeau, WI.

Waywaagain Naboob (Wild Fern Soup)

To cook one kettle full for supper!

One grocery bag full of wild ferns (4 inches).

Cut into 1 inch pieces or break up.

4 slices of salt pork – cubed.

Boil for 1/2 hour or until tender.  Make little dumplings and put in kettle.  Let continue boiling for 15 minutes.  Stir so it won’t stick to bottom of kettle.

Very, very delicious!!

P.S. These can be picked anywhere in the woods.

Note: Waagaagin should be thoroughly cooked before eating.  Never eat them raw! In 1990 a food-borne illness outbreak in British Columbia was connected to consuming lightly cooked and raw fiddlehead ferns .

How the Ojibwe Got Maple Syrup

Each Ojibwe tribe has their own unique story of how they came to get maple syrup.  Each story varies but all have the same theme running through them .  Here is one adapted from Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Pat Ritzenthaler, 1983, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press.tap

One day Winneboozhoo was standing under a maple tree.  Suddenly it began to rain maple syrup (not sap) right on top of him.  Winneboozhoo got a birch bark tray and held it out to catch the syrup.  He said to himself:

“This is too easy for the People to have the syrup just rain down like this.”

So he threw the syrup away and decided that before they could have the syrup, the People would have to give a feast, offer tobacco, speak to the manido and put out some birch bark trays.

sugarNokomis, the grandmother of Winneboozhoo, showed him how to insert a small piece of wood into each maple tree so the sap could run down into the vessels beneath.  When Winneboozhoo tested it, it was thick and sweet.  He told his grandmother it would never do to give the People the syrup without making them work for it.  He climbed to the top of one of the maples, scattered rain over all the trees, dissolving the sugar as it flowed into the birch bark vessels.

“Now we have to cut wood, make vessels, collect the sap and boil it for a long time. If we want the maple syrup, we have to work for it.”

DARK GREENS – Nutrition Champions

Dark greens are great sources of calcium.  Calcium is the mineral that makes our bones and teeth strong.  It is also needed so that our muscles will contract and helps blood from a cut or wound heal and clot. Spinach and other greens such as kale and chard can contain at least 10% of our daily value requirements for calcium.  Spinach is also a great source of iron, which our bodies use to form hemoglobin and myoglobin—these are the proteins that carry oxygen throughout our bodies.  Greens are also very high in beta carotene (vitamin A from plants) and vitamin C.greens

Wild Greens—Gifts from the Creator

thCAV0VRATGreens were traditionally eaten as fresh shoots and new

leaves in the springtime, before they became bitter and tough in the summer.

In the early spring, after the snow melts and the ground thaws, tender shoots begin to appear.  Traditionally, these new shoots and leaves were eaten like we eat salad today, although there were many variations.  Since salt was not used, salads were flavored by herbs, oil pressed from seeds and especially with a type of vinegar made from fermented, evaporated uncooked maple sap.  In addition to salads, the new shoots were eaten in soups and cooked with meats.

After the long winters of the north, these springtime greens were a beloved reminder of new life, thus this meal was always surrounded by celebration.  Customarily, there would be huge salad eating feasts, enjoying the new leaves and shoots before they became tough, bitter and inedible later in the season.

fiddlehead-food-fern-springWild greens that were traditionally eaten by Ojibwe included wild onions, wild leeks, ostrich ferns (fiddleheads) and many more.

Today the greens in our diet can be eaten all year round.  Even with modern day conveniences, it seems that our bodies begin to crave greens in the spring.  Our greens have moved away from the wild ones of our ancestors.  Now it is much more common to see spinach, lettuce, romaine, radicchio and swiss chard in the salad bowl.



In the spring, Ojibwe people would gather morel mushrooms, or wazhaskwedoonsag.  Morels fruit in early to mid May.  They are some of the most sought after edible mushrooms in the  Great Lakes region.  Today people search for wild mushrooms throughout the season, collecting delicacies of all colors, sizes and shapes.  It is very important to know exactly what you are harvesting before you eat anything harvested in the wild.  Although only 10 percent of all mushrooms are poisonous, eating the wrong kind can result in sickness and even death.  No matter what, always be 100 percent sure before you eat it.

Maple Glazed Salmon

Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fats.  These fats help reduce blood clotting in the arteries and protects from hardening of the arteries.  Our bodies do not produce these fats so it is important we eat foods—like salmon and walnuts—that are good sources of them. 

Maple syrup in a food that is central to Ojibwe culture and food.  Because it was labor intensive to collect the sap and boil it down into syrup, it was often used sparingly as just a seasoning by Ojibwe ancestors.  In modern days, we know that maple syrup is high in natural sugars so using it sparingly – as Ojibwe ancestors  did – is still a wise idea.

INGREDIENTS Maple Salmon 500

  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 1/4 tsp garlic power or garlic salt
  • 1 pound salmon


  1. In a small bowl, mix maple syrup, soy sauce, minced garlic, garlic salt or powder and black pepper.
  2.  Place salmon in a shallow glass baking dish and coat with the maple syrup mixture.  Cover the dish and marinate salmon in the refrigerator, turning once.
  3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  4. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake salmon uncovered for 20 minutes or until easily flaked with fork.

Per serving:  265 calories; 12.4 g (9.9 g are healthy fat); 14.1 g carbohydrate; 23.2 g protein.  Serves 4