Nanabozho is the benevolent culture hero of Anishinaabe tribes. He is known by over 36 different names! Some of the other names he may be called include: Wenabozho, Nanaboozhoo, Nanabush and Manabozho to name a few.
His name is spelled so many different ways partially because the Anishinaabe languages were originally unwritten (so English speakers just spelled the name however it sounded to them at the time), and partially because the Ojibway, Algonquin, Potawatomi, and Menominee languages are spoken across a huge geographical range in both Canada and the US, and the name sounds different in the different languages and dialects they speak.
The differing first letters of his name, however, have a more interesting story. Nanabozho’s grandmother, who named him, used the particle “N-” to begin his name, which means “my”. Other speakers – who are not Nanabozho’s grandmother – would normally drop this endearment and use the more general prefixes W- or M-. So if you listen to a fluent Ojibwe speaker telling a Nanabozho story, he may refer to the culture hero as Wenabozho most of the time but switch to Nanabozho when narrating for his grandmother!
Stories about Nanabozho vary considerably from community to community. Nanabozho is usually said to be the son of either the West Wind or the Sun, and since his mother died when he was a baby, Nanabozho was raised by his grandmother, Nokomis. In some tribal traditions, Nanabozho is an only child, but in others he has a twin brother or is the eldest of four brothers. The most important of Nanabozho’s brother figures is Chibiabos or Moqwaio, Nanabozho’s inseparable companion (often portrayed as a wolf) variously said to be his twin brother, younger brother or adopted brother.
Nanabozho is associated with rabbits and is sometimes referred to as the Great Hare (Misabooz), although he is rarely depicted as taking the physical form of a rabbit. Nanabozho is a trickster figure and can be a bit of a rascal, but unlike trickster figures in some tribes, he does not model immoral or seriously inappropriate behavior – Nanabozho is a virtuous hero and a dedicated friend and teacher of humanity. Though he may behave in mischievous, foolish and humorous ways in the course of his teachings, Nanabozho never commits crimes or disrespects Native culture and is viewed with great respect and affection by Anishinaabe people.
Source: Native Languages of the Americas
Today, I’d like to share a Nanabozho story with you called Nanabozho (pronounced Nah-nah-boh-ZHO) and the Wild Geese. The story comes from the book Tales of Nanabozho by Dorothy M Reid (© 1963 Oxford University Press, Canada). Nanabozho stories often teach a lesson. What do you think the lesson in this story is meant to be? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Nanabozho and the Wild Geese
One day, the great trickster, Nanabozho was wandering through the woods looking for mischief when he came to the shore of a small lake. Suddenly, he heard a great commotion overhead. He looked up and saw a flock of geese. The geese were weary from their journey from the North where they had spent the summer and were wheeling overhead preparing to land on the lake. Nanabozho hurried in the direction of their flight and saw the birds come to rest on the water with a great flurry and folding of wings. He thought of what a delicious feast the birds would make.
But first he had to come up with a scheme to capture as many geese as possible, for if he dashed among them, he would catch only one or two. Going quickly but quietly back into the woods, he peeled off strips of cedar bark and made a long rope. Then he slipped quietly back into the water, being careful not to disturb the weary birds. He swam under them and tied their legs together with his cedar rope. At the same time, he tied each goose to the next one so that he could pull them all up on shore together.
At first all went well, for Nanabozho was so cunning and swift that the geese did not notice him or know what was happening. But his greed finally got him into trouble. Instead of being happy with a few geese, he went on to tie up the whole flock. Just as he was finishing, he had to come up for air. He made such a loud whoosh that he frightened the geese. The first goose to fly up was in the middle of the rope and all the others followed. As they rose from the lake, they formed a V because they were tied together, and Nanabozho dangled at one end. He shouted to the birds to stop, but the geese only beat the air more desperately with their strong gray wings. Just then the birds flew over a stretch of soft, swampy ground. Nanabozho let go of the rope with a shout and landed in a bed of oozing mud.
As for the geese, they continued on their way, still flying in a V because of the rope that joined them together. Wild geese have been flying that way ever since, as you can see if you look up into the autumn sky when they go calling past. Some think they can hear a note of laughter in their cries as they mock Nanabozho for failing in his trick.
It was not long before Nanabozho forgot the foolish side of his adventure. All he remembered was that he flown through the air. He made up a song celebrating his feat, a song he never tired of singing:
Flocks of wild geese up in the sky,
Nanabozho flew as far and as high.
The people listened respectfully to Nanabozho’s song, but whenever he was out of hearing they sang a different one.
High in the autumn sky
Wild geese are calling
Down from the autumn sky
Nana is falling.