Identity, Appropriation, and Imposters: What do our Aadizookaanag (sacred stories) tell us?

By Alan Corbiere

Perhaps appropriation of identity started with Grey Owl aka Archie Belaney, and spread to Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, aka Sylvester Clarke Long, but it has continued to our present day with Ward Churchill and most recently Joseph Boyden.  The circumstances are different and perhaps so are the motivations.  Some people are earnestly trying to come to terms with the 60s scoop, in which identity and authenticity have been deliberately obfuscated by settler colonialism and the state.  A proliferation of people in eastern Canada are claiming to be Métis status, much to the chagrin of some Métis in the prairies.  Some charge that this state of confusion is being exploited for personal reasons, such as fame, fortune, tax breaks, hunting rights, or maybe psychological reasons.  Indigenous and non-Indigenous critics and academics have weighed in on this phenomenon, but what do our storytellers and stories tell us about ‘getting into another’s skin’?

Long ago, our greatest teacher, Nenabozhoo was walking around hungry, having no luck hunting.[1]  His wife and children were hungry too.  One wintery day he saw a wiigwaam and thought he would visit and mooch a meal.  The wiigwaam was warm and he was welcomed.  Nenabozhoo sat expectantly, hospitality was not just a courtesy, it was a law back then.  In that time, and now for that matter, the manidoog lived like Anishinaabeg and often took Anishinaabe form, especially when they interacted with the Anishinaabeg.  So the man of the house asked his wife to start weaving a bag.  As she busied herself, the man approached her from behind and removed her shoulder strap, exposing her shoulder.  With his knife he sliced off several pieces of meat from her shoulder.  His wife, nonplussed, did not make any sound.  The man then took some ashes and rubbed them on the incision and replaced the shoulder strap.  The man then handed the meat to his wife and she promptly cooked up the elk meat.  Nenabozhoo was captivated.  He ate his fill and then some.  His hosts, who were really elk, told him to take the rest of the meat for his wife and children.  As the food was being packed up, and his hosts attention was elsewhere, Nenabozhoo tucked his mitts under the boughs in the lodge.  Nenabozhoo left.  His hosts noticed the mitts and told their sons to run after Nenabozhoo to return the mitts to their owner.  Nenabozhoo told the boys to tell their father to come over to his wiigwaam tomorrow and he would return the favour by feeding him.

The next day, Nenabozhoo scurried around getting ready.  He sharpened his knife and asked his wife why she never wove bags.  She thought, “Oh god, he must have seen somebody do something.”  So she got out her basswood bark, and needles.  Just then their guest arrived.  Nenabozhoo welcomed him and told him to sit down.  “Woman! Let’s feed our guest!”  To which his wife replied, “With what?  You haven’t brought any food in weeks!” “Oh, woman, just you start your weaving!”  So she started and Nenbozhoo approached her from behind, and removed her should strap. She turned and slapped his hand thinking he was getting frisky!  Nenabozhoo then tried again and told her to just go along with it and keep weaving.  He slipped her shoulder strap off and then grabbed his knife and started to make a cut.  His wife turned to him and screamed out in pain, “What are you doing!” Nenabozhoo then spun her around and tried to take another cut.  She leapt away.  The visitor interceded, “Nenabozhoo, please give me the knife.”  He told the woman to sit back down and start to weave, which she did.  The visitor then removed the strap and made one incision, two incisions, and finally a third.  He then took some ashes and covered the wound and replaced the shoulder strap.  The visitor then handed them over to Nenabozhoo’s wife, who wondered where the elk meat had come from.  Grateful, she promptly cooked it up.

In a few days, the household of Nenabozhoo had no more food and all were hungry again.  Nenabozhoo went hunting each day, to no avail.  He then came across another wiigwaam.  He approached the wiigwaam and hollered.  He was once again welcomed.  Once it was evident that Nenabozhoo was hungry his guest told him to wait while he prepared.  The host opened a bag and removed some onaman (red paint) and painted his forehead.  Next he removed two conical objects and placed them over his nose forming a type of beak.  The host then sang a little song and flew out of the wiigwaam and alighted on a tree.  He moved along the tree, testing for something.  Finally the host arched his head back and slammed his head into the tree rapidly and out popped two raccoons.  The raccoons landed on the ground and tried to flee but the host landed on them and killed them.  He then fed Nenabozhoo and told him to take the rest of the food to his wife and hungry children.  Nenabozhoo again tucked his mitts under the boughs of the lodge before leaving.  Again the sons of the household ran to catch up and deliver the mitts to Nenabozhoo.  Nenabozhoo told these sons to tell their father to come to Nenabozhoo’s wiigwaam for a meal the next day.

The next day Nenabozhoo set to work: he cut some poles and started to carve them into sharp conical points to resemble the beak of his host.  He then scurried around looking for his Onaman (red paint).  His guest showed up.  Nenabozhoo then yelled at his wife, “Woman! Where is my red paint!” Nenabozhoo’s wife grabbed the bundle Nenabozhoo was holding, dug inside and pulled out the paint.  Nenabozhoo said, “Let’s feed out guest!”  Again his wife retorted, “With what?  You haven’t killed anything in days!”  Nenabozhoo ignored her and started to paint his forehead red.  He then secured the conical points over his nose.  Nenabozhoo then sang the song he heard his guest sing and tried to fly out of the wiigwaam but just fell flat at the doorway.  Undeterred, Nenabozhoo then climbed a tree beside the wiigwaam. Once he was high up, he softly tested his new beak against it. “Ouch!”  But he thought perhaps that he had to strike the tree hard to scare the raccoons out of it.  He pulled back his head and slammed his beak into the tree, knocking  himself senseless and landing with a thud on the ground.  Nenabozhoo finally came to and the visitor asked him, “Can I see your paint and your beak?”  Nenabozhoo meekly handed over the beak he had made and his wife grabbed the remaining paint.  The visitor painted himself, applied the beak, and sang his song.  He then flew up to the same tree, tested some spots, settled on one and then rapidly pecked at it.  Two raccoons fell out of the tree and then were quickly killed and cooked.  At this point in the story, Jones recorded that the storyteller, Midaasoganzh ‘Ten claw’ of Bois Forte, stated;

Aweneniwinen dash wiin a’aw [eyiindit] wiikaa gishkegoo Nenaboshoo

“What a fool Nenaboshoo must be to be ever trying to do what (he sees) others do!”[2]

For the Anishinaabeg, the aansookaan/ aadizookaan contain the teachings and our code of conduct, and many times Nenabozhoo teaches by transgressing cultural and societal norms.  He often teaches by doing what should not be done.  However, the lesson that is expressed in these episodes is that knowledge and power is earned, not taken or appropriated.  Although we are a people who value hands on, tactile learning, that learning is based on training and seeking permission from the person with the authority to pass on that knowledge, blessing or power.  One simply can not “do what others do” merely by watching it being done once or twice.  Our medicine people usually serve a long apprenticeship before dispensing medicines.  Similarly, ceremonial leaders who conduct various lodges undergo rigorous training before being given the right to conduct that lodge or ceremony on their own.  Offerings have to be made to earn the right to sing traditional songs.  If these songs are not learned following proper protocol, then some say the song has no power when sung by one who has appropriated it without offerings.  This sentiment is also expressed by elders regarding ceremonial items.  If they are not earned or passed down in a ceremonial manner, they may be rendered useless, or worse, they may be harmful.  In a recent book, “Naamiwan’s Drum,” Roger Roulette transcribed and translated an interview with elder Charlie Owen, the grandson of Naamiwan, a powerful medicine man from Pauingassi.  Charlie Owen talks about ceremonial items, and interestingly states,


We probably weren’t human yet, do you think? These are the work of ancient people.  We only know of them by witnessing them.  That’s what I think. [He concluded by asking] Do you understand this? After one sees something, should one attempt to do it, it wouldn’t work.[3]

Aazha-, gaamashi gigii-anishinaabewisiimin gechinaad naa’a? geteyaadizag o’owe, mii eta gegiinawind e-michi-waabandamang gidizhi-gikendaamin.  Mii enendamaan niin. Ginisidotaan na ‘owe? Awiya gegoon gaa-michi-wabandang, zhigwa ji-gii-doodangiban, gaawiin daa-minosesinoon.


In this excerpt, Owen’s words give expression to the precept conveyed in the above aadizookaanag.  He expressly states that transmitting power cannot occur by merely observing and then mimicking: it will not garner the same results.  The actions of Nenabozhoo mimicking the elk and the woodpecker demonstrate this lesson.  Nenabozhoo merely copied his hosts but failed miserably.  In one episode he hurt his wife and in the second he hurt himself.  This sentiment conveyed in the aadizookaan was also explicitly expressed by Owen, which was transcribed and translated by Roulette,

This is why I say it is difficult for someone to get something of their own volition.  Something would pursue him.  They get ‘baataa’idizod’ from there.  That’s what I’m afraid of… If someone took one of these of their own volition, they wouldn’t know how it worked and how to use it.[4] Zhigwa dash, mii iwe gaa-gii-onji-ikidoyaan zanagan awiya ji-michi-onendang gegoon wiin igo ji-inaadodang gegoo.  Daa-onji-biminizhaawigon gegoon.  Ji-onji-baataa’idizod I’imaa. Mii iwe gaa-gii-gotamaan… maagizhaa bezhig awiya gegoon bagwana, odaapinang, gaawiin oga-gikendanziin aaniin gaa-inanokiimaganinig ji-giizhi-aabajitoopan.

I have heard elders from Manitoulin Island say the same thing.  They see a lot of young people with pipes and they have said that it is scary because the elders are not sure if some of these young people know what they are doing or whether they have earned that pipe yet.  Ceremonial items have power and may do harm if the one wielding it is not trained.  The ceremonies are also about employing and deploying power and thus can be dangerous, especially when someone conducts a sweatlodge without having the proper training.  This understanding is expressed by the elders and the storytellers.  However, it is not only the ceremonies and ceremonial items that have power, it is also the songs and the individual who has earned the right to sing them.  Transferring the right to songs was accomplished in several ways.  Nenabozhoo demonstrates one sneaky way in the following episode.

After the underwater manidoog killed Nenabozhoo’s nephew, the wolf,  Nenabozhoo sought revenge.  He tracked the wolf and saw that the wolf’s last tracks led into a river, so he followed the course of that river to its outlet at a lake.  There he met the kingsfisher who informed Nenabozhoo that it was the underwater manidoog that killed his nephew.  The kingfisher also told him how to kill the chief of the underwater manidoog, Mishibizhiw.  Nenabozhoo waited for his opportunity and then attacked the chief of the underwater manidoog.  However, in his rage, Nenabozhoo did not properly execute the instructions imparted to him and thus the chief of the underwater manidoog was wounded but survived the attack.  The underwater manidoog flooded the earth and Nenabozhoo fled to the hills.  He realized his mistake and decided to go back and finish the job.  As he returned to the river mouth, Nenabozhoo heard someone singing.  He stealthily approached this person and listened to the song.  This person was wearing rattles around their ankles, carried a staff and danced while singing.


Aki ekwaag nimbishinawishin, nimbishinawishin saa

Aki ekwaag nimbishinawishin, nimbishinawishin saa.[5]

From the ends of the earth do I come with the sound of my rattles, saa

From the ends of the earth do I come with the sound of my rattles, saa


Nenabozhoo approached this old Toad Woman, Magkii-mindimowenh, and complimented her wonderful singing and asked what she was doing.  “I am laying a snare for Nenabozhoo.  He wounded my son, Mishibizhiw!  I am laying out this basswood rope and making a net.  If Nenabozhoo trips on it, a giant rock will be flung to that place, killing him!”  Nenabozhoo said, “Oh nookomis (my grandmother) let me help you.  Your hands are full with that staff and rope in the other.  Let me ease your burden, I can carry that coil of rope, you don’t need to carry it on your back.”  “Miigwech Noozhis (my grandchild), that is kind of you.” “Nookomis, why do you want to kill Nenabozhoo?”  “Because his arrow sticks out of my son, my son is barely alive!”  Nenabozhoo then craftily asked the old lady the meaning and purpose of her song,


“Nookomis! Aaniin dash wiin i’iw i’iwe gi-bimi-nagamoyan?”

“Kaa, gaawiin-ash wiin ni-nanaandawi’aanaan a’aw ogimaa, mii dash iw ena’amaan i’iwe nanaandawi’ag:

‘Aki ekwaag nimbishinawashin.’

“Mii sa iw aapiji geniin niminotaagoo.  Nagamon onishishin.”[6]


“O my grandmother! Pray, what was that you were singing about?”

“Oh, why, we are ministering to the chief; and this is what I sing when I am attending him:

“From the ends of the earth do I come with the sound of my rattles”

It is so much pleasure I impart when I sing.  The song is fine.”


Nenabozhoo then questioned the old lady about her abode.  The old lady, flattered by the attention, revealed the location of her house and where the wounded chief lay.  She also accidentally reiterated the information that the kingfisher had imparted to Nenabozhoo, namely that the Mishibizhiw could only be killed by stabbing in his shadow.  Finally Nookomis got suspicious, “Hey! What if you are Nenabozhoo?”  “Pshaw!  Don’t you think you would be dead by now if I were Nenabozh?” Nenabozhoo continued,

Nookoo! Daga, miinawaa maajii’an gi-nagamon! Gaawiin gwej nin-gikendaziin i’iw gi-nagamon.”

O my grandmother! Do start that song of yours once more!  Not exactly yet do I know that song of yours.”

The old lady obliged and Nenabozhoo sang it back to her.  She smiled and Nenabozhoo clubbed her over the head and killed her.  He then flayed her, shrunk himself to her height and weight, and then he put on her skin.  He fit it snugly, but tore a bit by the hip, a small tear.  He tied the rattles to his ankles, bore the basswood rope on his back, and started singing and dancing back to the old lady’s house, which was underwater.  Nenabozhoo had no trouble walking underwater wearing the toad-skin.  He passed two guards, mishi-ginebigoog (giant snakes), who questioned his identity.  “How dare you question your elder!” and he swatted them over the head with the staff.  “Gaawii njida Nookomis! (Sorry grandmother)” These two let him through.  He then went to the partition and saw Mishibizhiw laying there, still bleeding.   The next two guards stopped him, but Nenabozhoo started to sing the healing song and they too let him pass.  As Nenabozhoo approached Mishibizhiw one of the Mishiginebig noticed the tear at the hip and shouted, “That is not Nookomis!” Nenabozhoo then sprung forward, removed the protruding arrow and thrust it into Mishibizhiw’s shadow.  Mishibizhiw howled! The water swirled, the current increased, and all were flung asunder.  Somehow Nenabozhoo made it to land and ran to the raft he had prepared and most of you will know the rest of this story.

Guided by emotions instead of hunger, Nenabozhoo takes a different tact this time.  He gently goads the old Toad Woman into teaching him the doctoring song that she employs.  Nenabozhoo carries her burden and asks her to sing the song for him and she does so, thus the song has been knowingly transferred to Nenabozhoo by the person who has the authority to do so.  Here it is the Old Toad Woman who errs.  She is too careless with her power and she gives her information away too freely.  She is not guarded about her power or the power of the information that she carries.  As a result of her loquaciousness, the chief of the underwater manidoog whom she is trying to heal is killed.

What does all of this have to do with Boyden, Churchill, Belaney, Long, and a plethora of others?  Am I calling them “Nenabozhoo”? Are they “tricksters”?  No, I am not calling them tricksters, that would be a compliment.  I am saying that our storytellers and our stories contain information about people taking another’s identity.  The stories teach us about precautions that should be taken to prevent appropriation and identity theft.  This appropriation of knowledge and identity is not benign.  In fact, it is an extension of settler colonialism.  Settler colonialism is relentless, it morphs, it adapts to mainstream societal goals while appearing to appease or ‘reconcile’ injustices identified by Indigenous people.  The perniciousness of appropriation and identity theft can have damaging results.  In this age of reconciliation, the voice of community people should be privileged, and not supplanted by those appropriating an identity seeking authenticity.


Jones, William. Ojibwa Texts, Volume VII, Part I, Publications of the American Ethnological Society.  Leyden, MA: E.J. Brill Limited, Publishers and Printers, 1917.

Matthews, Maureen. Naamiwan’s Drum: The story of a contested repatriation of Anishinaabe Artefacts. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

[1] This is a paraphrase of the version told by Midaasoganzh of Bois Forte to Fox anthropologist linguist William Jones.  Midaasoganzh in William Jones, Ojibwa Texts, Volume VII, Part I, Publications of the American Ethnological Society, (Leyden, MA: E.J. Brill Limited, Publishers and Printers, 1917), 298 – 311.

[2] Midaasoganzh in William Jones, Ojibwa Texts, Volume VII, Part I, Publications of the American Ethnological Society, (Leyden, MA: E.J. Brill Limited, Publishers and Printers, 1917), p. 315.

[3] Maureen Matthews, Naamiwan’s Drum: The story of a contested repatriation of Anishinaabe Artefacts, (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 36.

[4] Maureen Matthews, Naamiwan’s Drum: The story of a contested repatriation of Anishinaabe Artefacts, (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 47.

[5] Other translations of the song would be: “From the beginning of the world has the sound of my voice been heard; From the ends of the earth is the sound of my coming.”  The second rendition is preferred to the first, but the one given in the story is preferred to all (Jones 1917, footnote p. 262).

[6] Jones 1917, p. 263.