By Center for Native American Studies Professor Aimée Cree Dunn ’04 MA
Red Cliff tribal member Walt Bresette often reminded us:
"We have not yet mourned our pines"
For several decades at the turn of the twentieth century, the Northwoods underwent what was called literally “The Big Cut.” Forests from horizon to horizon were leveled. Wildfires induced by the conditions left by the massive logging operations and lumber mills destroyed much of what was not cut. Today we have only around 1% of the original precolonial forests left here in Anishinaabeg Akiing, in the North Country.
Much of what was cut were pine, or, in Anishinaabemowin, the Zhingwaak. Early Europeans' accounts tell of regularly finding pines seven to ten feet in diameter. Trees so tall your head touches your shoulder blades trying to see the top. We have remnants left of these great forests at places like Hartwick Pines near Grayling, Michigan.
The pines, like so many other trees of the northern forest, shape Anishinaabe culture with the gifts they offer. From tea (offered by both white and red pines) to flour (many prefer the white pine to the red) to stately beauty, they are generous and represent the quintessential Northwoods. I would go so far to say that, like the paper birch, cedar, and sugar maple, the Zhingwaak define the forests of Anishinaabeg Akiing.
One of these, Giizhik, or the cedar, is an amazing tree with some astonishing abilities as well as gifts, some of which I rhapsodize over in the video (see below) on my blog, waysofthewildwood.com. Like Zhingwaak, along with edible qualities, Giizhik offers many utilitarian gifts as well, including wood for use in making the jimaan or birchbark canoe and, I believe, frames for snowshoes among many other things.
Giizhik is also one of the Four Sacred Medicines in Anishinaabe culture, providing such qualities as purification and protection. The other Medicines include asemaa (tobacco), wiingashk (sweetgrass), and sage. The Four Sacred Medicines are part of the Anishinaabe Medicine Wheel, a philosophical/theological/cosmological concept based on cyclical principles, egalitarianism, and balance, a cultural concept that relates to all aspects of life and our relationship with all beings.
When harvesting the gifts offered by Zhingwaak and Giizhik, offering a gift in return is part of the cyclical, egalitarian philosophy. It’s part of maintaining the balance between giver and receiver. This balance includes simple gratitude for the one offering the gift. These teachings from the Medicine Wheel are what underlie the principles of the Honorable Harvest, a key concept for all foragers. It is key to a good relationship with those other beings with whom we share this Earth.