by Shirley Brozzo
On some days when the sky above is clear and filled with sunshine, or coated in fleeting white clouds, he takes life slowly. At times there is barely a ripple to disturb his calmness. It is the type of day that fishermen rejoice in and the freighters carrying goods through the Soo Locks to Duluth, Minnesota, bask in serenity. Along populated shores Native and non-Native swimmers delight in the calmness and venture into his cool confines. People seeking a relaxed afternoon with a picnic basket or a beach blanket for sunning themselves flock to his banks. Individuals with children or with dogs walk along the beachfront, playing in the calm waters, building sand castles, or throwing rocks or sticks into his great expanse. Writers, or people who are stressed, wander along his shores seeking solace from the gentle movements of the water. Meanwhile, desolate areas are caressed as he ebbs and flows as a part of his life, much like we breathe in and out without having to think about it. But don’t let Misshepeshu fool you. His attitude changes without warning.
Like a drunk taken in by the bottle, his demeanor changes. His waters begin churning and bubbling. A once calm exterior is replaced with waves large enough to scare off small water crafts and make freighter pilots pay close attention to the waters before them. The fish people and others who live in Misshepeshu’s world head for nooks and crannies, the hiding places within his confines, only venturing out for a quick bite to eat, and then darting back into hiding again. Near cities thrill seekers congregate along the shore. Some are drawn by the idea of being able to surf on Superior, the greatest of lakes. These people taunt Misshepeshu by surfing or trying to swim, not realizing the power he has to create swiftly moving undercurrents, undertows and whirlpools.
The winged people have trouble staying afloat or diving for food and fight to return to the sky, a sky which even reflects Misshepeshu’s mood by turning ugly grey, cloudy, and often blustery. Foolish individuals choosing to traverse his shores are bundled up as they still seek refuge from their reality. Once gentle caresses along barren shores become angry slaps as he unleashes his fury. There is very little to be done to appease him then, with one exception.
All too often when Misshepeshu gets like this, he claims the lives and souls of those who do not understand his greatness, his power, his strength. Those who do not understand or respect his omnipotence and provoke him by venturing into his domain when he is like this find themselves caught up in his viselike grip, from which there is often no escape. He has claimed fishermen, swimmers, and sightseers who do not understand him like the local Ojibwe people do.
Our people know he demands reverence. He demands respect. For when he doesn’t receive them and his fury turns to rage, like the uncontrollable alcoholic, he doesn’t care what happens. Together with the spirit of the skies he conjures up the worst conditions imaginable. Great black clouds reflect his disposition. Gale force winds fly across his vast expanse as colossal waves rise up to join them. A single soul is not enough to placate this spirit so he reaches out for freighters-full, like the Edmund Fitzgerald. The word of the day for the fish people is “dive, dive, dive.” They all head for the depths, trying to escape. Foolhardy people assemble near the break wall at Presque Isle or near bridges to marvel at his magnificence, but sometimes forget that although a single soul may not fed his hunger, it is a start. Too many forget to honor him, and lose their lives.
In punishment he gobbles up lakeshore cabins in Grand Marais, beach homes in Ironwood, and small boats from the Marquette Marina until he exacts his dues. Uninhabited areas fare no better as he pummels shorelines, swallowing trees from Isle Royale and dropping cliff sides from Pictured Rocks, then spiting them out miles away. His tirade may last for an hour or for days, until he feels appeased. He can be the most docile of creatures, if people would just remember to offer tobacco and to respect him. But, since we are humans and tend to forget, he will continue taking revenge soul by soul.
Like the local Ojibwe, learn to respect Lake Superior and the lake spirit who dwells within, before another life is lost. Don’t take chances when it isn’t safe. Keep your boats and ships safely in harbor. Don’t try to swim out to Picnic Rocks. Don’t venture too near the edge of the cliffs at Presque Isle or Pictured Rocks. Remember that Creator wants you to stay safe.
Shirley Brozzo is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Tribe of Chippewa Indians and is currently the Associate Director of the Multicultural Education and Resource Center at Northern Michigan University (NMU) and a Contingent Assistant Professor for NMU’s Center for Native American Studies.