Ladder to the Sky
Ojibway Myths & Legends
Long ago, in the old, forgotten time, Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit, created only strong, healthy people.
In those days, all the men were tall and brave. They could run like the storm wind. In their games, they were clever and swift, and knew all the secrets of the four-legged ones – the forest animals who were their brothers.
The women in those times sang as they worked. Their clear voices filled the forest with melodies, and they walked with light step and straight back, Even when they were very old. They copied the fragrant flowers that grew like colored stars among the grasses. They wove flower shapes into bright bands to bind their long, black hair. With nimble fingers, the women wove the rushes and reeds into sweet smelling mats to cover the floors of their wigwams. They gathered milkweed down to make soft beds for their babies. From birch bark they could make a strong container, a mukkuk, to fill with all the plenty of woodland and stream.
Nobody was ever sick in those days. Nobody died. When somebody grew old, Manitou sent one of the shining spirit messengers down the magic vine that grew in the very center of the Ojibway lands. The vine grew in the earth, but its far off top was looped around a star. The shining spirit messenger would carry the old one up and up and up through the vine’s great leaves, up into the sky itself. There the old ones lived forever, watching over their beloved people and the campfires twinkling below.
The Ojibway people were forbidden to touch the magic vine. It was a living ladder connecting the earth with Manitou’s great blue sky home.
Other spirit messengers also came to earth from time to time to see that everything was going well. These spirits came down the magic vine from the North, the South, the East, and the West, from every corner of Gitchi Manitou’s kingdom.
They took the form of Indians, and they would walk through a village or a camp and speak to every person living there, no matter how young, no matter how old.
“Are you content?” the spirits would ask. “Is there anything you need?” Everyone was treated the same. In the eyes of the Great Spirit, all were equal.
But one day, in one of the villages, discontent began to grow like a dark thorn bush shadow spreading along the pathways.
In this village, the people saw that there spirit messenger favored a certain young man who had lived among them all his life in the lodge of his loving grandmother. Every time the spirit appeared, it would invite the young man to walk arm in arm with it through the village. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
The people were jealous, and their anger grew. They feared the spirit, but they did not fear the young man. Whenever he was alone, they gathered stones in secret and shouted insults at the young man. Sharp stones flew at him from hidden places.
The poor young man was afraid to go about in the village. But he was afraid to stay in his grandmother’s lodge too. All night he could hear the sounds of villagers circling the lodge and muttering threats. At last, he only wished to leave his village. He wanted to disappear into the sky with the spirit messenger.
One day the spirit appeared in the old woman’s lodge where the sad young man was sitting. The spirit stretched out its arms. “Your sad thoughts have reached me. You shall come with me and live in the kingdom of Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit forever.”
Desperately, the grandmother tried to clutch her grandson’s arm but before she could touch him or cry out the young man was wrapped in a crackling blue light. It carried him in a flash through the air and up the magic vine.
The spirit and the young man were gone!
The old woman wailed and shouted for him to return. “Begawain! Begawain! Come back! Come back!” But there was no answer.
When darkness fell on the village, the grandmother crept along the forest edge until she reached the forbidden vine. When she came near the vine, it began to give off a wild light and a force from within it seemed to be pushing her away. But old women have a force of their own. She broke through the power of the vine and wrapped her arms around its cold stem. All night she climbed. The vine swayed and buckled under her weight, but still she went up and up and up.
When the sun rose, the people awoke and saw that the old woman’s lodge was empty! They searched everywhere for her. Where could she be?
Then someone shouted and pointed to the sky. Ayeee! The people were horrified. They could see the old woman, but she was only a small speck climbing that forbidden vine where it nearly touched the sun. She had disobeyed Gitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit!
“Begawain!” they shouted at her. “Come back!”
The vine rippled and shuddered, but still she went on. The vine looked as thin as a hair.
“You old witch!” they screamed. “Come back!”
“Set fire to her lodge,” cried the chiefs. “She is bringing shame and disaster to us all!”
Now at last the old woman was near the top where the vine was a thin tendril tied to a star. Her tired fingers reached out to pull her weary body past the star anchor and onto the floor of the sky kingdom.
But, after all, this magic vine was made only for spirits to use.
SNAP! CRAAAASH! A sound like thunder followed the young man’s grandmother as she plummeted to earth!
The sound was heard in all the villages in all four corners of the Ojibway forest nation. And from all four corners the people swept in like a great wind to gather in a circle where the grandmother lay in the cold ruins of the magic vine. They pushed and pulled at her.
“What will happen to us now?” they cried.
The grandmother covered her ears to keep out the angry shouts.
“What punishment have you brought down on us, you old witch?”
They did not have to wait long for their answer. Pain and discomfort began to strike first this one, then that one. Their legs ached. Their heads hurt. Some could not walk. Others could not speak. Some of the people fell to the ground. They looked like they were asleep, but they did not move or breathe.
A sorrow and a stillness hung like a black robe over all the land. There was no more singing. There were no more games. No longer did the sounds of contented people soothe the sun to its evening rest. Now the people understood: Disease and death were their punishment. What could they do? They could only wait.
Then one day, the air was filled with strange blue lights, and the spirit beings came drifting down out of the sky. Their faces were sad. They had no blessing for the people. They had no gifts. All the spirits raised their voices together.
“One of you chose to disobey Gitchi Manitou. Now your punishment is upon you. From this time forward, disease and pain will live among your people. The sacred vine was always, from the beginning of all time, your connection to the sky kingdom where you would finally live forever. The connection has been broken. Your people will no longer live forever. Now all must die when their time comes. But Gitchi Manitou has sent us back to show you how to release your people from pain and misery. Watch!:”
And the spirits spread their arms until they were filled with all the flowers and all the growing plants on earth. These they dried with their warm hands and blowing on the leaves and petals, scattered them again over all the Ojibway lands.
“Gitchi Manitou sends us here to say that every flower that buds can serve a wise and healing purpose. Every blade of grass can be useful. Growing everywhere around you are plants that will cure all illnesses and help all those in pain.” The spirits seemed to be speaking with one silvery voice. “You have always woven the supple reed into mats for your wigwams. You have always spread your blankets over fragrant cedar branches and pine boughs. You have always looked at the delicate flowers and twisting woodland vines and copied their shapes and colors to decorate your clothes. “But now we will choose from among you the Midiwiwin – The Grand Medicine People. We will show the Midiwiwin the secrets of the plants. The Midiwiwin will learn to use the roots and petals and stems and leaves to make you well when you fall sick. In their Medicine Lodges, the Midiwiwin will call out to the Great Spirit. They will sing their songs and dance their sacred dances in honor of these truths. From this time forward, these secrets will be known to the Ojibway people. From this time forward, the Midiwiwin will help cure you of your miseries.”
With relief and joy the people returned to their homes.
The disobedient old woman lived with her shame until the day she died.
All of those things happened a long, long time ago, but the Ojibway people have never forgotten which plants cure disease. They have never forgotten the secrets that Gitchi Manitou told them. Even today, when someone is sick or in pain, the Midiwiwin can find and use the healing goodness that springs up everywhere from the earth.