Long ago, when the Anishinabe were living peacefully along the northeastern shore of North America, seven prophets came among the people and gave predictions about the future. Each prophet described an era of time, symbolically represented as a Fire, through which the people would pass. The prophecies were given to guide the people through the challenges and difficulties of each Fire. The Anishinabe would survive because of the wisdom of future generations to remember the prophecies and carefully choose the best path for the people. Collectively, these prophecies became known as The Prophecy of the Seven Fires. In the next series of posts, I will trace the historical fulfillment of the Anishinabe prophecies, ultimately examining the development of the New People in the Age of the Seventh Fire. The first time period addresses the Anishinabe migration from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean westward to the upper Midwest. This is the period of the first three Fires. The second time period is the arrival of the Light-skinned race, which is the time of the Fourth Fire. I will address not only the coming of the Light-skinned race, but also the historical circumstances of their arrival. The Fifth and Sixth Fires deal with the history of cultural genocide the Light-skinned race brought upon the Native Americans. This period begins with the arrival of the Europeans and continues to the present. Finally, we will examine the birth of the New People in our time and the choice we all face. The prophecies will be presented in bold block format and are cited from The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway, written by Edward Benton-Banai.
The first three prophets that came among the Anishinabe instructed them to prepare the entire nation for a great westward migration. The Anishinabe were told that they would begin and end their journey on turtle-shaped islands connected to the purification of the Earth. They would follow the sacred Megis shell, which would appear out of the water seven times at sacred places where the people would stop to rest. The Megis shell would thus guide them to their promised land, a land to the west where they would find food growing upon the water. Along the way, they were warned that they would lose their way and all would be in confusion for a time, but they would be led in the right direction once again. The prophets instructed them to have faith in the traditional ways and look to the Midewiwin Lodge, the medicine society of the Anishinabe, for guidance. The prophets warned the Anishinabe that they would face total annihilation if they did not migrate to the west:
The first prophet said to the people, “In the time of the First Fire, the Anishinabe nation will rise up and follow the Sacred Shell of the Midewiwin Lodge. The Midewiwin Lodge will serve as a rallying point for the people and its traditional ways will be the source of much strength. The Sacred Megis will lead the way to the chosen ground of the Anishinabe. You are to look for a turtle-shaped island that is linked to the purification of the Earth. You will find such an island at the beginning and end of your journey. There will be seven stopping places along the way. You will know that the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows on water. If you do not move, you will be destroyed.”
The second prophet told the people, “You will know the Second Fire because at this time the nation will be camped by a large body of water. In this time the direction of the Sacred Shell will be lost. The Midewiwin will diminish in strength. A boy will be born to point the way back to the traditional ways. He will show the direction to the stepping stones to the future of the Anishinabe people.”
The third prophet said to the people, “In the Third Fire, the Anishinabe will find the path to their chosen ground, a land in the West to which they must move their families. This will be the land where food grows on water.”
(Map depicting the Anishinabe Migration – from The Mishomis Book)
The historical record confirms the words of the prophets. Through the various disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, history, and linguistics, we are able to trace the Anishinabe on their migration journey. There are, however, several allegorical mysteries and deeper cultural symbolism hidden in the words of the prophets that need further examination if we are to understand the full significance of the prophecy. The symbolism of the Megis shell, for example, rising from the water at the seven stopping places along the migration route requires greater explanation.
Ojibway historian William Warren wrote the first history of the Anishinabe Ojibway in 1852 (History of the Ojibway People), after gathering hundreds of accounts from elders, historical narratives, and observations of the customs and ways of the people. While observing a Midewiwin ceremony, he heard the following account of the Ojibway migration and the appearances of the sacred Megis shell: “While our forefathers were living on the great salt water toward the rising sun, the great Megis (sea-shell) showed itself above the surface of the great water, and the rays of the sun for a long period were reflected from its glossy back. It gave warmth and light to the An-ish-in-aub-ag (red race). All at once it sank into the deep, and for a time our ancestors were not blessed with its light. It rose to the surface and appeared again on the great river which drains the waters of the Great Lakes, and again for a long time it gave life to our forefathers, and reflected back the rays of the sun. Again it disappeared from sight and it rose not, till it appeared to the eyes of the An-ish-in-aub-ag on the shores of the first great lake. Again it sank from sight, and death daily visited the wigwams of our forefathers, till it showed its back, and reflected the rays of the sun once more at Bow-e-ting (Sault Ste. Marie). Here it remained for a long time, but once more, and for the last time, it disappeared, and the An-ish-in-aub-ag was left in darkness and misery, till it floated and once more showed its bright back at Mo-ning-wun-a-kaun-ing (La Pointe Island), where he has ever since reflected back the rays of the sun, and blessed our ancestors with life, light, and wisdom. Its rays reach the remotest village of the widespread Ojibways.”
Seeking clarification and understanding of the narrative he had heard, Warren sought out one of the Midewiwin elders and inquired about the meaning of the migration story. He brought some tobacco and a gift, as is the custom when one wishes to learn from an elder. The old man accepted the gifts and offered the following explanation: “My grandson, the Megis I spoke of, means the Me-da-we religion. Our forefathers, many strings of lives ago, lived on the shores of the Great Salt Water in the east. Here it was, that while congregated in a great town, and while they were suffering the ravages of sickness and death, the Great Spirit, at the intercession of Man-ab-o-sho, the great common uncle of the An-ish-in-aub-ag, granted them this rite wherewith life is restored and prolonged. Our forefathers moved from the shores of the great water, and proceeded westward. The Me-da-we lodge was pulled down and it was not again erected, till our forefathers again took a stand on the shores of the great river near where Mo-ne-aung (Montreal) now stands. In the course of time this town was again deserted, and our forefathers still proceeding westward, lit not their fires till they reached the shores of Lake Huron, where again the rites of the Me-da-we were practiced. Again these rites were forgotten, and the Me-da-we lodge was not built till the Ojibways found themselves congregated at Bow-e-ting (outlet of Lake Superior), where it remained for many winters. Still the Ojibways moved westward, and for the last time the Me-da-we lodge was erected on the Island of La Pointe, and here, long before the pale face appeared among them, it was practiced in its purest and most original form. Many of our fathers lived the full term of life granted to mankind by the Great Spirit, and the forms of many old people were mingled with each rising generation. This, my grandson, is the meaning of the words you did not understand; they have been repeated to us by our fathers for many generations.”
From Warren’s account of the Midewiwin migration story, we learn that the identity of the symbolic Megis shell can be found in the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Lodge. When the power of the Midewiwin diminished and the people grew weary of their surroundings, they migrated further westward. When the Midewiwin ceremonies were revived, and the sacred Megis, emblem of the Midewiwin initiates, was seen once again, the Anishinabe would stop their migration and settle for a time. As the migration followed waterways, the people saw the sacred Megis shell, symbolic of the Midewiwin Lodge, rise from the water and appear before them. Thus, the revival of the Midewiwin Lodge signified a time to stop the migration, rest, and give thanks to the Creator through the Midewiwin rites.
(Sacred Megis Shell)
The first stopping place on the Anishinabe migration was a turtle-shaped island, located in the St. Lawrence River, near present-day Montreal, which the first prophet said was connected to the purification of the earth. The Anishinabe faced many enemies as they walked westward. The territory along the St. Lawrence River was the ancestral ground of the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) warred with the Anishinabe and several skirmishes broke out along the way to the second stopping place, Niagara Falls, a mysterious place filled with the sound of thunder and considered sacred by both the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinabe. At Niagara Falls, the Seneca (Keepers of the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) offered a wampum belt signifying friendship to the Anishinabe. The wampum belt was accepted and a lasting peace was initiated that has continued to the present day.
The third stopping place was near the Detroit River, and may have been where the Three Fires Confederacy was born. Along the migration journey, three distinct nations emerged from the Anishinabe, each accountable for different responsibilities. The Potawatomi (the Fire People) were the keepers of the Sacred Fire; the Ottawa (the Middle Men) negotiated trade alliances with other nations; and the Ojibway (the Spiritual Leaders) were keepers of the Sacred Mide Scrolls and the Waterdrum of the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Lodge. As the three nations progressed along the migration journey, they each developed into a distinct people, yet all retained their identity as Anishinabe and worked for the common good. Collectively, the Anishinabe became known as the nation of the Three Fires or the Three Fires Confederacy. The Ottawa and Potawatomi found lands that suited them, and so they chose to remain behind while the Ojibway proceeded westward.
It was on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the fourth stopping place on the migration, that the Prophecy of the Second Fire was fulfilled. The Second Prophet spoke of a time when the people would lose their way. A boy would be born who would point the way back to the traditional ways and lead them to the “stepping stones to the future of the Anishinabe people”. Such a boy was born and he led the people across a chain of islands from Manitoulin Island to Sault Ste. Marie, the fifth stopping place on the migration. By canoe, the migration continued across these islands, across these stepping-stones, to the future of the Anishinabe nation. Manitoulin Island was the largest of the islands in the chain, and it was there that the Midewiwin Lodge initiated a revival of traditional ways.
As the Anishinabe Ojibway migrated west from Sault St. Marie, they faced a new enemy. The Santee Dakota lived in the western Lake Superior region, into which the Anishinabe Ojibway were moving. Early competition over hunting grounds led to full-scale warfare as the Anishinabe Ojibway moved into the Dakota’s territory and settled in what is now northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota. The warfare developed into a retaliatory feud, each nation wanting to avenge the death of one of their own at the hands of their enemy. A time was fast approaching, however, when both the Anishinabe Ojibway and the Santee Dakota would face a common threat to their sovereignty.
When the Anishinabe Ojibway continued their migration west from Sault Ste. Marie, they formed into two large groups, one traveling the northern shore of Lake Superior and the other following the southern shore in search of their chosen grounds. At the far western end of Lake Superior, near what is now Duluth, Minnesota, the Anishinabe Ojibway saw wild rice, the “food that grows on water”. There, on what became known as Spirit Island, the Sacred Megis shell appeared for the sixth time. The Anishinabe had at last reached their chosen ground, but the Prophet of the First Fire had said that the people would begin and end their journey on turtle-shaped islands. The people traveled back eastward along the southern shore to investigate an island offshore of present day Bayfield, Wisconsin, that fit the description given by the prophet. There the sacred Megis shell appeared for the seventh time, and the prophecy of the Third Fire was fulfilled. The Anishinabe Ojibway called the island “Mo-ning-wun´-a-kawn-ing (the place that was dug)”, and it was later called Madeline Island. The Creator had selected this sacred island to be the center of the Anishinabe Ojibway Nation, a place where the Midewiwin could thrive.
The Anishinabe began their historic migration journey around 900 A.D. and by the year 1400 A.D., fully two hundred years before their first contact with European fur traders, they had established themselves in their promised land. The historical odyssey of the first three Fires was at an end, the prophecies having been fulfilled. As the Prophet of the First Fire had warned, those who chose to remain behind rather than migrate westward were destroyed. The Age of the Fourth Fire had dawned.
(Representation of Lake Superior using Ojibway pictographs)