- As a note, this blog will be on hiatus for the next several months after this posting. There are no less than three manuscripts I need to to work on, and winter is the best time to do this for me. Take care!
Hello again folks!
This is a post I have been sitting on for a long time. They are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is reluctance to actually post it for sure. There is a lot of aspects of my personal practice in this post, and it is definitely what you would call “close to home.” In short this is real personal stuff, and putting it out there, especially on the internet, leaves me vulnerable in a lot of ways. My spiritual path is really personal to me, and it’s the kind of thing that gives me anxiety about going in-depth.
The second concern of mine is cultural appropriation. I go to great lengths to avoid that, and when I explore and talk about cultures outside my own, I do everything I can to approach that with respect and without exploitation. I am the descendant of settlers on land that I’m not indigenous to. But that’s where a big struggle of mine has come from in my spiritual practice.
Because the fact is that I’m an orphan of two worlds. My ancestors colonized and settled in the US early in it’s history, and thus I can count at least seven generations from the last immigration in my lineage. That means, for most purposes, I am not European. I’m distantly removed from all of those cultures, and I wasn’t raised in any of them. So while I count a whole host of European country among my distant ancestry, I am not native to any of them.
At the same time, I’m not Native American in any way, nor is the spirituality I practice. I reside on Anishinaabe land, but I was not raised in those cultures either. So it leaves me in a weird place, where it leaves me with a deep discomfort when I look to ancestral or sometimes, Native cultures, for inspiration for my own path. I’m not sure I can truly ‘claim’ either, and so I’m a cultural orphan. In many ways, American to the core. Rootless also comes to mind.
So, when practicing my own spirituality, I have to start with where I am. With the land beneath my feet, and where I exist right now. In other words, I would have to come up with a kind of animism all my own. I would have to create something for myself. In a way, make it up from scratch. At the same time, I am the descendant of countless ancestral animisms, as well as a settler on Native American land. I knew that whatever I created, had to honor and respect these multiple cultural realities.
I don’t want to create a fantasy for myself, but something really grounded in my own history, and the history of Michigan. Also, deeply grounded in the natural world. Something rooted in the forests, lands, and waters of my homeland. Michigan is home to me, and that means coming to some kind of terms with my past as a colonial-settler, as well as honoring the living indigenous people of these lands. The process would mean taking inspiration (being in-spirited) by ancestral paths, as well as ones native to where I call home.
So, a kind of hybrid spirituality would likely be the result. A kind of inspired synthesis, that would be something I could call my own. To build new relationships with the land, but in a way that is uniquely my own.
I knew that changing relationships would involve a changing of names, and a language to frame those new relationships. Because, language in many ways shapes worldview. I can’t speak any ancestral languages (aside from English which = Germanic), I also can’t speak any Anishinaabe. As such, I would also need new names, and new grammar for those names.
As such, a kind of ‘spiritual grammar’ was the result I came up with. A way of building new words and names for shaping new relationships. First, it had to acknowledge and honor Native American peoples of where I am now, which are primarily the Ojibwe/Chippewa, Odawa, and Pottawatomi peoples. As the First People, the Native name should be used if known and appropriate, and if not; a first root of a new name should, if possible, be a ‘root” (not a whole word), from one of three peoples above. The second, (or add’l), roots could be partial words from my own ancestry, mostly Indo-European (Norse/Germanic/Anglo-Saxon/Celtic), and Finno-Uralic. (Finland mostly).
So let’s take a peek at what that looks like;
O-wash-ta-nong (“Far Away Water”)/Wash’akwa (“Far Water”)/Miitg’akwa (“Water Tree”)
(The Grand River and it’s tributaries. It looks like a tree, with ‘roots’ in Lake Michigan.)
These are my working names for the Grand River (and the spirit there of), and it’s various tributaries. One of which is just down the road from my house, so I often bring this spirit various biodegradable offerings, usually water, herbs, or earth.
The first part of the word is from the Native name of the river, O-wash-ta-nong (think Washtenaw county), meaning ‘far away water’ . The second part is the proto-Indo-European root for ‘water’, akwa. (See aqua as an example.) Together, I tried to keep the original meaning of the name, roughly ‘far water’, owing to the overall length of the river. (Longest in Michigan.)
Yet, the name and my continued relationship with the river has changed the meaning, symbolism, and story behind it. It has also come to mean ‘water tree’ for me. The Grand River watershed looks like a tree, albeit a bit of a leaning one. It reminds me a lot of the Nordic World Tree, with several contemporary cities hanging from the ‘branches’ of the river, such as Grand Haven near the ‘root’, and Jackson towards the top of the Water Tree.
My wife and I went to Grand Haven in last year, and I have been processing this whole concept ever since. I once read, that sometimes certain cultures would structure their worldview around rivers. Like the Shaman’s Tree, ‘upriver’ could equate to Upper Worlds, and ‘downriver’ could correspond to Lower Worlds. This is really fascinating to me, as this would make Lake Michigan a kind of underworld, at the ‘roots’ of the Water Tree. It makes me think of all the ghostly shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.
More than this, you have probably heard the common refrain “water is life”. So this could also be framed as a kind of Tree of Life symbolism.
Oni-järvi (“Portage Lake”)
(One of my pictures of Portage Lake)
This spirit is another local water spirit, that is just near to my house. It’s a lake, and part of the larger Waterloo Recreation Area. It is also part of the Grand River watershed, though has a spirit uniquely their* own. Like with the Grand River above, offerings are usually biodegradable; water, herbs, or earth. Sometimes small stones. Plunk!
The name for this spirit is a combination of the first part of the word, onigam, meaning ‘portage’ (from Ojibwe People’s Dictionary), and the Finnish word for ‘lake’, järvi , maintaining the same name as in English.
Perhaps the best association I can make for this spirit is one of peace, relaxation, healing and refreshment. This is mostly a swimming or kayaking lake for me, and I find it often brings relief to aching bodies and a certain peace of mind.
Mishi-Tapio (“Large/Big Forest Spirit”)/Metsola
This is the name I use for my family land, that I recently inherited the stewardship of. Both versions of the name start with an Ojibwe root. Mishigami is said to be the Ojibwe name for Michigan, and means large water. Tapio is the name of a Finnish forest spirit/deity, who is concerned with animals and dwells in the forest. Metsola here, is just a Finnish word for a ‘forested place’, from the root word metsä, meaning ‘forest’, and -la which implies a place.
Thus the overall name is a name for a forest spirit, and one that I originally met on my family land. It would take a whole other post for me to discuss all the layers, and how much I have been taught, by this particular spirit. Hunting, deer, forestry, survival, animism… There is a lot there. Short version, trees are very sacred to me as well as for my Finnish and Nordic ancestors, and they were very important for the Anishinaabe people too.
Unnamed Waterloo Spirits
(That’s a nice boulder… One of my own pictures in Waterloo Recreation Area.)
I live in the largest state park in Michigan’s lower peninsula, and I spend a lot of time in those forests. There are at least two more spirits I have encountered that seem to be forest spirits similar to the one above. I felt them most strongly around rocky formations, and have left offerings like those above to these spirits. I haven’t named them just yet, but they are on my radar. I don’t have a lot more information beyond that, and that illustrates that this work is always a “work-in-progress” Moving on.
I made this map as a kind of “spiritual geography” for the local spirits mentioned above. The are tied to forests and landforms, and so that made them easy to plot on a map of Jackson county. I left the areas vague for personal reasons.
There is of course a lot more to say, but I hope the takeaway here is that I am working hard to make an animism that is my own. It is taking shape, but there is a lot more work to do, building relationships, learning stories, study, study, and more study. I have no real idea where this might go, but it is starting to look like my very own folklore, that ties together various parts of my own past, present and future.
That’s all I have for now,
Thanks for readings!
*I typically refrain to gendering spirits, unless corrected otherwise. Neutral language is selected here.
** All throughout this piece I will refer to the beings in question as “spirits”. While it is true that spirits as I understand them vary widely in scale and influence, I have made no distinction between what might be called a deity in this post. Most the spirits basically encompass ecosystems, and may well fit the bill, but that is not the point here. I have selected for the word ‘spirits’, because I am an animist first and foremost. ‘Spirit’ means breath, to breathe, and the root of animism is ‘animus’, which is life, breath, spirit. Since we are talking about living, breathing systems in nature, spirits made the most sense for me as a term.
https://ojibwe.lib.umn.edu/ (Ojibwe People’s dictionary.)
The Manitous, by Basil Johnston
The Kalevala, by Elias Lonnrot