Ojibway Myths & Legends
Why People Do Not Live Forever
After Nanabush, the great Ojibway hero, created the world we know today, he did not stop to rest, because he wanted to do many things to help his good friends the birds and animals. For many years he lived alone, traveling hither and yon, and taking part in one adventure after another.
There came a time when Nanabush began to feel restless and unhappy. Although he had done many fine things – often at the command of Gitchi-Manitou, the Great Spirit, as the Ojibway call God the Creator – now he felt dissatisfied, and troubled in his mind.
One night, as Nanabush lay sleeping in his lodge, he heard a voice calling him. For awhile the voice puzzled him, until at length he realized it was Gitchi-Manitou, the Great Spirit speaking to him.
‘In the morning,’ the voice said, ‘You are to walk to the east until you come to a swift flowing river. Do not hesitate or stop when you come to it, but walk straight across on top of the water. On the far bank, you will find something wonderful waiting for you.’
In the morning, when Nanabush awoke, he remembered instantly what Gitchi-Manitou had said, and he proceeded to carry out the strange instructions. He walked toward the east. He walked all morning, wondering how far away the river might be.
At noon, when the sun was high overhead, he heard the sound of the water ahead of him. A few minutes later, he saw the river he was seeking. The water ran so swiftly that Nanabush became terrified at the very sight of it, foaming white as it dashed against the treacherous rocks, with ugly, currents and whirlpools that would surely suck him under the surface. He stopped. Then he remembered what the voice of Gitchi-Manitou had said, he looked across the river. There stood a beautiful maiden, smiling and beckoning him to walk across to her.
Nanabush stepped cautiously into the river, and to his surprise found himself walking safely on the surface. Indeed, the water did not even wet the soles of his moccasins. Quickly he reached the far shore, and the girl spoke. ‘I am your wife, Nanabush. Gitchi-Manitou has sent me down to you.’
Nanabush felt great happiness. Now he knew why he had been sad and dissatisfied. He had needed a family of his own, just like his friends the birds and animals, but the reason for his unhappiness had never occurred to him.
Nanabush and his wife settled down by the river where they had met, and built their own lodge. As the years passed, they raised many children who, when they grew up, became the first Ojibway Indians.
But Nanabush’s children were not like their father in one respect. When they were grown up, they gradually grew older and older, while Nanabush never seemed to age a single day. When he had completed all his good works to the earth and come through his last adventure, the Great Spirit took them away – far away – into the west, to rule the Land of the Spirits. They were the first true human beings and they could not live forever. Neither could their children’s children live forever, any more than we can today. This is because Nanabush, by hesitating for a moment before crossing the swift, flowing river to meet his wife, had doubted the word of Gitchi-Manitou, the Great Spirit .