Ojibway Myths & Legends
Nanabush and the Giant Beaver
There came a time, the Ojibway story tellers say, when Nanabush was at war with Waub-Ameek, the Giant Beaver. Just why they began to quarrel no one really knows, but the fact remains that for many months Nanabush pursued Waub-Ameek all through the north country. He followed his trail from lake to lake, down rushing rivers and across the swampy marshlands. Waub-Ameek was a magician too, and Nanabush soon discovered that he was just as cunning and tireless as he was.
Now at the time this story took place, Nanabush was living with his grandmother, Nokomis. In spite of her age, she was quite able to keep up with the pace set by her grandson, but finally even the two of them became discouraged. They had followed the trail right to the great inland body of water we now know as Lake Superior, and there the trail had petered out. They stood and gazed out over the rippling blue waters, as sad as they could be, for Waub-Ameek had disappeared without a trace.
They had been traveling for so long that they were both very, very tired, and so they decided to build a wigwam and rest. They gathered the poles and stitched together great sheets of birch bark, and soon were living comfortably in their new home. They spent the next few days fishing and basking in the warm sun.
They had been in their new home about a week when it suddenly occurred to Nanabush that the level of the water in the lake was rising. He noticed that the rocks along the water’s edge, which had been quite visible when they had first arrived, were now several inches under water. ‘This is a strange thing.’ he said when he mentioned the matter to Nokomis, ‘I must find out what is causing the water to rise.’
He began to walk along the shore of the lake, toward the eastern end where the lake narrows at the approach to Lake Huron. As he reached the narrows, Nanabush looked ahead – and stood in stock still in surprise! For there, ahead of him, was a freshly built dam of giant proportions, stretching right across the narrows.
‘Aha!’ Nanabush exclaimed. ‘So that is why the water has been rising. Waub-Ameek has built a giant dam. Well, we will soon fix that!’ He took one more look at the long pile of sticks and rocks and mud which was holding back the waters of Lake Superior, and then ran back to his grandmother.
‘Nokomis.’ he shouted. ‘I’ve found the trail of Waub-Ameek again! He’s damned up the waters at the head of the lake, and I know he must be hiding somewhere nearby. I want you to sit on his dam and wait for him to appear. I shall walk around the lake, and when I find him. I’ll drive him toward you. It may take several days, but you must keep your eyes open. As soon as he knows we’ve found his trail again, he’ll try to escape, so do not let yourself fall asleep.’
Nokomis ran to the dam, taking up a position where she was able to see far down into the waters, while Nanabush began his journey around the shore of the lake. In a few minutes he disappeared from sight and Nokomis kept her watch as the hours slowly rolled by. The sun moved down toward the west and finally disappeared. The hours of darkness stretched out, and Nokomis thought they would never end, but the sun finally appeared again in the east, and slowly mounted in the sky. Nokomis began to feel sleepy, but forced herself to stay awake. The sun set for the second time, and the old woman wondered how she would be able to keep awake for the second night. Without knowing it, her head began to nod.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright. She heard a sound of quite splashing. She jumped to her feet and ran along the top of the dam and there, ahead of her was the giant form of Waub-Ameek. She raced toward him. As he had just looked up, he had recognized her, and turned to dive back down into the water, but Nokomis’ nimble fingers were too quick for him and she managed to grab his broad, flat tail and hold on to it tightly.
Waub-Ameek struggled mightily, but he could not shake off the fingers of old Nokomis. He flailed the water with all his might, but to no avail. He could not escape. Nokomis called aloud to Nanabush, but there were no sounds in the night save the splashing of Waub-Ameek. She called and called again, but her grandson was probably many miles away. She clung on tightly to Waub – Ameek’s tail, hoping against hope that Nanabush would appear and help pull the giant beaver out onto the land.
Now Waub – Ameek, as we have said, was very cunning. It did not take him long to realize that, although Nokomis had a firm hold on his tail, the old woman did not have the strength to pull him out of the water. He thought for a moment, and a plan of escape came into his mind. He twisted his body around and with his teeth and fore paws, began to burrow a hole through the great dam he had built.
It was hard and unpleasant work, but he kept at it doggedly. The hours passed, and in the east, the first faint streaks of light appeared. Then suddenly, there was a loud gurgling noise and the great dam quivered. Waub – Ameek had burrowed right through his dam!
The gurgle became louder and louder and turned into a roar. The dam began to tremble, and then shook violently. One instant more and the dam gave away. With a mighty roar the waters rushed through the hole, carrying with them the mass of sticks, great lumps of clay, and mud and boulders.
Fortunately, Nokomis realized what was happening and despite her weariness, stepped back out of danger. As she did Waub – Ameek gave a mighty tug and wrenched his tail from her hands. In an instant, he was free again, and swam far down beneath the surface of the water, where he was carried along by the mighty current.
When the sun rose, Nokomis, feeling sadder than she had for many a day, looked up, vainly hoping that she might catch a glimpse of Waub – Ameek. The Giant Beaver was now several miles away, but Nokomis beheld a wondrous sight. There, in front of her, in the narrows between the two lakes, the large mass of sticks and clay and mud and boulders had come to rest. They formed a maze of islands, stretching out for miles, further than the eye can see in the narrow channel between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. This chain of islands that came from the great dam of Waub – Ameek is called the Thirty Thousand Islands.
Poor Nokomis stood, cold and tired in the early morning light, staring at the amazing sight, and did not hear Nanabush approach her. He was panting as though he had run a great distance. He saw in an instant what had happened.
‘Poor Nokomis.’ he said tenderly,’Do not worry. No one could hope to hold the tail of Waub – Ameek alone day after day. I was still searching for him when I saw the waters of the lake suddenly drop. I knew what must have happened. Now you must have some sleep and then we will take up the trail of the Giant Beaver again.’
Nanabush and his grandmother never did catch up with Waub – Ameek again. They found signs of him here and there, and the trail led them along the Great Lake. They followed the shoreline, past Lake Huron and Lake St.Clair, past Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They traveled further east then they had ever traveled before, following the mighty St.Lawrence River to its mouth, right to the Atlantic Ocean itself. They stood on the sea shore, and looked out to the east, over the rolling waves of the water that seemed to have no other shore. They were about to turn around and trace their way to their home in the north country when they heard a shout, a shout that seemed like a cry of triumph. They looked out over the ocean once again, and there, far out to sea, they saw the head of Waub – Ameek, bobbing above the waves.
Nanabush laughed. He cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted: ‘Come back, Waub – Ameek, come back! You are too cunning for me to catch. Let us make peace and let us be friends. I want to have you as a friend.’
And so Waub – Ameek returned to the north country and became the friend of Nanabush and old Nokomis. In his own way, Waub – Ameek created the Beaver we know today, and taught them how to make dams such as the one he had made at the narrows between Lake Huron and Lake Superior, though of course on a much smaller scale.