Painting by: Carl Ray (1943 – 1979)
Professor Deborah McGregor challenges us to reconsider an unsung hero
The Muskrat (Wa-zhushk) of the Anishinabe Re-Creation story is an easily relatable character. Although there are perhaps as many variations of the story as there are storytellers sharing it, the Muskrat as a central figure remains the same. In the version re-told by Anishnabe storyteller Basil Johnston in his work Ojibway Heritage, there has been a great flood and most life on Earth has perished, with the exception of birds and water creatures. Sky-Woman survives and comes to rest on the back of a great turtle. She asks the water creatures to bring her soil from the bottom of the waters so that she may use it to make new land. The water animals (the beaver, the marten, the loon) all try to help her and fail. Finally, Muskrat volunteers, much to the scorn of the others. Though ridiculed, Muskrat, the most humble of the water creatures, is determined to help. So he dives down while the animals and sky-woman wait.
“They waited for the muskrat to emerge as empty handed as they had done. Time passed. Smiles turned to worried frowns. The small hope that each had nurtured for the success of the muskrat turned into despair. When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil.” Basil Johnston
When I shared this story with my ten-year-old son, Arden, he astutely observed, “ if Muskrat didn’t make his sacrifice, we would not be here”.
In such a sacrifice there is renewal, re-birth and transformation. Through this story, the act itself takes on a new meaning. We tend to think of sacrifice as something undesirable, but in the Re-Creation story, it is necessary and honourable in order for Creation to continue. Muskrat is given special gifts from the Creator for his sacrifice. Elder Benton Banai tells us about the Muskrat’s gifts bestowed by the Creator for his sacrifice in the Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway.
“No matter that marshes have been drained and their homes destroyed in the name of progress, the muskrats continue to grow and multiply. The Creator has made it so muskrats will always be with us because of the sacrifice that our little brother made for all of us many years ago when the Earth was covered with water.”
In this light, Anishinabe people are very much like the muskrat. We continue to flourish despite the despair brought on by colonization, and like Muskrat, we are still willing to teach and help others. Muskrat is not trying to be a hero, to be better than anyone else; he just wants to help. He is motivated by love for Creation and compassion for Sky-Woman, not by the idea of making a name for himself. The muskrat is a powerful symbol and a reminder of our ability to adapt and transform in order to meet ever-changing challenges and demands. The muskrat is also a reminder that sometimes tasks that seem insurmountable can be achieved with strength and the ability to believe in what’s possible.
Muskrat of the Re-Creation story also embodies values from the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. Muskrat is brave and kind; despite the grave danger involved in attempting the feat, he has the courage to try. Muskrat is also the humblest of the water creatures, and despite the ridicule of the other creatures, he is determined to help. From the muskrat we learn humility- that we are no better than any other being of Creation, but that we should offer what gifts we have in order to ensure Creation continues.
In our discussion about the story Arden pointed out another truth: despite their greater size and strength, the other water creatures failed to bring the soil to the surface. Yet when Muskrat volunteers to help, the other creatures scoff. Despite being the humblest of the water creatures, the muskrat was able to “deliver the goods” so to speak. It is thus not for us to judge the merits of another, instead, it is important for us to respect and honour all beings and creatures of Creation. “Where the great had failed, the small succeeded” Johnston points out. Muskrat teaches us about ethical conduct, the action necessary to ensure that Creation continues. Muskrat informs us about our relationships with each other and with the natural world, including teachings about cooperation, respect, honour, humility, bravery, love and sacrifice. Anishinabe knowledge is fundamentally about relationships drawn from these values and shared in our stories.
Interestingly, the Re-Creation embodies not only ethical and moral values around conduct and ways of relating, but ecological knowledge as well. It is ironic to learn what today’s scientists have discovered about the muskrat’s biology: that it has the ability to dive down in the water for up to 15 minutes, that it can relax its body, lower its heart rate and reduce its need for oxygen; very few mammals can do this. The Anishinabe already knew this biology and also understood the creatures’ ecology.
In summary, the heroic feat of the humble muskrat in the Re-Creation story conveys the values, teachings, principles and knowledge (ethical, moral and ecological) that form the basis of Anishinabe environmental knowledge. Muskrat’s example reminds us of our responsibilities to ensure the continuance of Creation. It is through fulfilling these responsibilities and giving life to these teachings that we can truly unlock our potential and transcend our original capabilities.
Anishinabe, as conveyed through the teachings of Muskrat have a responsibility to share our wisdom and celebrate our truths, even if the task seems daunting. The Muskrat reminds us to be open to the creative possibilities of living in balance with Creation.