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Ojibway Legend: Winabojo and the Birch Tree.

Once there was a spirit-boy named Winabojo who taught the Ojibway how to live in the natural world.

One day he asked his grandmother what was the biggest fish in the lake. She replied that there was an enormous fish that lived by a rock ledge but it was very powerful and would harm Winabojo. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.

Winabojo thought about how to hunt this fish, so he got some wood to make a bow and arrows. Then he asked his grandmother if there were any birds whose feathers could be put on the arrows to make them effective. She told Winabojo the only feathers strong enough come from a bird that lives in the sky, at the opening of the clouds. One would have to go there to get these feathers.

Winabojo climbed to the highest cliff and discovered a nest of the Thunderbirds and saw their babies. Winabojo turned into a rabbit so the Thunderbirds would bring him to their nest for their babies to play with. Winnabojo stayed in the nest for a long time; the babies were cruel to him and tossed him around. Eventually Thunderbirds went away to hunt for more food for their babies. Winabojo turned back to a boy; he clubbed the baby Thunderbirds and pulled out their feathers Before their parents could return, Winabojo jumped from the high nest with the bundle of feathers but he was knocked out, but he was not killed because he was a manido.

When they returned to their nest, the angered Thunderbirds flew after Winabojo!! Thunder rolled from their beaks and lightning flashed from their eyes. Winabojo ran for his life clutching his bundle of feathers, but soon grew so tired he began to fear he would be caught. As the Thunderbirds reached for him with their claws, Winabojo saw an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. Winabojo crept into the hollow in the nick of time. The Thunderbirds ended their attack because they knew they could not reach Winabojo through the birch bark. Winabojo was safe. After the Thunderbirds went away, Winabojo came out and proclaimed that the birch tree would forever protect and benefit the human race.

You can still see the short marks on the birch tree to made by Winabojo to commemorate the sharp claws of the Thunderbirds which almost killed him. The Thunderbird parents put "pictures" of their baby birds with out-stretched wings into the birch bark so the sacrifice of their children would always be remembered.

Winabojo fixed his arrows and went home. With these arrows he was able to kill the great fish that lived under the rock ledge.

Winabojo has blessed the birch tree for the good of the human race. And this is why lightning never strikes the birch tree, and why anything wrapped in the bark will not decay. Birchbark is useful for house coverings, canoes, containers, utensils, tinder and in many other ways. Native Americans traditionally honor the tree by offering a gift, such as tobacco, when they use this tree.

(adapted from The Legend of Winabojo and the Birch Tree, in How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts, by Frances Densmore. Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1974).

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