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An Earth Day Story: Mon-daw-min – an Ojibwa Story about the Coming of Corn
(Excerpted from my latest book, Content Area Reading Writing and Storytelling. Follow the link to purchase the book and the follow-up lesson plans blending creative writing, botany and a wildflower walk!)
maMany long winters ago, the people of this land were hunters and gatherers. There were times of great feasting and times of great hunger.
mbDuring the summer they would follow the herds of bison, gather the berries and nuts, from the fields and forests, dig the roots and tubers, learning from the land where and when to gather their foods.
But during the winter when the snow was deep and the ground was frozen, there was little to eat and it was difficult to hunt. During these lean times the people would grow hungry. Sometimes they would starve before the spring returned to the earth.
Among the people there was a young man named Wunza. He was old enough that he would soon go alone into the wilderness to fast and pray, to seek a vision, to ask those age old questions that we still wrestle with today: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my gifts and talents? What can I do to make the world a better place? In this time he knew he should pay close attention to his dreams and to the plants and animals who might come to visit. Each of them may hold an answer to his prayers.
As spring was changing to summer, Wunza was changing from a boy to a man. His village would have held a feast for him but there was little food to be had. One warm spring morning as the sun rose over the eastern hills, Wunza went out alone into the wilderness.
strawWhat caught his eye as he walked along were all of the shades of green, light and dark green, reddish green and yellow green, green with hints of blue and purple. He saw the plants were in various stages of growth. Some of the early blooming woodland flowers were already fading and making seed, yet some of the prairie grasses were just beginning to sprout. The wild strawberries were flowering and would soon be bearing fruit.
He saw the gophers nibbling grasses and he noticed which leaves they passed over. The squirrels were eating maple seeds now, but he knew they would eat acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts each in their season. He saw holes in the old trees where woodpeckers had stored last year’s acorns. Everywhere he looked he saw food! He was so hungry.
His one wish, his one desire, was to find a way to feed the people. He wondered if there was a way to learn from the animals how to survive the long winters. Somehow he knew the plants could help.
He carried his wish in his heart as he looked for a secret spot to sit for seven days and seven nights. When he found the place along the edge of the prairie, along the edge of the forest, he made a circle of stones. He spread his buffalo robe on the ground and settled down to pray, to seek a vision. To ask and answer those great questions… Think about it: Who are you? Why are you here? What are your gifts and talents? What can you do to make the world a better place? These are the questions Wunza asked himself over and over.
The first four days were the hardest. He was so hungry he had trouble sleeping. On the fourth night he fell into a fitful sleep with strange dreams. In his dreams a young man came from the sky world to visit him. He was dressed in robes that were light green and flowing like many wide blades of grass. He had silky, golden hair. This was strange, because Native people have hair that is midnight black.
wunza1
The young man fairly shouted with enthusiasm, “Wunza, I am Mon-daw-min! Creator has heard your prayers and sent me to help you. Get up and wrestle me! If you win, I will teach you the secret life of plants! I will help you to feed the people! Get up! Get up!”
Wunza was weak with hunger, but he loved to wrestle. No sooner had he stood on his two feet before Mon-daw-min pounced on him. The two boys rolled in the dirt. They tussled. They grunted. They loved the sport of it! Finally, Mon-daw-min picked up Wunza and threw him to the ground.
“Oh, Wunza, you seemed to have fallen. Get up, get up!” said Mon-daw-min. “You can do better than that. Maybe tomorrow, when I return, you can win and your wish will come true.”
And with that lightening flashed, thunder crashed and Mon-daw-min disappeared.
When Wunza awoke in the morning he rubbed his eyes and remembered his dream. He could not wait until the next night and another chance to wrestle Mon-daw-min.
That night, no sooner was he asleep, then a broad shouldered man appeared. He was taller and his robes were darker green. His hair was silky but more brown than gold.
“Wunza! Do not look surprised. It is I, Mon-daw-min. Are you ready to wrestle? Get up, boy and show me your strength!”
Wunza stood up. Weak from hunger, he was not at all sure he could win. He lost last night to a younger man. How could he win against this strong man? Wunza leaped at Mon-daw-min. Mon-daw-min stepped aside and scooped the boy up as he passed. He tried to throw the boy to the ground, but Wunza landed on his feet. Mon-daw-min pounced. The two fell to the ground. They rolled in the dirt. They tussled. They groaned. They both laughed as they strained and grunted! Finally, Mon-daw-min picked up Wunza and threw him to the ground.
“Oh, Wunza, you have fallen again. Get up, boy, get up!” said Mon-daw-min. “I admire your daring will, but I think you can do better than that. Maybe tomorrow, when I return for the last time, you might win and your wish will come true.”
And with that lightening flashed, thunder crashed and Mon-daw-min disappeared.
When Wunza awoke in the morning he rubbed his eyes and remembered this dream, too, but was it a dream? He could not wait until the next night and another chance to wrestle Mon-daw-min.
That night, Wunza sat by his small fire, watching the stars twirl in the sky above him. For the first time he noticed how all the stars seem to circle the one star, just as his people dance around the council fire. For the first time he began to feel his place amongst the stars, and with that thought he fell asleep. No sooner was he asleep, then an old man appeared. He was bent with age. He wore weathered brown robes. His clothes rustled as he moved. His hair was falling out. He was missing a few teeth. His voice was horse when he said, “Wunza! Do not look surprised. It is I, Mon-daw-min. Are you ready to wrestle? Get up, boy and show me your strength. Maybe tonight you can win and I will teach you my secret!”
Wunza was reluctant. His parents had taught him to respect his elders, he did not want to hurt the old man. But he was taught to respect his elders, the old man told him to stand up. As he stood, still unsure, the old man leaped onto Wunza. They both fell down. They rolled in the dirt. Struggling together they both stood, grunting and pushing against one another. As Wunza planted both feet firmly on the ground and wrapped his arms around the old man he felt a strange strength come into him. His toes and feet tingled, as the power seemed to rise from the earth into his legs, his torso, his arms and head. His whole body rippled with this power. He lifted the old man and threw him to the ground.
“Wunza, (cough, cough), I knew you had it in you. You have won! Now I will tell you what to do to feed the people so they will never be hungry again. Listen closely. In the morning when you awake you will find my withered body. Do not shed a tear for me. I will return if you do as I tell you. Dig a shallow grave and bury me. Tend this plot of land carefully removing all stones and weeds. In the dry season bring me water. When I sprout place fresh soil around my roots and continue to pull the weeds. When I am grown your wish will come true. But Wunza, you must not forget to save some seed to plant for the next season.”
And with that lightening flashed, thunder crashed and Mon-daw-min disappeared.
corn
In the morning when he awoke, it was just as the old man said. Lying beside him was the whithered, broken body of the old man. Wunza did as he was told and carefully prepared the soil. He buried Mon-daw-min in a shallow grave and watered the earth with his tears. He tended the plants throughout the summer. Soon the young Mon-daw-min appeared with light green robes and silky yellow hair. Later in the summer the strong young man with darker green robes, darker hair and broad shoulders appeared. In the early autumn the young man grew old and wilted.
And in this way Wunza learned the secret of maize, what you call corn.
He shared this story with the people. When he harvested the corn he had enough to feed the entire village. He saved some seed as he was instructed and soon taught the whole village the gift of corn. He taught them to grow their food. They were never hungry again. From that day until this one, Mon-daw-min has provided for the people. Let me ask: do you like popcorn, hominy, nachos, corn feed beef? Thank Mon-daw-min. To this day he feeds the people.
(c) Brian "Fox" Ellis 2010 Permission is granted to perform this story in educational settings. Any other form of distribution, mechanical or digital, is forbidden without expressed written permission.
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