Wolverines feature in the stories, myths, and legends of northern peoples in both the eastern and western hemispheres. The Cree, who occupy a vast swath of southern Canada and some of the northern United States, have a long-standing relationship with the wolverine. I first became aware of the Cree wolverine stories through the work of anthropologist Robert Brightman, whose book Grateful Prey is a classic exploration of the complexity of human-animal relationships in hunting cultures – in this case, the Rock Cree of Manitoba. The material that Brightman analyzes in Grateful Prey is presented in its original form – the transcribed tales of Cree storytellers – in an older, out-of-print book called Acaoohkiwina and Acimowina: Traditional Narratives of the Rock Cree Indians. The books was published by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1990, and I managed to find a copy in an obscure corner of a library, the pages falling out, the whole thing looking as though someone had typed up an individual copy with a typewriter and then abandoned it like a message in a bottle, to be retrieved decades later only by a tried and tested wolverine fanatic. Acaoohkiwina refers to the primordial time-before-humans, when animals spoke and had their own civilizations and when the Trickster Wisahkicahk adventured through the world. Acimowina refers to the time after humans arrived. So the stories incorporate both the history of the creation of the Cree world, and more recent events. Wolverines play a role in both.
Despite the fact that the book felt like it might fall apart in my hands, the stories were vivid and engaging, the voices of the storytellers enlivening the tales. Few wolverine lovers will have the opportunity to experience the deep cultural relationships that exist between humans and animals in subsistence hunting cultures, and I wanted to convey some of this here on the blog. So I wrote to Robert Brightman, and he kindly granted me permission to excerpt the wolverine stories. I also asked if it might be possible to get in touch with the original storytellers to ask for their permission, but they have passed on. So with respect and thanks to them for sharing their stories, I will present their wolverine tales here over the next few posts.
Here, narrated by Cornelius Colomb, is the story Wolverine, Wolf, and Fire Medicine:
There’s this wolverine and the guy who’s with him, Wolf, and they were out hunting one day. The wolf was the one that had the “matches.” They make a magic fire. They just jump over the dry wood and that thing explodes and they make fire. And the wolverine never had that kind of – – of power. So he asked that wolf to have some of the powers.
Oh, the wolf said, “ That’s right, brother. I’ll give it to you.” Because, of course, he was a brother of the animals. So wolverine tried it and the damn thing exploded. “Oh,” wolf said, “ You’re alright, brother. As long as you don’t just play with what I gave you.”
Oh, the wolverine said, “No, no, I wouldn’t do any such thing. I need the fire.”
So later wolverine is monkeying around the shoreline. Sometimes old beaver houses, that’s where you see lots of dry wood. Every time wolverine sees dry wood he wants to make fire. Pretends that he’s cold. Throw a few sticks, jump over it, jump over ‘em, and it explodes. Few minutes, he’s done with the fire and away he goes again. So every morning, wherever he goes, you see about five or six fires. That wolverine. Making fires all morning for nothing.
So the wolves got mad at him. Said, “I guess our little brother is making fun of our medicine. Every time we see him going he always fires all the way. Gotta cut off the ‘match.’”
So happens, the next fire, wolverine couldn’t make the fire. Tried it again. No. So one cool morning he went up on the hill. Seen lots of fires. All different kinds of animals making different fires. All kinda different smoke from there. One of them’s got different smoke from the other. And him, he had nothing. He was cold. So he hollered, “Brothers! Sisters! I don’t have no lights, no match, no way of making fire. But they’re’ll be people in years ahead. They’ll be wanting to make fire. But what they’ll do is start hunting us when they see our fires… [I]f we don’t have any fire…that way we’ll make it. But if we have fires, they’ll clean us out….” Oh, all the animals agreed with him. “I think that’ll be true,” they say. “If there’s gonna be any people, they gonna hunt us out.” So they holler at him, “Okay, brother, no more fires!”
So that’s how come there’s no fire for the animals. Otherwise they’d be hunted out. [laughs]. It would be lots – – people would be making lots of money as firefighters nowadays. Animals would be putting on all the fires like wolverine.