Serpents and Other Spiritual Beings (Kegedonce Press) continues the Ojibwe History series that Bomgiizhik Isaac Murdoch started with The Trail of Nenaboozhoo in 2019. We interview Issac about the role Serpents has to play in preserving Anishinaabe language and culture, turning oral storytelling into the written word, and how the lessons in the book show that kindness is paramount, now more than ever.
Bomgiizhik Isaac Murdoch, many, many thanks for taking the time to speak with us today and answer our questions about your latest collection of historical Ojibwe/Anishinaabe stories, Serpents and Other Spiritual Beings.
All Lit Up: When reading through the praise for this book, especially that from fellow Anishinaabe authors, there’s a feeling of jubilation and excitement. What does it mean to be able to capture these traditional histories and legends, in Anishinaabemowin as well as English, and anthologize them in Serpents?Bomgiizhik Isaac Murdoch: It means that we can continue our efforts in preserving our Language. It is the foundation of our Nationhood as Anishinabek peoples. Having both languages used also breathes it to a larger audience. It’s a language resource but also a school book on how to live on these lands. It’s so rewarding to do.ALU: In addition to a storyteller and writer, you’re an artist and craftsperson. Could you tell us about the different ways you preserve and share traditional practices and stories, through various art forms?BIM: I just recently released my second album titled: Here to Stay. Music is a very fun way to get stories or messages across. Also visual art. Painting murals, making prints, and getting art to the front lines of water and land protectors are also some of the ways I get information out to people. Creating is a way of life.ALU: The writing in this book is very conversational; you write in often-spoken asides (like “jeez”, for example). How do you approach “translating” oral storytelling traditions into a printed book?BIM: I always tell my stories in spoken word and then transcribe them after. I find it gives a more authentic vibe to the story being told. Expressions are often conveyed through the transcription by my excitement when telling the story. So fun to do.ALU: In reading the introduction “Serpent Stories”, you talk about the mutuality in Anishinaabe culture – comparing it to the relationship between a buffalo hunter and a buffalo. It’s clear that things aren’t meant to be conquered but mutually respected and dependent on one other. How does this idea come across through the stories told in the book?BIM: There is a common theme: “The most sacred law of the human being is to give something for what one receives in life.” This law cannot be broken without consequence. We are seeing the downfall of this today in our environment, political arenas, and technology. But there is hope. People have a real desire to live and continue on as a species. Things are changing and many non-native people are looking for wisdom from First Nation people for ecological solutions. This was also a prophecy told by our old people.ALU: The Serpents themselves are a throughline in these stories – sometimes people in the stories are turned into snakes, other times, they are eaten by them. Often, it’s because they’ve done something of disrespect; failing to make offerings or desecrating a sacred site. How do these stories serve as guideposts for lessons in living?BIM: These stories really have a simple message: “Let’s be kind to everything and everything will be OK.” Respect is such a powerful medicine: it can save the whole earth and everything on it. People have this gift. I am hopeful because there are many people who also see this and are wanting change. We are in a sacred time with amazing people doing extraordinary things to make the world better.
* * *
Bomgiizhik Isaac Murdoch is from the fish clan and is from Serpent River First Nation. He is the author and illustrator of The Trail of Nenaboozhoo (Kegedonce Press, 2019, some illustrations by Christi Belcourt). He grew up in the traditional setting of hunting, fishing and trapping. Many of these years were spent learning from Elders in the northern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Bomgiizhik is well respected as a storyteller and traditional knowledge holder. For many years he has led various workshops and cultural camps that focuses on the transfer of knowledge to youth. Other areas of expertise include: traditional Ojibwe paint, imagery/symbolism, harvesting, medicine walks, and ceremonial knowledge, cultural camps, Anishinaabek oral history, birch bark canoe making, birch bark scrolls, Youth and Elders workshops, etc. He has committed his life to the preservation of Anishinaabe cultural practices and has spent years learning directly from Elders.