The Little Menominee
When we first look at the carved wooden figures of Mama:ceqta:hsak they might appear to be a number of separate and distinct pieces, each isolated from the rest in both time and place. But this surmise would be a misconception. The Little Menominee precipitate out of the Menominee culture from which they draw all meaning. If approached from the perspective of the culture we can begin to understand each figure.
Menominee culture is a fundamental order of life, an idea made manifest by the artistry of Jim Frechette working in, of, and with that culture. He took a form ancient in the culture, interpreted it with fidelity, and thus begat The Little Menominee.
Each Little Menominee stands in relationship to other Little Menominee and all are part of the cultural whole. Of course, something so multi-faceted, so deep-rooted, and so extensive cannot be fully understood by a cursory look at an array of such exquisite carvings as these. A thick curtain rests between Menominee culture and us. By drawing it back a bit we can glimpse and partake of a portion of that culture and can begin to make the journey to understanding with some confidence.
Ancestral Bear and Golden Eagle
The Menominee are a people with a beginning, a history, a present, and a future. The beginning sets forth the structural foundation of their culture that provides them not only with continuity up to the present, but also describes and defines the way they must act to meet the challenge that life throws at them as human beings. Our best understanding of them as a people will come to us if we listen to their story of origin.
Long ago when Grandfather made the earth and all therein He also created the many spirit beings. He gave these spirit beings the forms of animals and birds. The animals were underground beings and many of them were malevolent. The birds, mostly eagles and hawks, were the Thunderers and all of them were benevolent. The principal Thunderer is the Invisible Thunderer, and he is represented by the Golden Eagle.
Before people dwelt upon this earth, at a place where the Menominee River flows into Green Bay, The Great Light Colored Bear emerged from underground. As he traveled over the land he talked with Grandfather. He was lonely. When Grandfather saw that the Bear yet remained an animal he determined to allow the Bear to change his form. The Bear was greatly pleased at what Grandfather was going to grant him. Thereupon Grandfather allowed The Great Light Colored Bear to change into a man and he became the first Menominee, though he still kept his light skin.
The first Menominee traveled along the river but found himself alone and decided to call down to himself the Golden Eagle flying high in the sky and ask him to join with him. He called out, "Golden Eagle, come to me and be my brother. " Whereupon the Golden Eagle descended from the sky, changed into a man, and became Brother to the first Menominee.
Then the two Brothers walked together. While they continued traveling up the river, they pondered about who they would call upon to become their Brothers. While considering this question they saw a Beaver approaching. Being a woman, the Brothers called her Beaver Woman. The Beaver requested to be adopted as the Younger Brother of the Thunderers, but instead the Bear Clan adopted her as a Younger Brother.
As the three continued their journey up the river, they met and adopted the Sturgeon as a Younger Brother to whom they gave the obligation of history. In like manner they met and adopted the Elk as Younger Brother, to whom they gave the obligation of water carriers. Then they adopted the White Tail Deer and the Dog as Younger Brothers, and the Wolf, Crane, and Moose as Brothers. They adopted other birds, fish, and animals as Younger Brothers and each changed into a man. Each was given an obligation. Together they became the first Menominee, The People of the Wild Rice.
We have given a shortened form of the Menominee origin story. A full relation of the tradition oral account consumed many hours, even days. In addition, ours is in a paltry English version. In the Menominee language the inflection of each word, its cadence, pronunciation, and even order in the sentence, imparts much additional meaning, gives nuances of value, and adds majesty to the unfolding of events as instructive as it is inspiring.
In the origin story we discern several main qualities of Menominee traditional culture. The most important one is the identification of structures through which the culture would flow. It set up a system of Brothers and Younger Brothers with clear relationship of one Brother (family) to another family, as well as their manner of participation in the whole of the tribe. We refer to this as the clan system. The Brothers comprise the principal clans. In Menominee culture the clans functioned in a complex manner to convey numerous aspects of the world outlook to the people. Sometimes this assumed a highly formal role, but usually it was ordinary, in ways worked deeply into the body of the tribe through ceremonies and a variety of other devices.
In addition to defining structures for the movement of culture the origin story further contained assumptions about nature. To achieve right ends—that is, to gain a significant life—the Menominee believed they could not be separated from elements of nature but must incorporate them into their culture. Without them life to the Menominee would be incomprehensible. Thus, they wove into their culture the Bear and the Golden Eagle, the waters and the earth, the animals, fish, and birds, the plants and trees, the sky and the sun to assist them in defining problems and purpose. They became an integral part of their solutions to the challenge of human existence. Having brought the natural world into harmony with their lives they accorded it the deep respect it deserved.
Joining structure and nature as central components in the origin story is its definition of the Menominee homeland. It describes the Menominee’s ancestral lands and their place in them. They were and are a people with a clear identity, brought into existence along the sacred Menominee River that gathers in the upland waters of Lac Vieux Desert, and, in traditional days, flowed to the bay through thick beautiful forests and quiet glades, plunged down steep waterfalls, rested in deep pools, rich in flora and fauna, and sprinkled with a thousand islands—a stunningly attractive world. No equivocation has ever existed on this point.
Finally, we note, the creation process demonstrates their belief in a basic order that runs both through nature and their culture that they connect with and that sustains them as the substance of life. Their culture, neither pulls out of chaos nor spins out of arbitrariness but rather, grows out of the regularity present in the basic relationships of their life.
In the beckoning of the upraised arm of the Ancestral Bear and the approaching open talons of the rapidly descending Thunderer of Jim Frechette’s interpretation of the Menominee origin story, we view the cosmic moment when the tribe came into being. A sense suffuses us of a moving, civilizing force.
Reflection of James Frechette, Jr.
When I asked Jim about his Menominee Genesis carving, he remarked:
All cultures and peoples have a beginning or genesis.
Many have stories that describe this beginning. Some have lost
this valuable and crucial knowledge. If we abandon our beginnings
we become lost and have no identity. I know who I am.