Respect for Things Significant
Every society seeks to establish standards or ideals by which it can evaluate life in its many aspects. The Menominee created their basis for judgment in terms of their world and activities, and any references they used to interpret society had to relate to the practical. Without this, they would have no meaning.
Meaning for the Menominee was derived from their history, culture, and practical activities. As a distinct nation with a unique history, culture, and experiences relating to their environment, their idea of what was right and wrong in life and how to define it was their own.
A distinctive Menominee cultural phenomenon was the oneness of all things, the concept of the whole we have emphasized so often. Oneness, though, had many dimensions, from the past to the future and throughout the present. Thus came the standards for the future. The method one utilized to know where a particular deed was good or faulty rested in large measure upon the past and experiences made universal by culture. We see this singular fact so often in the past with ancient stories handed down from generation to generation.
The stories of their culture were handed down “exactly as they had been handed down” to them, replete with the gestures, the word inflections, the acting, and the sense of timing. A timeless quality suffuses the mind of a careful listener and a candid appraiser.
An evaluative base for the tribe appeared then within the cultural whole. Through knowledge of their culture, tribal elements clearly knew and understood the criteria for ethical judgments. But for the Menominee, the culturally defined base was only one of two standards of value within their society. The other lay in the realm of art.
The Menominee regarded the quality of beauty in all things as a standard for value judgments. The categories for aesthetic principles had affirmed relationship with the culture but had the added component of the artist’s unique contribution. Artistry emerged in association with the practical work of the society. In burning and scraping a dugout canoe from a butternut log, or in stitching together a birch bark basket with jack pine roots, or in any similar activity artistic principles came to the forefront.
The artist’s standard came to be the object in its fullest meaning. This ideal meaning elicited from the individual worker his best effort to achieve a beautiful object and in so doing provided tribal members a second method for establishing values.
The Fisherman: Loon
Proper perception of the natural world is culturally defined. Only when one has developed a long and close relationship with the intricate forms of nature do the striking differences between apparently similar things appear. Mere flocks of birds become geese or ducks, ducks become canvasbacks or mallards. The Menominee premise of the oneness of man and nature sharpened their ability to discern the marvelous shades of differences within the natural order, and with that devise value judgments. A wolf’s paw print in the mud became an elderly wolf’s weakened impression. A green color in a leaf became a species defining description.
Perhaps the best illustration can be found in the area of the Menominee world we know as water birds. These include cranes, swans, geese, ducks, waders, and others. To the Menominee the loon stood forth as the most superb of water fowl. Its white and dark brown coloring, diving skills, swimming strength, flight peculiarities, mastership of its territory, and strange and beautiful call impart to this creature unusual qualities. It ranked above all others.
Indeed, throughout their culture the significance of this bird was noted. The Menominee spun tales around it, had songs, traditions, and other elements that brought forth that unusual bird’s qualities. For example, among contemporary Menominee you might see the four legs of a social drum carved and painted to resemble the arching neck of the loon, raising the drum from the earth so that the sound could echo throughout the clearing.
The artist remarked on this carving:
The loon is given great respect by the Menominee. You cannot study this bird without getting a fleeting glimpse into the power it has. Between the symbolism and natural strengths he possesses one begins to get the feeling of the importance of this bird.
Judging the Maple Sugar
For a worker to judge the quality of his activity he needs a basis upon which he can rest his judgment. In the Menominee world the basis was the cultural system. Sugaring illustrates this characteristic.
Maple sugar was a major food of the Menominee. Once made it could last for a year, providing them essential nutrients and a tasty meal. To make sugar, the families moved to the sugar bush in early spring, made birch bark containers to hold the sap, and built fires to boil down the watery fluid to the think consistency required. To know how long to boil and when to pour took practice and the commentary of one’s fellows on the finished product in order to obtain the right quality.
Additionally, sugar was a great gift of the creator to the tribe. The food was absolute vital to them and had to be processed and prepared for storage of the tribe would go hungry that spring and early summer. As one perspired over the hot fires, the larger picture loomed before him and he knew his activity was right: right with his fellow sugarers, right with the tribe, right with the culture, and right with the maple tree.
Jim Frechette remarked of this carving:
As in all cultures, the Menominee established and held to criterion, standards, tests, and ethics. One must always be cognizant of where they are and how they relate to things around them.