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The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2002
pp. 436-459 | 10.1353/aiq.2003.0038

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The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002) 436-459



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The Comic Vision of Anishinaabe Culture and Religion

Lawrence W. Gross

One of the challenges I have faced as an academic is the manner in which I should discuss my own people, the Anishinaabe. The fact of the matter is, I am an Anishinaabe academic, no matter how much the term sounds like an oxymoron. I feel I can no longer use the third person in discussing my people. The experience of the Anishinaabe is my experience, and there is no way I can imply the Anishinaabe are the "Other." As such, I have made a conscious decision to use the first person in my academic writing on the Anishinaabe. In one respect, I am surrendering the scholarly goal of supposed objectivity for a larger goal—academic precision. To the degree my comments approach the latter aim, my writing will serve the interests of both the Anishinaabe and academic communities, thus encouraging dialogue between the two. In the final analysis, if we are to move beyond treating people as the other, just such a dialogue is necessary. Hopefully, my remarks below will provide a small step in that direction.

The myths of the Anishinaabe are helping us to maintain a distinct identity, and by continuing to tell our sacred stories and controlling the telling of those stories, we are sustaining our cultural sovereignty. One question that needs further development, however, is the worldview developed on the basis of those myths. In recent years, analysis of Anishinaabe myths by non-Anishinaabe scholars has centered around what might be termed food economics—the relationship of the Anishinaabe to food resources, with a special emphasis on game animals. The general consensus is that the myths teach morality, especially environmental ethics. The conclusions drawn on the basis of this approach have been insightful, as far as they go. However, another perspective leads to a different understanding of Anishinaabe worldview and sacred stories.

Although the sacred stories of the Anishinaabe are wide ranging, one common element is that many of the stories are funny. What happens if the humorous nature of Anishinaabe tales is taken seriously? For example, having our most important mythic character, Wenabozho, or Nanabush, engage in [End Page 436] slapstick antics greatly influences the manner in which we view and live in the world; in other words, myths affect worldview. As it turns out, the worldview of the Anishinaabe very much fits the definition of the comic vision developed by John Morreall (1999). However, this comic vision is not just limited to humor; it also involves a wide range of elements, such as complex conceptual schemes, equality, and forgiveness. One goal of this present study, then, will be to demonstrate how the notion of the comic vision discussed by Morreall fits our Anishinaabe worldview and sacred stories.

Once it is understood that the worldview of the Anishinaabe is essentially comic, the comic vision can be used to show continuity between traditional and modern culture. Further, an understanding of the comic vision can help explain how Anishinaabe culture is recovering in the wake of what I call "Post Apocalypse Stress Syndrome." Along with many other Native American peoples, the Anishinaabe have seen the end of our world, which has created tremendous social stresses. The comic vision of the Anishinaabe is helping us overcome that trauma and helps explain how we are managing to survive.

To explore these issues, it is helpful to lay out the general notion of the world-building activities of human beings developed by Peter Berger (1969). From there, the current non-Anishinaabe understanding of Anishinaabe myths will be discussed. The relationship between the comic vision and religion will then be explained in some detail, followed by examples from Anishinaabe myths demonstrating the elements of the comic vision found therein. To discuss the issues of the continuity of Anishinaabe worldview and Post Apocalypse Stress Syndrome, the article will conclude with a look at Anishinaabe myths in the modern period.

Berger argues that the world humans inhabit is not a mere...