Seeing Wetiko: Through the Eyes of a Seventh Generation Algonquin

By Marcus Grignon

Posoh mawaw niwak. Nekataw manawich kikitem. (Hello everyone. I am going to speak.)

The injustice we witness every day, whether it be environmental, societal, and even economic, has a root cause. Nobody sees it because it has been invisible since the genocide committed against the cultures who lost their voice to speak its name. This being is not one sole individual, but a metaphysical entity bent on destruction. Wetiko in the Cree language, Wendigo in other Algonquin speaking tribes scattered throughout the Great Lakes region is what they call this evil spirit who represents environmental destruction, greed and ego in human beings.[1]

A 16th-century sketch of the Algonquian village of Pomeiock.
A 16th-century sketch of the Algonquian village of Pomeiock.

In a time when cultures thrived on the land we call the United States today, Wetiko was seen during the winter season when human beings deprived of food consume human flesh as a last resort.[2] Though among the Indigenous cultures, Wetiko possesses the human being in despair. There were medicine men, some would call them shamans or mystics today, who knew the ceremonies to contain the Wetiko/Wendigo spirit. Today the powers of the medicine men are faint.

As we progress through the 21st century, the Wetiko/Wendigo was never a subject discussed in my tribal community. I’ve never been brought up with the stories of Wendigo in my Algonquin speaking tribe, the Menominee, located in the state of Wisconsin. My generation learned of our creation stories as well as the importance of the Thunderbird. There are stories that can only be told during the time when the ground is frozen, but Wetiko would be most powerful during winter as is shown through history.

I’ll admit the first time I heard about Wendigo was in college and not by my elders. I was in the middle of preparation to present to the class about culturally-based education using storytelling and Menominee language as tools to engage future generations of Menominee. As I’m writing a quote by Dr. Gregory Cajete on the white board, highlighting the importance of culturally-based education, a fellow student asks me a question. I stop deep in my thoughts and stare back at my peer.

“What did you ask me?” I asked my peer, curious.

“What does your culture know about the wendigo?” he answered.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I replied back. “I have never heard the word before.”

He just nodded his head at me. Now, my peer is not your ordinary human being. He is an eccentric individual. He kept to himself a lot during class, except to ask obscene questions. As I reflect back on the moment, I feel he is the type of human being that transmits messages from above to convey to other human beings.

Now flash forward to my involvement with the Seeing Wetiko campaign launched by The Rules. When I was approached by a close friend affiliated with The Rules, I remembered my peer in the classroom inquiring about the Wendigo. A lightbulb clicked in my mind.

Great blue heron and red-tailed hawk in a face off. Photo by Georg Scharf
Great blue heron and red-tailed hawk in a face off. Photo by Georg Scharf

Throughout my life, there have been moments when the universe materializes a hidden message within individuals, animals, and dreams. The eccentric student in my class was a message for me to remember because Seeing Wetiko is important today. Most people in our world never step back and think about these messages. For instance, what does it mean when a bear walks in front of you on the road? Menominee traditions that pass down from generation to generation say where the bear walks, there is power. Or why do you dream two birds, a Great Blue Heron and a Red-Tail Hawk, staring at each other along the shore of a huge pond in the middle of the countryside? Only to find out later in our world, two mentors would appear in a time span of three months after the dream and gift me a Red-Tail Hawk’s wings and tail and a Great Blue Heron feather.

There are messages both in the real and dream world that show themselves when individuals seek guidance. Sometimes these messages show up when you are not seeking. It depends on whether you are willing to step back and think. Our world is losing thinkers and earning obedience. There needs to be education in order for the creative solutions to materialize.

Seeing Wetiko for me has to come to grips with the reality of where my people stand today. The colonization of tribes throughout the Americas has torn apart the essence of community building that was prevalent. Today, tribal leadership argues with you on using resources to build a farm for the community to gain fresh, local food through a collective effort. The heads of tribal institutions put up roadblocks against change to the reservation education system that would have brought an international relations component to show the world Menominee people are still here after years of conquest. Tribal programs fight each other over our youth in order to fulfill grant requirements. Even worse, the blood quantum restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs turns tribal families against each other in order to secure all the resources once the last full/half/quarter blood is accounted for. We’ve become greedy, egotistical, tear each other down, and refuse critical thinking as our most powerful tool. Everything Wetiko/Wendigo thrives off of is now the norm of many tribal nations throughout the United States.

Wetiko/Wendigo is the root of it all and to realize that is both terrifying and relieving at the same time. Terrifying because for over the past couple of centuries it has remained hidden, invisible to the rest of the world while its essence tears apart our societal framework. Seeing Wetiko also comes with an awareness that it is present and could consume you in order to do its bidding. Relieving because for a while now I have been trying to figure out why my tribal leaders refuse ideas that could help our people. Now, I can separate the issue from the individuals and see the root cause: Wetiko/Wendigo. This epiphany allows the beginning stages of dispelling Wetiko. It will take time and much effort, but as a collective we can achieve anything.

If you see Wetiko and have done your research, you know it can possess anyone in order to do its bidding. A story from Menominee traditions was told to me when I was a boy by an elder who spoke of the two wolves that battle inside every one of us. One wolf represents all the good (love, compassion, unity, and respect) that we as human beings possess. The other wolf represents all the bad (ego, greed, violence, and hate) we can inflict on the world.

Which will you feed?

The elder said you internalize the traits of the wolf you feed the most. If you are a compassionate person who sees unity among the human race, you’re feeding the good wolf. If you only seek to be rich and boost your ego while perpetuating hate as well as violence, you’re feeding the bad wolf. You’ll never kill off the good or bad wolf. You can only control it. These old stories are told to remind young Menominee the future is in our hands and we can only decide where to set our course. The future of human beings depends on us to see Wetiko/Wendigo and feed it with compassion, unity, and love. This the only way we will control it.

Brothers Daniel and Marcus Grignon are members of the Algonquin speaking tribe, the Menominee, located in Wisconsin. Both are graduates from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Daniel Grignon has exhibited his artwork in Santa Fe and the Venice Biennale in Italy. Marcus Grignon is Campaign Manager of Renewing Our Hemp Alliance Sustainably (ROHAS), an initiative launched in Wisconsin by Hempstead Project HEART, a project of Earth Island Institute.

[1] Jack Forbes. Columbus and Other Cannibals. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press 1992.

[2] Ibid