A Native American Hero: The Humble Muskrat
“Where the great had failed, the small succeeded . . . Muskrat teaches us about ethical conduct, the action necessary to ensure that Creation continues. Muskrat informs us about our relationships with each other and with the natural world, including teachings about cooperation, respect, honour, humility, bravery, love and sacrifice.”–Professor Deborah McGregor. www.muskratmagazine.com/teachings-from-the-muskrat/
Recently, while on a six day road trip through Wisconsin and up around the north end of Lake Michigan, we spent a night at the Kewadin Hotel/Casino in St. Ignace. The casino, which turned out to be quite nice, is operated by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Our visit there was memorable for three things: a restaurant that served one of the worse New York trip steaks I’ve ever tried to eat, the casino that (for lack of a better expression) scalped me for a little over one hundred dollars at its crap table, and (as it pertains to this blog post) for a very moving, Ojibway creation story written upon one of the walls of the hotel’s lobby. It recounted the story of how the muskrat saved the world. But before I tell the story, here are a few tidbits of information regarding the creature.
Most people today, I believe, don’t give the muskrat too much thought. Many farm boys–and even a few farm girls–back when I was a kid used to trap the critter every fall for a little extra spending money. And, every once in a while, I’ll see one hit in the road between the two ponds that lie on either side of the road just south of our village; but that’s about it. But from my researches that were inspired by the story on the casino wall, it turns out that the muskrat plays a very important part in Native American Creation stories.
As a matter of fact, the word muskrat probably derived from the Algonquin word muscascus. Its scientific name Ondatra zibethicus has quite an interesting story as well. The genus name Ondatra is fairly straightforward, deriving from the Huron word for animal. The species name zibethicus is from the Latin word that describes anything that smells musky, and in turn, is itself derived from the ancient Arabic word for the Asian mammal called the civet cat (sinnawr al-zabada.) For over a thousand years, the perfume industry has made use of a compound called civet musk, or civet oil. This musk is harvested by removing the oil from the secretory pouches of the Asian (and African) civet cat and sells for $200 a pound!
“Traditional Indian people, including the Ojibway, hold special reverence for the muskrat who sacrificed his life and made life possible for the Earth’s second people. To this day, the Muskrat has been given a good life. No matter that marshes have been drained and their homes destroyed in the name of progress, the Muskrat continues to survive and multiply. The Muskrats do their part today in remembering the great flood; they build their homes in the shape of the little ball of Earth and the island that was formed from it.” http://www.pipekeepers.org/uploads/3/1/3/0/31306445/the_creation_story.pdf
Additional Credits and Resources by the original authors: *Well worth the extra time to read!