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the GAME BAGJoseph BruchacThroughout our original nations of the western hemisphere there’s a deep awareness of the importance of what’s now called ecological balance. It can be seen in practices, often curtailed since the coming of Europeans, such as controlled burns that prevent major forest fires, enrich the soil and reduce the number of insects that damaged medicine and food plants.
That awareness is held in many of our traditional stories, tales that remind the current generations and those to come how to behave in ways that will ensure continuance. Those stories are effective for two reasons. First, because they are entertaining people listen to them and remember them. Secondly, they contain important lessons. Even if those lessons are not grasped at first hearing, they may become clear later on.
One of my favourites of those traditional tales, one I’ve been telling for more than 50 years, is the Penobscot and Western Abenaki story of Gluskonba’s game bag. Among our Wabanaki Nations, there is an important and powerful being known as Gluskonba. The first one to walk upon the earth in the shape of a human being close, he shaped himself from the dust that fell from the hands of Ktsi Nwaskw, the Great Mystery as Ktsi Nwaskw shaped the world. Gluskonba was powerful, but still young and ignorant. So Ktsi Nwaskw provided him with one to be his mentor and his guide. That one was Nokomis Agaskw — Grandmother Woodchuck.
Note that this elder was an animal. Our traditions remind us that animals are no less than humans and often our teachers. One day, Gluskonba decided to go hunting. But, when Gluskonba went into ktsi kpiwi, the big forest, the animals hid and he could not find them.
So he went to his grandmother.
“Nokomis,” he said, make a game bag for me.”
His grandmother wove him a game bag made out of deer hair, but he rejected it. Then she made one from caribou hair. He rejected that one, too. On her third try she made a very big and beautiful game bag from moose hair. That bag also was turned down by Gluskonba.
“What kind of game bag do you want?” Grandmother Woodchuck asked.
“One made of woodchuck hair,” he replied.
Because his grandmother loved him so much, she plucked the hair from her stomach and wove him a game bag. To this day woodchucks have bare patches on their stomachs. That game bag was small, but because it was made of his grandmother’s hair it was magical. No matter how much was put into it, that game bag would still hold more and never be too heavy to carry.
Then Gluskonba went back into the woods. He sat down and began to weep loudly. “Oh, the poor animals,” he sobbed. “They are all going to die.”
The animals heard him and gathered around.
“Why are we going to die?” they asked.
“Ah,” he said, “It is so sad. The world is going to disappear and you will have nowhere to live.”
The animals knew that would be a terrible thing. They all became very afraid.
“Wait,” Gluskonba said. “You can climb into my game bag. You will be safe there. And when this world disappears I will find a new one for you.”
All of the animals believed him. From the smallest to the biggest they climbed into that game bag. Then he tied the top and went back to his grandmother’s wigwam. “I have done a great thing,” he said. “No longer will we have to work hard to get animals. Now whenever we need any animal we can just reach into my game bag and pull it out.”
Nokomis Agaskw looked into the game bag. All the animals in the world looked back up at her.
Then Grandmother Woodchuck shook her head.
“Nda,” she said. “What you have done is not good. No one should own all the animals. You should never take more than you need. And it is right that to hunting animals is hard. It makes us stronger and the animals stronger as well. Also, inside a game bag, the animals will all sicken and die. If we take all of the game animals now, how will our grandchildren survive?”
Gluskonba saw he had made a mistake. He went back into the forest and opened his game bag. “I have found a new world for you,” he said.
Then the animals leapt out of the game bag. They saw it was a fine world indeed, as good as the one they had lived in before. But then they found their own tracks. They found their homes just as they had left them. They realized Gluskonba had tricked them. So, from then on, no animal ever climbed into anyone’s game bag again. Note: It’s important to always acknowledge and thank those who pass traditions on. In this case, those primary sources are my teachers, the Abenaki elders Maurice Mdawelasis Dennis, Stephen Laurent, and Penobscot elder Newell Lion whose telling of this story appears in Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs by Frank G. Speck (Journal of American Folklore, 1935)