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Rabbits in wintertime

Rabbit with legs folded underneath, cat-like. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)

In Ojibwe language, the word for rabbit is waabooz (“wah-BOOSE”). A small rabbit is a waboosoons, which has been my oldest daughter’s nickname since she was a little girl.

Our Ojibwe hero, Nanaboozhoo, was at birth a small white rabbit, and in his name we can hear the connection to the word for rabbit. He is a powerful spirit being, half human, with great strengths and wisdom as well as some human weaknesses and foolhardiness. Among his many talents and gifts is the ability to change his physical form to anything he chooses, and he can be tricky and fun. We often picture him in our minds as a strong, athletic young man but in the old stories he has appeared as (among other things, some quite creative!)  a frog, a stump, a bird and I am sure many other forms that we have not even been aware of.

But he started out as a waaboosoons and when  I see a rabbit, especially a white one, I think of Nanaboozhoo.

There are two kinds of rabbits here in Onigamiising. One is actually a hare and not a rabbit. The first, cottontail rabbits, are smaller, with fluffy white tails and brownish fur that stays that same color all year. The second, snowshoe hares, are bigger. They have large hind legs and furry feet, which get them over the snow easily like they are wearing snowshoes. Their fur turns white in winter, a natural camouflage. When we see a white rabbit in winter it is always a snowshoe hare.

We know from the traditional Ojibwe teachings that all animals are important to the Earth, that no animal is ranked higher or lower than the other in the Creator’s eyes, and that all have a contribution to make. Rabbits and hares are humble beings who have given us food and clothing (soup, meat, broth, hats, mittens, blankets, tools). They don’t really take much in return.

I do remember a spring they ate the tulips I had planted next to the garage. Wanting them to leave the rest of the flowers alone, I sprinkled some blood meal around. That worked for awhile. The bunnies, who were no doubt watching me reproachfully from the brush at the back of the yard, waited patiently for the rain to clear things up. The next year I planted marigolds, which they nibbled but didn’t annihilate. It was a good compromise, I thought. We are all here to live our lives, we all need to eat, marigolds are easy to grow.

A few years ago I learned something about rabbits that was really new to me. A woman friend and I were looking at a painting of a white rabbit. She asked me if I had ever seen rabbits sitting on top of the snow outside in the middle of the night in wintertime.

“I have,” I answered. “Just a couple of times when I couldn’t sleep. It was on clear nights, rabbits in moonlight sitting not upright but with legs folded underneath, like a cat. I wondered what they might be waiting for.”

“Do you know what I have heard? That when we see them out there like that at night it is because the rabbits are watching over us, over a sleeping world and our dreams.”

It was a comforting thought, that of rabbits keeping watch in the dark quiet.

Since hearing the story I have seen them just once, in the middle of a winter night when I was awake. They were on a snowdrift lit by the moon. I could have watched the stillness of the rabbits for hours. Might one of them have been Nanaboozhoo? But I realized they were there to keep watch as I slept and so I returned to bed.

Linda Legarde Grover

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

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