The cycle of the changing seasons is one of the universal facts about our planet which everyone living on it experiences. Whether it’s a rainy and a dry season or the four seasons from winter to spring, any place experiences shifts in weather that repeat from year to year. Many cultures have come up with stories to explain why the weather isn’t good all year round. The most famous of these is the Greek story of Demeter’s grief at the separation from her daughter Persephone, which causes the crops to die while Persephone dwells with her husband Hades in the Underworld. But today we’re going to look at a story from the other side of the globe where a whale called Bootup helps save the world from an eternal winter.
The Wabanaki Confederacy is a group of First Nation and Native American peoples who live on the northeast coast of North America, a fact referenced in their name which means “Dawnland People”. The confederacy comprises five nations – Mi’kmaw, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot – who have been allies since at least the early 17th century. Although each nation has its own distinct language and culture, their intertwined history and environment means they have many things in common. Many stories are shared by all the Wabanaki peoples, including those of the culture hero Glooskap. Although his name means “liar”, referring to his sometimes mischievous nature, Glooksap is a benevolent figure in Wabanaki stories. He transformed much of the landscape into the form we know it today and has gone on many adventures to help protect the people he watches over.
One such adventure created the balance between winter and summer. Like all popular stories, there are several different versions of this tale, but all of them begin with the ice king Winter overstaying his welcome. When Glooskap goes to investigate why all of his people are freezing, Winter invites him into his wigwam and they sit smoking together. What seems like a sign of respect turns out to be a trick, and Winter’s frosty voice puts Glooskap to sleep for six months. When he awakes, his messenger the Loon alerts him to the need to find a powerful queen called Summer who lives in the Southlands. In some versions, it is a boneless giant called Coolpujot who tells Glooskap to fetch Summer, since the giant can only keep Winter at bay every few months when he manages to roll over. Either way, Summer is said to be a queen whose power is so great even Winter fears her, so Glooskap sets off for the Southlands to save his people.
With Coolpujot’s magic running out fast, Glooskap has to reach the Southlands faster than he can run, so he calls on a loyal friend to help him. He goes to the water’s edge and sings a magic song which summons Bootup the Whale. Bootup’s gender changes depending on the story, but Glooskap often addresses the whale as noogumee, or “grandmother”, and she calls him noojeech, or “grandson”. Bootup happily fulfills Glooskap’s wish and swims with him on her back towards the Southlands, but as the smell of orange blossoms and spices heralds their approach, Glooskap plays a trick on his faithful friend.
But she was greatly afraid of getting into shoal water, or of running ashore, and this was what Glooskap wished her to do that he might not wet his feet. So as she approached she asked him if land were in sight. But he lied, and said “No.” So she went on rapidly.
However, she saw shells below, and soon the water grew so shoal that she said in fear, “Moon-as-tabá-kán-kwi-jéan-nook? Does not the land show itself like a bow-string?” And he said, “We are still far from land.” Then the water grew so shoal that she heard the song of the Clams as they lay under the sand, singing to her that she should throw him off and drown him. For these Clams were his deadly enemies. But Bootup the Whale did not understand their language, so she asked her rider–for he knew Clam–what they were chanting to her. And he replied in a song:—
“They tell you to hurry,
To hurry, to hurry him along,
Over the water,
Away as fast as you can!”
Following Glooskap’s willful mistranslation, Bootup crashes into the beach and Glooskap alights without getting his moccasins wet. She sings in despair, lamenting that he has driven her to her death, but he sings that she will swim again before prying her off the beach with his bow. Rejoicing at her freedom, she makes one final request of him before he continues his search to find Summer: “Oh my grandson, K’teen penabskwass n’aga tomawé – have you not got an old pipe and some tobacco?” Happy to oblige, Glooskap tosses her his second-best pipe.
So he gave her a short pipe and some tobacco, and thereunto a light. And the Whale, being of good cheer, sailed away, smoking as she went, while Glooskap, standing silent on the shore, and ever leaning on his maple bow, beheld the long low cloud which followed her until she vanished in the far away. And to this day the Indians, when they see a whale blow, say she is smoking the pipe of Glooskap.
Glooscap goes on to convince Summer to help him defeat Winter. Although her power easily overwhelms the ice king, in her mercy she suggests that instead of killing him they merely banish him for part of the year. The people are saved, thanks in part to Bootup the helpful whale. You can watch a simplified version of the story in this beautifully animated video from 1986:
Aside from being a delightful story about the origin of the seasons, the tale of Bootup offers rich insights into the relationship between the Wabanaki and whales. One of the most striking features of the story is that Glooskap and Bootup communicate almost exclusively through song. The way Glooskap sings to summon Bootup may relate to the tradition of whaling songs shared by many Native American and First Nations communities on either coast of North America. Aside from rousing the spirits of the whalers, songs like this were often part of a holistic approach which involved convincing the whale that its sacrifice would be honoured and the rebirth of its spirit would be assured. You can hear an example of a Mi’kmaw whaling song below:
Does the tradition of singing to whales indicate an awareness of the musical communication strategies employed by whales amongst themselves? And what about Bootup’s journey from north to south, which mirrors many whale migration routes? It wouldn’t be surprising if these details were based on long-standing observations of whale behaviour – Western scientists are still catching up to the knowledge indigenous North American communities have maintained about cetaceans for countless generations. The nations that make up the Wabanaki Confederacy have an intense and respectful relationship with whales as fellow beings with “reason and intelligence” as described by Mi’kmaw man Thomas Boonis in 1870 (translated into English by Silas Tertius Rand). The term “non-human persons” is gaining popularity as a way of describing the autonomy of intelligent animals but is a concept that has long been familiar to the Wabanaki. Evidence of this mutual respect can be found in the story of Bootup and Glooskap. They refer to each other with words of kinship, demonstrating a common bond that transcends species. Not only does Bootup chide Glooskap as she would an errant grandson, but once their quarrel has been resolved, she asks to share his pipe. By honouring her request and offering Bootup his pipe, Glooskap includes the whale in a human ceremony. Bootup’s blowhole full of pipe smoke is more than a fun aetiological myth; it carries serious sacred weight as an act of prayer shared between equals.
The idea that whales are beings capable of love, worry, and sophisticated reasoning and emotional capacities survives among Wabanaki peoples today. Empathy-infused science makes indigenous North Americans leaders in developing appropriate policy for managing whale populations, such as Canadian Senator Daniel Christmas who roots his understanding of cetaceans as families in need of help in his Mi’kmaq upbringing:
Glooskap and Bootup went on many more adventures which I hope to revisit in future blog entries. For now, I’ll keep scanning the horizon whenever I walk by the sea, hoping to see a whale with an exhale so magnificent it looks like pipe smoke rising peacefully above the water.