Big Naniboujou

NaniboujouUp on the North Shore of Minnesota, where the state’s shape is a narrow arrowhead between the northern shore of Lake Superior and the Canadian border, is a lodge called Naniboujou (Nanny-boo-ZHOU). North of Duluth, north even of Grand Marais, it sits quietly on the shore of the great lake, offering fresh air and peaceful silence to its guests — no phone or television in any room. But it’s the food that brings people back again and again, wonderful meals served in a dining room forty feet long and two stories high, painted in brightly-colored Native American patterns. On one wall, laughing as he looks over the strange white people who have come to visit his territory, is Naniboujou himself, as interpreted by a French artist of the 1920s.

I wanted the pattern in the back of Unraveled Sleeve to be that face, and got the permission of the owners of the lodge to use it. But the pattern is very complicated — Naniboujou’s head is surrounded by a curve of sunset colors shot through with rays and rests on an abstract pattern of flowers and a long canoe. So we settled on another, simpler pattern from that amazing dining room for the book.

But Denise Williams, designer of needlework, had become intrigued by the painting. So had I. At my request, she turned the painting into a counted cross stitch pattern. And Bitsy Busby, of Arlington, Texas, stitched it for me. The picture above is Bitsy’s wonderful work. Denise added one element to the painting: a skein of geese flying across that glorious sky. Read on to learn why.

Many stories are told by the Cree Indians about their great benefactor Naniboujou, sometimes spelled Nanabozho. He is said to have been a giant god who dug Lake Superior (the Apostle Islands were made when he threw the dirt carelessly), and then made the people and taught them everything from how to extract the sweet syrup from the maple tree to the medicinal uses of herbs. He was their protector and insisted they live in peace — there was never a war in his territory. At the same time, he is often identified as a prankster or trickster, and there are amusing stories told about him. I found one in an old book that was a collection of myths and legends from around the world, and have retold it in Unraveled Sleeve thus:

[Jill said,] “Well, let’s see. Oh, I know: One time, when Naniboujou was young, he saw a large flock of geese resting on the water of Gitche Gumee, which we call Lake Superior. He loved goose dinner, but he was such a large god, one goose would not make even a snack for him. And if he shot a goose with his bow and arrow, the others would fly away. So he pulled a length of bark from a white pine tree and braided a long, long twine from the fibers inside it. then he slipped under the water, swimming up to the geese, and there he began tying their feet one to another’s. Now this happened long, long ago, when Naniboujou was young and greedy, and he could not stop at nine, or twelve, or twenty; he had to capture the whole flock, every single one. But when he was reaching for the left foot of the last goose, he couldn’t hold his breath anymore and burst through the surface to gasp for air. Well, of course, the geese all flapped up into the sky. Naniboujou had hold of the end of his twine and he didn’t let go, thinking he could hold them. but there were so many geese tied to that twine that instead they lifted him up into the air with them. He considered that he was a very large god, and they would soon tire and come down, but he was the one who got tired, and at last he had to let go. Down, down he fell, right into a marsh, kersplut! Up to his elbows in muck. Wet and covered with duckweed, he had to go home hungry. But to this day, geese fly in a long skein, their feet still tied together with Naniboujou’s twine.”


The Naniboujou Pattern is available now, at $6 plus $1 postage and handling. Commercial orders of five or more will receive a 40% discount.

Send e-mail to to order.

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