The “thunder beings” (nimkiik) were a strong spiritual part of the world of the Ojibwe. Francis Pegahmagabow’s great-great-grandfather Bebagamigaabaw, a Muskoka band chief from whom the family surname originated, was named in part for the power of both thunder and wind spirits. So too was Francis’s great-grandfather James Pegahmagabow Sr. (Beskinekwam or “The Thunder That Sets Things on Fire”), also named from the thunder spirits. As Francis related to Diamond Jenness in 1929, “When my great-grandfather was a baby his father joined a war-party against the Indians to the south. One day when the sky was almost cloudless a bolt of lightning set fire to a tree near the home camp. Then the people knew that the party was engaged in battle, and they named my great-grandfather Beskinekwam, ‘the thunder that sets things on fire.’” Thunder is animate in the Ojibwe language and a respected part of the natural world. Its presence inspired offerings of tobacco and the quiet attention of the people while its cleansing and healing energy was brought to the earth.
Although Francis did not grow up with his relatives at Parry Island, his adoptive family made sure he was exposed to all the rites of passage common in Ojibwe tradition. Fasting was one such practice that helped young people find direction in life and often the blessing of a helper spirit. Francis himself was blessed by the thunder spirits while fasting as a boy. He had long forgotten about this, however, until he found himself on the front lines during the Great War. He was reminded that they would never abandon him, even in a place he did not expect their help: “During the great war Pegahmagabow was overtaken by a terrific thunderstorm. He felt the air flap his face as though moved by the wings of a mighty bird. Previously he had not believed the story of a thunderbird, but on this occasion at least it seemed to him that it must be true.” After this experience, Francis would describe the sound of a coming storm with the word biidweyaangwe (“the coming sound of a thunderbird’s wings”). On other occasions, he would use the word bmakwazhiwewin (“the sound the thunder beings made as they rowed across the sky”). The thunder spirits were powerful defenders, and Francis told his children one could sometimes hear the sound of their “war clubs” (bgamaaganan) echoing in the distance. The Ojibwe believed the thunders had their own language. Few, however, were able to interpret their message.
While it was during the war that Francis would remember his blessing from the thunder spirits, it was also his war experience, somewhat ironically, that would corrupt this relationship. When he returned home, he sometimes found the sound of a thunderstorm reminiscent of the chaos he experienced during his many years on the front lines. Always the protector, Francis would go off on his own should the sound of a coming storm induce the memory of war. He also learned to listen to the thunders and appreciate the gifts of cleansing and renewal they brought to the earth. The following story from his son Duncan affirms that Francis continued to find value and blessing when the thunders sounded their voices.
Listen to a recording of the story in Anishinaabemowin.
Mii naa dazhindmaan mewnzha ko gaa-bi-naadziwaad Nishnaabeg.
I am speaking about how the Nishnaabe people were long ago.
Mii ko gaa-zhichgewaad ngitziimag iihow pii gchi-nimkiikaamgak.
This was what my parents did whenever there was a thunderstorm.
Waasa go naa odi aazhgo kaa maa gaawaanh go naa gnoondwaag biidwewdamwaad giw nimkiik.
Over there in the distance, you could just barely hear those thunders sounding their voices as they came this way.
Mii aazhgo maa bi-yaa ndedem gii-bi-yaan gwehow naagaans gaa-aabjitood zkamwaajged.
This was when my father would approach them, taking a small bowl that he used to make his tobacco offering in.
Mii zkamwaajged niw yahaan nimkiin.
For this tobacco offering was for the thunders.
Nmishoom’sinaanig maa naa go—giw nimkiik—nmishoom’sinaanig.
They are our grandfathers —those thunders —they are our grandfathers.
Mii-sh gwa zkamwaajged gwa.
And so he would make his tobacco offering to them.
Gchi-nendam ko mnookmig ntam giw bebi-yaajig go bi-bgamak.
He was so glad in the spring when those first thunders came rolling in.
Mii ko memdige zkamwaajgepan mii iw gchi-nenmaad niw miinwaa bipskaabiinid niw nimkiin.
He especially offered tobacco then, being so glad that those thunders had returned.
Mii-sh ko gaa-zhichged go ndedem iihow biptaamgwak zkamwaajged.
This is what my father did whenever a storm came in, he made an offering of tobacco.
Pane gaa-zhi-kendmaan zhichgewaad iihow Nishnaabeg mewnzha zkamwaajgewaad.
For as long as I can remember, the Nishnaabe people of long ago would offer tobacco during these times.
Zkamwaajgewaad ge niw yahaan nimkiin.
They made an offering to the thunders.