Making Home: A story of beaver and babies

Aerial photo of a large beaver complex in a post-glacial valley, in the Poudre Canyon just outside Kinikinik, part of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, on traditional Eastern Shoshone, Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne lands.
Aerial photo of a large beaver complex in a post-glacial valley, in the Poudre Canyon just outside Kinikinik, part of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, on traditional Eastern Shoshone, Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne lands.

Photo by Emily Fairfax, PhD.

Related Topics:
Conservation, Justice, Storyfest 2024, Water

The elders tell us that Mek, the four-legged fur bearer we call beaver, is our eldest teacher. At the beginning of the world, Anishnabe, the first human man, was alone. After roaming the land and naming all of the plants and animals he could see, Anishnabe realized that among all of creation, he was the only one of his kind. “Am I destined to be alone?” he asked the Creator. “No,” the Creator responded. “There is someone waiting for you.” One day, Anishnabe heard a voice singing, a tune that was carried over the waters of the great lake. Anishnabe recognized the voice as belonging to a human woman, and she was singing, “I have prepared a place for us, and I’m waiting for you.” Excited, Anishnabe jumped into the lake, but quickly realized that he didn’t know how to swim. Sputtering and nearly drowned, he climbed back out of the very cold lake and sat on the edge of the shore to think.

Over time, Anishnabe observed the beaver, who glided through the water with ease. He learned to fashion a canoe in the shape of a beaver’s body, wider than it is tall, and narrow on both ends. He made a paddle in the shape of a beaver’s tail, flat and broad. And he learned how to navigate using the stars in the sky by observing the birds. These observations led to his eventual success in crossing the lake to the island from which the woman’s voice floated over the water.

This story is important to the Nishnabek people because it forms part of our origin story, or how we understand who we are and where we come from. In this story, the beaver is our first teacher, and we learn how to utilize tools available to us for safe passage. The woman on the island was Firekeeper’s Daughter. At their subsequent marriage, humans were given the gift of fire, along with original instructions from Firekeeper. He warned us that just as fire is a spirit with two natures, we alone have the ability to choose our path — that of creation, or destruction. This is integral to our formation and identity as Bodewadmi, or “People of the Place of the Fire.”

I can’t tell if more people are learning about beaver, or if I am just learning more about beaver, but beaver stories seem to be everywhere nowadays. And while I could describe in detail the morphology and behavior of beaver as currently understood by Western science — such as the way beaver can fell a 3-inch tree in less than 10 minutes with their perfectly chiseled, orange teeth reinforced with iron — I feel as though recent publications such as the book Eager are helping to tell those stories. Instead, I’m going to take this opportunity to introduce you to some of the less-well-known things about beaver, that challenge some of our notions about who they are.

A North American beaver. (Public Domain)

Before I go much further, though, it is appropriate for me to tell you who I am. Mickki ndezhnekas. Wawasmokwe ndezhnekas. Neshnabe ndaw. Bodewadmi kwe ndaw. Shishibani ndeb-endag-wes. Jigwe o ndodem. In my introduction, I’m telling you where I come from, which is how I tell you where I belong.

My mother and I were both born in Southwest Kansas, in a place they call the High Plains. The prairie stretches long and brown to an edge of the sky that is wider than there are words to explain. I grew up watching that point in the distance, hoping for something better “out there.”

I was conceived on the way to my grandmother’s funeral, in a car somewhere between where I was born and where she was born, in the red clay soil of Oklahoma. My tribe is based there now, but we weren’t always from there.

They say that a species is considered native or invasive based on its location in an ecological context, and whether it has developed a set of relationships within the ecosystem where some sort of balance is achieved, in the great cycles of eating and being eaten.

The first tool of oppression is forgetting. They took most of our lands and starved us. They tried to replace our stories with new ones, seeded a new language in our mouths and made it illegal to dance. They imprisoned our medicine men and desecrated sacred lands. When that didn’t work, they took our children to assimilation camps and called it “school.” They think that because they forgot, we would, too.

This culture loves to celebrate “the last.” The last of the “real” Indians, the “noble savage” who loved the earth and barely lived on it, the “wilderness” that was so easily “conquered” for the “good” of “progress.”

What they never noticed is that our people didn’t die, we just changed. Hundreds of years before the celebrated “explorers,” my people received a series of visions we call fires. We were told that pale-skinned people were coming and would bring with them death and destruction. To survive, we had to move West, and look for a new homeland. We would know that place when we found “the food that grows on water.” This was the first of many movements we’ve made in order to survive.

What do you call a species who has been scattered, far beyond places they recognize as home?

My people moved, learning new places while remembering the old. We are the Bodewadmi, the Nishnabek, the People of the Place of the Fire. Before us were the ones they call Hopewell and Adena. My people still remember the oldest ones, who we call the Mammoth people.

My grandmothers walked hundreds of miles over hard earth to unknown places, carrying their daughters’ daughters in their wombs. They tucked songs like secrets into their breasts and kept stomp dancing in the dark and told us over and over again, “remember who you are.”

They say that when life evolves new and more complex processes, the old ways don’t just disappear. This is why the ferns grow next to the orchids, old and new, both remembering how to drink the sun.

In the visions of my ancestors, the people were told that in the time we are living now, which we call the seventh fire, there would be a choice of two roads. One road is full of death and destruction, and the other is green and fertile. It was foretold that during this time the Osh-ki-bi-ma-di-zeeg’ people would emerge. These people would take on the task of remembering, going back to pick up the pieces left by our ancestors. Our work makes a new future possible.

I collect stories like I collect fallen leaves, pressing them into the pages of a book. I learn names and commit them to memory. I practice the sounds of my language; they are heavy smooth rocks nestled low in my mouth, and while I feel nervous trying to learn, they feel like tasting home.

Home. In considering what to share with you, I think this is the circle we should gather within.

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Mek is how they use sticks, mud, and even stones to build dams across slow-moving streams or the inlets and outlets of lakes. These dams create ponds, and the beaver lodge will be built somewhere nearby, with an entrance to the lodge under the pond’s surface, shielding the beaver and her family from wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. Within the pond, beaver in colder climates will build a food cache, storing branches under water, keeping themselves fed when the water turns to ice.

Beaver are very good at making home.

Within the wintry lodge, the female beaver will give birth to her kits. The older offspring and other adults will circle around the birthing mother and newly born, providing protection and warmth. Family members groom the babies and bring them food, carrying the young on their backs to and from the water’s edge, helping them learn how to swim. Because baby kits are too buoyant to dive, family members must stay close at hand. If the young ones get too tired to swim, family members will carry them to safety on their backs or tails.

Researchers have recorded and categorized the various vocalizations beaver make with one another, describing whines, hisses, whistles, cries, and a “soft chur.” Beaver have been recorded speaking softly to their babies, nestled in the warmth and darkness of the lodge.

The most you’ll likely hear from a beaver, however, is a loud slap of their tail on the water’s surface; a warning.

It has been estimated that prior to colonization, upwards of 400 million beaver lived in nearly every part of North America. By the time my ancestors walked from what is now Chicago to reservation lands in Kansas, fewer than 100,000 beaver remained. The descendants of these survivors have learned that humans are not to be trusted. As a result, beaver are now commonly referred to as nocturnal. But beaver have terrible eyesight and aren’t otherwise adapted to nighttime activity. They avoid the day to hide from humans.

It is often said that beaver are monogamous and mate for life. The reality is much more interesting. Successful beaver pairs can rear many generations of offspring, who usually stay in the lodge for two or three years before venturing off to find a new home. It is also common for large colonies of multi-generation families to stay together for years. Occasionally, adult beaver will travel outside their home territory to mate with other adults before returning home. One study found that over half of pair-bonded females will birth offspring from other fathers. These kits will be raised by the same pair with no issues.

But also, solo beaver do exist. In some denser populations, single adult beaver have been observed operating as “floaters,” moving from one family’s lodge to another in a peaceful kind of couch-surfing, participating in the work of the family, and even rearing kits in the same den.

I love knowing that beaver also have aunts and uncles.

According to our elders, humans are the last of creation, the youngest sibling among all of the other beings of earth. And beaver is the keeper of knowledge, the one we must look to learn how to be good humans. The more I learn about beaver, the more I see how she teaches us to be good family members. She shows us how to build a safe and warm home, how to protect our babies, how to make do when times are lean, and how to work together for the benefit of everyone. In beaver communities, new babies aren’t born if there aren’t enough hands to care for them. And everyone takes care of one another.

Before the beaver wars, and the fur trade, it was beaver who shaped the land. The trappers remarked on how friendly and curious the beaver were, doing their work and napping in the sun. Like every other living thing, they are learning and adapting, to survive the onslaught of colonization. I think about them, doing their work in the cold and dark, warning their babies to be careful — as all good mothers do.

Late at night, I snuggle with my daughter. Sometimes it takes a while for her to settle down, and we lay together in the bed, warm and cozy. She blows raspberries on my belly, and we giggle. This morning I asked her, “do you remember when you were in mama’s belly, before you were born?” She thought for a moment and said, “happy.” I said, “Did you feel happy?” “Yeah,” she said, her small voice, content.

I struggle with how I will explain to her how the world is now. In the world I imagine, we have learned to repair. And the beaver and her family once again do their work in the warmth of the sun.

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