Debaj reinvents Lupi the Great White Wolf 25 years after first production

Anonghoonhs, played by Katie Peltier, and Nimkii, portrayed by Matt Manitowabi, confess their love for one another in the Debajehmujig summer main stage production of Lupi the Great White Wolf. photos by Ron Berti

WIKWEMIKONG—Twenty-five years after its Debajehmujig debut, the long-told tale from Whitefish River First Nation, Lupi the Great White Wolf, again came to life at Wikwemikong’s Holy Cross Mission Ruins last week.

Joe Osawabine, Debajehmujig Storytellers’ artistic director, directed this important summer main stage production from a unique perspective, as one who had started his acting career as a child with the troupe in that very play in its first production.

The story of Lupi was passed on to Debajehmujig by Whitefish River storyteller Esther Osche, who had been told the tale of love and loss by her grandmother and undoubtedly, her grandmother before her. Ms. Osche and then artistic director Larry Lewis collaborated to create a script for Lupi, “But I didn’t want to just create the script again, but go back to the story itself,” Mr. Osawabine explained.

With Ms. Osche’s consent, Mr. Osawabine said, he set to work to do just that with Ms. Osche being “extremely thrilled” at the suggestions and said it was the most important thing Debajehmujig could do, to share those old stories.

“Debajehmujig’s very name is ‘keeper of the stories’ and our job is to ensure that those stories are passed on,” the artistic director shared.

Artistic director Joe Osawabine acts as the storyteller in Lupi the Great White Wolf while Danielle Roy of Odemin Kwe Singers looks on.
Artistic director Joe Osawabine acts as the storyteller in Lupi the Great White Wolf while Danielle Roy of Odemin Kwe Singers looks on.

He explained that the story of Lupi the Great White Wolf comes from a people, the people of Birch Island, who lived by the Seven Grandfather Teachings, a kind and gentle people who lived by strict protocols, and so began the tale peppered with beautiful hand drumming songs by Danielle Roy of Odemin Kwe Singers.

Lupi begins with the introduction of the chief and his lovely daughter, Anongoonhs, who has just finished her berry fast and is of the age to accept a suitor for marriage. In those days, the chief, her father, lets it be known that he would be accepting proposals of marriage for his daughter, and included with that, dowries.

Anonghoonhs, however, was already in love with a young man from the village, one she had grown up with and who loved her too, Nimkii.

Nimkii got to work straight away with his dowry bundle, but felt it was inadequate and so sought advice from his father, who told him he did his very best, there was nothing more to do. In Nimkii’s dowry bundle, however, he included three wampums—rare shells from the sea that were used in trading.

When Nimkii was about to present his dowry bundle to the chief, the village, then located on an island close to Birch Island’s present location, became aware of 10 canoes arriving on the beach. In the lead canoe sat a strange old woman, in the rear a young man, unspeaking. The old woman approached the chief, urging him to accept the proposal from her grandson while the 10 canoes were unloaded with at his feet. Nimkii approaches, bearing his small bag of offerings for Anonghoonhs’ hand.

Mr. Osawabine, the storyteller, explained that the chief needed to uphold the cultural protocols of his people, and the old lady knew this too, but the chief also did not want to let his daughter go to strange people and decided that some traditions were made to be broken and made the announcement that he would accept Nimkii’s proposal.

The wedding ceremony was a happy affair, full of feasting, round dances and two-stepping that included the audience, who were, after all, the wedding guests. That night, Nimkii placed the wampums around his bride’s neck in a necklace and promised her another for their first-born child. This meant that Nimkii would again soon have to leave the village and head out on a trading mission.

The strange old woman, who was camped on a nearby island with her grandson, learned the news of Nimkii’s acceptance into the family through a messenger from the chief. When the messenger left, she sat her grandson down and told him of the atrocities that the chief and his war party had led against her village, killing his mother and almost killing him.

The chief, she told him, had picked him up as a wailing baby who had just lost his mother and was about to throw him into a fire when the grandmother begged and pleaded for his life. The chief shot the baby down onto the ground, sparing him from the fire, and the boy never spoke a word from that day forward.

The old woman spent the next years learning the ways of that raiding community, studying the people. If the chief had accepted the dowry, all would be forgiven and the slate would be wiped clean, but since they were rebuked, she summoned all of her powers and medicines, invoking the four directions. The grandmother placed white wolf pelts around her grandson and transformed him into a half wolf, half man creature, Lupi the Great White Wolf, and set him loose in the community to get his vengeance.

Lupi lurked in the woods around the village, devouring victims that crossed his path. With more and more of his villagers disappearing, the chief prayed to all the spirits he could until finally the water spirits answered and showed him a vision of when he had led a raid on the neighbouring village, who the old lady and the grandson-turned wolf were, and he understood. He called for his people to fill their canoes and flee, including Anonghoonhs, who was waiting for Nimkii to return from his first trip away from her.

As the people began to pile into their canoes, Anonghoonhs realized she had left her wampum necklace behind and ran to get it. When she entered her lodge, there was Lupi, holding her necklace. He pleaded with her not to leave. “Without you, all my dreams die with you,” he told her, transforming into her husband. Frightened, and not knowing who he really was, she ran. But while escaping from the wolf creature she tripped, hitting her head, and died. Lupi ran to her, mourning her in howls and nuzzling her, for he never wanted to hurt her. “He loved her,” the storyteller said.

At that moment Nimkii arrived to find Lupi over his dead wife and a battle ensued between the two, with Nimkii losing to the wolf-man in the end.

The chief returned to find his daughter and husband dead and is chased by Lupi into the water where the wolf is burned by the water spirits, destined to never leave the island again.

And as for Anonghoonhs and Nimkii, they lived on in eternity.

Veteran Debajehmujig Storyteller Matt Manitowabi played the role of Nimkii while first-time actor Katie Peltier portrayed Anonghoonhs.

Unique to Lupi the Great White Wolf, as it was 25 years ago, is the use of the Ojibwe language throughout the play, a new and exciting challenge for most of the actors.

Cotnee Kaboni, the grandmother in Lupi, also acted as the theatre’s language teacher.

Cotnee Kaboni, “the strange old lady,” tells her grandson of his tragic past before  transforming him into Lupi the Great White Wolf.
Cotnee Kaboni, “the strange old lady,” tells her grandson of his tragic past before transforming him into Lupi the Great White Wolf.

Both Mr. Manitowabi and Ms. Peltier explained that, like most youth taking Anishnaabemowin classes, they only learned the words for things, but not conversational Ojibwe, so learning the lines was a struggle, “but it opened a door, definitely,” Mr. Manitowabi said, noting he has a son in the immersion program and he hopes that his son will actually be able to have someone to talk to in the home through him.

Ms. Peltier too said she hopes to keep learning her language, spurred on by Anonghoonhs.

“It was always our intention to go back to the story,” Mr. Osawabine said of Lupi the Great White Wolf.

He noted that, 25 years ago, he was one of the young village boys in the production of Lupi, chosen after Larry Lewis asked him to read and audition, as was Bruce Naokwegojig (now in charge of outreach for Debaj), who acted as the chief in this summer’s production of Lupi.

“Who would have ever thought that I would be here, 25 years later, as the artistic director,” Mr. Osawabine continued. “It was an amazing experience from Larry having that vision. That was the very beginning, and I don’t know how much foresight he had, but I don’t know where I’d be now if it wasn’t for Larry calling me in and asking me to read.”

Lupi the Great White Wolf has been an important piece for the Debajehmujig Storytellers. It has been performed, as it was last week, in a combination of Ojibwe and English, in Ojibwe only and also largely in English.

When the Debajehmujig players made their first international tour to three venues in the northeast United States, it was Lupi the Great White Wolf that they brought to brand new audiences (who received the story with positive enthusiasm). It was wonderful to see Debajehmujig returning to the Holy Cross Mission Ruins once again with a significant performance.