The Story of Our Name

A man and his wife, who had to go to the next village and would be gone for the greater part of the day, entrusted the care of their youngest child, scarcely more than an infant, to their older sons and daughters. They directed their children not to leave the lodge under any circumstance, and not to leave the infant unattended for even a moment. The children assured their parents that they would remain by the side of their little brother for as long as need be. And as they promised, so did the young people keep watch over their baby brother until some friends came by to visit. Soon the child was forgotten and neglected as the keepers and their guests fell into conversation and laughter. They even took a short walk.

Their absence and distraction was brief. As soon as the keepers and their guests returned, they went directly to where the baby had been resting to see if he needed anything or that he was in no danger. But there was no baby; neither in the lodge or outside.

Frantically the keepers and their guests called “N’sheemaehn! N’sheemaehn! N’sheemaehn!” as they desperately searched everywhere. But there was no one, nothing except a voice somewhere in the trees that echoed “N’sheemaehn! N’sheemaehn! N’sheemaehn!” in a small, mocking, sad, plaintive tone. The searchers looked up, encouraged, but they could see no one; they looked all around but the voice always came from another place; and they called “N’sheemaehn!” as they looked at the nearby river and saw a bear’s tracks on the sand.

They were still calling “N’sheemaehn!” when their parents came home.

“Why are you calling for your little brother?”

“Because…he’s gone…he’s lost.”

“Did you leave him?”

“No! We didn’t leave him. We went only for a short walk…just over…only for a few moments…and he was gone.”

And the parents and children and their guests resumed their search midst tears of sorrow and guilt. Above them in the cedars the little lost boy, turned into a chickadee, called “N’sheemaehn!” to remind his parents and his keepers that they had left him, neglected him, and would never let them forget what they had done.

The chickadee, called N’sheemaehn for its distinctive cries by the Anishinaubae peoples (Ojibway, Ottawa, Pottawatomi and Algonquin), is a symbol of the duty, care and responsibility that parents, guardians and the community are expected to exercise toward their children. He also serves to remind humankind of the phenomenon that accidents occur during the briefest moments of inattention, and that one will always be reminded of his guilt should one’s neglect cause harm to a child.

B.H. Johnson O. Ont