By the turn of the twentieth century in North America, very few aboriginal peoples still lived by their own custom. Throughout the continent, the United States, Mexico, and Canada had imposed their systems of law onto the previously autonomous communities they encountered. However, deep in the forests of present-day Northern Ontario, a remote clan of the Anishinaabe people, the Sucker doodem, continued to live by their own traditions.
That is, until something happened in 1907 that would cost them their independence—something dark, strange, and tragic.
At the time, the doodem was facing new threats besides the looming likelihood of Canadian governance. Declining demand and rampant over-trapping had virtually wiped out fur trade in the area, leading to a brutal famine. At this time, when their hope was already thin, the unthinkable happened—accounts of monsters began to crop up throughout the region.
They called the creatures “wendigos,” a term rooted in the Cree word for greed. In Anishinaabe tradition, these evil spirits were believed to sometimes inhabit the souls of those near death from starvation or illness. When possessed, the victim would undergo a physical transformation, with limbs elongating and pale skin stretching taut over their bones—leaving them a gaunt shadow of their former selves. All semblance of personhood was replaced by an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
Like most ghost stories unsanitized by time, the accounts were grisly. One told of trappers who heard a voice on the wind before most of their camp was devoured by some unseen beast. Another told how a father had murdered and eaten his own family. You get the idea.
Western academics at the time treated these accounts as curiosities, like the last dregs of an older age of ethnography. Today, their theory of “wendigo psychosis” is dismissed as xenophobia and exaggeration, but the world was stranger then—more mysterious, more dangerous, and crueler. Superstition thrives when it provides an easy answer to a difficult question. For the Anishinaabe, the causes of famine were impossible to know, much less fight—but a wendigo could also be blamed for hardship and loss, and a wendigo could be “killed.”
At the time of these events, a Sucker man named Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow (“he who stands in the southern sky”) had become known for crafting beautiful instruments, bringing some business to the struggling community. For his flair, his people called him Maisaninnine, (“stylish man”). For his instruments, the English-speaking traders dubbed him “Jack Fiddler.”
By late adulthood, Fiddler had risen to the status of ogimaa, a chief and shaman tasked with the spiritual and political leadership of the clan. Fatefully, this also meant protections from wendigos.
Jack, with his brother Joseph, claimed to have killed at least fourteen of the creatures. In one sense, this meant exorcising evil spirits from so they could enter the afterlife in peace. In a different sense, this meant euthanizing those near to death once superstition had come into play.
As the story goes, Joseph’s daughter-in-law Wahsakapeequay fell violently ill in the winter of 1906. The brothers, then in their 60s or 70s, were called. While they first tried to cure her sickness, Wahsakapeequay’s condition worsened. When her suffering became unbearable, they strangled her to prevent possession.
Months had already passed when whispers of the event made their way to visiting mounted police. Two officers, with a prerogative to introduce Canadian law in the region, seized on the chance to arrest the Fiddler brothers for Wahsakapeequay’s death.
Months later, they succeeded. Soon after capture, Jack stole away and hanged himself before the trial, while Joseph was convicted and sentenced to death, with the judge proclaiming “what the law forbids no pagan belief can justify.” In the months that followed, Joseph would successfully appeal his conviction, but the letter ordering his release arrived three days after his death in prison from consumption.
In the absence of the Fiddlers’ leadership, the Canadian government quietly asserted their jurisdiction in the region, irreversibly turning the page to a symbolic new chapter of North American history.
The meaning of Jack Fiddler’s death is messy. It raises so many difficult questions: Is euthanasia morally acceptable in a society with little exposure to modern medical science? Is it more important to protect freedom or safety? Was this crime an act of mercy or superstition?
Yet, there are plenty of things to take away here. There is a tragedy in colonialism that wipes out indigenous customs. There is an irony in powerful myths that cause true damage. And there is a gluttony in fear that strikes the hearts of the desperate. No matter how we choose to interpret Jack’s actions, we should honor and remember the suffering of a people who had so much stolen from them.
Deep in the those woods, where the Severn River winds through White spruces and Balsam firs, I wonder if any of the trees are old enough to have lived during both Jack’s lifetime and my own. I hope so. And I hope they outlive me.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)