We are often told that we should never give up on our dreams. Motivational speakers and life coaches make a fortune telling us that we need to persevere. Children’s stories like The Little Engine That Could and Throw Mountains remind us that unless we are willing to work through a challenge, we will not be successful. While messages encouraging us to pursue our dreams are many, few deign to tell us what the cost of these pursuits might be. Success is made to sound easy, something that anyone can accomplish by shaking the right hands and smiling at just the right angle. The very idea that we have to sacrifice, and even endure pain in order to succeed is oft overlooked. Triumph is not without tribulation. The Ojibwa folktale The Father of Corn teaches this lesson through the allegory of a great wrestling match.
Our story begins with a hunter named Wunzah. Because this story was largely preserved through oral traditions, accounts of his origin and even his name vary between storytellers. Some say he was an orphan that was adopted and raised by a family that found him in an abandoned canoe. Others say that until this story began, he was an unexceptional and even poor hunter with a small family. What the stories do agree on is that he was a fighter. He was fast with his hands and was always up for a challenge. One day his village was approached by a strange man of uncommonly large size. He thumped his chest and demanded to meet the strongest man in the village for a wrestling match to the death. The stranger had travelled far and unto now he had been unable to find his match. Wunzah was called by his people to be that challenger. Despite the grave nature of his challenge, the stranger was largely courteous, willing to share a peace pipe and engage with the people of the village. When the time came for a wrestling match, Wunzah and the stranger went into the woods where their match to the death began. They locked arms and wrestled from sunrise to sunset for several days, during which time neither of them ate or drank. They woke, wrestled and went back to sleep. Each day that they wrestled, the strangers’ face changed. His face turned yellow, and strange bumps like beads of wampum started to appear all over his skin. That did not deter Wunzah who continued to wrestle. Several days into the match, Wunzah began to tire. His muscles ached; he was weak from hunger and thirst. He knew that if he lost this match, he would die and his village would be forever shamed. He could not, nay; he would not let that happen. He caught his second wind and threw down his adversary. The stranger, spent and defeated, smiled and told Wunzah to dig for him a grave for his end was soon. Wunzah agreed to do so, and when the stranger died, he buried him in soft soil. Out of respect for his opponent, Wunzah lit a fire and chanted over the grave for seven days. On the seventh day, a strange plant appeared. Suspecting that this was a gift from the spirit world, Wunzah tended it until it bore great green pods. A voice that sounded suspiciously like the stranger told him to take and open it. The bright yellow grains and sweet smell surprised him. The voice told him to roast the pod until the leaves turned brown and eat of the yellow kernels. Wunzah did so and he was so taken by the sweet flavour of this new food that he ran to his village shouting about this sweet gift from the earth, and so corn was introduced to the Ojibwa, and Wunzah was forever remembered as its harbinger.
On the surface, this is a folktale like many others, telling the story of how something so important to a people came to them. The story follows a man who goes becomes a legend through facing a daunting challenge and emerging the victor. This story, however, is much more than that. This story is a lesson in perseverance by giving us metaphors for the main aspects of the challenges we face in life. The village represents his previous life. It was familiar and safe. This was something that he wanted to preserve and care for. The stranger represents the unexpected opportunities and misfortunes that we experience in life. Whether we like it or not, life will interrupt the harmony that we create for ourselves, and we must confront it. The wrestling match represents the road to success, with all of its demands on our physical and mental stamina, the tension and fear of losing, and the promise of something better at the end. The corn is success. Life is forever changed by defeating the challenges that life presents us.
Live challenges us every day. These challenges can come in the form of opportunities such as returning to school to qualify for the jobs we want, or they can be misfortunes such as car accidents or sudden illness. Despite our illusionary sense of personal security in the sameness of our lives, the only constant is change. The question is how we meet those challenges. Wunzah chose to face his challenge head on. He could have given up when he was hungry, he could have given up when he was tired. Wunzah could have given up and let the stranger kill him when he felt too tired to fight. His heart, however, would not let him give up. He knew the stakes. He wanted to win no matter how tired or thirsty he felt. Though he was unaware of what his reward would be at the end of the wrestling match, he could not bring himself to give up. He was willing to fight with every inch of his being to emerge the victor. After his victory, instead of gloating and mocking his fallen opponent, he instead chooses to honour him, remembering his struggle and remaining humble, knowing that it could have just as easily been him in the bosom of Mother Earth.
In our lives, almost anything of substance that we could possibly want is in our grasp, but we have to be willing to work to the best of our ability and make the necessary sacrifices if we are to attain our heart’s desire. Wunzah wrestled the stranger for days before he finally won. He was not only willing to feel intense pain and discomfort; he was willing to endure it for a long time. We must apply that same mentality to everything that we do in life. We have to be willing to forego things that we want in the short term so that we can reap the greater rewards later. We must be willing to feel pain and discomfort, we must be willing to face the demands our nature puts on us and decide to ignore them.
Wunzah’s prayers over his fallen foe are not just empty displays of nobility. His prayers and fasting show us that regardless of the prestige of our accomplishments, we must always remain humble and pay homage to the challenges we overcame. Without these challenges, we would not be the people that we are, nor would we be able to become the people that we want to be.
Until next time, be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
A short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTT-nAiqWas