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Native American Legends

The Primacy of Plants

An Ojibwa Legend

Roses were once the most numerous and brilliantly colored of all the flowers. Such were their numbers and such were the variety and richness of their shades that they were common. No one paid much attention to them; their beauty went unnoticed, their glory unsung.

Even when their numbers declined and their colors faded, no one appeared to care. Cycles of scarcity and plenty had occurred. There was no cause for alarm. There is degeneration and regeneration. Plenty always follows scarcity.

But year after year roses became fewer in number. As the numbers and richness of the flowers diminished, the fatness of the rabbits increased. Only the bear, and the bee, and the hummingbird were aware that something was wrong.

The Anishnabeg felt that something was not quite right but they couldn't explain it. They only knew that the bear was thinner and that the bear's flesh was less sweet than formerly. The bears found smaller quantities of honey and what they found was less delectable. The bees and humming-birds found fewer roses. The Anishnabeg were bewildered; the bears blamed the bees; the bees were alarmed. But no one could do anything.

Eventually, one summer there were no roses. Bees hungered; humming-birds grew thin; the bears raged. In later years, that summer was known as the Summer of the Disappearance of the Rose. At last, everyone was alarmed. In desperation, a great meeting was called. Everyone was invited.

There were many days of discussion before the meeting decided to dispatch all the swift to search the world for a single rose; and, if they found one, to bring it back. Months went by before a humming-bird chanced to discover a solitary rose growing and clinging to a mountainside in a far off land.

The humming-bird lifted the faint and pallid rose from its bed and brought it back. On arrival, medicine men and women immediately tended the rose and in a few days restored the rose to life. When he was well enough the rose was able to give an account of the destruction of the roses.

In a voice quivering with weakness, the rose said, "The rabbits ate all the roses."
The assembly raised an angry uproar. At the word, the bears and wolves and lynxes seized the rabbits by the ears and cuffed them around. During the assault the rabbits' ears were stretched and their mouths were split open. The outraged animals might have killed all the rabbits that day had not the rose interceded on their behalf saying, "Had you cared and watched us, we might have survived. But you were unconcerned. Our destruction was partly your fault. Leave the rabbits be."

Reluctantly the angry animals released the rabbits. While the rabbits wounds eventually healed, they did not lose their scars which remained as marks of their intemperance. Nor did the roses ever attain their former brilliance or abundance. Instead the roses received from Nanabush thorns to protect them from the avarice of the hungry and the intemperate.

Nanabush, in endowing the roses with thorns, warned the assembly, "You can take the life of plants; but you cannot give them life."

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