Net-no-kwa, a Chief of the Ojibwa, and Good Will

By Meryl Simon, February 4, 2005

[Written originally for a blog titled “Pride, Shame, and Divorce” by Meryl Simon]

“Good will is the oneness of criticism and encouragement.” – Eli Siegel

Net-no-kwa is a chief of the Ojibwa who adopts a boy―John Tanner―from Kentucky and treats him with a combination of toughness and tenderness, criticism and encouragement. I found qualities in Net-no-kwa’s treatment of John Tanner that are in the field of those which make for good will, which Aesthetic Realism teaches a person to have as a conscious purpose.

There are many instances in literature and in anthropological material which show that people are looking for that oneness of opposites which makes for kindness, for good will.

John Tanner, or The Falcon as his narrative has been titled [Penguin edition], was captured by Indians as a boy of nine years in Kentucky in the 1780s, because, in effect, he wanted to escape from his father and stepmother and be taken by the Indians. He loitered at some distance from his family’s homestead at the edge of the forest. The first Indians who took him were cruel to him, treated him as a slave, but he was soon “bought,” by a relative of those who first took him.

We meet Net-no-kwa early in the narrative. She was regarded “notwithstanding her sex…as principal chief of the Ottawwaws. This woman had lost her son, of about my age, by death; and having heard of me, she wished to purchase me to supply his place.” Net-no-kwa, in my opinion, is critical and kind. John Tanner narrates:

“She took me by the hand after she had completed the negotiation with my former possessors, and led me to her own lodge which stood near. Here I soon found I was to be treated more indulgently than I had been. She gave me plenty of food, put good clothes upon me, and told me to go and play with her own sons….She imposed on me, for the first year, some tasks. She made me cut wood, bring home game, bring water, and perform other services not commonly required of the boys of my age; but she treated me invariably with so much kindness that I was far more happy and content than I had been in the [former family]…”

I think essentially Net-no-kwa was for John Tanner and he felt she was. Being for the best thing in a person and against the worst thing in them is a crucial thing in good will.

After some years, he becomes romantically interested in Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa (the red sky of the morning). He recalls that he spent a considerable part of one night with Red Sky, and crept back into the lodge, but this did not escape the notice of Net-no-kwa “[who] rapp[ed] on my naked feet at the first appearance of dawn on the following morning”:

‘”Up,” said the old woman, “and start after game. It will raise you more in the estimation of the woman you would marry to see you bring home a load of meat early in the morning than to see you dressed ever so gaily, standing about the village after the hunters are all gone out.”

And John Tanner continued:

“I could make her no answer, but putting on my moccasins, took my gun and went out. Returning before noon, with as heavy a load of fat moose meat as I could carry,…and I said to her: ‘Here, old woman, is what you called for in the morning.’ She was very much pleased, and commended me for my exertion. I now became satisfied that she was not displeased on account of my affair with Mis-kwa-bun-o-kwa, and it gave me no small pleasure to think that my conduct met with her approbation.

“There are many [people] who throw away and neglect their old people, but though Net-no-kwa was now decrepit and infirm, I felt the strongest regard for her, and continued to do so while she lived.”

Some time later, when he came home after a trip to the trading post, there was this exchange, which gives some idea of one style of an Ojibwa wedding ceremony of the time, and the kind criticism given by the woman who stood in the place of his mother:

“When I arrived at our lodge, I saw Red Sky sitting in my place. As I stopped at the door of the lodge, and hesitated to enter, she hung down her head, but Net-no-kwa greeted me in a tone somewhat harsher than was common for her to use to me, ‘Will you turn back from the door of the lodge, and put this young girl to shame, who is in all respects better than you are. This affair has been of your own seeking, and not of mine or hers. You have followed her about the village heretofore; now you would turn from her, and make her appear like one who has attempted to thrust herself in your way.’ I was conscious of the justness of Net-no-kwa’s reproaches, and in part prompted by inclination, I went in and sat down by the side of Red Sky, and thus we became man and wife.”

I have been studying how necessary it is for good will to be the basis of a decision to marry, and also the basis of a decision to divorce.

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