Kitchi-Minissing: The Legend of the Great Island (2000)

for orchestra

Just off the southernmost shore of Lake Superior, not far from the Pictured Rock Cliffs, stands a large and most unusual island. Known to the Chippewa as Kitchi-miniss (the great island), it is a place where soft Cambrian sandstone converges with Ordovician crystalline rock, producing parallel rows of multi-colored rock formations and twisted, swirling patterns that suggest demonic figures. On its northern edge, giant ice-choked waves driven by fierce winter winds gouge deep, cavernous holes into the sandstone cliffs; and in its center, there is an ancient beaver dam, some 1500 feet in length, that still holds back a mile long lake of pure, cold water.



Home for centuries to a small and peace-loving tribe known as Kitchi-minissing-endanajig (the people of the great island), it has, for most of the last 200 years, remained without human habitation. Though dedicated to peaceful coexistence with all other people, the men of the tribe were forced in the late 18th century to join a confederation of Chippewa that tried to push a large contingent of Sioux warriors out of the Great Lakes region. A horrible battle between the two camps broke out near Leech Lake, Minnesota, and resulted in defeat for the Chippewa. The 20 or so Great Island warriors, though inexperienced in war, fought with a kind of supernatural bravery that the Sioux had never before seen; for hundreds of Sioux were held at bay near a cave by the handful of Kitchi-minissing warriors, allowing the other Chippewa to escape.



The only Great Island survivor was a small boy, the son of their chief, who walked hundreds of miles back to his homeland to give the devastating news to the wives, mothers, and grandfathers of the slain. Together with an old medicine man, the boy composed a lengthy song to forever commemorate the peaceful intentions and ultimate courage in the face of death of this beloved fallen comrades. Many years later, this boy, then a middle-aged man, performed this two hour song for Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, and a young geologist named Henry Schoolcraft, along with a group of other explorers and trappers, at a bonfire meeting on the shores of Kitchi-goumi with a view of the great island in the distance. Though unable to understand the words, Cass, Schoolcraft, and the other whites were moved to tears by the sheer force of the man's emotional singing.



A Canadian trapper in the group who could understand Chippewa disappeared the next morning and carved an image of the heroic man's face in the side of a rock that just out into Lake Superior some five miles west of the island. That face in the rock exists to this day, but is covered with lichen and moss and worn down by wind and wave, and is barely recognizable. There is also no marker on the nearby highway to tell passing motorists of its existence, and it is likely to slowly fade away into the mists of time.