Among the Anishinabe people (also known as Ojibwa or Chippewa) there was a type of disease which the people called wétigo. They described this as a soul sickness and called those afflicted with it windigos—a term which can be translated as “cannibal” or “soul eater.” Windigos were destructive not only to themselves, but to those around them: they consumed the souls of other people with their greed.
When the Anishinabe first encountered Europeans, many of the people thought the Europeans were windigos. They saw the Europeans as exploiting the environment, consuming it with little regard for the next seven generations. The Anishinabe were concerned about the European obsession with private property and their seeming inability to share.
For the past four centuries, the Anishinabe have lived in contact with and have been changed by European cultures. Wétigo is not a disease of interest to most of today’s people. So why write about it here?
There are times when the ancient or traditional views may lend some insight into contemporary society. Perhaps, the traditional concept of wétigo (soul sickness) can help us understand some of the problems which currently exist in the United States.
The traditional Anishinable saw the European obsession with private property as an illness. The European desire to “own” land and to transform it with no concern for the greater good of the tribe puzzled most Anishinabe, and many spiritual leaders viewed this as spiritual cannibalism. In other words, the Europeans were windigos who were eating, metaphorically, their children’s flesh—that is, future resources, both physical and spiritual, that would benefit the next seven generations.
The antidote to wétigo is government, and more importantly the understanding that government is about the public good. It is about making collective decisions for the next seven generations, without concern to how these decisions might impact a single individual. Government is the people, all of the people without regard for gender, sexual orientation, individual wealth, or intellectual capacity. Government is about the common welfare.
With a society that seems to emphasize the individual over the tribe (that is, the community, the country), the stage is set for wétigo or soul sickness. With an emphasis on winning and losing, on acquiring great individual wealth (greed), it is easy for people to become windigos—soul cannibals fixated on “feeding” themselves without concern for the common welfare.
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