In this work of historical fiction, 13 Anishinaabe teenagers vow to restore the honor of their band by tracking down and savaging Dakota raiders after a devastating raid on their camp. The 13: Ashi-niswi by Lorin R. Robinson is a parable posing the universal question: “What is the price of honor?” Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
It was Aajim’s job to light the morning cooking fire. As he slipped out of the wigwam into the cold, foggy dawn, he carried the hide bag containing dry grass and pine needles. In it he could feel the flint stones he would strike to spark the tinder into flame.
Hunger had awakened him earlier than usual. It had been a long and especially brutal winter. This was his fourteenth spring, so he’d had only limited experience with winters. But his father had talked of the difficulty hunting and trapping in the unusually deep snows and penetrating the thick ice for fishing. Food was in short supply and everyone was happy to see spring starting to break winter’s icy grip.
He lifted the hide covering the woodpile and took an armful of twigs and small branches to the fire pit. He crouched, opened the bag and made a small mound of tinder. Close by, he placed twigs that he would use as soon as the tinder was alight. Now, he thought, I’ll play my game. Every morning he counted the number of strikes it took to light the tinder. The fewer the strikes, the better the day would be.
He counted. Bezhig, niizh, niswi, niiwin, naanan…. This is not, he thought, going to be a very good day. On the sixth strike, a strong spark created a tiny flame. As he bent over to blow the tinder into life, he heard a few of the camp dogs also come to life with tentative growls and barks. The dog posted outside the neighboring hut was standing, looking intently at the foggy tree line on the other side of the encampment. His hackles were raised; his fangs barred.
Aajim followed his gaze but saw nothing. Could it be that his father and the others were returning from several days of hunting? Not likely, he thought. A returning hunting party would hail the camp from a distance so as not to alarm people by its sudden appearance.
He stood and peered into the gray forest beyond the camp. Then he saw it. Furtive movement between the trees. Sudden fear gripped him. Move, he told himself. As he stamped out the small fire at his feet, he shouted with all the force he could muster, “MAWINAZH, MAWINAZH, ATTACK!”
With the sounding of the alarm, Aajim could see camouflaged shapes of Dakota warriors materialize from the mist. He turned and ran to the hut, yelling as he went. Once inside he shook members of his family awake—his mother, older brother and two younger sisters. It took only a moment, but it seemed like forever until all scrambled from the rear entrance of the hut and ran with him into the nearby woods.
His older brother, Animikil, Thunderer, had the presence of mind to grab one of his father’s war clubs. But he knew—as they all did—it would mean certain death to try to oppose the attackers. With most of the men gone, the camp didn’t stand a chance.
Crouching, they ran into the nearby woods. Their mother, Misajidamoo, Gray Squirrel, led. Animikil stayed in the rear. He had the only weapon. They took a familiar and well-worn trail for some distance so their tracks would be less obvious. Then she led them into the bush and down a ravine.
Aajim doubted they would be followed. Judging from screams heard from the encampment, the raiders were busy killing and looting. They would probably hit and run. But why now? Raids this time of year were rare. The Dakota had been lucky most of the men were gone. If the band had been at full strength, the outcome would probably have been very different.
The bottom of the ravine was filled with fog. They splashed into the shallow stream that wound through it and, barefooted, ran through its icy waters. There had been no time to put on moccasins or their warm robes. Aajim’s feet soon were numb, but he didn’t complain. This was the best way not to leave tracks. Then Misajidamoo led them up a rocky embankment. Animikil erased their tracks with a fallen pine branch.
Aajim knew where they were going. He and his friends sometimes played in several small caves hidden in the undergrowth at the top of the ravine. Winded and cold, the five slipped into one of the caves. The walls were wet, the ceiling dripping. It stank of bear. They were lucky its recent inhabitant—hibernation over—and her new cubs had left the lair. The family barely fit. They huddled to share each other’s body heat.
It was difficult to know how long they endured the cold and penetrating damp. Slowly the small cave mouth lightened as day began. Aajim, who was nearest to the entrance, uncoiled himself and crawled to the opening. He peered through the brush, looking up and down the stream below. Nothing. Gazing to the west he saw black smoke rising above the trees. They’d burned the camp. The slight prevailing northwest wind carried the greasy smell of burning hide.
Animikil joined him and slid past. “What do you see, little brother?”
As the eldest son and head of the family in their father’s absence, he would make the decision when to return to camp. He crawled from the cave and pushed the undergrowth aside to get a better look. He lay quietly for a minute, looking, listening, smelling.
He twisted his head to look at Aajim. With a nod he indicated they would begin the journey back to camp.