Memorable Manitobans: William Berens [Tabasigizikweas] (1866-1947)
Born at Berens River, Manitoba to Jacob Berens and Mary McKay in 1866, his Ojibwe name was Tabasigizikweas (Sailing Low in the Air After Thunder). In 1899 he married Nancy Everett, daughter of William Everett and Nancy Boucher of Berens River. He served as chief from 1917 until his death. During the 1930s, he made possible the field work of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, providing information and insights about his people’s history, culture, and world view. Together, they built a sturdy bridge of knowledge that brought the Ojibwe living along the Berens River to the attention of the wider world. He died at Berens River on 23 August 1947.
Berens belonged to an important Ojibwe family of the Moose clan. His father, Jacob Berens, was the first treaty chief of his community. His great-grandfather was Yellow Legs, Ozaawashkogaad, one of the powerful leaders of the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society who likely introduced that ceremony into the Lake Winnipeg region. Yellow Legs received medicine from the memengwesiwag (small spiritual beings who dwelt in rock cliffs) and once walked on the water to find their medicine on an island. In the 1930s William Berens shared with Hallowell the rich genealogical materials that allowed his own four-generation family history to serve as an implicit prototype for Hallowell’s model for Berens River Ojibwe history.
As William Berens was a member of the Methodist church (Jacob Berens having been instrumental in bringing the first mission to the community) he chose not to go on a dream quest. But, as he well knew, the bawaaganag (guardian spirits) could visit of their own accord. In a formative experience the young William Berens encountered the other-than-human memengwesiwag who had blessed Yellow Legs. Although his Christianity caused him to decline their blessings he believed throughout his life that their home and gifts were always open to him.
Berens’s occupations ranged from hunting, trapping, fur trading, and commercial fishing jobs to guiding and interpreting for surveyors, Indian agents, and Hallowell the anthropologist. The early 1880s saw the opening on Lake Winnipeg of the first commercial fisheries and Berens took advantage of the new kinds of jobs this venture opened. As chief, he placed much emphasis on agriculture and under his leadership Berens River was “the only reserve on Lake Winnipeg to practice agriculture to such an extent” (family memory). In the 1930s, he was instrumental in opening commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg to Indians, working with Roxy [Daniel Roy] Hamilton, Liberal member for Rupertsland of the legislative assembly in Manitoba, and with representatives of the Catholic church to remove the restriction.
During World War II Berens created some controversy over his pacifist leadership of his people. Berens did not fear warfare because of a boyhood dream in which he was told that bullets would never hurt him. However he refused to allow the people in his band to go overseas and kill people they did not know. He did help the war effort through his recruitment of both treaty and non-treaty Indians to help harvest crops on farms in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to make up for wartime manpower shortages.
Berens also made time to work closely with Hallowell during most summers in the 1930s. He explained Ojibwe cultural and spiritual ideas, acted as interpreter, imparted personal stories and memories of dreams, dared to tell myths out of season, and offered a wealth of historical context. As Hallowell’s trusted friend and mentor, he guided and shaped most of Hallowell’s writings on Ojibwe people living along the Berens River.
This profile was prepared by Susan Elaine Gray.
Page revised: 7 September 2009