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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Witch Tree

by Joan K. Maze

I was in the middle of doing research for my WIP, Widow’s Walk, which takes place in the Northern Minnesota area near and around the Grand Portage Reservation. The photo of a twisted tree, set upon the rocks above Lake Superior caught my eye. This tree, known as the Witch Tree, has an interesting history, which includes legends.

Clinging to the rocks ten feet above the churning water of Lake Superior is the Witch Tree. Called Manidoo-giizhikens, or Little Cedar Spirit Tree by the Ojibwe Indian tribe, the tree is an ancient Thuja occidentalis.

The first written records by Europeans were by the French explorer, Sieur de la Verendyre in 1731. He said it was a mature tree then and claimed it to be at least three hundred years old.
This single white cedar is located on the east side of Hat Point on the Sibley Peninsula. The trunk is twisted like a corkscrew and the green scale-like leaves are few. Many have wondered how the tree could remain alive with no soil under it and its roots on rock. It is because of this precarious position that it is considered a powerful spirit.


Considered sacred, the Ojibwe traditionally leave tobacco to ensure a safe journey. The Cree and Ojibwe have both used this tree for offerings and consider it a Manitou or Spirit Tree. One legend is of the manitou Manboujou who wears the cedar tree on his head with the roots bound around his body. It is also considered to be the Tree of Life.

Another legend is that of an evil spirit in the form of a bird who would plunge from the top of the tree and swamp canoes.

Today, the Ojibwe tribe of the Grand Portage Reservation own the tree and surrounding land. Because of the tree's sacred nature and recent vandalism, admittance to the area is not possible without the presence of an Ojibwe member. You can pass beneath it in a canoe or kayak. Many boaters leave offerings at its base, to appease or as a gesture toward cultural tradition.

Originally, the Witch Tree had no part in my story. However, this tree and the stories behind it have intrigued me to the point that I know I must include it in Widow’s Walk. The last half of Widow’s Walk is in the past, before 1850 (I haven’t decided the date yet), and will have many scenes at the Reservation. As I continue outlining and working on this story, I hope to come up with an interesting and intriguing legend/story to make this book more exciting.

I would love to hear of any similar experiences any of you have had while doing research.

Joan K. Maze
Writing as J. K. Maze

Murder By Mistake, book 1 in the Mollie Fenwick Mystery Series, available from Red Rose Publishing
Murder For Kicks, book 2 in the Mollie Fenwick Mystery Series, available from Red Rose Publishing
Framed In Fear, romantic suspense set in Colorado, available from Red Rose Publishing
Murder By Spook, book 3 in the Mollie Fenwick Mystery Series, in progress
Murder By Mistake, book 1 in the Mollie Fenwick Mystery Series – paperback due out soon


Jacquie Rogers said...

No wonder this tree is sacred. Even the picture is compelling, and to see it in person would be very powerful. It's really a shame about the vandalism, but luckily the tribe is protecting it.


Toni V.S. said...

That is a fascinating tale. It's sad that someone would want to vandalize such a monument to history. I suppose some people might be jealous that a tree could live so long while they can't.

Angelique Armae said...

What an interesting story. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it. I love reading about mystical things and places. While I've never had an experience where something caught my attention during research that I hadn't thought to include initially, I'm always fascinated where research for a book takes me.

Teresa Reasor said...

How interesting. And darn their horrible hearts for the vandalism. I just don't understand what motivates people to try to destroy something that enriches us all.
I've run across all sorts of interesting tidbits doing research for my Scottish paranormal. The most interesting thing was when I chose names for all my characters, I just picked names out of the air, then went and looked them up to find out what they meant. Each and every one that I chose had something to do with water. And since my book has a water theme running through it---
I really enjoyed the blog.
Teresa R.

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

great story, Joan. Since I was born and raised in Minnesota, this is near and dear to my heart.

J K Maze said...

Thanks for the comments, Jacquie, Toni and Angelique. You're right. This wonderful tree needs protecting. I hope to someday be able to go up there and see it - along with the reservation, of course. I now know how I'm going to use it in my book.


J K Maze said...


What an interesting phenomenon. To pick names and then find how wonderfully they all fit in your book. Research is becoming more and more fascinating to me.


J K Maze said...


I didn't know you were from Minnesota. I've developed a love for that part of Minnesota, but have never been quite that far north. I have seen Gooseberry Falls and have done a painting (triptych) of the site.


Kathy said...

Joan it is fascinating. I love stories like this. I often wonder about places and things. What was here before. There you have a wonderful tree and it is wonderful the tribe is ensuring its safety. It's a shame people don't understand. I heard many legends of the volcano and Madame Pele. I remember reading a story about her as a child. It was in a book for school. I would love to go back to Hawaii and study their legends more in depth. I repsect culture and find it fascinating too. Good luck incorporating it into the book.

J K Maze said...

Thanks Kathy,

Legends are wonderful for inspiring stories. I wonder, maybe a whole series based on legends.


Julie Robinson said...

How interesting, Joan. And the shape of the tree is unique. I find Crepe Myrtle trees here in the winter have unusual designs too--as if they were twisted shapes.

Angelyn said...

This post came at an appropriate time for me. I was watching Blair Witch Project (scary! at least, for me) last night and did some research on the "project." Several legends were merged to make one story. Interesting.

J K Maze said...

Thanks to everyone for posting comments. This was an interesting project for me, and I hope to do another one as much fun next time - I might even look for another legend.


Viola Russell said...

That's a great photo. I also love stories that derive from legends. Louisiana, my home state is rich in legend, and I started my recent manuscript because of my fascination with the beauty and history of the West of Ireland.