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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaching stories, part 1

"Footsteps of Our Ancestors"

- Updated October 23, 2019

Agawa rock paintings

Two generations of Medicine painters, the late Gelineau Fisher and the late Moses Amik, examining the ancient spirit writings at Agawa Rock.


Boozhoo, aaniin!

In this blogpost, we are going to dwell a little further on our paintings and silver and gold jewelry and the ancient teaching stories we share along with it. Part 1 of a new series.

Since the pre-dawn time the footsteps of Gichi Gami Anishinaabeg gete-aya'aag (the ancestors of the Peoples from the Great Lakes area) walked the earth. We can still see their mysterious handprints scattered all over the Great Lakes district of Turtle Island (North America), often in out-of-the-way places in the woods or at petroglyph sites such as cliffs or in caves and on island shorelines along the Great Lakes. Many pictographs or petroforms – some of which are perhaps two millennia or at least many, many  generations old - hide in locations where the manidoog (spirits) reside, particularly in those mystic places near the coastline where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground, and the underwater meet.

These mazinaajimowinan or ‘pictorial spirit writings’ - typically painted on rocks and etched on other sacred items such as birch bark, copper and slate, and animal hide - were a form of spiritual as well as educational communication that gave structure and meaning to the cosmos. Some of the pictographs depicted a series of constellations in the sky, or sacred stories about Wisakejak/Wiinabozho and other aadizookaanag (supernatural beings, grandfathers of an-other-than-human class). Other pictographs expressed the countless adventures the Anishinaabeg experienced during their incredible migrations throughout the northern part of the continent - which eventually led them to gaa-zaaga'eganikag, the ‘land of many lakes.


Simone Mcleod

Babaamaadiziwin Waabanakiing, Journey To The Dawn Land, acrylic painting by Ojibwe artist and Sturgeon clan member Simone Mcleod (2012), depicting a journey back to the land of her Mother's People in Manitoba and farther west, to the Place of the Rapids (where her ancestors once lived) and even beyond, to the Dawn Land at the Atlantic coast. Symbolically, Simone traces back the footsteps of her Anishinaabe ancestors to their historical and sacred origins. Photo courtesy by Simone Mcleod. © Simone Mcleod Fisher Star Creations.


==Teachings inscribed in birch bark==

The niigaanaajimowinan (prophecies) and midewaajimowinan (traditional teachings) behind these enigmatic graphic expressions have been passed down for centuries, and as they recount a myriad of scientific knowledge and history, they also contain essential life lessons of the Gichi Gami Anishinaabeg that are still taught today.


Seven Midewiwin Scrolls

Wiigwaasabakoon or birch bark scrolls carry all kinds of complex geometrical patterns and shapes. These bark sheets, which are an amazingly time-resistant material and can remain intact for many centuries, sometimes convey traditional teachings, for example about the origins of the Midewiwin, or songs and details of Mide rituals and midewigaanan (the medicine lodges). Such a scroll, when used for ritual purposes, is called a midewiigwaas (literally: ritual birch bark).


 ==Good Way of the Heart Society==

The Midewiwin, or The Good Way of the Heart, is an age-old animistic-medicinal institution conserving the concept of mino-bimaadiziwn, a set of seven grandfather teachings on human conduct and a spiritual way for living. Its principal focus is recovering and keeping alive the seven mide-wiigwaasan (birch bark scrolls used for ritual purposes) and their sacred teachings - which in recent history had been forced underground. These complex writings also include astronomy, mapping, information about the clan system and family lineage, and up to 1000-year-old migration routes. Until today, many of these Mide writings and records have been kept secret  - passed on only in sacred spaces by community-acknowledged Keepers of ceremony -, in order to keep the scrolls safe, to interpret them correctly, and to await a better time - when a generation will rise up that walks according to a more intelligent and respectful worldview than we experience now.

==Flowing outlines and X-ray anatomy==

The ancient visual language of mazinaajimowin – be it written on rock or bark any other natural feature or material - features figures consisting of simple, articulated, flowing outlines that are always, in some way or another, interconnected. These outlined figures often have ‘spirit lines emanating from the interior or exterior, and sometimes enclose mystic inside views (so-called X-ray anatomy) of images of people, animals, plants and trees, and supernatural beings.

==Birth of a new art school==

Brian Marion
During the 60’s of the last century, these pictographs and birch bark writings became an endless source of inspiration to the painters of a Canadian-based, modern Indigenous art movement. The typical outline drawing style - known as ‘linear determinatives’ -  of these Medicine Painters’ is directly based on the ancient spirit writings of their Anishinaabe forefathers. In order to fit the need of their art practices, the Medicine Painters – led by the late Norval Morrisseau – began to stylize many of these archaic components into a new abstract visual language, which became known as THE NEW WOODLAND SCHOOL OF ART.

A typical example of a modern interpretation of sacred Anishinaabe rock art is shown here to the left: an X-ray’ painting by second-generation Canadian Woodland Painter Brian Marion depicting an antlered medicine person making contact with the spirit world. 


==Entering a different world==

Bolo tie by ZhaawanArt Trouwringen Design
As artists who consider themselves part of this new art movement, finding the core of Anishinaabe art forms and at the same time (re)telling an engaging teaching story through our canvases and designs and drawings is always our goal. In the process of doing this, we find much inspiration in tracing back the footsteps of our Anishinaabe ancestors and drawing on their pictorial and oral traditions that spring from pre-dawn time. We consider ourselves modern storytellers. Through the guidance of the sacred records and teachings of olden times we (re)create the ancient symbols and visual language of the pictographs; respectfully we render these traditional elements into our paintings and graphic art and contemporary designs of precious metals and stone. This requires continuous learning from and studying – and sometimes even dreaming about – the ancestral teachings. Sometimes we have to enter a different world where we ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things we would never experience in this reality. However, as we're limited in what we know  - or can reveal - about the ancient ceremonies and teachings, the challenge for us lies in creating abstract designs that work on a mysterious level and approach, or (respectfully) represent, the sacred. 

==Warriors and teachers==

The subject matter and graphic design of this overlay bolo tie of sterling silver designed and handcrafted by Zhaawano breathe the spiritual knowledge and sacred visual language of our ancestors; at the same time they are exemplary of the minimalistic graphic style and ‘linear determinatives’ of the Medicine Painters of the Woodland Art. The design of the fish relates to giigoonh doodem or the Ojibwe Fish Clan, whose members are known as ‘teachers responsible for pursuing and conveying knowledge and passing on healing stories of the Midewiwin. In a deeper sense, however, the image of the fish also refers to the Spirit of the Underworld, whom my Native ancestors associated with makadeshiganag (black basses), strong fighters that swam abundantly in the freshwater lakes and rivers of their homelands.

==Gift of ceremony and health==

Makadeshigan bolo ZhaawanArt Trouwringen Design
Makadeshigan, the Spirit of the Underworld, was the patron of the deep night and bad dreams and although many people feared him during the night, he motivated humankind to live an honest life and strive for noble ideals so that they would have good dreams. Makadeshigan also offered himself in the form of a medicine from the depths of the Underworld that would protect the Anishinaabeg against sickness and also bring them game animals for their sustenance. But mostly important, Makadeshigan presented the People with the gift of ceremony and ritual, thus laying the foundation for the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society of the Anishinaabe People.

The figure of the diving fish represents Makadeshigan the black bass; the oxidized parts of the overlay fish design refer to the underworld and the deep night. The somewhat enigmatic design elements that I placed inside the fish and the two dangle tips are abstract upside-down images of a sitting pregnant woman with two seeds inside her womb, symbolizing Makadeshigan’s gift of medicine and ritual to the People. The stylized image of the fish and the ‘seeds of medicine’ that I depicted inside the woman’s womb are contemporary depictions of great spiritual power, distantly resonating with the sacred Anishinaabe art forms of the ancient past.

Bolo tie


> Visit part 2 of the Teaching Stories series.

Photo credits: 

Photo at top of page: 'Woodland Spirit
s.' Still from a  documentary (2007), 28 min., DVCPro.
Woodland Spirits, a short film about aboriginal arts, their way of life and belief, the film is mostly based on the work of Roy Thomas (1949-2004) and Moses Amik Beaver (1960-2017). No longer available online.

All jewelry photos by
 Zhaawano Giizhik.

Image of painting by Simone McLeod.


Zhaawanogiizhik Voice Carried By the WindsAki-egwaniizid

About the authors/artists:

Simone McLeod (her traditional name is Aki’-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is an Nakawe-Anishinaabe painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962 and a member of Pasqua Nation from Saskatchewan. She belongs to he Name doodem (Sturgeon clan). Simone, who feels a special kinship with her mother's people, the Azaadiwi-ziibi Nitam-Anishinaabeg (Poplar River First Nation) of Manitoba, descends from a long line of Midewiwin seers and healers and artists. Her artwork has been appreciated by several art collectors and educational and health care institutions from Canada, as well as by art lovers from all over the world.

Zhaawano Giizhik, an American currently living in the Netherlands, was born in 1959 in North Carolina, USA. Zhaawano has Anishinaabe blood running through his veins; the doodem of his ancestors from Baawiting (Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Michigan) is Waabizheshi, Marten. As an artist and a writer and a jewelry designer, Zhaawano draws on the oral and pictorial traditions of his ancestors. In doing so he sometimes works together with kindred artists. He has done several art projects with Simone and hopes to continue to do so in the future.


  1. I was alerted by the image of the Mishipisheu on the Agawa rock in your photograph. I grew up in the area and over the years was drawn to the teachings by many Cree and Ojibway elders. 30 years ago I made the film, KINNOMAAGEEWAPKONG. It is still being shown. I have recently been given permission to write abut it. The working title to the book is INTO THE STONE, but it could change.
    It is written in the good way of the heart.

    Lloyd Walton

    1. Boozhoo Lloyd. Unfortunately I read your comment only now. I would appreciate it if you could let me know if, or when, the book is being published. I will definitely spread the word. My email address is Chi-miigwech!