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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Artist Inspirations, part 3

The True Legacy of Ogimaa Oboonidiyak (Chief Pontiac)

Updated May 24, 2019


Chief Pontiac bolo tie

Anishinaabe Inini

Once in a while a person of exceptional intellect and creativity, from the past or the present, inspires us into creating a painting, a graphic art work, a piece of jewelry, a poem… or a song. Today we like to share with you the remembrance of a great Anishinaabe Inini who lived two and a half century ago, and whose corrupted name – as it has been mangled through time in millions of strange mouths – is still widely known even today.

More than just a car

To most gichi-mookomaanag (Euro-Americans) the name "Pontiac" simply means a car, a city, and a lake. GOOGLE "Pontiac" and try find the person behind the name and you will see what we mean. But to many Original Americans, particularly those belonging to the Anishinaabe Nations, the results that show up in the search engines are nothing short of offending symbols revealing the unfeelingness and arrogance of a dominant culture.

To the Anishinaabeg, OGIMAA OBOONIDIYAAK (Chief Obwandiyag) is a name with a magic ring that should be respectfully and properly pronounced at all times!

The name 
OBOONIDIYAAK, or OBWANDIYAG, or OBOITITIYAK, literally means “he stops (a canoe) by means of a spear handle.” The name proved itself quite fitting; after all, OBOONIDIYAAK would enter history as the last anchor of the Native cause against the rising tide of Zhaaganaash (British) dominion.

A fierce 18th century Anishinaabe freedom fighter from the Great Lakes area, Oboonidiyaak became known as one of the all-time most successful Anishinaabe mayaa'osewiniwag (war leaders) in opposing the tyrannic Zhaaganaash Empire. The only Anishinaabe Inini who, a few decennia later, would surpass him in successfully mobilizing a powerful confederation of Native Nations to erase the ugly footprint the  gichi-mookomaanag  had already imprinted on Turtle Island (and thus altered the course of American history), was a Shaawano who bore the name of Tecumtha – or TECUMSEH, as he became known in the outside world.


Oboonidiyaal Pontiac artwork


Otter Clan

OGIMAA OBOONIDIYAAK was an Odaawa-Nishinaabe (Odawa) of mixed ancestry who belonged to the Otter doodem (clan), a mysterious, intelligent and formidable politician and war leader, a gifted orator and a natural leader of men, who between 1762 and 1766 united thousands of Anishinaabe warriors of the THREE FIRE CONFEDERACY and became famous for his defiant resistance to the arrogant European power – and inspired still many other Native Nations to follow him.


Three Fires

Chief Obwandiyag wampum belt

Ogimaa Obwandiyag holding up one of his many wampum belts - beaded with purple
white quahog clam shells -,  of which he made extensive use in asking the nations 
of the Three Fires (and at least eight other Native Nations of the Great Lakes and the 
Ohio Valley) to join him in attacking the settlements and fortifications of the Zaaganaashag.
Fiberglasss model dressed in
 cloth, buckskin, fur, feathers and brass created by Jerry Rowe 
Enterprises of New York. Source: Great American Indian Leaders, Special Exhibit Catalogue: 
Encyclopedia Brittanica U.S.A. 1968. Photo digitization by the author.


The THREE FIRE CONFEDERACY, or THREE FIRE COUNCIL is a long-lived political and military alliance of Anishinaabe peoples. According to the sacred birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin, about 1200 summers ago after reaching Lower Peninsula of present-day Michigan on their migration westward from the Atlantic coast, three groups began to emerge from the Anishinaabe Nation: the OJIBWEG, appointed as ‘Faith Keepers’, or keepers of Anishinaabe religion and caretakers of the Sacred Waterdrum of the Midewiwin; the ODAAWAA- NISHNAABEG (Odawa) or Trader People, responsible for trade and sustenance; and the BODÉWADMIK (Potawatomi) or People of the Fire Pit, who came in charge of the Sacred Ancestral Fire. (Sometimes a fourth group, the  MISI-ZAAGIWININIWAG or Mississauga, is distinguished but they are generally grouped with the Ojibweg.) These three or four groups formed a loose political-military confederation, called the NISWII-MISHKODEWIN (Three Fires). Although the niswii-mishkodewin had several meeting places, Michilimackinac (an island between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) became the preferred meeting place because of its central location. From this island, the Council met for military and political purposes and maintained relations with fellow Anishinaabeg and other nations. The Three Fires Council is still very much alive today, its contemporary function being a movement of spiritual revival, maintenance and strengthening of the original Teachings, Rituals, Ceremonies, and Prohecies of the Anishinaabeg; all vested in in the Midewiwin, the Anishinaabe Lodge of the Good Hearted Ones.

War of liberation

After the Seven Years' War between the Wemitigoozhiwag (French) and the Zhaaganaashag (British), the latter became the dominant foreign power on Turtle Island (North America). The Zhaaganaashag  issued strict regulations that banned the credit and gifts that the Native Nations living in the Great Lakes area and the Ohio Valley had been accustomed to receiving from the Wemitigoozhiwag, who had been their allies and trading partners. As a result of the systematic contempt and racial hatred they experienced at the hands of the Zhaaganaash military and feeling the immense pressure of a renewed westward migration of Zhaagonash settlers, several Native Nations in the area northwest of the Ohio River - between Lake Superior and the lower Mississippi - retaliated by grouping themselves under OBOONIDIYAAK .

Using the metaphor of an otter fiercely attacking beaver dams, OBOONIDIYAAK, who more or less presented himself as the  gichi-mayaa'osewini (great war chief) of the Three Fires Council, lashed a vast fortified area extending from the Ohio Valley in a broad arc to the cold and majestic shores of Gichi-ogimaa-gami (Lake Superior). Among the mayaa'osewiniwag who would become his most loyal supporters were Minevava and Maajiikawis from Michigan's upper peninsula, Wasson from Michigan's lower peninsula, and Sehakos of the Askunessippi (Thames River Ojibweg) of Southwest Ontario.

Obwondiyag's most powerful ally from the east was Guyasuta, an influential, Mingo/Ondowahgah (Seneca) leader. As early as 1761, the  Ondowahgah  Haudenosaunee began to send out war messages to the Great Lakes and Ohio Country Nations, urging them to unite against  the Zhaaganaashag. When Obwandiyag went to war in 1763, the Ondowahgah were prepared and quick to join him.

The Euro-Americans call the uprising that OBOONIDIYAAK and his ally Guyasuta instigated, a rebellion. To the Anishinaabeg, it was, and still is, a war of liberation.

Chief Pontiac bolo tie by ZahaawanArt trouwringen design.


Image above:

Mishinigig Ogimaa ("Mighty Otter Chief"). Sterling silver and 14K gold bolo tie equiped with a black leather lanyard. This bolo tie was designed as a tribute to Ogimaa Oboonidyaak. The three silver eagle tail feather in Oboonidiyaak's scalplock symbolize the political and military power of the Three Fires. The ermine tails (made of mother-of-pearl) at the back of Oboonidiyaak's head represent the Nations that make up the Confederacy: the Ojibweg, the Odaawaag, and the Bodéwadmik. The Misi-Zaagiwininiwag (Mississauga) are represented by the smaller tail. The combination of the silver eagle feathers and gold bear paws in the headdress signifies the summum of power, both spiritually and military. The red coral "blood drops" are symbolic of the eight Zhaaganaash forts that Oboonidiyaak's allied forces managed to destroy in the year of 1763. The stylized gold otter design placed at the side of Oboonidiyaak's head stands for his doodem or clan, and the amazing fighting spirit he showed in his life. Finally, the two eagle wing feathers adorning the silver and gold tips symbolize the friendship and cooperation between the Anishinaabe Nations and the Nation of the Ondowahgah Haudenosaunee, represented by their main war leaders, Oboonidiyaak and Guyasuta. Jewelry and photography by ZhaawanArt. For details of this bolo tie please see our website.


Vision of the Wolf

The mysterious power of attraction that 
OBOONIDIYAAK held over so many Native Peoples, and which resulted in a temporary paralyzing of British interests over thousands of square miles, was partially built on a widespread Native revitalization movement that he helped to organize. This movement was based upon a vision that a visionary belonging to the nation of the Lenni Lenape received, of a wolf spirit who received instructions from the Master Of Life to promote general well-being among all Native Nations of Turtle Island. The wolf spirit told the Anishinaabe Peoples to stop drinking alcohol, to refrain from plural marriage and marital infidelity, to make peace among each other, to refrain from black magic, and, last but not least, to once and for all expel the Zhaaganaashag, their way of life and all their manufactured goods.

Pontiac's war
Map by Kevin Myers. Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The powerful vision of the wolf that OBOONIDIYAAK adopted from the Prophet of the east, combined with his own formidable organizational skills and terrible offensive power, made the mighty Zhaaganaash lion quake, and before he was ultimately defeated, he and his Native and Wemitigoozhi (French) allies had captured in less than six weeks no fewer than eight Redcoat forts, forced their enemy to abandon another, and placed two more under siege. All but Detroit and Fort Pitt fell to OBOONIDIYAAK'S allied forces. And although this, what he himself had called, “Beaver War” eventually ended in failure, it was a magnificent effort that nearly succeeded. Failing to persuade some other Native Nations in the West to join his rebellion, and lacking the hoped-for support from the WemitigoozhiwagOBOONIDIYAAK quickly realized the hopelessness of the case, and faced by defection and with no real prospect of a lasting victory, he finally signed a treaty with the Zhaaganaashag in 1766. The Native nations that had taken part - The Three Fires Confederation, Lenni Lenape, Minisink (Munsee), Shaawano (Shawnee), Myaamiaki (Miami), Giiwigaabaw (Kickapoo), Asakiwaki (Sauk), Wendat (Wyandot), and Ondowahgah (Seneca) - were seriously taken back and once more at the mercy of the hated Zhaaganaashag. The extent of Zhaaganaash mercy had already revealed itself three years earlier in a gruesome form, when army officers deliberately handed out smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to Natives during a peace talk, with savage success. This noble gesture would enter history as (probably) the first example of germ warfare on the face of Turtle Island.

End of a dream

With the Beaver War at an end, the influx of Zhaaganash settlers into Anishinaabe Aki (Anishinaabe lands) increased considerably, and the old abuses and injustices towards the Native inhabitants continued until some leaders decided to go to war again. OBOONIDIYAAK, however, stayed true to his word and counseled peace. This caused the militants among the Anishinaabeg to distrust him and seriously diminished his prestige as a mayaa'osewini. Hereupon OBOONIDIYAAK retired to the Nation of the Illiniwak at Cahokia, accompanied only by a small band of relatives and loyal followers.

In 1769, OBOONIDIYAAK was cowardly attacked from behind and assassinated while visiting the French village of Cahokia in Illinois (in a village that is now a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri) by a member of the Peoria Illiniwek – perhaps in retaliation for a murder that OBOONIDIYAAK had committed earlier on a fellow Peoria in Detroit.

With the clubbing and stabbing to death of OGIMAA OBOONIDIYAAK died the Anishinaabe dream of holding back the European conquest of Turtle Island. There would be other ogimaag (leaders) and much Anishinaabe blood would be spilled on the lands surrounding the Great Lakes, but their country would eventually be taken away from them and the spirits that inhibited the land forever disturbed and dishonored.


Oboonidiyaak statement

A story of awakening

Although OBOONIDIYAAK’S determination and his inspirational spiritual leadership (not least based on a clever use of metaphors of the otter, the beaver, and the wolf) had been the spark that instigated a widespread liberation war, and he certainly helped to spread the resistance by sending many mizhinaweg (messengers) carrying wampum belts urging other Nations to join it, he did not command the uprising as a whole. Yet he definitely kindled it by his bold actions, and his pro-Native, spiritual appeal that was the backbone of his liberation campaign against the hated Zhaaganaasag earned him wide respect and prominence, not only among the Anishinaabe Peoples but also among other Native nations.

And although OBOONIDIYAAK had his dark sides and certainly left behind him a record of horror and brutality, out of his amazing story came some positive things: his freedom fight prompted the Zhaaganaash government to modify the policies that had provoked the conflict (the Royal Proclamation of 1763)and, very importantly, showed other Native people not to bow down for tyranny and stand up for their identity and land rights. His example also stresses the importance of telling and retelling his story over and over again, so as to prevent the stained collective conscience of our modern society from falling asleep forever. OBOONIDIYAAK'S story, therefore, is a story of awakening.

It is true: to most people, the name PONTIAC refers to a line of glossy cars. By the same token one could say that his name is an uncomfortable reminder to the millions of people who today inhabit the once sacred lands of Turtle Island. The Anishinaabeg still remember his true name and know that OBOONIDIYAAK still haunts the land that once was theirs. And there, his spirit and his story hidden in every rock, tree, stream, and lake, will continue to disturb the collective amnesia of dominant society that so far has denied Oboonidiyaak's descendants a decent and worthy life.

Odaawaa Chief Pontiac


Niin mishinigig ininiwag gichi-ogimaa

Miskwaajiibe bimose-miskamikomiikana

Waase-miskwakone ninjichaag

Dibishkoo-giiwedinang n’ga niningishkowaag.

(“I am the mighty otter, first leader of Anishinaabe men,

Bloody ghost that hunts the red beaver trail,

Bright with flame is my spirit,

Like the North wind I will make them tremble.”)

(A personal song of honor to the spirit of Ogimaa Oboonidiyak)


Time line:

C. 1720-1725 – OBOONIDIYAAK is born, probably in an Odaawaa village on the north side of the Detroit River (near present-day Detroit). His father was an Odaawaa Nishinaabe; his mother was Ojibwe Anishinaabekwe or perhaps Myaamiaki (Miami).

C. 1735 – OBOONIDIYAAK moves to the Canadian side to the site of the present-day Walkerville, Ontario.

1747 – OBOONIDIYAAK becomes war leader of the Odaawaa Anishinaabeg.

1754-1755 – OBOONIDIYAAK supports the Wemitigoozhiwag (French) during the French and Indian War.

1755 – OBOONIDIYAAK takes part in the French and Indian victory over the Braddock expedition on 9th of July in 1755.

1760OBOONIDIYAAK agrees to let Zhaaganaash troops pass unmolested through Odaawaa territory to occupy Michilmackinac on condition that he should be treated with respect by them.

1762  -  Outraged by the disrespect and brutal treatment by the Zhaaganaash military, OBOONIDIYAAK enlists support from almost all Native Nations that live northwest of the Ohio river  for a joint campaign to expel the Redcoats from the formerly French lands. According to OBOONIDIYAAK ‘s plan, each Nation would seize the nearest Zhaaganash fortification and then join forces to wipe out the undefended settlements.

1763 – On the 27th of April, OBOONIDIYAAK holds a large council about 10 miles below Fort Detroit which is now known as Council Point Park in Lincoln Park, Michigan. After the failure of the Native allies to capture Fort Detroit, OBWANDIYAG withdraws to the Illinois Country. Although his influence has declined around Detroit, OBOONIDIYAAK gains stature in the Illini and Wabash country as he continues to encourage resistance to the Zhaaganaashag (British).

1766 – OBOONIDIYAAK meets with the Zhaaganash superintendent of Indian affairs Sir William Johnson on the 25th of July at Oswego, New York. This heralds the end of OBOONIDIYAAK’S BEAVER WAR and the start of a formal truce between the Native allies and the Zhaaganaashag.

1768With his prestige among his own Nation almost gone, OBOONIDIYAAK is forced to leave Odaawaa village on the Maumee River and goes to live among the Nation of the Illiniwak at Cahokia.

1769 – OBOONIDIYAAK is assassinated at the French village of Cahokia on the 20th of April. His body is taken to St. Louis and buried in an unknown grave site.

> Read part 4 of the series.


About the author:


My name is Zhaawano Giizhik. My clan is waabizheshi, the marten.

As an American artist and jewelry designer currently living in the Netherlands. I like to draw on the oral and pictorial traditions of my Ojibwe Anishinaabe ancestors from the American Great Lakes area. For this I call on my manidoo-minjimandamowin, or "Spirit Memory"; which means I try to remember the knowledge and the lessons of my ancestors. 

The mazinaajimowinan or ‘‘pictorial spirit writings’’ - which are rich with symbolism and have been painted throughout history on rocks and etched on other sacred items such as copper and slate, birch bark and animal hide - were a form of spiritual as well as educational communication that gave structure and meaning to the cosmos. 

Many of these sacred pictographs or petroforms – some of which are many, many  generations old - hide in sacred 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. 

It is these age-old expressions that provide an endless supply of story elements to my work  be it graphically, through my written stories, as well as in the context of my jewelry making. 



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