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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 1


Zhaawano Giizhik stories

"Waabizheshi and the Mermaid"

An Ojibwe story told and illustrated by Zhaawano Giizhik and Simone McLeod

- Updated March 27, 2020


Aaniin. Biindigen! Hello, welcome to this blog!

Today's blog story is the first in a new series named "Love Stories From the Land of Many Lakes." 

It's a collection of love stories written and illustrated by myself and Simone McLeod. The stories are based on aadizookaanan (traditional stories) of our ancestors, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg from Gaa-zaaga'eganigak, the land of many lakes - the Great Lakes area of North America.

The stories are of a sacred, healing nature and told within a romantic context, their allegorical themes often provided with a personal touch.

Today, we tell the zaagi'iwewi-aadizookaan (sacred love story) of Waabizheshi and the Mermaid.* 
To our ancestors, Mermaids were metaphorical interpretations of fish, symbolizing temptation, their nature combining the paradoxical qualities of beauty and treachery. Like Mermen, they belong to the world of the fish spirits. They are one of the giigoonhyag (fish clans), known for long life. 


Ahaw, 'ngad aadzooke, “Now, I will tell a traditional story.”

Once upon a time two young men of the Ojibwe nation, named Name (Sturgeon) and Waabizheshi (Marten), were out fishing when a ferocious storm arose forcing them to take refuge on the shore of the bay. As the evening fell and they were lying comfortably underneath a shelter they had constructed of giizhikaandagoog (cedar branches) and watching the camp fire they heard above the thunder of the waves the melancholic, even mournful voice of what seemed to be a woman coming from the shore.

Then, above the thunder of waves and the lamenting woman’s voice, they heard another, even stranger voice, singing:

“Her head hangs low
as the days go on
nights are so lonely
she thought she had won
a heart that never knew
where true love hid
look up sweet mermaid
see what you did
shadows dancing past
in the moonlight glow
the scent of his skin
is one that you know
one up so high
he can only be the sky
dare you venture forth
never asking why?
oh but his world is not
where you belong
hold onto your gifts
learn how to be strong
sitting on a rock
when sun is reaching out
does he even hear you
when you're too shy to shout
lay your sleepy head
on the floor of the sea
hair so beautiful
a sight as black as night can be
curls that can rival
ocean’s strongest waves
a smile destined to make
any men her slaves
but sweet mermaid
your dilemma I do see
you only love the unknown one
the man you will never see...”

Waabizheshi rushed down to the beach. In doing this, he ignored the warnings of his wise friend who understood that the deep melancholy of the strange song was extremely dangerous because it was capable of drowning out a man’s own voice of reason and sense of self. Waabizheshi, however, was sure that the woman the strange voice sang about was in distress and, as he saw no one on the beach, he jumped into the rolling waves of the bay.


Niibinaabekwe Aadizookaan by Simone McLeod

Waabizheshi thought he saw sitting on a rock in the water a beautiful woman with long pitch-black hair, thick and curly. But as soon as he reached the rock he was immediately pulled under! He passed out and when he regained consciousness, tayaa! he found himself amid aadizokanaa giigoonhyag (Fish-beings) who were part human and part fish and who, as he would find out later on, were able to shapeshift in either a water being or a human being!

The Fish-beings told Waabizheshi that after drowning he had travelled through four levels of life and death before arriving in this strange land on the bottom of the lake.

Upon hearing this Waabizheshi shouted that he wanted to return to his people in the Land of the Living, but alas, the giigoonhi ogimaa (spokesman of the Fish-beings) shook his silver-gray head, telling him that this was not possible. Waabizheshi was told that the beautiful curly-headed woman who had lured him into the waters of the bay and into the Land of the Fish-beings had fallen in love with him. Waabizheshi was to marry her and they would have many children together and he would help the other Fish-beings to bring as many as possible of the Ojibweg to this new underwater land.

Understanding that he had no choice, Waabizheshi accepted his faith, knowing that there was no way he could ignore the love that the beautiful Nibiinaabekwe, whose name means Sleep Being Woman, held for him. At first, Waabizheshi felt no love for her, but one evening he heard her sing in a low and quiet voice:

“I close my eyes
attempt to sleep
upon my lids
what is this I see
his crooked smile
lines of his face
how he puts me
in a happy place
first thing I see
at morning’s light
last thing I say
at dark of night
a man whose skin
I have never touched
how can it be
I love him so much…”

Upon hearing Nibiinaabekwe sing her quiet love song, Waabizheshi fell in love with her and he finally consented to marry her. As predicted by the giigoonhi-ogimaa, they had many curly-headed children together! Waabizheshi was happy and content in his new land and with his new family on the bottom on the lake. But since he was alsoa curious person he asked Giigoonh ogimaa if he could return to the Land of the Living to visit his parents. Gigoonhi ogimaa, knowing he could trust Waabizheshi, granted him and his children permission to visit the Land of the Living, but since he was a very wise fish person, he warned Waabizheshi that his visit might cause sorrow for him and his children, and also among his people, the Ojibweg. Waabizheshi, taking the ogimaa’s advise at heart, then decided to go without his children.


Simone McLeod


Short after Waabizheshi resurfaced he found himself on the very same beach he had left, and to his surprise the gale was still raging and his friend Name was still calling his name over the waters of the bay! 

Waabizheshi was struck dumb with astonishment and surprise. That he had gone to the land beneath the lake, married, and fathered children while the same storm was still beating the coastline and Name was shouting his name through the wind, was truly incomprehensible to him. Could his new life down there have happened in just the blink of an eye? Could it be that his descent to the lake’s underworld was measured by another time than the linear rule of time that governed the upper earth?

“Niijii! Maampii!” (Friend, I’m here!), Waabizheshi yelled out above the thundering waves and screaming gale, and he swam toward his friend who stood on the shore, transfixed to the earth and looking pale, his eyes showing anxiety and consternation. “Tayaa!” Name stammered. “You are nothing more than jiibay, a ghost! The treacherous Sleep-Being-Woman has seized you! How many times have you been warned that your curiosity would get you killed one day! What shall I tell your parents?”

Waabizheshi, smiling, placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Do not blame yourself niijii, what has happened was not your fault. And do not feel sorry for me, because I am perfectly happy with my new life. Do not bother, I will go to my parents myself.”

Waabizheshi left his friend on the shore and appeared to his parents in their dreams, recounting his adventures with the Fish People as if it happened years ago, although in their perception of time, it had happened last night.

Upon seeing their lost son his mother started to cry and his father lamented, “We warned you of Sleep-Being-Woman so many times but you didn’t listen. Now she has taken hold of you, my son. And we will never see you again in this life.” He too started to weep.

Waabizheshi, however, did his best to console his parents, telling them how happy he was among the Fish-beings and telling them about their grandchildren, and he tried to convince them to return with him to the Land of the Fish-beings so that they could live with his family. But alas, no matter what he said, they refused with a shudder.

Waabizheshi, saddened that his parents would never meet their grandchildren, returned to his adoptive people, the Fish-beings. And although his heart was heavy with grief, he longed to see his curly-haired wife and his curly-haired children and he was glad that he would never have to live in the upper world again.

Giiwenh. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw zaagi'iwewi-aadizookaanBi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga!

So the story goes. Thank you for listening to us today and allowing us to share this sacred love story. Please come see us again!

Click here to read the second episode in the series "Love stories from the Land of Many Lakes":"Sleeping Bear and Her Children." 


Zhaawano Giizhik Tammo Geertsema

About the author/artists:

Simone McLeod (her traditional name is Aki’-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is an Anishinaabe painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962, and a member of Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan. She belongs to he Name doodem (Sturgeon clan) of her mother's people, the Azaadiwi-ziibi Nitam-Anishinaabeg (Poplar River First Nation) of Manitoba. Simone 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 Amsterdam 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 McLeod in the years 2012-2018.


* The story 'Waabizheshi and the Mermaid' is loosely based on the traditional story 'Nebaunaubee', related by Basil Johnston in his book Ojibway History. University of Nebraska press Lincoln and London, First Book printing 1990, p. 169 / 170. 

Illustration at top of page: "Anishinaabe Aki Gichigamiing," digipainting by Zhaawano Giizhik (2013).

Acrylic painting of a Mermaid by Simone McLeod, 2013.

Digi-painting "The Love Story Of Waabizheshi And The Mermaid", a co-production by Simone McLeod and Zhaawano Giizhik (2013).


  1. Excellent work. I appreciate the way you share your stories and your people.

  2. From one aadizookewinini to the other: Miigwech, thank you!