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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Teaching Stories, part 14

"Giigoonh, Silent Being of Lakes and Streams"

A new story told by Simone McLeod and Zhaawano Giizhik

- Updated November 26, 2019


Mashkiki Miigiwewin handcrafted bolo tie by ZhaawanArt


"We are but canoes
Passing in the night
Glimpses of each other

Sometimes through waves
our journey impossible 
as we leave our mother

Is it safety that we stay
inside our canoe our life
not ever making a choice

I strain my ear
to listen carefully
to just hear your voice

When calm is the sea
I hear you going by
rustling of memory true

Calm waters eager heart
she feels my longing
moon she looks at you

Fog was designed 
for lovers arms
reaching out in vain

I will wait once more
for cloudy nights
to bring you again

We all must fall
sometimes in life
to rise up strong

Learn to walk again
learn to smile again
learn right from wrong

Our journey our life
is our story our own
sit down my friend

For we can share
our words our dreams
Why must it end..."*



Our names are Simone McLeod/Aki-egwanizid and Zhaawano-giizhik. We are, respectively, a painter and a poet, and a jewelry designer, a penciller, and a writer. We consider ourselves part of the Native Woodland Art movement, and it is our goal to find the core of Anishinaabe art forms and, at the same time, (re)tell engaging teaching stories through our works of art. 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 are modern storytellers (re)creating, through dreams and visions as well as guidance of the sacred records and teachings of the MIDEWIWIN, the ancient symbols and visual language of the ancient pictographs; respectfully we render these traditional elements into paintings and graphic design, or into contemporary pieces of precious metals and stone. This requires continuous learning from and studying – and sometimes even dreaming about – the ancestral teachings. It also means we enter a different world where we ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things we would never experience in this reality.

However, as we are limited in what we know  - or can reveal - about the ancient ceremonies and teachings, the challenge for us lies in creating images and designs that are often abstract or contemporary; at the same time our art works on a mysterious level and approach, representing the sacred in a most respectful way. The countless inspiring examples provided by our fellow artists from Canada who paint in the great northerly tradition of the New Woodland School are crucial in helping us in the process.

We are most grateful to our friend Charles J. Lippert who, in the course of writing this story, once again shared with us his knowledge of Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language.

Gidoodeminaanig, our clans

Since time immemorial, the Anishinaabeg have a system of government called GIDOODEMINAANIG, meaning Our blood relations, or clans.

The five original doodemag, or clans, of the Anishinaabe ancestors who - at least - 700 summers ago gathered at Baawitigong, the rapids and waterfalls of Michigan's upper peninsula -, hold a set of traditional responsibilities for the People. Each member regards himself or herself as member of a clan first, then a community. Traditionally, clan membership includes certain colors, songs, and ceremonies, along with responsibilities that belong to the doodem in question.

Although it is believed that farther back in history the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg were matrilineal – which means that doodem identity was passed through the mother – , nowadays the children usually become automatically members of the father's clan. Members of the same matrilineal or patrilineal clan, no matter how many miles apart, are kin and forbidden to marry, and are expected always to extend hospitality, food and lodging to each other. That tradition is carried on today. Tradition dictates that when members are buried, their doodem symbols appear on their graves to mark their lineage. Also, clan symbols appear in birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin and and in the old treaty documents.

The Fish Clans

Simone McLeod Fisher Star Creations
Aayaanikaaj mishoomisag, the Anishinaabe fathers of olden times, who loved the sight of the flashing of silvered tails in shiny lakes and rushing streams, chose the silent spirit of GIIGOONH (fish) to be emblematic of teaching.

Particularly awaazisii (bullhead), name (sturgeon), and maanameg (catfish) represented the noble arts of knowledge and science. 

Fish clan members, known for long life and baldness in old age, claim that in the old days, when their ancestors still lived toward the rising sun, their clan had been the first of the original doodemag to appear out of the Atlantic ocean. From of old, Giigoonh doodem members are responsible for mediating between the chief clans (Crane and Loon) in the case there needs to be a settlement of a dispute and/or a deciding vote. 

Traditionally, Giigoonh doodem members help children to develop skills and healthy spirits; they are the teachers, scholars, and the intellectuals of the Anishinaabe peoples. It is especially the Elders' task to teach about life through storytelling, chants, and dances, and to prepare the young for a vision quest.

About the painting


To Simone, this acrylic on canvas titled Growth Within" touches the core of what true Woodland Art represents: using colors and form to create art that reflects a unique way of looking at the world. This is what Simone said about the painting:

I am Sturgeon Clan and I grew up facing things alone, set apart from the other women in my family, I depend on nature to see me through many things. 

This painting is a self portrait; I know who I am and I like what I see!


Path of the Sturgeon Midewiwin Life Road wedding rings
Name Babaamaadiziwin - Path of the Sturgeon - bicolor gold Midewiwin wedding bands designed and handcrafted by Zhaawano Giizhik. Click here to view details of the wedding bands.


The Lake Sturgeon

Lake sturgeon is one of the fish spirits native to Gichigamiin (The Great Lakes region) that play a role in many aadizookaanan, or sacred stories of the Anishinaabeg Peoples that live close to the lakes. This ancient, extremely tough fish species, that survived centuries of pollution, over-fishing, and dams, can grow to be more than six feet long. Sturgeons swam in ancient seas while dinosaurs still walked the earth...

Since time immemorial, lake sturgeon, besides playing a fundamental role in the economic life of the Anishinaabe and Cree Peoples whose communities were, and still are, depending on fish as a major food crop during the entire year and as a central item of exchange, takes a central place in their ceremonial life as well. Being an important connection with both the natural and the supernatural world, Na-me, as he is called in Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language), is still known as Adizookaa Giigoonh, a Grandfather Fish who provides spiritual help to the People (see the above image of an acrylic painting by Simone McLeod depicting her clan animal, a sturgeon, giving birth to the Seven Grandfathers, or Prophets).


Ojibwe style Midewiwin Life Road wedding bands Spirit of the Catfish


The Catfish

Maanameg, the catfish, who represents one of the five original odoodemag (clans) of my ancestors, the Baawitigowininiwag from Baawitigong (present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan/Ontario), is known for his preference for the quiet depths of a placid lake. Maanameg, or Awaassi(nh) as he is often called by by the Southeastern Anishinaabeg, symbolizes intelligence, and, particularly, the virtue of broadmindedness.

The above ring set is titled “Spirit of the Catfish.”  The Midewiwin “Path of Life” graphics depicted on the exteriors, combined with the stylized catfish designs in the insides, pertain to the central theme of the wedding ring set: the stages of life that we humans must pass through from birth to death as well as the various phases of LEARNING: the human cognitive process and the transfer of knowledge and know-how, and, above all, the quality of being open to new things and ideas and people that cross our path along the way.

Click here to view details of the above ring set.


Midewiwin Path of Life


A Good Way of Life

The teachings of MIDEWIWIN, the Lodge of Medicine and Ethics of the Anishinaabe People, tell us that each person has a path to follow, called The True Path of Life, a capricious trail with many digressions (dangers and temptations) traveling over four “hills”: infancy, youth, adulthood, old age. He or she who managed to live out life in all its stages was to receive and possess nature’s greatest gift: MINO BIMAADIZIWIN. Traditionally, MINO-BIMAADIZIWIN, to live a good way of life, has always been the central goal for the Anishinaabeg.


Ojibwe inspired collar necklace by Zhaawano Giizhik
KNOWLEDGE ON THE ROAD OF LIFE /DOODEM OF LEARNING - white & yellow gold, silver, turquoise and red coral set of collar necklace and ear jewelry (sold). For prices see our website Click here to read more about the symbolic meaning of the set.


About the necklace


Divided over five elegantly curved white gold wires, Zhaawano fastened four moveable ornaments of precious metals and stones – to be placed in any desired position along the wires. The wires symbolize the five main GIDOODEMINAANIG (our blood relations; animal totems) of the Anishinaabe Peoples: Ajiijaak (Crane), Makwa (bear), Waabizheshi (Marten), Maanameg (Catfish), and Mikinaak (Snapping Turtle). These (archaic) totems denote the five needs of the People and the five elementary functions of society: respectively LEADERSHIP, DEFENSE, SUSTENANCE, MEDICINE, LEARNING, and MEDICINE.

The four moveable elements of the necklace, a gold eagle feather, a stylized fish head and tail of white gold and silver and a turquoise stone set in gold, pertain to the central concept of the design: the stages of life that we humans must pass through from birth to death. The elements also relate to the various phases of LEARNING: the human cognitive process and the transfer of knowledge and know-how.

In honor of the concept of learning and knowledge, Zhaawano adorned the fish head ornament of the necklace with an eye of turquoise; the two post-back earrings – which he placed on the wires of the necklace when he took the photo – are watching the world through eyes of red coral.

The concept of MINO BIMAADIZIWIN Zhaawano depicted by means of the asymmetrically cut turquoise stone, accentuated by a setting of 14K yellow and red gold and sterling silver. The rough surface and the black-veined matrix of the turquoise, along with the sharp and irregular corners of the setting symbolize the many dangers, disasters, and perils along life’s path.

Finally, the stylized 14K gold eagle feather fastened at one side of the collar necklace, refers to ojichaag bimisewin or “Spirit Flight”: the spiritual journeys the human mind is capable of - a special and often elusive dimension in our existence. A state of wisdom and knowledge can only be reached by inner spiritual growth and enhancement of consciousness. According to the lessons of aayaanikaaj mishoomisag, the Anishinaabe forefathers, no man begins to be until he has received his vision…


Fish manidoog

Mishi-ginebig the Ojibwe Underwater Serpent by Zhaawano Giizhik


The Anishinaabe forefathers distinguished a variety of Giigoonhyag Manidoog (fish spirits) of at least three types, the first being Mishiibizhiwag, the Underworld Cats, and the others being Mishiginebig, the Sea Serpent who provides Knowledge of Medicinal herb and Makadeshigan or Black Bass, the spirit of the Underworld, who presented the People Medicine and rituals.

Underwater manidoog were not perse considered evil, and not always dangerous. They were supposed to possess powers that assist other water beings as well. Other metaphorical interpretations of fish include the Merman/Mermaid, who symbolize temptation.

A safe passage


The giigoonhyag manidoog have always been associated with the water realm, and revered by the Anishinaabeg and their neighbours the Cree as spirits who control the moods of the Lake and potentially dangerous guards of rapids and swift or troubled waters. Particularly Mishibizhiw, the Great Underwater Lynx, has the power to shapeshift into various animal forms.  He is said to aid those who seek to cross dangerous water, provided that a suitable offer is made.  

To this day, some folks, particularly medicine people who seek  to be granted the power to enter the sacred rocks, still leave offerings like asemaa (tobacco), clothing, and bundles of colored sticks.


Cree Medicine painter Carl Ray (Tall Straight Poplar)
Carl Ray (1942-1978): Spirit Fish, 24x30 inch, 1975


Bolo tie by ZhaawanArt
MASHKIKI MIIGIWEWIN (GIFT OF MEDICINE): sterling silver bolo tie with braided leather lanyard and sterling silver tips. 

Makadeshigan and the gift of ceremony and health

According to Anishinaabe tradition, Makadeshigan, the Black Bass who became known as the Spirit of the Underworld, was the patron of the deep night and bad dreams. 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 was said to have 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.

About the bolo tie

The subject matter and graphic design of this overlay bolo tie of sterling silver breathe the spiritual knowledge and sacred visual language of Simone's and my ancestors; at the same time they are exemplary of the minimalistic graphic style and ‘linear determinatives’ of the Medicine Painters of the Woodland Art that we are part of. 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 our ancestors associated with makadeshiganag (black basses), strong fighters that swam abundantly in the freshwater lakes and rivers of their homelands.

Makadeshigan the Black bass of the Ojibweg
The figure of the diving fish in this silver bolo tie 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 Zhaawano 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...

Giiwenh: this is how far the story goes. 
Miigwech for reading and listening and giga-waabamin: see you later!

Read the next episode in the Teaching Stories series: The Trees Speak, part 1.

Zhaawano Giizhik and Simone McLeod Ojibwe Woodland artists

About the authors/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. 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 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.

* Poem The Journey by Simone McLeod, July 16 2013


  1. I so love your writing Zhaawano, the stories bring out the wonderous child in me who is craving learning, I love them and I feel them as though I have lived them...


  2. This story would never have come about if I could not see the world through your eyes Simone. Bezhigwendamowin gaagige, Miigwech ge-giin!