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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Reawakening of the Medicine People, part 2

- Updated: May 11, 2022

Nibaad Misaabe


Zhooniyaa, Precious Gift of the Underworld


This blog post is part 2 in a series titled "Reawakening Of The Medicine People." Today we will focus on zhooniyaa (silver) and the relation of this sacred metal to my art and to the traditions of my ancestors, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg of the North American Great Lakes area. Zhooniyaa used to be a traditional metal to the Anishinaabeg, and, being an artist who works with precious metals and being smart enough to be receptive to the suggestions made by my ex partner Simone, I decided to take her advice. So, in the Spirit Moon of the year 2015, I started to honor and restore the silversmithing tradition of my ancestors by designing a new line of sterling silver wedding rings. The title of the line is  Anishinaabe Silver Wedding Rings. Miigwech nishiim!

Why silver rings?

Silver rings are more affordable than gold rings; extra thick plate is used to compensate the lower durability of silver. My silver rings feature inside graphics - some of which have multicolor gold inlays - stylistically inspired by mazinaajimowinan, the ancient pictographic art of the Anishinaabe Peoples. Some of these "spirit drawings" are eternalized on sacred birchbark scrolls, on animal hide, or copper items while others are painted on, or incised in, rocks and cliff walls in remote locations near coastlines and river banks where earth, water, sky, underground, and underwaters meet.


Aanji-onishkaa (Reawakening), Anishinaabe silver wedding bands
"The Spirit of the Sleeping Giant." Click here to view details of the ring set.


The meaning and use of silver

Today’s blog post features a traditional story - accompanied by a set of wedding rings designed by me and images of paintings by Simone McLeod, Roy Thomas, Norval Morrisseau, and myself - about Wenabozho, the Mighty Grandfather of the Deep Sea Water, and how he turned into Nibaad Misaabe, the Sleeping Giant in order to protect the sacred silver against the greed of the European invaders. But first, let me tell you something about silver itself and the meaning it holds for our People, the Gichi Gami-Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, whose ancestors for 1000 years or more have lived close to the water’s edge of the Great Lakes to survive.

Zhooniyaa as well as ozaawaabiko-zhooniyaa (copper, literally: “brown silver”), * has been mined for many thousands of years from deposits in the Thunder Bay area and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and has been used, worked, and traded by many generations of Native Peoples – probably even by those that lived there long before the Anishinaabeg arrived from the east

Because of their spiritual and economic importance to the Gichi Gami-Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, both metals were held in high cultural regard and formed the Anishinaabe identity to an extent that can hardly be underestimated.

Copper and silver, along with other beneficial “beings” such as fish and other sea creatures – like underwater serpents -, have always been deemed extremely sacred – and as such held various spiritual and symbolic meanings. Our ancestors regarded both copper and silver as gifts from the water spirits that dwell the underworld of the lakes; to them, the natural gloss of the metal reflected light against the darkness in which many spirits, some of which possibly malevolent, were suspected to lurk.

Because of the sacred nature of silver and copper the Ojibweg who mined these metals were usually very secretive about the locations of the mines – which in themselves, relating to  the extremely sacred mood or atmosphere of these places, were considered manidoowid (possessing sacred, spiritual powers), and I would not be surprised if the old ones regarded them as ideal locations for having dreams and, possibly, vision-seeking.

In the second half of the 18th century, zhooniyaa - along with furs - became the most prominent trade good in the Great Lakes area, even more important than copper, miigisag (wampum), and glass beads. Arm bands, bracelets, rings, brooches, earrings, gorgets, hair plates, and a myriad of other silver jewelry items were crafted and traded back in those days. But the ancestors never forgot about the sacred nature of zhooniya as it infused great spiritual blessings and power into their sacred items – such as ogimaa dewe'iganag (big dance drums) that were sometimes decorated with silver plates or disks. So sacred was silver deemed that when an Ojibwe took the life of a bear, he sometimes adorned its head, along with miigisapikanan (wampum belts), with arm bands and bracelets of pure silver, after which the bear was laid on a scaffold within a lodge with a large quantity of asemaa (tobacco) placed near his  nostrils.


Thunder Bay Roy Thomas
"Thunder Bay" by the late Ojibwe painter Roy Thomas

Nibaad Misaabe, the Sleeping Giant

There are several fascinating stories related to zhooniyaa. One relatively recent aadizookaan (traditional story) is connected with the southern tip of a rocky peninsula called Nibaad Misaabe (The Sleeping Giant).

According to a local Anishinaabe tradition, this majestic rock formation jutting out of Animikii-wiikwedong (Thunder Bay) – a body of water that forms the head of Gichigami, or Lake Superior - is the petrified body of Wenabozho. Our ancestors knew Wenabozho, who was also known as Nanabijou, or Nanabush, as the First Man who walked the Earth, a supernatural Grandfather and a Teacher who a long time ago was sent to Earth to clear the path for those that came after him, and give names to each and every part of Creation, including the lakes, rivers, and islands that make up the vast area that would become known as Anishinaabe Aki, the Great Land of the Anishinaabeg…

Wenabozho, who was truly fond of the Anishinaabeg – the Ojibweg of Miinoong (Isle Royal) for instance, gave him a prominent role  in their storytelling and honored him with the honorary title of the Spirit of the Deep Sea -, had gifted them with a mine rich with a vein of pure waabishki-zhooniyaa asiniiwaabik (silver ore).


Aadizookaan Nanabush

"Who is the god of the Indian in this country, the people of this country, the Anishinaabe?

Who is the Indian spirit?

Who is our god?

Who is our creator?


Wenabozho's our god.

Why is he our God, the God of the Indians?

GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great God, is the one that selected Wiinabozho, the great man, to give the medicines to the people. He told Wenabozho, "You show the people what it's for." Wenabozho is the Indian medicine god, the Grand Medicine God. He's the leader. He tells stories of the history, stories of the history of medicine and everything. In the stories he tells us what to use. That's why he's our creator. He can show us the medicine. He can talk to us. He can show us the Indian way of life. He can show us what to use.

Wenabozho lived a long time. He talked to the trees. He talked to anything. Wenabozho  could talk Sioux; he could talk anything."

- Freely adapted from: When Everybody Called Me Gah-bay-bi-nayss"Forever-Flying-Bird": An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo**. Illustration: "Wenabozho Telling Stories" by Zhaawano Giizhik.


According to one (probably 19th century) tradition, GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, had warned the Anishinaabeg not to reveal its location (now known as Silver Islet) to strangers, or Wenabozho would be turned to stone. Nevertheless, probably in the late 19th century, a canoe guide of the Bwaanag (Dakota Nation) did disclose the secret, and the European intruders whom he led to the mine were drowned in a fierce storm that lashed the bay that night, leaving behind the poor scout drifted along in his canoe – reportedly in a crazed state of mind. The next morning, tayaa! the horrified Anishinaabeg, who for many generations had used the silver of the mine to craft jewelry and ornaments and tools that brought them much material wealth, noticed that, where once used to be a wide opening to the bay, now lied what appeared to be a sleeping figure of a giant! 

Wenabozho, hurt and ashamed, had been turned into rock overnight…GICHI-MANIDOO’s warning had come true and the beloved manidoo of the deep waters had been turned to stone for eternity…or will he perhaps awaken one day? 


Copper Thunderbird

"The Silver Curse". Miskwaabik Animikii (Copper Thunderbird) made this painting in 1969 depicting the story of the Sleeping Giant. The Thunderbird he painted hovering over (or flying behind?) the Sleeping Giant might refer to Animikii-wajiw (Mount McKay) in Thunder Bay, home of the Thunderbirds and used by countless generations of Ojibwe Medicine People for sacred ceremonies; it is also possible - although highly speculative - that the Thunderbird is a reference to Miinoong (“the beautiful place”, present-day Isle Royal, Michigan) that lies circa 15 miles behind the Sleeping Giant. This island, as well as the nearby Keweenaw Peninsula, used to be a common hunting ground for Aboriginal Peoples from nearby Minnesota and Ontario. It has been inhabited by Ojibweg for at least 400 hundreds of years (it is said that the Grandfather Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge sounded its voice there too) yet it is also a fact that large quantities of ozaawaabiko-zhooniya (copper) were mined on the islands by many generations of Native Peoples over a time period of at least six thousand years. For the Anishinaabeg, who believed it was a sacred gift of the Underwater Spirits, copper was known to hold extraordinary healing powers as it possesses the best energies of the earth. In recent times (since the 19th or 20th century) copper is being directly related to the powerful Mishi-bizhiw (the Horned Underwater Lynx) and Animkiig (Thunderbirds) - Norval Morrisseau's traditional name, Piece Of Copper Thunderbird, is to be understood in the same context. The Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Lodge of the Ojibweg, used miskwaabikoon (pieces of copper) in their ceremonies and the copper deposits were often frequented by Medicine People who came there to dream and have visions. Since the Ojibweg, in order to protect the sacred metal, sometimes pointed out relatively unimportant copper (or silver?) deposits to Europeans to steer them away from the sacred places, it is not unlikely that the Thunderbird in Norval Morrisseau's painting is a silence reference to the copper deposit that lies behind the abandoned silver mine in Thunder Bay - which would suggest that the story of the Sleeping Giant and the Curse of Wiinabozho was invented in a clever attempt to draw attention away from - and thus to protect and preserve - the much greater Secret of the sacred copper of Miinoong...


The return of Wenabozho

Could it be that Nibaad Misaabe, the Sleeping Giant, represents the spirit of the Anishinaabeg? Might it be that he is ogimaa (chief) of the many Sleeping Medicine People out there, some of whom live dormant lives in each of our Native communities, while others are hidden disguised in many forms and shapes …either as natural phenomena or as grandfather rocks and other mystical landmarks scattered throughout the landscape? Who just need to reawaken what they have always had inside them? 

Sleeping Medicine People

Is it possible that the Stone Giant, this spiritual being whose solidified presence now guards the ancient silver deposits of Thunder Bay, preventing any attempt to reactivate the silver mining of yesteryear, embodies not just a curse over mankind but also the awakening of a slumbering awareness?  Is it possible that the he is awaiting a time when a new generation of People will rise up that will walk the Good Red Road of the ancestors again? Could it be that one day, once the People return to mino-bimaadiziwin, the way of a good life, and start living according to a more intelligent and respectful worldview than we experience now, Nibaad Misaabe will wake up from his stone slumber?

Who knows?

If this is true, then, when that day comes, the beloved First Man Wenabozho, no longer hurt and ashamed of his People, will finally be among us again…  


Aanji-onishkaa (Reawakening). Sterling silver wedding bands designed and handcrafted by Zhaawano, depicting the dramatic outlines of Nibaad Misaabe (the Sleeping Giant). The sides of the wedding rings show graphic insides containing ovally shaped designs of 14K red gold and sterling silver (the latter are not visible in the photo.) These inlays symbolize the, respectively, copper and silver deposits in the area of Thunder Bay, Ontario, which since time immemorial hold a sacred meaning for the Anishinaabe Peoples who inhabit the Great Lakes district. Go to the website Fisherstar to see price and order information about the wedding ring set.

Giiwenh. That´s how far this blog story goes. Miigwech for reading and listening!

Bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga: please come see us again!

*Misko-biiwaabikoo ("miskwaabik") literally, red metal, is, another word in use for (a piece of) copper.

> Click here to read part 3 of the series "Reawakening Of The Medicine People".

Aki-egwaniizid miinawaa Zhaawano Giizhik/Wenoondaagoziwid Webaashi


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). Simone feels special kinship with her mother's people, the Azaadiwi-ziibiNitam-Anishinaabeg (Poplar River First Nation) of Manitoba. She 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, a writer, and a designer of jewelry and wedding rings, 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 in the past.



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