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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 6

Mishi-ginebig, Patron of Healing and Wisdom

Updated May 28, 2022

Noojimoowin Miinawaa Nibwaakaawin Fisher Star design wedding bands.

Aaniin! Hello!

By way of a blog series called "REFLECTIONS OFTHE GREAT LAKES," accompanied by my own art and jewelry designs as well as artworks by kindred artists, I seek to capture, and pay homage to, the spirit and fascinating beauty and majesty of GICHIGAMIIN, the Great Seas of the Anishinaabe People, and all the creatures that live near, on, or beneath them. 




To the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, the waters themselves and their undercurrents and beaches and islands covered with mists have always evoked a myriad of mysterious representations of manidoo. These spirit beings occasionally appear in natural guise with distinct human or animal personalities; these include the mischievous water dwarfs called memegwesiwag and the friendly bagwajininiwag, the little wild forest people, creators of mystic glades in the woods, who are known to sometimes inhabit the sandy beaches, emerging from their sanctuaries on moonlit nights to dance in the shadows, warning passers-by of the fearful Mermaid. And the shining lodges of the mishiinimakinagoog, the turtle spirits, can be seen in the summer evenings when the moon shines on their island habitat; Ojibwe and Odaawaa fishermen, who steer their canoes near certain steep cliffs and jagged pinnacles at night, occasionally hear their happy voices echo across the dark lake. Others, however, are more indefinite and potentially dangerous - such as nibiininaabewag and nibiinaabekwewag (mermen and mermaids), mishi-bizhiwag (great horned underworld cats), and mishi-ginebigoog (great horned underwater snakes).

Throughout the ages many of these spirit beings have been perpetuated on the spot in stylized drawings or carvings in and on rocks in sacred locations, particularly in mystic places near the coastline where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground and the underwaters meet...

Today's blog story features a set of 14K gold wedding rings designed and handcrafted by myself, portraying a design of the Midewiwin Life Road combined with the stylized image of Mishi-ginebig, the Great mythical Snake of the Anishinaabe Peoples. A drawing by me (see the picture below), and four images of powerful paintings by the late Miskwaabik Aninikii (Norval Morrisseau) have also been added serving as illustrations to the story. 

Misi-ginebig digipainting by Native Woodland Artist Zhaawano Giizhik

Noojimowin miinawaa Nibwaakaawin
: “Healing and Wisdom”.  Such is the title of the bands, which I crafted with the aid of overlay.
In overlay technique, a design is cut out of one piece of silver or gold, which is then laid over another piece of silver or gold; the two are then soldered together—thus the term “overlay.”
These particular wedding rings are constructed of layers of several gold alloys of different colors: white gold over yellow gold (the ladies’ ring) and (more grayish) palladium gold over red gold (the men’s ring).


Mishi-ginebig design wedding bands by Native Woodland jeweler Zhaawano Giizhik________________________________________________________________________________

Both the title of the ring set and the stylized depiction of head and body of Mishi-ginebig– which I merged into the age-old design of the Midewiwin Life Road - symbolize the great healing powers that since time immemorial have been accredited to this Supernatural Spirit Grandfather that is said to dwell in the underworld of many rivers and lakes – with Gichigami (the Great Freshwater Lake, Lake Superior) predominating...



In the olden days, based on their understanding that existence is a dynamic and continuous interplay between all of creation, the Anishinaabeg considered the great sea serpent, as one of many aadizokaanag (Spirit Grandfathers) that dwell in the Universe, simply as part of gichi-bigwaji-bimaadiziwn, the greater cycle of nature. Despite its terrifying appearance this horned creature with its deadly tail was not necessarily deemed evil. As Mishi-ginebig was known to secure successful hunts and an abundance of food hunters often called upon it's power to secure a good fish catch; so powerful was he that some Medicine people addressed the Great Serpent to lend them its healing powers.

To my ancestors – that is, before they became influenced by the European settlers with their Christian dogmas - there was no sense of good and evil but only a natural balance of deeds; nature, however symbolized, qualified, or ritualized, simply existed. No matter how monstrous these and other underwater creatures appeared to be my ancestors have always been attentive to their medicinal significance. Despite the fear the Underwater Beings instilled in their hearts and minds minds, they were always respected and revered for their beneficial powers that helped sustain the delicate balance between the underworlds, the middle world, and the sky world…


Miskwaabik Animikii painting on drum head of Thunderbird and the Great Horned Underwater Serpent

Painting on a hand drum by Norval Morrisseau depicting a Thunderbird and an Underwater Snake. Animikii Binesi (Thunderbird) and Mishi-ginebig are seen as inveterate enemies; thunder and lightning are supposed to be caused by the Thunderbird who hunts the horned Underwater Snake. The scene illustrates the eternal tensions between, and the interdepence of, the creatures in the sky and those in the upper and lower waters of lakes and rivers.



Many Ojibwe stories portray Mishi-ginebig, whose stylized representations are to be found on many rock paintings and petroglyphs in hidden places throughout the Great Lakes area, as a metaphorical interpretation of a giigoonh, or fish being – and as such closely related to trout and sturgeons -, as bawaagan (a spiritual helper appearing in dreams), and, by extension, as a prominent aadizookaan, or patron, of healing and knowledge of medicinal herbs. Not only are these horned Beings, which are associated with drowning and floods and evil medicine as well as with good medicine, healing, and protection of women, said to be directly associated with the fertility of Omizakamigokwe (the Earthmother); they also play an important role in the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine Society) and its ceremonies.

This role has, of course, a dualistic nature; whereas in the second degree of the Midewiwin ceremony “evil” ginebig manidoog try to prevent a candidate member to reach the third degree, in the third degree the serpent manidoo “helps” the candidate by arching its body so he or she may pass beneath unharmed into the fourth degree of the Society. 


Midewiwin vision quest
Norval Morrisseau: Untitled Midewiwin Vision Quest Kenora tempera or acrylic on hide



Because mishi-ginebigoog were regarded as guardians of the lakes and as such evoked reverance, awe, and sometimes fear, the old ones, in order to ensure safe water passage, never failed to offer tobacco (and perhaps other presents) at perilous places in the lakes and whirlpools and rapids of rivers. Because of the Underwater Snake’s sacred, seemingly dualistic nature and his ambivalent powers and because he was sometimes considered a bad omen in dreams and visions, our ancestors hardly ever uttered his name, except maybe for the winter time - as they probably figured that as long as the rivers and lakes were frozen mishi-ginebig was unable to exercise his formidable powers…


Midewiwin Life Road wedding bands

The capricious Midewiwin Life Road design - consisting of four “hills” and seven “tangents” or side paths - that were cut out from the white gold exteriors of these wedding rings symbolizes the life cycle of two individuals who share their joys and sorrows. Daily they face the challenge of struggling to stay on course when encountering sharp bends in the road of life and, in particular, of balancing the demands of their work and the demands of family life. Daily they face the challenge of solving problems and avoiding temptations (symbolized by the side paths of the design) leading them astray from the good path, with the prospect of living a long life together in harmony, wisdom, and good health. But a closer look at the rings reveals that the jeweler merged the essential “physical” features of the mysterious Mishi-ginebig into the design of the Midewiwin diagram, which since time immemorial has been passed on by the Medicine People of the Midewiwin – a society of seers and healers, respected guardians of the culture, history, and sciences of the Anishinaabeg Peoples. This spirit grandfather from the depths of rivers and lakes, often depicted with the body of a snake and a head equipped with horns, is a metaphorical interpretation of a fish. To date, this supernatural reptile/fish is regarded as a powerful dream messenger and a prominent patron of Medicine and knowledge of medicinal plants. Visit our website to view details of this wedding ring set.


Mishi-ginebig and Mide Path designs


The cut-out images of the sun and the moon of the interiors of these layered wedding bands emphasize the virtue of wisdom and the dualistic nature of Traditional Healing - both in the physical/medicinal and the mental sense. After all, doesn't the old Anishinaabe tradition encourage the youth to seek wisdom, resilience, and (mental) healing in the vast blue of Father Sky and beyond, in the realms of the sun, the moon, and the stars? Did the Elders in the old days not teach the youth that wisdom and mental healing are primarily obtained by what they called, GIKINAWAABI, literally: to learn by, and from, observation? Didn't our children learn history, culture, and values from their grandparents through respectful observation, encouragement, and example?


Norval Morrisseau Mishi-ginebig

Norval Morrisseau acrylic of the Underwater Snake Manidoo
Untitled paintings by Norval Morrisseau depictig Mishi-ginebig. The top image depicts Mishi-ginebig carrying a medicine pouch, which illustrates his role as bringer and keeper of Medicine.


Listen and learn, do not mirror yourself to others, draw from your own "medicine" (strength). Such is the simple but essential message that I sought to convey through the celestial bodies placed in the interiors of these wedding rings…


Anishunaabe graphic overlay wedding bands handcrafted by Woodland artist Zhaawano


Gigii-pima’adoon iwe mashkikiiwaatig. Inaabin, giizhigong ezhiozhaawashkwagoodeg, gimishoomisinaan onibwaakaawin. Ji-bimaadiziyan naagijitoon gimiinigoowiziwinan ji-mino bimaadiziwin. Gaawiin bezhigwan gidinaadizisii gaajiigidaamad. Weweni gigiiozhii’igoo. Giin wa’awe bezhig. Miigo awe gaajiigidaamad. Gaye mitigoog miinawaa waabigwan miinawaa waawaashkeshi miinawaa dibik-giizis miinawaa anang. Inashke naabiyan gigikendaan. Gegoo memwech michi-naanaagadawaabin. Gaye, bizindan. Naanaagijitoon ezhiseg gegooyan. Naanaagijitoon gibimaadiziwin gaye igiwedi aanind. Giishpin naanaagidawaabiyan miinawaa bizindaman mii’omaa ge-onjigikendaman gakina gegoo. Gikendamowin daagikendaagwad. Nibwaakaawin inaadizin. Inaadizin bagakendan.

(“To live wisely is to live according to your own, unique gifts…you are not the same as, and certainly no less unique than, the next person…just like a tree or a flower of a deer or the moon or a star in the sky were created special, were born as unique persons. All you have to do to understand this is  to look around you…ask no questions…just watch and listen…pay attention to what goes on around you…observe yourself and the lives of your relatives, the beings that surround you…all you need to know is out there…knowledge can be learned; wisdom must be lived. So, live. Live and learn!”)*

*A free adaptation from Seven Sacred Teachings by David Bouchard and Dr. Joseph Martin.

Click here to read #7 in the series Reflections of the Great Lakes.


 Jewelry photography by Zhaawano Giizhik.                                                 


Mishibiziw mazinaabikiniganing Zhaawano Giizhik

The author at Agawa Rock, Lake Superior, Ontario, July 2015. This 19th - (or, possibly, partially 17th and partially 19th) century Anishinaabe rock painting depicts several creatures, among which two Mishi-ginebigoog and another horned underwater manidoo (manitu) by the name of Mishibizhiw, the Great Lynx. The site's name in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) is Mazinaabikiniganing, which means "painted rock.".The sacred red occher paint used to depict this and many other similar accounts was typically created by mixing iron hematite with boiled sturgeon spine or bear grease. 

Both Mishi-ginebig (Great Snake) and Mishibizhiw (Great Lynx/Panther) are associated with the water realm, and revered by the Anishinaabeg and Cree as Fish Spirits who control the moods of the Lake and also as sometimes dangerous guards of rapids and swift or troubled waters. Particularly Mishibizhiw - who is said to be capable of shape-shifting - aids those who seek to cross dangerous water, provided that a suitable offer is made.

Some Anishinaabeg, particularly medicine men who seek to be granted the power to enter the sacred rocks, still leave offerings like asemaa (tobacco), clothing, and bundles of colored sticks at the rock site. The rock painting of Mishibizhiw was possibly created in the 19th century by Ojibwe ogimaa (chief) Zhingwaakoons (Little Pine) who led a war party against American miners who exploited a copper deposit in Gichi-gami (Lake Superior). After fasting several days at the Agawa rock to gain spiritual powers, Zhingwaakoons chose to paint Mishibizhiw because it was regarded as the holder and protector of the sacred copper in the lake. .

Photo by Simone McLeod.


About the author/artist:

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 Baawitigong (Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Michigan) is Waabizheshi, Marten. As an artist, a writer, and a designer of unique 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.

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