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Monday, March 2, 2015

Teaching Stories, part 20

"The Paradoxical Nature of Life"

- Updated: December 21, 2023


Acrylic painting by Aki-egwaniizid
Visit our website to view details of the above painting by Simone McLeod


Boozhooaaniin, hello,

Welcome back in our Storytelling Lodge! This blog story is another joint project by Simone Mcleod and Zhaawano Giizhik. It is the twentieth in a series titled Teaching Stories, featuring our works of art and those of kindred artists, which we symbolically and thematically connect with the Seven Grandfather teachings of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe People.

Today's story features a set of wedding rings by Zhaawano and two acrylic paintings by Simone Mcleod, one on canvas and one painted on a drum membrane. 

We invite you to visit our website to view Simone's work and also to learn more about the below-shown wedding rings.


The Mide Life Road

The title of these unique Ojibwe-style, graphic overlay wedding rings is Nisayenh Ma'ii┼łgan/Aazhideyendamowinan Miikanang; this is Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) for “My Elder brother Wolf/On the Path of Paradoxes.” 

The capricious, smooth-flowing outline drawing designs of the wedding rings, styled after the rock art-inspired imagery founded by the Canadian Woodland School, combine an age-old symbol, that of the Midewiwin Life Road, with the sign of the Wolf, symbol of wisdom, perseverance, and protection. The wedding rings are part of a theme series designed by Zhaawano named Bimaadiziwi! Bimaadiziwi! Bimaadiziwi (Life! Life! Life!).

The wedding ring shown on the left side of the image is 0.35 inch (9 mm) wide and consists of an exterior of palladium white gold and an interior of red gold; the ring on the right is about 0.315 inch (8 mm) wide and is constructed of the same materials. The designs of both interiors and exteriors of the rings – a sheet of palladium white gold and a sheet of red gold - were cut out with the aid of a jeweler’s saw, after which both sheets have been soldered together and shaped into a ring by hammering it around a ring mandrel. 

The cut out design of the rings’ exteriors is a capricious path surrounded by “energy speckles” and characterized by seven tangents, or “side roads.” This design symbolizes the Life Road – which can either be seen as a path with seven sharp bends or a path consisting of four hills representing the age stages of human life. It is a sacred diagram originally engraved in midewiigwaasag (sacred birch bark scrolls) and ceremonially kept within the caches of the age-old Ojibwe Spiritual and Medicinal Society (or Lodge) called Midewiwin. Throughout the ages, Midewiwin has been, and still is, the keeper of rituals, songs, science, and the migratory traditions of the Anishinaabe Peoples.

Midewiwin Path Of Life

Symbolically, for a Mide, a member of the Medicine Lodge, to depart from mino-miikana bimaadiziwin, the true path of life, and not return is equivalent to death. But since digression has rarely a permanent character, he or she is expected to withdraw annually in vigil and prayer, to ask the aadizoogaanag (supernatural grandfathers, spirit helpers) for guidance, and to review their life to determine if they are still on the true path.*

Anishinaabe Woodland artist Simone McLeod painted hand drum
 A personal hand drum of Simone McLeod, its membrane featuring a white stylized acrylic wolf paw painted by the artist

The Land Of Souls

The oral and pictorial traditions of the Midewiwin, the Society of thinkers and healers of the Anishinaabe Peoples, teach us that, in a faraway sphere outside and beyond our natural powers of perception, there exists a Land called Jiibayaki, the Land of Souls, or Spirits. This supernatural realm, situated in Ningaabii’anong, the west, the land of the sleeping sun, is regarded as a land of Peace, where there is no sickness and famine, and where are no negative and antisocial emotions typically harbored by so many people who inhabit the earth below. It is said that only peaceful and honest people are admitted on the Spirit Trail; there is no room in Jiibayaki for those who misbehave during their earthly existence. 

Midewiwin tells us that we must live good lives by following mino misko-bimaadiziwin miikana, the good red road that leads to a balanced, long, and wholesome life, and eventually, to admission into the Land of Souls. It tells us to honor GICHI-MANIDOO (the Great Mystery) and to thank GICHI-MANIIDOO daily for the life that It grants to us – including the sun, the winds, the clouds, the stars, the lakes and rivers and mountains, the trees, and  the plants. It tells us to honor our Elders, our women and children, and, indeed, our elder relatives the animals, the birds, and the fish that sustain us in our daily lives and guide us in our visions and dreams. It tells us to strive for peace and knowledge, to be kind, tolerant, moderate, to be right and honest in all we do and to be and determined and courageous if need be.




Native Woodland jeweler Zhaawano Giizhik

The Life Road depicted on the wedding rings symbolizes the path travelled by a married couple on this earth, the phases they go through in life, and the code of moral laws they are supposed to follow. The seven lines depicted at the four bends of the road (or hilltops) leading from the main trail represent digressions, or temptations to which we are all exposed during our lives on earth. If the couple overcomes all seven of these digressions - and reviews  on a regular base  their lives and marriage through nanagadawenindizowin (self-reflection) and gaagiigidonidiwin (dialog) -, they will eventually reach the state of bimaadiziwin, that is: live to a good old age in harmony, luck, and prosperity.

Next, the dots or speckles  surrounding the Life Road symbolize life’s energy that is often invisible by the eyes but which we sense is out there somewhere.


Finally, the interiors of both wedding rings show a stylized print of a wolf paw inlaid with palladium white gold. Zhaawano’s choice of the wolf paws combined with the diagram of the Life Road  depicted on the exteriors is not random or accidental. Since time immemorial Midewiwin acknowledges the primacy of awesiiyag, the animals – of which Mai’iingan, the wolf, is chosen here as representative. Awesiiyag are viewed as the elder and wiser brothers and sisters of mankind. They are regarded as kindred relatives and as silent metaphors for our shortcomings and vices, embodying the qualities and virtues which we are supposed to  strive for and emulate.  In this context awesiiyag are often viewed as contraries, living paradoxes, sometimes representing good and sometimes evil. 


Wenabozho and Wolf

One day, a long time ago, Wenabozho, the semi-human spirit and benefactor of the Anishinaabeg, befriended a Wolf, whose name was Gekinoo’amaaged Ma’iingan, The Teacher Who Makes Strange Noises. They became brothers and the Teacher and Wenabozho walked together naming all of the other creatures on Aki, the earth, such as the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, the trees, the plants, and the animals, the insects, the birds, and the fish.

The two brothers had many adventures together on Aki and they took great pleasure in tricking each other. Both had the power of shapeshifting; this means that they often transformed into any animal or human form. Although it was Wenabozho who was the most daring and imaginative of the two, it was Mai’iingan who often guided Wenabozho and taught him valuable lessons of wisdom.
So, since he was the elder and wiser brother of Wenabozho, Gekinoo’amaaged Ma’iingan taught Wiinabozho many things. First, he taught Wenabozho to hunt moose - which the latter then taught the Anishinaabeg. Then he gave Wenabozho one of his teeth - the first arrowhead -, which Wenabozho then used to make fire with. Thus Wenabozho shared with the Anishinaabeg many teachings and survival techniques obtained from Teacher Wolf. When Ma’iingan was finished teaching he and Wenabozho went different ways, and Ma’iingan was sent to jiibay-miikana (the Spirit Trail; the Milky Way) to await all Anishinaabeg who pass on so that he could show them the way to the Land of Souls...and at clear nights we can see Wolf's dwelling place hanging in the sky, the trail that he guards illuminated by the countless campfires of the ancestors who moved to the Spirit World before us...

Simone McLeod painting
"Spirit Unity, the  bear clan and the wolf clan always working together for the People", acrylic by Simone McLeod (2014)


Midewiwin Life Road and Ma'iingan the Wolf

This ambivalent notion, animals embodying both good and evil, reflects the fact that everything in life consists of two - seemingly - contradictory aspects. Day and night, birth and death, growth and decay, light and dark, ebb and flood, man and woman, youth and old age, water and fire, sadness and joy, and the natural (the seen) and the supernatural (the unseen) are just a few. According to Midewiwin, this inherent paradox of our existence and of all life must be regularly honored and commemorated through rituals,  invocations, and  prayers directed to the spirits of the animals, because animals embody the paradoxes of life more than anyone or anything else.

As he designed the wedding rings, Zhaawano chose the symbol of the wolf paw to represent that life and being are paradoxical, that there are two aspects to everything appearing as opposites yet at the same time complement each other in one fluid and eternal motion. The underlying notion is that no other than Wolf embodies virtues like perseverance and guardianship, - qualities that are in perfect keeping with the nature of marriage….this sacred bond between two companions who pledge each other to walk the Road of Life together, and to stay with each other through all aspects of life and living… 


The role of contraries in the Midewiwin initiation rite

In the Midewiwin, some animals are represented as contraries. At the entrance to the outer enclosure of a Midewigaan (Midewiwin Lodge), a candidate member undergoing the Wiikindiwin (initiation rite) is met with four Mideg (priests) of the fourth order dressed in bear robes, who join in the chants and the rattling of the turtle shells, and who cheer the initiate as he or she makes his or her symbolic way around the Midewigaan. Then four other bears (contraries), representing the evils and temptations the novice will meet in his or her later life and calling, appear growling and blocking the pathway. The presence of these hindering contraries symbolizes the paradoxes in life, and the fact that there are two sides to everything. The good bears, however, by pushing the snarling bears out of the way, remind the novice that he must not hesitate, or shrink from the forces of evil.

After a four-day period of fasting and praying and cleansing in a purification lodge, followed by four ceremonial processions around the rectangular Midewigaan (during which the candidate member encounters two groups of four contrary-bears), the Mideg and the novice enter through the eastern entrance and file into the sacred enclosure. By having “withstanding” the forces of evil represented by the evil bears the novice’s entering the Midewigaan’s inner sanctum symbolizes his or her triumph of good over evil, and the promise of a new and better way of life. 

After the singing of chants by the candidate, and the chanting of songs of welcome by the assembled Mideg, the candidate sits down for a series of tests through which he (or she) demonstrates his (or her) integrity and knowledge of plants. Then the head priest symbolically “shoots” the nominee with a midemiigis (sacred cowry shell) that he carries in his mide-nigig-wiyaan (otter skin medicine bundle), which represents a return to bimaadiziwin (the good way of life) in order for him (or her) to find accomplishment and to recommence purpose and determination. (It is this bimaadiziwin, this good way of life, that is represented by the Life Road design of the sacred scrolls, the very same symbol that features the wedding ring set shown below.) 

After symbolically killing the candidate, the Mide then arouses the “corpse” from “death” with the breath of life - as if the canditate were Ode'imin, the first medicine man of the Anishinaabe Peoples, regaining life. In this dramatic fashion the candidate, once revived by the breath of life, standing up feeling invigorated and reborn, is reminded of the paradox that, only through the death of the first teacher-of-medicinal-herbalism Ode’imin, his student and successor had been able to really enlarge his inner curative powers that would be to the benefit of his People…it is this ultimate act of purification and transformation, the novice's perseverance after being hindered by evil contraries and then getting shot by a miigis shell and brought back to life again, that enables him or her to give up his or her previous life and to demonstrate powers not possessed before, powers to be fostered to further growth and put to good use for the benefit of all...


Giiwenh. That´s how far this blog story goes. Miigwech for stopping by in our Storytelling Lodge, miigwech for reading and listening!

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

> Read the next episode in the Teaching Stories series: The Spirit of Humility.

* Source: Basil Johnston, Ojibway Hertitage, University of Nebraska Press, First Bison Book printing 1990, p. 86.

Aki-egwaniizid miinawaa Zhaawano Giizhik/Wenoondaagoziwid Webaashi


About the authors/artists:

Simone McLeod (her traditional name is Aki’-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is a Anishinaabe/Cree painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962. She belongs to he Name doodem (Sturgeon clan) and feels particularly connected with 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, 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.


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