Reflections on a Ceremonial Bundle and on the Nature of Our Language
Every once in a while, a person or an event, or a story or perhaps a mere thought inspires me into creating a painting, a piece of jewelry, a poem…or a song. Today I like to share with you a painting - whose subject came to me in a dream that I recently had - titled "A Sacred Dream of the Talking Medicine Bundles."
In this dream I saw a tree, a water drum, a miigis (sea shell) and a fire. Three bald eagles were soaring over a calm, blue lake. Out of the fire came medicine pouches, red with seven blue dots - I remember counting them - and they were hovering over the lake. Sounds of voices came from inside the pouches. The voices resembled those of old men, and I think they spoke in an archaic Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) since I did not understand what they said. The voices became murmurs of far-away thunder. Just before I woke up the thunder had faded away and as soon as the eagles had flown out of sight the pouches changed into a multitude of men with white hair and dressed in colorful clothing. There was one group that stood under the tree; one man stood on an island, looking down, seemingly gazing at something beneath the water surface. The men under the tree were talking among each other in the same old language that I had heard coming from inside the pouches.
I do not know what the dream means but decided to paint it anyway.
The painting process evoked memories of a musing that I once had and wrote about - this must have been around ten years ago. Its topic dealt with the nature of Anishinaabemowin, our language; one of the most sacred items of our People, composed of animal hide and ceremonial objects, served as a symbol of, and an illustration to, the story.
The item I'm referring to is called biinjigosan; also called biindakinaan in some parts of Anishinaabe Aki (Ojibwe territory).
This item called biinjigosan or biidakinaan, mind you, is much more than just a physical thing made up of fur pelt and feathers and colorful ribbons and dried herbs; it is a living object, a manidoo in itself...Welcome to part 8 in a series titled Artist Inspirations.
One morning, it was a little over ten years ago and just after sunrise, my ex partner Simone and I looked at her ceremonial suitcase which serves on her long trips through Canada as her biinjigosan, or medicine bundle. The suitcase contains hides of her bawaaganag (spirit helpers) and is filled to the rim with a myriad of objects of a personal, ritual nature among which tokens of odoodem (her clan) and her Giizis Niimi'idiwin izhinamowinan (Sun Dance visions) - including several items of a sacrificial and healing nature such as an eagle feather fan (that once was in the care of the father of the Woodland Medicine Painters Norval Morrisseau); the hide of a makade-makwa (a black bear); a small medicine pouch filled with personal items, tobacco, and herbs for smudging; a silver-and-turquoise bear sundance necklace; and a dance shirt, cloth, ribbons as well as braids of sweetgrass.
I asked her, to what category do you think your bundle belongs to: bimaadizi or bimaadad?
In other words, although her biinjigosan/biindakinaan can't be anything else than an object that's alive, animate, possessing and characterized by life, containing manidoo, or spirit - what TYPE of "alive" is it?
Does it, like for instance a tree, a plant, an animal, a human being, or the ancestors, or a rock or a stone pipe, belong to the bimaadizi beings, or could it be bimaadad, a category of things that are a different type of "living existence" - like, for example, soil (earth), the clouds, a rainbow, a wooden table, or a traditional story?
We, or rather Simone, thought about this for a very short while (because such is her decision making ability) and then, quickly and unanimously, we concluded that Simone's bundle belongs to the bimaadizi category – we figured it had to be "alive" the same way a tree, or the sun, the moon, the stars, the ancestors, and the spirits are "alive." A ceremonial bundle HAS to have the same quality of "aliveness" as a tree or a plant, or the body of a human being or a mother’s womb, right?... To justify this Simone reasoned as follows (and I agreed with her), using words that I thought beautifully touched the core of our discussion:
"It (my bundle) is alive as in an entity that reaches out to me gently to remind me why I carry it. It's made up of different components that each is alive performing a duty. But to get them all together like the bones or organs that make up a mere human, then it is more alive than anything I see with my eyes. It's the life source. The replenishment. The uterus of the mother. It offers life to the carrier, to perform the duties that the carrier was gifted with..."
I reasoned along the same lines as Simone did as I figured, this bundle is an organic entity like a tree or a plant, or a body of flesh and blood and tissue, because it represents not only Simone's healing powers, her doodem (clan) identity, and her personal beliefs; the bundle, as if it were a womb bearing a child’s life, also carries and protects and keeps alive the collective beliefs and identity of her direct and remote ancestors, their strength and resilience and healing as a People. It probably even carries the spirits, the fires, the grandfather teachings - things that cannot be seen separately from our People's long migration history rooted in a time long ago, when the Anishinaabeg still lived in the Land of Dawn, far to the east...so, we both figured, this ceremonial bundle, it simply HAD to be bimaadizi!
How could we have been so wrong – and so right at the same time?
Let’s first take a closer look at the paradox that is called bimaadizi/bimaadad – or, respectively, pimaatis/pimaatan in the language of Simone’s People, the Nakawē Anishinaabeg.
What is life to the Anishinaabeg?
These principles, or guidelines as you will, according to which we, as humans, individually as well as communally, are supposed to live, had been revealed a great many strings of lives ago by seven prophets (who represented animals and the clan/kinship system as we still know it today) when our ancestors still lived in the Dawn Land by the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
Since that time, the concept of bimaadiziwin has always been characterized and driven by factors of a material as well as a spiritual nature. Anishinaabe izhinamowin, our traditional worldview, as well as the social structure of our communities and traditions, are based on the understanding that bimaadiziwin is a dynamic and continuous cycle of, and interplay between, ALL of creation, called inawemaaganag, relations, or nindinawemaaganag, my (our) relations. This mutual interaction between the inawemaaganag and the bimaadiziwin forces is continuously changing, and also affects - and is affected by - everyone and everything in the here and now, the past, and the future.
Now here’s the thing! (We hope you are still here because it's going to be interesting :))
Although everything and everyone – natural objects and phenomena, human beings, man-made objects, animals, plant beings, spirit beings – are acknowledged to be alive, possessed by spirit and a soul even, what distinguishes some bimaadiziwin entities from others is HOW they exist in the world IN RELATION TO OTHERS.* This concept of “bimaadiziwin force” consisting of “bimaadizi and bimaadad entities” (both words, of course, are derived from bimaadiziwin) reflects the understanding that everything is related and part of an ongoing cycle; to the Anishinaabe mind it is the foundation from which all Beings interact. So, it is only when we understand this idea of inawemaaganag-bimaadiziwin-bimaadizi-bimaadan interrelatedness that we can to begin to understand the difference between bimaadad and bimaadizi things and beings!
It is certainly true that the Elders teach us that the key to understanding of the notion of bimaadiziwin (life), in particularly the concepts of bimaadizi (one category of life; lit.: he/she is alive) and bimaadad (another category of life, lit.: it is alive), can be found in our traditional stories, ceremonies, and philosophical and moral teachings of the Seven Grandfathers. But it is perhaps best described in ANISHINAABEMOWIN, Anishinaabe language itself!
So -are you still with us? - let's now take a closer look at what we know of our beautiful language.
Our language is the key to understanding life
|Reseeding manoomin (wild rice) in a wiigwaasi-nooshkaachinaagan (winnowing tray made of birch bark) in Minnesota. In many communities across Anishinaabe Aki manoomin is regarded to be bimaadad (pimaadin); however, sometimes Anihšināpēk (Anishinaabeg) of western Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta tend to regard the wild rice to be pimaatis (bimaadizi). The birch bark trail itself is typically an item of the bimaadad/pimaatin category.|
It should also be noted in this regard that bimaadizi and bimaadad (or pimaadis and pimaadan if you will) have always been wrongly interpreted by Western-oriented language scholars as “animate” and “inanimate”; a typical Eurocentric concept expressed through formal grammar rules that (misleadingly) structure Anishinaabe languages by describing things as alive (possessing spirit) and dead (not possessing spirit). This animate/inanimate dichotomy, imposed upon Anishinaabemowin by the Europeans that took over our lands, do not at all reflect Anishinaabe izhinamowin (the worldview of our Peoples)! The way Anishinaabeg see life, expressed through the grammatical distinction that we make between bimaadizi and bimaadad, these two “ways of being” are never fixed, nor do they imply a contradistinction - but rather complementariness. The lines between both categories of bimaadiziwin can blur at any given time, depending on the nature of the object spoken of – which is always, sooner or later, liable to change! Dr. Cecil King, an Odaawaa from Wikwemikong First Nation and an internationally recognized educator, wrote the following about this subject:
"The state of inanimateness is not the denial or negation of animateness as death is the negation of the state of aliveness. Nor can something have a soul and then not have a soul and then acquire a soul again. In Odawa the concept of animateness is limitless. It can be altered by the mood of the moment, the mood of the speaker, the context, the use, the circumstances, the very cosmos or our totality. English terms imprison our understanding of our own linguistic
A makak (birch bark container). Both makakoon (birch bark containers) and the wiigwaas (birchbark) they are made of belong to the bimaadad class. Western-oriented linguists would dub a makak an inanimate object, void of life.
Bimaadizi, she/he is alive, she/he lives.
Bimaadad, it lives, it is alive.
When you break down bimaadizi/bimaadad you get:
bim- = along in space or time, by;
-aad = way of being or life, character, nature;
-izi = she/he is in a state or condition
-ad = it is in a state or condition
Relatives belonging to the bimaadizi/pimaadis ("she/he lives") class:
- The sun – giizisoog
- The moon – dibiki-giizisoog
- A star – anangoog (in some dialects or in a different context stars may belong to the bimaadad/pimaadan category)
- A tree –mitigoog
- An uterus - abinoojiinhyag gaa-abidjig
- Tobacco – asemaag
- Cedar - giizhikag
- A Midewiwin medicine pouch - midewayaanag
- A corn plant - mandaaminag
- An animal – awesiinh, plural: awesiinyag
- A human being; a person - anishinaabeg; bemaadizijig
- An ancestor – aanikoobijiganag
- A snowshoe - agimag
- A rock or a stone – asiniig
- A stone pipe - asinii-opwaaganag
- A metal kettle - akikoog
A hand drum
- Bannock or bannock flour – bakwezhiganag
- A spoon – emikwaanag (in some dialects or in a different context spoons may belong to the bimaadad/pimaadan category)
- A hawk – gekekwag
A grandfather of the nonhuman class,
often a protagonist in sacred stories - aadizookanag
Relatives belonging to the bimaadad/pimaatin ("it lives") class:
A tree or plant root – ojiibikan or -oon
A flower –
A ceremonial bundle - biinjigosanan or biindakinaanan
earth, land, country) – akiin
A cloud -
A rainbow -
A table -
Fire - ishkoden
A ceremonial rattle - zhiishiigwanan
wiiyaasan (in a different context meat may belong to the
bimaadizi/pimaadis category and end on -ag)
Birch bark -
A birchbark container (a basket or box)
A wigwam (house, lodge) - wiigiwaaman
A mountain –
A moccasin -
A fork –
A cup or small disk - onaagansan
A lake –
zaaga’iganan or zaaga’iganiin
A traditional story – aadizookaanan (in some dialects or in a different context traditional
stories may belong to the bimaadizi/pimaadis category
and end on -ag)
So, when on that early morning in May Simone and I were unanimous on the nature and category of existence of her ceremonial bundle – which consists of animal hide (bimaadizi) and contains, among other things, tobacco (bimaadizi), cedar (bimaadizi), sage (bimaadad), and sweetgrass (bimaadad) -, we of course forgot to take a good look at the Anishinaabe word for it – biinjigosan – and its plural form: biinjigosanan (Or: biindakinaan, plural biindakinaanan.) We know now that the plural ending of the word (-an) suggests it belongs to the bidaamad category. So, does that mean we were wrong by assuming the bundle has a bimaadizi quality? I would say, by no means! It is like Simone said: (at least part of) its contents consists of objects belonging to the bimaadizi class (among which the tobacco, the cedar leaves, and the midewayaan (medicine pouch) holding the herbs), and, what’s just as important, and I quote again: “But to get them all together like the bones or organs that make up a mere human, then it is more alive than anything I see with my eyes.” And: “It (the bundle) offers life to the carrier, to perform the duties that the carrier was gifted with...”
Let’s conclude by saying that, whether something - an object, or a being, or a natural phenomenon - is deemed to be either bimaadizi or bimaadad, in the end it’s like our ancestors said: aaniin igo, no matter how you look at it, gakina gegoo bimaadad idash gakina awiiya bimaadiziwag: everything and everyone is alive!
*** Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader
About the authors/artists
Simone McLeod (her traditional name is Aki’-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is a ᓇᐦᑲᐌ (Nakawē Anishinaabe) painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962 and a member of Pasqua First Nation, 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.
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