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Friday, May 6, 2016

Artist Inspirations, part 8

Reflections on a Ceremonial Bundle and on the Nature of Our Language

- Updated: February 24, 2023


The Woodland Art painting  Sacred Dream of the Talking Medicine Bundles

Ceremonial bundle Simone McLeod Aaniin, 

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).

The proper English translation of these words, I guess, would be "Medicine Bundle," or "Medicine bag."

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.

OK, here it goes. 

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, 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.


Miskwaabik Animikii Midewiwin Gaa-biboonikaan

Illustration: an ink drawing brought to Akwesasne Notes in 1974, supposedly by Kanienkaha (Mohawk) artists visiting from Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island. On a metaphorical level, the drawing possibly represents the constellation which the Anishinaabeg call Gaa-biboonikaan, the Bringer of Winter, as its presence in the night sky heralds winter - also known as Orion, the hunter.
The Bringer of Winter or the Orion constellation is embodied here by a Sky Medicine healer belonging to the Ojibwe Midewiwin Society holding an otter-skin midewayaan (medicine bag) - which shoots curing miigis shells into people who are ill at Midewiwin curing ceremonies. From the sky man's head is a direct lightning-like connection to Sky Power. Made of animal skin, midewayaanag (medicine bags or pouches carried by Midewinini doctors) are regarded to belong to the bimaadizi (pimaatis) category. They are usually filled with spirit guardians and sacrificial and healing items, including small pouches of dried herbs and roots whose spiritual and protective properties aid in the curing of ailments. The drawing is attributed to Miskwaabik Animikii (Norval Morrisseau) who based it on an old rock painting located in the Bloodvein drainage basin, along an ancient canoe route from Lac Seul to Lake Winnepeg.

What is life to the Anishinaabeg?


To the Anishinaabeg, EVERYTHING is alive. This EVERYTHING is summed up in the word BIMAADIZIWIN. This means LIFE and, figuratively, CONDUCT FOR LIVING. The norms and guidelines for bimaadiziwin, often called MINO-BIMAADIZIWIN, are made up of seven ethical and moral principles for living long and healthy lives.

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

Anishinaabemowin, the language spoken by Anishinaabe peoples, is essentially made up of relationships with, and interactions between, bimaadizi (pimaatis in the northwestern dialects) and bimaadad (pimaatan in the northweatern dialects), which, as we already determined, are two types of existence that are interconnected, and characterized by a fluid nature*. Anishinaabe nouns and verbs belong to either of both grammatical classes, which on their turn are based on an animistic concept rooted in thousands of years of observation and interaction with different life forms. So only when we view bimaadiziwin, or life in its fullest form, and follow grammatical categories in terms of bimaadizi/pimaadis and bimaadad/pimaadan but at the same time acknowledge its fluid nature, we begin to understand the cognitive orientation of our ancestors, who understood that gakina gegoo bimaadad idash gakina awiiya bimaadiziwag: everything and everyone is alive.


Ojibwe wild rice tray
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

So, as the understanding of what is bimaadizi and what is bimaadad reflects the traditional cyclical view of reality of the Anishinaabe Peoples, it really depends on the CONTEXT - and sometimes on the DIALECT spoken of a region or an area - if a being or object is considered bimaadizi or bimaadad. It is also important to understand that all bimaadizi beings will eventually become bimaadad, and by the same token bimaadad beings will always influence the bimaadizi world. For example, mitig, a tree, which is understood to belong to the bimaadizi class, may be cut down or its twigs cut off to be made into a man-made object such as a chair or table or a cradle board hoop, which belong to the bimaadad class; or the tree or its twigs will eventually decompose and return to aki (earth), which, like most natural features, is looked upon as a relative of the bimaadad class. Also, an opwaagan, a pipe, which belongs to the bimaadad class, will eventually turn bimaadizi because with frequent ceremonial use, all bemaadizijig (humans) touching the pipe rub part of their ojichaag (soul, spirit) onto the stem, enough for the object to eventually become a relative of the bimaadizi category!

So, we hear you think, that’s all nice and all, but WHAT is it exactly that makes a thing or being - or "relative" if you will - bimaadad or bimaadizi? What exactly distinguishes one from the other – IF we can make a clear distinction at all?

That’s a good question. In order to be able to answer this, let’s try to determine and focus on what we know. We know – through lessons passed on by an Anishinaabe Elder some years ago** - that in Anishinaabe grammar, all beings and objects of the bimaadizi class are permeated with a certain life quality based on the way they exist in the world, where bimaadad “beings” and “things” and “objects” have a particular life quality based on how they PRESENTLY exist in the world.* To the bimaadizi class belong nouns for people, animals, some plants and some objects that can house manidoo (spirit) and items like flour, kettles, (sometimes, depending on the dialect spoken) spoons, the sun, the moon, stars, some nature objects, and ceremonial and/or cultural items. All other nouns belong to the bimaadad class. What we also know is that the verbs and demonstrative pronouns existing in Anishinaabemowin, too, are categorized along the same bimaadizi-bimaadad lines. All verbs making reference to beings of the bimaadizi category, like people, spirits and aadizookanag (supernatural beings playing a role in dreams and sacred stories), animals, birds, fish, insects, some plants, and trees are all – but not always - grammatically bimaadizi; man-made and acquired items such as tables, meat, wiigwaas (birch bark), and wiigiwaaman (houses), some minerals and plant species and natural features like earth, water, lakes, mountains, and for instance rainbows and clouds and thunderstorms are usually – but not always! – bimaadad.


Anishinaabe birchbark container
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.

Now, since we determined in broad terms the things and beings that are either bimaadizi/pimaadis or bimaadad/pimaadan (or in some cases both), let’s get a bit more technical and focus our attention on verbs and nouns.

Usually, bimaadizi nouns in plural take the ending /-g/, and bimaadad nouns - /-n/, while some verbs are used with a bimaadizi object, and others with a bimaadad object. For instance, the verb “live” is bimaadizi when its object belongs to the bimaadizi category, and bimaadad when the object of the verb belongs to the bimaadad category. Thus, it is mitig miskonaagozi, the tree appears red (the used verb is rendered in the bimaadizi form since trees belong to the bimaadizi class), and wajiw miskonaagwad, the mountain appears red (the used verb is rendered in the bimaadad form since mountains belong to the bimaadad class). However, when a mountain that appears red becomes a “person” in an aadizookaan (sacred story told at winter nights), it might “change” into a being of the bimaadizi class, and it is not improbable that the used verb that determines its alleged color will change from miskonaagwad to miskonaagozi!

Are you sill here? Nishin, good! Now, let’s go back to the beginning of this blog story and take another look at the question I asked Simone about the nature of her ceremonial bundle: is your biinjigosan to be categorized in the bimaadizi class, or could it perhaps be bimaadad? To which of two types of existence does it belong? 

We know by now that, in Anishinaabemowin, the beautiful language that our ancestors passed on to us, bimaadizi nouns in plural form typically take the ending /-g/, and plural bimaadad nouns usually end on /-n/. Let’s take a close look at 43 more or less randomly-picked Anishinaabe words – the majority of which we used in the above - and list them according to the grammatical rules and give them their Anishinaabe names (nouns), including their plural endings offered in red. 


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 ancestoraanikoobijiganag
  • A snowshoe - agimag
  • A rock or a stone – asiniig
  • A stone pipe - asinii-opwaaganag
  • A metal kettle - akikoog
  • A hand drum - dewe'iganag
  • Bannock or bannock flourbakwezhiganag
  • A spoonemikwaanag (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:


  • Wood - mitigoon
  • A tree or plant root – ojiibikan or -oon
  • A flower – waabigwaniin
  • Sweetgrass – wiingaskoon
  • Sage - maskhodewaskoon
  • ceremonial bundle - biinjigosanan or biindakinaanan
  • Soil (the earth, land, country) – akiin
  • A cloud - aanakwadoon
  • A rainbow - nagweyaabiin
  • A table - adoopowinaan
  • Fire - ishkoden
  • A ceremonial rattle - zhiishiigwanan
  • Meat – wiiyaasan (in a different context meat may belong to the bimaadizi/pimaadis category and end on -ag)
  • Birch bark - wiigwaasan
  • A birchbark container (a basket or box) - makakoon
  • A wigwam (house, lodge) - wiigiwaaman
  • A mountain – wajiwan
  • A moccasin - makizinan
  • A fork – badaka’iganan
  • 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)



Drums decorated by hand by Native woodland artist Simone McLeod

A personal story related on a hand drum by Woodland painter Simone McLeod

The above illustrations show two dewe'iganag (hand drums) and a baaga'akokwaan (small drumstick) decorated by Simone McLeod with personal symbols and stories and colors in acrylic (2014/2015). To the Anishinaabeg, ceremonial drums as well as drumsticks and rattles are not just objects; they are manidoog, living, breathing, dynamic entities that require a respectful, ritual approach and ongoing practical and ceremonial care. A dewe'igan, made out of wood and stretched animal hide is typically classified in the bimaadizi/pimaatis group; the baaga'akokwan, however, belongs to the bimaadad/pimaatin category. Which, of course, doesn't mean it is deemed less "alive" than the drum, or that it contains less "spirit" than the membrane it strikes! 

The form of a drum and those of other sound producers like drumsticks and disk rattles reflect the shape and the paths of the earth, sun, moon, and stars, or the shape of a reed stem or a seed that lives deep inside the soil of the earth, or that of the rings of a tree, or the circular imprint of a wiigiwaam frame in the other words, sound and shape of the drum represent the CIRCLE OF LIFE, and the wood (which belongs to the bimaadad/pimaatin category) and animal hide (which belongs to the bimaadizi/pimaatis category) that make up the drum symbolize the Sky and the Earth and all life that springs from it. Anishinaabeg know that the tree spirit that provides the wood for the drum body has been nourished by the soil and the water of the Earth, and as it grew tall and strong the tree pointed into the sky world, bringing it near to GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery. And because we know and understand that the pulsing sound of the drum reflects the sounds that can also be heard in nature and the cosmos, we are fully aware that sound is the core and essence of the ceremonial and ritual practice of our Medicine Lodges. Thus, a drum reminds us as People and as individuals of our dependence on nature and the spirit world and our oneness with the Great Mystery; consequently, it teaches us about important values like mino-bimaadiziwin (living life in a good way) and maada'onidiwin (mutual sharing) with the natural world.

Out of respect for the spirit of the drum, no one but the owner touches it and no object can ever be placed atop or across the drum head.


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...”

If anything, the above example proves two things: one, if one wants to understand their culture it is of utmost importance to have at least a basic understanding of the language, and two, even if a word were grammatically classified in the bimaadad category it doesn’t mean it can’t be (or rather become) bimaadizi too. Or the other way around of course, depending on the context. Because what goes for a pipe – see the example we gave earlier – also goes for Simone’s biinjigosan. The suitcase/bundle, which is regarded to be a bimaadad being, will eventually turn bimaadizi because the reciprocal, life-offering nature of the bundle itself, not to mention its frequent ceremonial use - Simone’s touching it on a regular base, her opening/unfolding, smudging, and closing/refolding it countless times -, cause the bundle and all sacred things it contains to eventually become a bimaadizi being! (Of course, by the same token the same bundle might, theoretically, turn into a bimaadad being again after having been neglected by its carrier for a long time…) 

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!


* Anishinaabe Ishinaam'win by Maya Chacaby
** Teaching related to Maya Chacaby by Leena White, ca. 2001
Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader


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 ᓇᐦᑲᐌ (Nakawē Anishinaabe) painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962 and a member of Pasqua First Nation, SaskatchewanShe 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 in the past.


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