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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 8

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We Learn as We Walk the Path of Life: A Reflection on Life and on Our Role as Artists


- Ziisbaakadokwe-giizis/Iskimagize-giizis, Sugar Making Moon (April 27, 2019)

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Bizindamowin/Gikendamaawin Doodem Ojibwe jewelry by Zhaawano Giizhik


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"Our spiritual path was designed way before we were born on Mother Earth; many times you'll be tested and many times you'll fail. 'Spiritual Paths' or 'The Tree Of Life' is a simple teaching to understand and all you need to do is to take a good look at yourself and see what you truly need. When we try to get things that our neighbours have, this is where our Spiritual Path and design gets confused and ultimately fail. This is where people get confused and create problems in their life.
When confusion sets into your life, you have the ability to choose another branch from the tree of life and follow that branch towards discovery. When you stand back and take a good look, you have so much branches to choose from."*
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Boozhoo, aaniin indinawemaaganag, gidinimikoo miinawaa: Hello relatives, I greet you again in a good way! 

I am Zhaawano Giizhik. Welcome to part 8 of my blog series titled Teachings from the Tree of Life. Today I share with you another Teaching; or rather, a musing, illustrated with a jewelry set that I created some years ago. The theme of the necklace and matching earrings is 
inspired by the age-old Teaching of the Tree of Life of the Midewiwin - the ancient Medicine Lodge of the Anishinaabe Peoples.


Our role as storytellers


I can't help but sometimes wonder, what is my role a an artist, not just in the world at large - but particularly in a Native context? Or in an Indigenous, or First Nations context if you will?

Just a thought...It is said that the artist's task is to find harmony among discord. Perhaps this is true. But what about our role as Indigenous artists, or rather, storytellers in our own communities? 

I tend to believe that we as Native artists are in fact storytellers whose stories aim to heal. 

Perhaps being storytellers/artists helps us seeing the world in a somewhat broader perspective? Like any other person, Indigenous persons who experience "cognitive dissonance" (the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time), tend to become psychologically uncomfortable. 

So what happens is that many of us, our psyche automatically motivates us to reduce stress caused by contradicting belief systems; we tend to do this by sticking to dominant society's worldview that thrives on the Christian dichotomy of good and evil. I like to believe it is an artist's task to prevent our People from further avoiding situations and information and/or stories that increase these culturally-religious-Boarding/Residential School-terror-prompted fears. 

I like to believe that challenging, be it through storytelling, writing, or visual arts, the Christian-infused outlook that has been poisoning and confusing and distorting for many consecutive generations the hearts, minds, ceremonies, and stories of our Peoples, can work cleansing and healing in the long run.

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Necklace and matching earrings by jeweler Zhaawano Giizhik
Visit the website to view details of the jewelry set Knowledge on the Road of Life/Doodem of Learning
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The theme of the necklace


Like I said in the beginning of this story, the above collar necklace, designed and hancrafted in my wedding rings studio, was born of a theme that is based on an age-old Teaching of the Midewiwin Society of my ancestors, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg from the North American Great Lakes area. The central design element of the necklace is the symbol of giigoonh, the fish. In Ojibwe tradition and society, giigoonhyag represent the principle and virtues of gikendaasowin (Knowledge) and bizindamowin (Learning). 

Our clans and the principle of Learning and Knowledge


Divided over five elegantly curved white gold wires, I  fastened four moveable ornaments of precious metals and stones – to be placed in any desired position along the wires.
These five wires symbolize the five main GIDOODEMINAANIG (our blood relations; animal totems) of the Anishinaabe Peoples: Ajiijaak (Crane), Makwa (bear), Waabizheshi (Marten), Maanameg (Catfish), and Mikinaak (Snapping Turtle). These (archaic) totems denote the five needs of the People and the five elementary functions of society: respectively LEADERSHIP, DEFENSE, SUSTENANCE, SCIENCE, and MEDICINE.
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Bizindamowin/Gikendamaawin Doodem

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The four moveable elements of the necklace, a gold eagle feather, a stylized fish head and tail of white gold and silver and a turquoise stone set in gold, pertain to the central concept of the design: the stages that we as artists pass through - and, in a broader sense, the stages of life that we as humans must pass through from birth to death. The elements 
relate to the various phases of LEARNING: the human cognitive process and the transfer of knowledge and know-how. 
In honor of the concept of learning and knowledge, I adorned the fish head ornament of the necklace with an eye of turquoise; the two post-back earrings – placed on the wires of the necklace when I took the photo – are watching the world through eyes of red coral.
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Detail of the jewelry set Bizindamowin/Gikendamaawin Doodem

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A Good Way of Living

According to Midewiwin tradition, GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, gave us a behavioral system, called mino-bimaadiziwin, A Good Way of Living, with seven guidelines showing us how to think and live and seven digressions or lines leading from life’s main trail showing where we as human beings can go wrong.

This concept of mino-bimaadiziwin is integrated in the necklace design by means of the asymmetrically cut turquoise stone, accentuated by a setting of 14K yellow and red gold and sterling silver. The rough surface and the black-veined matrix of the turquoise, along with the sharp and irregular corners of the setting symbolize the many dangers, disasters, and perils along life’s path.

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Bizindamowin/Gikendamaawin Doodem detail

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Spirit Flight


In conclusion, the stylized 14K gold eagle feather fastened at one side of the collar necklace, refers to ojichaag bimisewin or ‘Spirit Flight: the spiritual journeys the human mind is capable of - a special and often elusive dimension in our existence. A state of wisdom and knowledge can only be reached by inner spiritual growth and enhancement of consciousness. According to the lessons of aayaanikaaj mishoomisag, the Anishinaabe forefathers, no man begins to be until he has received his vision… 


Giiwenh. So goes my musing about our role as artists; so goes the story about the Knowledge on the Road of Life jewelry set and what its theme means to the Peoples of Turtle Island.   

Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to my storytelling today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon...

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* Wikwemikong-based Anishinaabe Medicine Painter James Mishibinijima on the topic of the Tree of Life.



About the author and his sources of inspiration

Trouwringen ontwerper Zhaawano Giizhik
My name is Zhaawano Giizhik. 
As an American artist and jewelry designer currently living in the Netherlands. I like to draw on the oral and pictorial traditions of my Ojibwe Anishinaabe ancestors from the American Great Lakes area. For this I call on my manidoo-minjimandamowin, or "Spirit Memory"; which means I try to remember the knowledge and the lessons of my ancestors. The MAZINAAJIMOWINAN or ‘pictorial spirit writings’ - which are rich with  symbolism and have been painted throughout history on rocks and etched on other sacred items such as copper and slate, birch bark and animal hide - were a form of spiritual as well as educational communication that gave structure and meaning to the cosmos. Many of these sacred pictographs or petroforms – some of which are many, many  generations old - hide in sacred locations where the manidoog (spirits) reside, particularly in those mystic places near the coastline where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground and the underwater meet.

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