Manidoo-giizisoons (Little Moon of the Spirit; December 5), 2017
Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 6
"Gibwanasii and Thunder Eagle Woman"
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An allegorical love tale about a man named Snow Hawk who changed into a Thunderbird in order to be free and live with the woman he loves.
The Man Who Changed into a Thunderbird – a traditional Anishinaabe story adapted and retold by Zhaawano Giizhik - with illustrations by the author, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Daphne Odjig, Moses Amik, and Eddie Munroe
“The birds represent the air on Turtle Island (America). The spirit of the air is with us through our cycle of life. It brings greeting to us when we are born, and it is the last element to be with us when we pass on to the spirit world. Birds are also bearers of messages for the Anbishinaabeg, because they can fly in the air, walk on the land, swim on the water, and dive underwater, going where we cannot.”¹
Boozhoo! Biindigen miinawaa! Ninga-zaagi'idiwin-aadizooke noongom giizhigad. Hello, welcome back to my art blog! Let’s tell a love story today…
The Great Story Tree
Today I will share with you a sacred story that is woven around ... paintings by the late Anishinini (Oji-Cree) Medicine Painter Carl Ray as well as two sterling silver bolo ties of my own making. Additionally, I respectfully used as illustrations to the story ….. acrylic pieces by the late Ojibwe “shaman artist” Miskwaabik Animikii/Copper Thunderbird (Norval Morrisseau), two canvases by my dear late friend Moses Amik, an untitled piece by the late Anishinini/Woodland Cree painter Eddie Munroe, and ... canvases by the late great Odaawaa-Bodéwadmi painter Daphne Odjig. To top it all off, you will find an amazing Native steampunk animation video by Irish, Ojibwe, and Métis mixed-media artist Elizabeth Aileen La Pensee.
The story, inspired by a dream I recently had, emerged in reciprocity with the process of “instinctual” association in combination with an intangible but powerful concept that’s often defined as manidoo-minjimendamowin or “spirit memory”; the ancestral (genetic) and spiritual connection that I, as a storyteller, feel with my People’s language, songs, and teachings.
The narrative you are about to read is presented as an old, traditional tale but is really a modern extension of longer Anishinaabe en Cree storytelling tradition and told here fully for the first time. I shaped the story in the form of a frame story: a story within a story. In this case a mixture of several different aadizookaanan, or metaphoric narratives of a traditional, sacred nature that I integrated in the larger aadizookaan.
I like to refer to these narratives, passed on by many generations of Anishinaabe and Cree storytellers, as miinikaanan, or seeds; the miinikaanan become dibaajimowinimiinikaanag - seeds alive with story - as soon as we start (re)telling them. When passed on - and listened to - the miinikaanan that initially inhaled become alive again; the seeds start to exhale, and their life blood flows through the roots of the multiple branched tree that grows out of them.
Thus, troughout time and generations of storyteling, the miinikaanag grow into an ever-growing, multiple-branched dibaajimowinimitig (story tree), firmly rooted in the fertile soil of manidoo-minjimendamowin. This tree, through generation and regeneration, grows high and its top reaches the Sky World so that even the spirits that dwell there may hear the stories told.
So what can you expect? In a nutshell, the aadizookaan I share with you today is a reciprocal combination of my personal memories and dreams and the miinikaanan, the stories and the collective memory and dreams, of my People. The narrative, which emerged like the fog and the sacred kettle stones rising from Lake Huron, is rich with metaphors and multiple layers of personal and Anishinaabe symbolism. It’s also a strongly autobiographical account of my own spiritual and relational path. And what else is it? It’s a heart-stirring tale of human and celestial connections, a magic teaching parable about a quest of love, about a man’s courage and determination, about overcoming obstacles, and about purity of heart. It's a story that's settled in my blood and that I love to tell. Atayaa! I hope you will enjoy the read as much as I liked writing it!
Watch the video The Path Without End (2011); an Anishinaabe story of the Moon People retold through an experimental animation by Elizabeth LaPensée.
Inspired by Basil Johnston’s story of the same name, The Path Without End, the video is a non-linear spacecanoe journey through the Universe.
The Path Without End is a modern visual reenactment of a traditional Ojibwe story that has much in common with the aadizookaan that is being told here today. Common themes are a planetary invasion, intermixing of people and sky beings, and a heroic faceoff against the wiindigoog (cannibalistic monsters) of our times.
Ahaaw, ninga-anishinaabe-aadizooke (“Now, I will tell a traditional story”).
Part 1: How It All Began
The Seven Unmarried Brothers of Kikonaang
Gichi-zhaazhigo, once in the very long ago, there lived on the southern shore of Naadowewi-gichigami (Great Rattle Snake Lake, nowadays called Lake Huron), in a place called Kikonaang, “the place of the kettles,”² seven unmarried brothers, who belonged to Omazaandamoo (the Snake Clan). Their camp stood far off in the forest – a deep forest of oak, spruce, pine, and also cherry, maple, and cedar.
The brothers were considered manidoog (spirits) by some of their fellow Anishinaabeg who lived in a summer camp close to the lake, for the brothers, although Anishinaabe by their features, had strange eyes sometimes the color of ozhibii’igan-asin (slate), other times of ozaawashko-giizhig (the blue sky) that seemed to look beyond what could be seen; they had their own ways of doing things and they hardly ever showed themselves to the villagers.
It was suspected they possessed extraordinary powers above and beyond normal anishinaabeg (human beings), as it seemed there was nothing but what they could accomplish. Some villagers even whispered the brothers were bewitched by the spirits of the Binesii-waawananoon or Thunderbird eggs (mysterious round stones that lay scattered about in the area).²
The Circular Path
One day in late spring the youngest brother, whose name was Gibwanasii (Winter Hawk), went hunting deer. He was a remarkable oshkinwenyish (young man); his nature was gentle and his heart beat for all animate and inanimate beings of the realms of the earth and sky, and his movements seemed in perfect sync with the seasonal migrations of animals and birds and the changing seasons. Since he had also a very curious nature he penetrated that day beyond any point that he had visited so far. He travelled through an open forest of poplars and birch trees that enabled him to see a great distance.
After what seemed a long time the young hunter discovered a light breaking through the foliage and before he knew it, inaa! he found himself standing on the borders of a mizhishawashkode (vast open prairie). It was the most wonderful view that he had ever seen! Cooling breezes moved up the grassy slopes and everywhere he looked there were butterflies and bees and birds and fields of the most brightly colored and sweet-smelling flowers. After walking some time in amazement, hoowah! his soul-vision suddenly beheld in front of him a mysterious ring worn through the tall grass! The grass was obviously not cut, but laid flat, as if pushed heavily down by a great force of wind, and he noticed the ring was surrounded by a multitude of what seemed to him blue rocks and pebbles the shape of bowls. However, what sparked Gibwanasii’s curiosity most was, that there was no path leading to or from the circle, which indicated to him it had to be created by some unknown natural phenomenon – a manidoo perhaps… What kind of being could have made such a path, he wondered. There was nothing, no trace of a single footstep let alone a broken twig or crushed leaf, that indicated the circle had been produced by an earthly being. Since good-natured curiosity was his defining feature and constant companion, Gibwanasii, excitement flaring in his sky blue eyes, decided to hide himself in the tall prairie grass and patiently lie in wait to see what this circle surrounded by magic stones, this mysterious path with no beginning or end, meant. ³
The First Encounter
It was around noon the next day that inaa! a haunting strain of the most wondrous music enveloped Gibwanasii!³ Enchanted, he arose, looked about, and again the beautiful music pulsed, swelling and diminishing, coming closer each heartbeat. From the south, high in the blue vault of the sky, a basket that seemed woven from the sweetest smelling wiingashk (sweetgrass) descended. The basket appeared to be filled with seven oshki-ikwezensag (young women) blessed with an enchanting beauty and grace such a had never before been seen on earth, or heard of or even dreamed about! As soon as the wiingashkoo’iin (basket) had nestled in the center of the circular path the music stopped and joyous laughter enveloped the startled Ojibwe youngster. With the grace of young deer the women leaped from the sky craft and commenced to dance in a flowing motion around the mysterious ring, their slender feet not once touching the grass, meanwhile striking a ball of shining blue light the shape of an egg, touching it the same way Anishinaabeg would strike a drum. Gegeti, they were reenacting the cyclical movement of the seasons on aki (earth) and of sun, moon, and stars throughout giizhig (the sky) and waawiyekamig (the Universe). Tayaa, the dancing maidens were indeed depicting wayaawiyeyaag bimaadiziwinining, the sacred circle of life! As the Anishinaabe boy gazed upon their graceful forms and motions from his hiding place in the tall grass he realized the women had to be siblings since their resemblance was striking. Although he admired all seven he was particularly attracted by he youngest, who seemed timid, more quiet than her siblings and who, unlike the others, had wild, jet-black curly hair that she wore unbraided and untied. While her sisters seemed absorbed in the dancing and in each other, the youngest one appeared not to heed the merry excitement of her siblings but instead looked about her in an inquisitive manner, and Gibwanasii, although carefully hidden in the tall grass, sensed her almond eyes upon him. As she was looking in his direction she suddenly made a screeching, hawk-like sound and before he had time to blink his eyes the alarmed sisters with the quickness of swallows leaped into the wiingashkoo’iin.
All Gibwanasii could do was gaze at the ascending basket until it vanished, absorbed by the deep blue of the southern sky…³
The Second Encounter and Mishkodewenh's Treachery
Disheartened and sad Gibwanasii returned to the camp where he and his brothers lived. “She is gone, and I shall see her no more,” he kept saying to himself. But his eldest brother, who went by the name of Mishkodewenh (Flint), had sharp ears and he said, “nishiim, tell me what’s bothering your mind.” Giibwanasii told his brother about his encounter with the strange sisters who had come out of the sky and his love for the youngest. Makadeshigan, who happened to be a member of the Waabanoowiwin (Medicine Society of the Dawn), said nothing but his jealous mind was stirred; that night he took his rattle and hand drum to a remote spot on a hill overlooking the lake and as he conducted a ritual using maji-mashkiki (bad medicine) he secretly conjured up an evil plot.
Next day Gibwanasii, who could not stop thinking about the curly-haired sky girl and was unable to find relief to his heart and mind, went back to the prairie where the celestial sisters had landed the day before. Once there he hid in the tall grass near the ring. Around noon he saw the basket descend from the blue sky enveloped by the same sweet music. The beautiful sisters leaped out of the wiingashkoo'iin and immediately the glade was full again of their unrestrained laughter and play and to Gibwanasii, their beauty and the graceful motions of their circular dance were even more enchanting than the first time. Again the youngest sister looked around with an eye that showed a mixture of anxiety and curiosity and Gibwanasii, his heart quickening, made himself smaller than a a mouse, making sure to hold his breath so as not to alert her to his presence. Then, tayaa! suddenly a shadow leaped over Gibwanasii and to his horror he saw his brother Mishkodewenh with a knife in hand making a dash for the youngest sister. Within the blink of an eye Mishkodewenh, who had stealthily followed his brother to the prairie, seized the girl, clasping his prize in his strong arms, meanwhile uttering a shrill war whoop.*
Wrath of the Thunder Beings
What happened next went so vast and was so heinous that it beggared Gibwanasii’s imagination and made him freeze to the ground. A roar of thunder filled the sky and a loud thunderclap followed by lightning rang above the shrieking sound that came out of the captured girl’s mouth as she was stabbed by Mishkodewenh’s knife. Within moments the sky that had been clear blue became covered by a pitch-black cloud! Then suddenly the sky seemed to open and then close, for such was the way the cloud behaved. The horrified Gibwanasii saw the six remaining celestial sisters spring to their basket that was immediately drawn up as by an invidsible hand and as the basket disappeared through a hole in the sky he beheld ginebigoog (serpents) in great quantities falling upon the ground. Then, in the scorched grass in front of him, while it was still raining serpents from the darkened sky ocassionally illuminated by lightning-flashes, he saw many scattered feathers of a golden eagle stained in blood and next to it there lay a mortally wounded omazaandamo (black snake), ferociously writhing and slithering, opening its fanged maw hissing in anger and uttering profanities of the worst kind. Perhaps it was as long as it take to blink an eye twice, such was the length of time Gibwanasii had to observe the horrible scene; then again up closed the cloud. Suddenly the darkness dissipated, giving away to the light of day again and Gibwanasii saw lying in the scorched grass where a few moments before had been the writhing snake, his brother, dying. As Gibwanasii demanded what had prompted his brother to commit his hideous deed, the latter replied:
“We used to be so close as brothers, oh nishiim
We were all happy together before this eagle woman
who is a child of animikii (the Thunder) stole your heart
Now she is gone for good.
When you left our camp at daybreak I followed you to the prairie
Then when I saw her dancing with her wicked sisters
I got out my sharpest knife
which found its mark in her hip.
If you wish to find her
all you have to do is follow the trail of blood and feathers
that leads into yonder birch forest.”⁴
Panic-stricken, Gibwanasii ran for the forest as fast as his makizinan could carry him and as he with pounding heart followed the blood trail and eagle feathers that scattered here and there around the trail, he discerned trough the foliage a glimmer of blue that drew him to a perfectly round, sofly grassed clearing surrounded by tall wiigwaasaatigoog (birch trees).
There, on a small boulder in the middle of the open glade, he noticed with a mixture of horror and relief that the blood trail ended, leaving only a little pile consisting of bloodstained giniw-miigwanan (feathers of a golden eagle, also known as war eagle). Suddenly he was thrown off the rock by a strong gust of wind and when he looked up he saw the wounded girl ascend and disappear trough the round blue opening in the sky bordered by the tall birch trees…
With a heavy heart Gibwanasii returned to the prairie that, enchanted by peace and promise, suddenly had erupted in violence and treachery. He found his brother lying motionless where he had left him. Gibwanasii decided to bury his brother right on the spot where he had been struck by lightning, and after he laid asemaa (tobacco) on the grave as a peace offer to the animkiig (Thunder Beings) he spoke the following words to his brother who had joined his ancestors:
“Oh Mishkodewenh! my foolish brother,
Who lies here struck by the wrath of the Thunder Grandfathers,
Even though I am mad enough to kill you myself
I pity you.
Did it not ever cross your mind who the girl you assaulted was?
She was Animikii Giniwkwe, Thunder Eagle Woman, for she truly came from the Sky.
You must have known she was sent by the Thunder Grandfathers.
She would still be among us
if not for your blind hatred.
I would have also told you
she had six sisters.
Can you not imagine the power our children would have had?
What it would have meant for all of us.
For this woman from the sky was truly a Thunderbird
in human form.
And now it is too late.
I am leaving to never return until I find this Thunderbird woman.”⁴
The First Dream
After Gibwanasii had uttered his bitter farewell speech he turned his back to his brother Flint and, falling prey to unspeakable grief and despair he sank down to the once sofly grassed but now scorched earth, mourning and weeping for his terrible loss. He wanted to die.
Suddenly a mist rose from the ground that muffled every sound in the Universe and he began to dream. His soul vision saw flashes of pure, bright light that came from the blue hole in the sky through which his love had ascended back into the Sky World.
When he woke up the fog had lifted and the sun shone brighter than ever. The air filled with the the humming of bees and the song of birds, and he noticed that the scorched earth he lay on had become green, and sparkling, and beautiful again.
Gibwanasii felt revived and, his spirit renewed, he commenced the journey back to the camp where he and his siblings lived, which he reached shortly after nightfall.
The Second Dream
That night he gathered his remaining brothers around a campfire and related to them what had occurred that day on the prairie. Early in the next morning he went to a small, remote glade in the deep forest, and here, surrounded by tall cedars and pines, he started a deam fast that would last four days.
On the morning of the fourth day as Gibwanasii was lying on his bed of cedar boughs sleeping fitfully, a flutter of wings in the dusk alerted his senses. A bawaagan (spirit messenger) in the form of a waabigekek inini (white hawk person) appeared to him who spoke the following words:
“Your heart is known to me and my people, Gibwanasii.
Since you have always been sincere in your concern for the awesiinyag and the bineshiinhyag and binesiiwag and the giigoonhyag (the animals and the small and large birds and the fish),
never neglecting to beg our pardon when you took our lives and flesh and hides and feathers in your need,
all the nations of the four-legged and fish and birds feel kindly disposed to you.
Therefore, we, the hawk people, confer upon you the ability to change your shape as you will.
Such a powerful medicine is yours only as you find it necessary in your quest of thunder eagle woman who returned to her abode above the clouds.
Use this medicine wisely noozis, my grandson,
and know that the hawk nation favors you.
Your principal helpers during your quest will reveal themselves soon when you will least expect it.
There will be the confident and sometimes foolish waabooz (hare), who nevertheless possesses great magical powers.
And then there will be ajidamoo (the red squirrel) and agoonsenh (the chipmunk),
since both are agile tree climbers, teachers of resourcefulness and careful planning,
their medicine deeply rooted in foresight, observation, and detail.
Come morning, you must make a feast, and invite your helpers and their friends to accompany you on your great undertaking to the sky world.
Travel in northwestern direction noozis, follow a radiant sign that you will see appearing soon in the western sky and you will find your destination.”
Part 2: The Journey
On the next day Gibwanasii and his brothers prepared large desinaaganan (plates) filled with berries and nuts and venison and whitefish and even had a makade-makwa (black bear) bear roasted whole.³ All who had been invited to the feast came to the meeting. There were of course Waabooz (Hare), Ajidamoo (Squirrel), and Agoonsehn (Chipmunk), soon joined by Nigig (Otter), Amik (Beaver), Waabizheshi (Marten), Ojiig (Fisher), Misakakojiish (Badger), Waagozh (Fox), Bizhiw (Lynx), and Ogwiingwa’aage (Wolverine). After the feast, the young Ojibwe and his helpers arranged it among themselves to set out on the contemplated journey as soon as the sign from his dream would appear. After four days of preparation and meditation, a brown-spotted white stone that had the form of a giniw-waawan (egg of the war eagle) emerged from a thick blanket of mist that covered the lake and showed itself above the surface of the great water, and as soon as it arrived at the zenith, the fog lifted and the weightless stone started to reflect back the rays of Gimishoomisinaan Giizis, Our Grandfather the Sun. Snow Hawk, knowing the shiny stone, now motionless, that was perched high up in the sky was the sign he had been waiting for, smudged the medicine the White Hawk had given him in the dream and put some of it - along with one of the bowl-shaped stones that he had taken from the glade where he had met his sweetheart - in his medicine bundle and the rest in a pouch made of snake skin, which he then hung around his neck. Next, he took leave of his five brothers, as he knew it could well be the last time. He and his companions, fixing their gaze at the brilliant stone that shone in the western sky, set out in northwestern direction and travelled in company day after day, travelling deeper and deeper into unknown, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile territitories, through places filled with mysteries and lessons, crossing vast plains and wide rivers and thick forests and scarlike slopes and enchanted beaches of the finest multi-colored sand - some days meeting with nothing but the ordinary incidents and some days with hardships and dangers.
Not only had the travelers to conquer violent storms and almost insurmountable natural barriers such as waterfalls, swamps, wild-streaming rivers and whirlpools and undercurrents and vast lakes studded with countless islands inhabited by little spirits and often covered with treacherous mists; they were also hindered by hungry bears and wolves and bobcats and by makonosedjig (bearwalkers: medicine persons possessing the power of izhinaagwi’idizowin, or shapeshifting) and a myriad of dreaded manidoog such as cannibalistic wiindigoog and deceitful nibiinaabekwewag (Mermaids), and particularly by mishibizhiwag and mishiginebigoog, catlike and serpentlike underwater spirits, guardians of the waters who controlled the moods of the lakes and rapids and currents that they had to cross. In many occasions Gibwanasii depended on the strategic mind and the tracking and hunting skills of Marten, the hardiness of Wolverine, the astuteness of Squirrel, the empathy and sacrifice of the Chipmunk, the fighting power of Lynx, the slyness of Fox, the audacity of Fisher, the willpower of Badger, the swiftness of Hare, and, last but not least, the wisdom and resourcefulness of Beaver…
Blood of the Giant Beaver
For many moons they followed the radiant sign in the western sky during which they encountered and endured many dangers and adventures, until they arrived in Gaa-ministigweyaag (Place of Islanded River).⁵ Here, at the foot of a tall desaabik (mesa) overlooking a huge bay and that seemed to reach over the clouds and beyond, they noticed the white egg high up in the sky shone more radiantly than ever. The travelers noticed the earth around the bay was colored red, and when they asked an old wise beaver who sat on a tree stump at the bank of a creek that ran close by what had caused the earth to be red, the beaver told them an aadizookaan (sacred story).
“Once upon a time Gichigami, the Great Lake was inhabited by my relatives the Amikwag. These beavers, however, were giants beavers. The Giant Thunderbirds that live in the sky and on top of yonder mountain had a big appetite for these beavers. These Thunderbirds, they hid in the clouds and on the mountain. The giant beavers would sleep with one eye open to make sure the Thunderbirds couldn't attack while they rested. But...one day the fattest beaver of the bunch made a mistake; he became careless. Out of nowhere came a tiny clump of clouds. Inside was a great eye. This big Thunderbird swooped down onto the beaver and drew him up into the air. As the huge claws sank into his flesh, out came this blood, so sacred. The blood of this big beaver fell onto the ground, all over Thunder Bay. This, my friends, caused the earth to color red…”⁶
Upon hearing the story of the Origin of the Beaver Blood that Colored the Earth Red, Gibwanasii, realizing that the time was near for him to ascend into the Sky world to never return to the Earth, decided to record the adventures he and his companions had experienced while following the radiant egg – and that had lead them to what seemed to be his end destination (the mountain reaching into the sky). After he thanked the old beaver ayaadizooked (storyteller) Gibwanaasii filled the blue stone bowl that he kept in his medicine bundle with onaman (dried beaver blood) that he found on the shore of a nearby inland lake. This lake was surrounded by high cliffs and forests of beautiful white pines. After he mixed the dried beaver blood with bear grease, Winter Hawk, sitting on the red earth shaded by a tall pine tree and watched by his travel companions, started to to use the sacred red ocher paint to depict on a steep cliff wall his long and daring quest that had led him to this sacred place where he clearly sensed the nearness of the Thunder Beings. And still today, one can find the vivid images that Giibwanasii left a long time ago as silent tokens of his daring quest of Thunder Eagle Woman, which he painted with beaver blood on the high cliff walls of what would come to be known as Mazinaabizaaga'igan: Pictured Lake…
Encounter with a Bear Spirit
After Gibwanasii had painted his adventures and visions on the cliffs of the inland lake, he and his companions walked into the direction of the steep wajiw (mountain) that still bathed in the light of the sign that stood patiently in the sky straight above its top. They walked in a single file down a narrow path that, meandering through shrubs of miinagaawanzhiig (blueberries), led toward the east side of the mountain. Then, as they walked around a bend, oonyooy! suddenly, a big shadow cast over the path made the travelers stop in their tracks. A huge noozhek (she-bear), her strangely colored pelt covered with a multitude of mide-miigisag (sacred white sea shells) stood towering over them!
Gibwanasii, who walked in front, realizing the bear was no ordinary bear, asemaa in hand, respectfully addressed the fearful creature that blocked the path as nooko ("my grandmother"). He explained to her that he and his friends came in peace and did mean no harm. After Gibwanasii had handed her the gify of tobacco and related to her the purpose of their visit, the Makwa Manidoo explained to him that the mountain they were about to climb was a midewigaan (Spirit Lodge) and that it was her task to guard it.
Then the bear spoke:
“Nindinawendaagan, noozis, bizindoshin
My relative, my grandchild, listen to what I have to say.
Since we of the bear nation came from the sun
To teach anishinaabeg (humans) to live in harmony with aki, the Mother Earth,
Since it was a bear who from the bowels of aki
Delivered the gift of life, including the sacred miigisag,
To the anishinaabeg through the layers of the four worlds
And under a vast body of water to an island the shape of a shell,⁸
Since our people and your people are inawendaaganag (interrelated)
And peacefully cohabit the same world,
Since bear people possess the skill of hibernation
And arise again when spring comes,
Thus embodying death of the old life
And resurrection into the new life,
Since we guide your medicine people in your travels
Between the upper, middle and lower worlds,
Since it us who preside over the medicine plants
And hereby gave your healers
The power to enter the dream world
The power to guide your visions,
In order to obtain, through mishiginebig, the great horned serpent,
Powerful medicine to cure the sick of body and mind.
Because of all this, noozis
I’ve come to understand that
Your people honor us by calling us
Anishninaabeg (humans) and address us
As nooko (my grandmother) or nimishoo (my grandfather)
And by incarnating us in your aadizookaanan (stories) and midewii'iwewinan (rituals),
And by making us the leading doodem of your people
Entrusting us with the noble tasks of Defence and Healing,
And by appointing us as guardians
Of the east doorway of your Medicine Lodges,
And as protectors of the healing medicines
And sacred rituals of your medicine men and women,
And by tying bright-colored cloth and ribbons
To the trees in the forests and on the mountains,
And by making food and asemaa offerings
As gifts in our honor.
I’ve also come to understand, noozis, that
Your people dance and sing mystic songs
To invite the spring and heal the sick,
To ensure abundant plant foods,
And to guard yourselves against your enemies.
Haw dash bizindoshin noozis
Now listen to me my grandson!
Since the bear people are the progenitors of anishinaabeg
And long ago even had a human form,
I therefore will not fight you and your friends
Nor will I use my bad medicine on you.
I will grant you safe passage instead
And bless you with these sacred shells.”
Hereupon the Bear Spirit gifted Gibwanasii with a handful of miigisag from her pelt, which he knew symbolized the sun and long life and the virtue of selflessness. After the Winter Hawk had thanked the bear and traded the glossy shells with one of the round shiny stones from Kikonaang that he carried in his medicine bundle (and that had become symbols of his quest), he and his companions (who were still a bit shaky and counting their blessings) walked the last stretch to the foot of the mountain. Gibwanasii, still impressed by the encounter with the friendly bear spirit, looked over his shoulder one last time, and he saw to his astonishment that the bear was nowhere to be seen! Then he noticed a small figure in the bush that seemed to be picking blueberries; when he looked closer hoowah! he realized this person was a gichi-anishinaabekwe, an old Ojibwe grandmother, dressed in a rags that were, however, richly decorated with miigisag! He smiled...
The Giant on the Mountain
They had barely started to climb the mountain when Waabizheshi the Marten found huge tracks of a misaabe (giant) that had recently killed an animal judging from the blood that marked the way. Gibwanasii told his friends that they ought to follow the track, and see if they could not procure something to eat. They followed it for some time; at last they arrived at a strange-looking gichi-wiigiwaam (large wigwam) built from the bones of serpents and which had been hidden from their view by a hollow in the mountain. The first thing they saw was the misaabe dressed in a cloak of eagle and hawk feathers and wearing a bag of snake skins the color of winter rabbits in his belt, standing at the door of the gichi-wiigiwaam; he had such a big stature and so deformed a shape that they could not possibly make out what sort of a giant it could be. As the misaabe, leaning on a walking stick that had a living snake coiled around it, limped toward his visitors they noticed that he posessed an enormously large head topped by a headdress made of what looked like a giant eagle's nest; what made him truly terrible to behold though was that he had blind eyes the color and shape of blue eggs and he possessed a set of teeth that was too hideous to look at. But what really filled them with horror was that the giant had a humpback and spastic, crooked arms, which made them wonder how he could hunt and kill game! But the secret was soon revealed: he was a great Manidoo!
With a raspy voice the giant, who looked as if he were sired by a Serpent Being from the Underworld and born of a Thunderbird from the Sky World, invited them to pass the night in his strange wiigiwaam, to which they, their bellies screaming for a decent meal, yet rather reluctantly, consented; but not before Amik the Beaver, who was probably the wisest among Gibwanasii’s companions, warned them to be very calm in front of the giant, and not to make fun at him on any account.
That night, the misaabe manidoo cooked his meat in an asiniiwakik (kettle made of stone), and took it out the vessel in an inimitable, awkward fashion that was quite incomprehensible to his guests. He carefully gave each their portion to eat. His movements, however, were so spastic that Waabooz the Hare and Nigig the Otter, who were known among their fellow travelers as playful jesters, forgot to heed Amik’s advice, and they could not refrain from laughing. The blind Manidoo glared at both guests with a look that was so terrible that it had Waabooz immediately speeding for the door! The giant burst out in fury and bellowed after the fleeing hare:
“You think you’re so fast eh, but soon you will turn into a heap of stones you stinking sun of a bitch!”
The giant, still roaring with anger, then jumped on top of the frightened otter, who sat frozen to the ground, with the intention to smother him and bite him to death, for that was his mode of killing animals. But the agile Nigig, when he felt the giant’s teeth sinking in his neck, slipped his head back and ran in a zigzag pattern to the door thus preventing the mad manidoo to catch him again, out of the wiigiwaam and into the safety of darkness, but not before he heard the raging giant impose a curse upon him:
“You think you’re so smart eh! One of these days you will fall on your sorry butt so hard that you wish you were never born you mustached bastard!”
The others decided it wisest not to provoke their insulted host any further and acted as if nothing had happened, and they conversed troughout the remainder of the night recounting the events and the radiant body in the sky that had led them to the high abode of their host. The giant Manidoo, who calmed down as soon as his tormentors were gone, told Gibwanasii that he would help him fulfill his quest, but that it was a venture that would probably cost him his life since no one could escape the wrath of the dreaded Thunder People. Nevertheless he instructed the travelers on how they could reach the abode of the Thunder Beings and described a certain road which they must follow.⁷
On Top of the World
When the travelers set off in the morning, out of the bushes came our friends Waabooz and Nigig, hungry and shivering with cold; but Gibwanasii had taken care to bring along some of the food that the giant manidoo had offered to them the evening before, which he presented to his friends. Fixing their gaze upon the radiant egg that shone straight above them they pursued their way, and travelled a little while more before they got to the place which the giant had told them of and what looked like it could well be the top of the world.
Here, on a rocky, elevated point overlooking the vast bay, they rested to fill their asin-opwaaginan (stone pipes) and refresh themselves. Before smoking, they made the customary ceremony, pointing to the four winds, the sky, and the earth. Speaking in a high-pitched voice they addressed Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery, praying for strength and fortitude. They then thoughtfully commenced smoking, blewing whiffs of smoke from their opwaaginan into the direction of the bay that lay below them, then blowing four more puffs, one for each of the four corners of the world.⁷
Gibwanasii and his travel companions gazed on the bay below and sky above in silent admiration and astonishment, for they were on so elevated a point, that the hazy blue of the water far below them seemed like an intangible dream of long ago; but at the same time they felt like they could actually touch the sky and the shining blue egg above their heads with their paws! A migizi (white-headed eagle), messenger of Gichi-manidoo, flew overhead, schreeching, and in the Gibwanasii's soul vision the distant islands in the bay looked like spiritual beings that were slowly awakening; the majestic eagle and the impressive spectacle in front of them made him aware that the Great Mystery is everywhere and in all things. Geget sa, it's surely a good sign, he thought.
After they finished smoking, the travelers that had come all the way from the place of Kikonaang prepared themselves for the final stage of their long journey. Gibwanasii told Nigig to make the first attempt to try and make a hole in the sky. Of course, the playful slider consented with a grin. He made a leap, but fell down stunned by the force of his fall; and the earth being moist because of the rain that had fallen the previous day, and falling on his back, he slid with velocity down the side of the mesa. When he found himself at the bottom of the wajiw while rubbing his painful butt and remembering the curse the misaabe manidoo had imposed on him, he thought to himself, it is the last time I make such another jump, so I best return home. Then it was the turn of Waabizheshi the Marten, who made the attempt but fell down senseless; then of Bijiw the Lynx, and after that of Ojiig the Fisher, and at last of Misakakojiish the Badger, who had no better success.
Waabooz's Giant Leap
"Ahaw niijii," said Gibwanasii to Ogwiingwa’age, "now my friend, try your skill; your ancestors were celebrated for their audicity and perseverance, and today I depend on you for success. Now make the attempt." The brave Wolverine did so, but also without success. Since he had a big reputation to maintain he leaped the second time, then a third time, but the sky was still not giving way to his desperate attempts.
Next, Gibwanasii signaled Amik the Beaver to give it his best shot.
“Kawe! Wait a minute!” said the shrewd Waagosh the Fox, who had silently observed the brave but idle attemps of his companions, “I suggest that instead of Amik, our able brother Waabooz the Hare, who surprised us with his powerful jumping ability when the Giant Mountain Manidoo was after his hide the other day, should make an attempt!”
Then, before Gibwanasii even had time to look into Waabooz’s direction the vain hare, the faith that Waagosh put in his undeniable talents spurring him on as he ran towards the sky vault with all his speed, leaped in a large arch – only to end up into the bay far beneath him! When his companions looked over the rim of the cliff, owa! at the very spot where the hare had hit the water they saw a minis (island) the shape of a sleeping manidoo, spontaneoulsly rising up out of the blue water!
Stupified beyond any rational thought they had watched Waabooz’s magic trick, and they silently picked up the drama that evolved below them; but their hushed murmur quickly grew into a choir of excited voices when, hoowah! suddenly, a tall giizhikaandag (white cedar tree) grew spontaneously out of the rocky bottom of the island, its top reaching all the way up in the sky – or so it seemed!
The island and the Cedar Tree
“Haw dash, well now,” spoke Waagosh, who had observed Waabooz’s trick with amusement, “we had better build a raft that will take us to yonder island.” Immediatly his friends, under the expert tutelage of Amik the Beaver, started building a raft. Then, when the raft was ready and carried to the waterfront at the bottom of the mountain, just before everyone (except the Otter, who had returned home) jumped on it to set sail to the island in the bay, Waagosh spoke again: “Bekaakawe binamaa, wait! Since the raft will surely sink under the weight of the heavier animals among us, I suggest only the Winter Hawk boards the raft, accompanied by me and my little brothers Ajidamoo and Agoonsehn.”
After a long silence Amik the beaver, who was known for his wisdom, spoke: “geget sa go gii-debwe niijii (you’re certainly making sense my friend!)” Then, turning to his fellow travelers he said, “Since twelve is a crowd it would be best if we heed Waagosh’s advice and stay here and let him and Squirrel and Chipmunk accompany the Winter Hawk from here on out.” And so it came to pass, on that epic day at the foot of the steep mountain overlooking the bay that is nowadays called Animikii-wiikwedong (Thunder Bay), that Gibwanasii and his faithful helpers Fox, Squirrel, and Chipmunk set sail and steered their newly-made vessel into the direction of the island where the tall medicine tree grew into the sky – but not before they laid asemaa on the water as not to provoke the anger of the horned serpents and cats that they knew lived underwater. Once they had reached the island that the Hare had created by his audacious jump into the water of Thunder Bay, the four friends walked up to the tall giizhikaandag whose roots were firmly planted in the rocky bottom and whose mighty branches reached to the sky. Here, Gibwanasii, sensing his quest was nearing its end, sank down on his knees on the rocky beach and, after filling his smudge bowl with herbs, he offered through the cleansing smoke of the burning mashkodewashk (sage) his blessings and thanks to the beings and spirits of the lake and the sky. He felt strength and determination rising from somewhere deep inside of him.
Bravery of the Chipmunk
As soon as Gibwanasii had finished his purification rite he looked at his three companions and said, “aambe niijiwag (let’s get started my friends!)” Hereupon Waagosh the Fox instructed the little chipmunk to climb on Ajidamoo’s shoulder and up they went, and before the Winter Hawk had time to blink twice, Ajidamoo, swift as an arrow made a leap from the top of the tree – but gichi-wiiyagaaj, alas! the first attemp failed! The brave squirrel tried a second and a third time and still in vain, but at least they could see that the sky was giving way to his repeated attempts. Mustering strength and cheered on by Gibwanasii and Waagosh, Ajidamoo made a fourth leap, but this time his little friend the selfless chipmunk, when Ajidamoo could almost touch the sky with his paws, used his friend’s shoulders for a diving board, making a leap with all of his force and thus created a hole in the sky vault big enough to enable him and his companions to climb through! Ajidamoo nimbly followed him, and Gibwanasii, still standing at the foot of the huge tree, took up his medicine bundle and his bow and arrows and war club, and, remembering the magic powers of shapeshift the white hawk in the vision had conferred to him and after thanking Waagosh and bidding him giga-waabamin miinawaa (“until we meet again”), climbed to the top and, using his wings, flew into the newly-made hole…
Part 3: The Sky World
What occurred next has been told and retold by many generations of storytellers in the form of an aadizookaan (a sacred teaching story with a supernatural theme). In the ancient storytelling tradition of our Peoples, the Anishinaabeg and Cree of the northwoods and the western plains, a story, called aawechigan, which is really a parable, or allegorical tale rich with hidden meaning, becomes an aadizookaan the moment the storyteller calls upon the supernatural beings that figure in the story, and in doing so they allow these beings to leave their timeless abodes and actually enter the human stage in the here and now. Aadizookaanan are typically told orally and in a ritualized fashion whenever it is considered appropriate, usually during long winter nights. What follows below is inspired by a dream I recently had and loosely based on - and my very personal accounting of - the sacred Ojibwe teaching story “The Man Who Changed into a Thunder Being.”⁴
Once in the Sky World the three friends found themselves in a vast plain of thick clouds, covered with rocks and heaps of stones and immersed in a petrified stillness as if time had ceased. As they were gazing around in wonderment and awe they noticed that before them, on an elevated blanket of cloud, stood a towering wiigwaasi-madogwaan (birchbark tipi)! Suddenly, the tipi trembled and started to shoot forth lightning and thunder across the sky! When the terrified Ajidamoo heard the noise, he made for the opening and rushed down the cedar tree, soon followed by his little friend the Chipmunk - back to the safety of the island where Waagosh was still waiting. Not so Gibwanasii, the Winter Hawk! Anxious to fulfil his quest and find the girl whom his brother had wounded and who had returned to her abode in the sky, the Winter Hawk mustered his courage and – after he had touched the medicine in his pouch and willed himself to become a human again -, walked, one of the miigisag the Bear Spirit of Thunderbird Mountain had gifted him with clenched in his left hand, into the direction of the Thunder Tipi. From the majestic wiigiwaam came the laughter of what sounded like seven women, which suddenly stopped when they felt the presence of the visitor from the Earth. Then the tipi flap opened and there stood Animikii Giniwkwe, her wound healed and looking more beautiful than ever.
“Boozhoo, biindigen!” she said, “Animikii Giniwkwe nindizhinikaaz. Binesi nindoodem.” Which means, “hello, welcome! My name is Thunder War Eagle Woman. Thunderbird is my clan!” With concern she asked why he had followed her. “Because you are my life”, Gibwanasii answered. She smiled upon hearing his words. “I will ask my People if they will allow us to marry and are willing to give you the power to fly above the clouds,” she said. “But first we must hunt and bring food to my family.
Consenting, the Snow Hawk followed his bride-to-be to a mountain whose peak penetrated the very clouds they were walking on. There, on top of the mountain, he noticed a pool of iridescent water with colors that reminded him of a rainbow. Since his makizinan (moccasins) looked worn because of many moons of travelling, Gibwanasii kneeled down and took some of this magic water in the palm of his hands and decorated his makizinan with it.
“Betag niwiidigemaagan, be careful my husband,” Thunder Eagle Woman warned. “This here pool is the home of Mishi-giizhig-ginebig, a Great Horned Sky Serpent, who lurks on the bottom of the pool for unsuspecting prey and makes a habit of grabbing our young and dragging them down to his abode in the depths of the water to devour them. This is why our People, who will hopefully soon be your People, must protect our young and must fend the serpent off by slinging our thunderbolts at them.”
Gibwanasii, who was truly no coward and determined to help the People of his bride-to-be, touched his medicine pouch changing himself into a great sturgeon, and, despite pleas of Thunder Eagle Woman, dived into the depths of the magic pool and wrestled a young Thunder Being away from the Serpent Spirit. After he brought the frightened Thunderbird to safety - meanwhile a big thunderstorm had approached and raged above - he dove back into the pool, changed himself into a human again and, as the thunderstorm was reaching its climax, he jumped on the great snake’s back and killed it with his warclub. Animikii Giniwkwe, impressed by Gibwanasii’s courage and magic powers, suggested they return to the Thunderbird Lodge and meet her parents and her siblings.
The Thunder Grandfathers
Upon returning, the two lovers went into the big Sky Lodge and inside the gichi-wiigiwaam were Thunder Eagle Woman’s sisters and an elder woman preparing an evening meal. In the back of the lodge Gibwanasii saw four Animikii Aadizookanag (Thunder Grandfathers) in human form who sat around a fire smoking their stone pipes. Light radiated from their eyes suggesting a presence full of great power and wisdom (which was no wonder, since they governed wendaanimag noodinoon, the Four Principal Winds of the earth.)
All was profound stillness in the Sky Lodge, only broken now and then by the crackling of the fire and the howling of the storm that still raged outside. “Boozhoo nimishoog!” Gibwanasii spoke. “I come from the earth with respect and acknowledgement.” Then, respectfully, the Winter Hawk presented the old Grandfathers with asemaa and a handfull of miigisag from his pouch and some of the flesh of the Great Snake that he had killed, which was met with nods and grunts of approval. One of the Grandfathers, who introduced himself as Waabizhakwe (Old Eagle), was the father of Thunder Sky Woman and her six sisters; as it happened, he was also ogimaa (Chief) of the Thunderbird Nation. As he noticed Gibwanasii’s hunger the old man offered him the meat of the freshly caught monster – which he called “amiik-wiiyaas” (beaver flesh). When the latter politely declined, a roar of deafening thunder erupted as the four old men laid aside their pipes and stretched out their arms and changed into Thunderbirds!
The Beaver Hunt
The grandfathers flew away amid thunderclaps and lightning to a big lake on earth to return with more beaver meat – but what their horrified guest recognized to be a makade-mishi-name-ginebig (a great black sturgeon snake with a fishtail and horns like a moose)! They offered the fish-snake to Gibwanasii to eat it alive but the Anishinaabe, doing his best to hide his disgust, quickly turned away from the writhing mass of flesh.
The next morning the thunderstorm of the day before had passed and peace had returned to earth and in the Sky World. When the light of day was starting to break Old Eagle again asked Winter Hawk if he needed food. When the latter said yes the old man and the three other Thunder Grandfathers flew down to the earth again; this time to return with a Mishi-bizhiw (a cat-like underwater spirit) and a handful of frogs, toads, and adders, which they had caught in the big lake and marshlands below the clouds. Again, the Anishinaabe politely, yet resolutely declined the “beaver meat” that was put in front of him served in a stone bowl. Consequently, Gibwanasii grew weaker and weaker. Touching the medicine that he kept in his bundle he desperately tried to change himself into a Thunderbird but to no avail; apparently, the gift of transformation the Hawk Nation had imparted him with was strong enough to change him into a natural being like a bird of prey or a fish, but not powerful enough to have him transformed into a supernatural being!
The Medicine Man
Finally the elder woman, who turned out to be the girl’s mother, fearing that Gibwanasii was starving, told her daughter to take him to her great medicine uncle Zhaawano-giniw (War Eagle from the South), a jaasakiid (seer using a shaking tent) whom she knew would have strong medicine for the Anishinaabe who came from the Earth World. Mother and daughter laid Gibwanasii on a blanket of cloud softer than rabbit fur and wrapped him gently so that he would not see. Then, with the thunder suddenly erupting, Gibwanasii felt his nest of cloud move.
After what seemed like a mere moment the cloud stopped shaking and Animikii Giizhigookwe removed the cloud from around her future husband. In front of Gibwanasii, perched on another cloud, stood a Gichi-Giizhig-jiisakaan (great sky medicine lodge). Gibwanasii looked around him and saw many birchbark longhouses that were the homes of many different kinds of Thunderbirds, little and big Thunderbirds, all in human form. Entering the great medicine lodge Animikii Giizhigookwe brought her uncle greeting from her mother and, after she gifted him with asemaa, beseeched him for help.
“My mother said that you would have medicine for my husband so that he may eat as we do and perhaps even become one of us,” she said.
The old Thunderbird Healer stood in silence pondering the love between the Thunderbird Woman and the earthling and the consequences of such an action. “Let it be known that if this human takes my medicine he will never return to earth but will become a Thunderbird forever,” the old medicine bird spoke. The great medicine lodge started to shake and the
Thunderbird Medicine Man started to commune with the spirits of the Universe in strange tongues that were unintelligible to Gibwanasii. The Thunderbird jaasakiid then carefully took two small blue medicine eggs out of his bundle, mixed them together, and advised Gibwanasii to drink it.⁴
* Inspired and loosely based on Norval Morrisseau's account of the traditional Ojibwe Anishinaabe story Man Changing into Thunderbird; on the traditional tale of the Thunder People narrated by Lucy Ogemah and Ceah Patricia Angeconeb from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation), Ontario; and on the tradironal Ojibwe Anishinaabe narrative "The Ten Unmarried Brothers and Thunderbird Woman." (Irving Hallowell).
¹ Source: Angeconeb, Debassige, and Thomas, The Art of the Anishnawbek.
² Wiikwedong, Ontario, nowadays called Kettle Point. See also the history of Aazhoodena (Stony Point).
³ Inspired by and loosely based on the Celestial Sisters, a traditional story of the Zhaawanii Anishinaabeg (Shawnee) (Henry Rowe Schoolcraft) and on The Path Without End, a traditional Ojibwe Anishinaabe story told by Basil Johnston.
⁴ Loosely based on Man Changing into Thunderbird as narrated by Norval Morrisseau
⁵ Present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario
⁶ Source: "Legends of My People The Great Ojibway" - Illustrated & told by Norval Morrisseau, 1965, Ryerson Press
⁷ Inspired by and loosely based on the traditional Ojibwe Anishinaabe narrative of Ojiiganang the Fisher Star (Henry Rowe Schoolcraft)
⁸ Source: Ruth Landes, Ojibwa Religion, p. 103-104