Teachings of the Eagle Feather, Part 14

"Spirit of the Three Fires"

Namebini-giizis (Sucker Fish Moon, February 25), 2017

Detail of Spirit of the Three Fires, gold Midewiwin necklace designed by Zhaawano Giizhik

Prophecy of the Seven Fires


"Our forefathers, many strings of lives ago, lived on the shores of the Great Salt Water in the east (Waabanakiing, the Dawn Land). Here it was, that while congregated in a great town, and while they were suffering the ravages of sickness and death, the Great Mystery (Gichi-manidoo), at the intercession of Wiinabozho, the great common uncle of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, granted them this rite wherewith life is restored and prolonged. This rite would become known as Midewiwin. Our forefathers moved from the shores of the great water, and (as they folllowed a prophecy called Seven Fires) proceeded westward (this would become known as the Seven Fires migration journey). The Midewiwin lodge was pulled down and it was not again erected, till our forefathers again took a stand on the shores of the great river near where Mooniyaang (Montreal) now stands. In the course of time, this town was again deserted, and our forefathers still proceeding westward, lit not their fires till they reached the shores of Naadowewi-gichigami (Lake Huron), where again the rites of the Midewiwin were practiced. Again these rites were forgotten, and the Midewiwin lodge was not built till the Ojibweg found themselves congregated at Baawiting, an outlet of Ojibwewi-gichigami (Lake Superior), where they remained for many winters. Still the Ojibweg moved westward, and for the last time the Midewiwin lodge was erected on  Mooningwanekaaning (Madeline Island), and here, long before the pale face appeared among them, it was practiced in its purest and most original form. Many of our fathers lived the full term of life granted to mankind by the Great Mystery, and the forms of many old people were mingled with each rising generation. This, my grandson, is the meaning of the words you did not understand; they have been repeated to us by our fathers for many generations.” 

- A free rendering of the original text by William W. Warren, History of the Ojibways, 1855

Gold and red coral pendant Three fires One Spirit One Mind designed by Zhaawano

The history and spirituality of my People

Boozhooaaniin, hello,

I am Zhaawano Giizhik, Marten Clan, a writer and a jeweler and graphic artist inspired by the oral and pictographic narratives and lessons of my Anishinaabe ancestors - and, by extension, the works of Anishinaabe en Cree artists who paint in the contemporary tradition of the Native Woodland School of Art. This blog story is the fourteenth already in a series titled Teachings Of The Eagle Feather, featuring my art (jewelry, mostly) along with works of art by kindred artists. Both my stories and the jewelry/artworks displayed seek to provide an insight into the old and venerable worldview of the Anishinaabe Peoples. 

Today's story introduces two new gold eagle feather necklaces and a bolo tie designed and handcrafted by myself. Also, two beautiful canvases painted by second-generation Anishinaabe Medicine painters Leland Bell and Simone McLeod serve as illustration for the story .

Leland Bell's painting and the pieces of jewelry that you find in this blog post refer to an important historical milestone in Anishinaabe history (the founding of the Three Fires Confederacy) and also carry symbols of Anishinaabe spirituality pertaining to a sacred set of guidelines, often called Seven Grandfather Teachings. These Nizhwaaswi Gagiikwewinan, which are considered a part of Gichi-dibaakoniwewin, the Great Binding Law of the Great Mystery, became the foundation of Midewiwin spiritual practice as we know it today.

Makwa, acrylic on water color paper by Native Woodland painter Simone McLeod

An origin story of the Midewiwin

19th century Misi-zaaga'iganiing (Mille Lacs) ogimaa (chief) Bayezhig related the story of Gwiiwizens wedizhichigewinid: Deeds of a little boy, a traditional origin story of the Anishinaabeg and their Midewiwin Society, as follows:

"In the beginning, GICHI-MANIDOO made the MIDE MANIDOOG (Mide Spirits). He first created two men, and two women; but they had no power of thought or reason. Then GICHI-MANIDOO made them rational beings. He took them in his hands so that they should multiply; he paired them, and from this sprung the ANISHINAABEG. When there were people he placed them upon the earth, but he soon observed that they were subject to sickness, misery, and

Illustration: Makwa from Simone McLeod's Animal Series.

death, and that unless he provided them with the Sacred Medicine they would soon become extinct.

Between the position occupied by GICHI-MANIDOO and the earth were four lesser manidoog with whom GICHI-MANIDOO decided to commune, and to impart to them the mysteries by which the Anishinaabeg could be benefited. So he first spoke to a manidoo and told him all he had to say, who in turn communicated the same information to the next, and he in turn to next, who also communed with the next. They all met in council, and determined to call in the four wind manidoog. After consulting as to what would be best for the comfort and welfare of the Anishinaabeg, these manidoog agreed to ask GICHI-MANIDOO to communicate the Mystery of the Sacred Medicine to the people.

GICHI-MANIDOO then went to GIIZIS the Sun Spirit and asked him to go to the earth and instruct the people as had been decided upon by the council. GIIZIS, in the form of a gwiiwizens (little boy), went to the earth and lived with a woman who had a little boy of her own. This family went away in the autumn to hunt, and during the winter this woman’s son died. The parents were so much distressed that they decided to return to the village and bury the body there; so they made preparations to return, and as they traveled along, they would each evening erect several poles upon which the body was placed to prevent the wild beasts from devouring it. When the dead boy was thus hanging upon the poles, the adopted child—who was the Sun Spirit—would play about the camp and amuse himself, and finally told his adopted father he pitied him, and his mother, for their sorrow. The adopted son said he could bring his dead brother to life, whereupon the parents expressed great surprise and desired to know how that could be accomplished.

The adopted boy then had the party hasten to the village, when he said, “Get the women to make a wiigiwaam (lodge) of bark, put the dead boy in a covering of wiigwaas (birch bark) and place the body on the ground in the middle of the wiigiwaam.”

On the next morning after this had been done, the family and friends went into this lodge and seated themselves around the corpse. When they had all been sitting quietly for some time, they saw through the doorway the approach of a bear, which gradually came towards the wiigiwaam, entered it, and placed itself before the dead body and said, “ho, ho, ho, ho,” when he passed around it towards the left side, with a trembling motion, and as he did so, the body began quivering, and the quivering increased as the bear continued until he had passed around four times, when the body came to life again and stood up. Then the bear called to the father, who was sitting in the distant right-hand corner of the wiigiwaam, and addressed to him the following words:

Noos gaawiin anishinaabewisii, ayaawiyaan manidoo ningwizis.
Bi-mayaa-miniik niiji-manidoo mayaa zhigwa ji-gi-aawiyan.
Noose, zhigwa asemaa ji-atooyeg. E-mikondem mii eta
aabiding ji-gashkitood wenji-bimaadizid omaa agaawaa
bimaadizid mii omaa; niijii-manidoo mayaa zhigwa ji-giiweyaan.

(“My father is not a human. I, a son, am a Spirit.
Just as - my fellow Spirit - you now are.
Father! Now, you shall put out tobacco. Recalling that he could do this
only once in order to barely live here, thus he lived here;
my fellow Spirit, so now, I must go home.”)

The little bear boy was the one who did this. He then remained among the Anishinaabeg and taught them the mysteries of the Midewiwin; and, after he had finished, he told his adopted father that as his mission had been fulfilled he was to return to his kindred manidoog, for the Anishinaabeg would have no need to fear sickness as they now possessed the Midewiwin which would enable them to live. He also said that his spirit could bring a body to life but once, and he would now return to Giizis (the sun) from which they would feel his influence.”

Detail of Spirit of the Three Fires necklace
Spirit of the Three Fires gold necklace designed by Native Woodland jeweler Zhaawano Giizhik

The lighting of the Three Fires

The THREE FIRES CONFEDERACY, or THREE FIRES COUNCIL  is a long-lived political and military alliance of Anishinaabe peoples. According to the sacred birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin, about 1200 summers ago after reaching the southern shores of Miishii'iganiing (the Michigan lakes) and Mishigamiing (Lake Michigan) on their migration westward from from the shores of the Great Salt Water in the east (Waabanakiing, the Dawn Land), the Waabanakii Nation – or, as they had started to call themselves, Anishinaabeg or Spontaneous People -, became lost and their once strong sense of oneness shattered, and they split in a northern and a southern branch. The core Anishinaabe peoples, belonging to the southern branch, formed the Council of Three Fires and migrated from their "Third Stopping Place" near the present city of Detroit to their "Fourth Stopping Place" on Manitoulin Island, along the eastern shores of Georgian Bay.

The three groups that began to emerge from the southern branch of Waabanakii migrants were the Ojibweg, the ‘Older Brother’ and keepers of the Midewiwin Religion; the Odaawaag (Odawa) or Trader People, the ‘Middle Brother’ responsible for trade and sustenance; and the Bodwewaadamiig (Potawatomi), the ‘Younger Brother’ who came in charge of the Sacred Ancestral Fire from the East Land. (Sometimes a fourth group, the Misi-zaagiwininiwag or Mississauga, is distinguished but they are generally grouped with the Ojibweg.) Around 800 CE, these three or four groups formed for mutual protection a loose confederation, called Niswii-mishkodewin (Three Fires), and all three Nations moved into several areas around the Great Lakes, in what is now Michigan State and Ontario.

Chief Pontiac Three Fires bolo tie designed by Zhaawano Giizhik

A turbulent history of peace and war

Although the Niswii-mishkodewin had several meeting places, Michilimackinac (an island between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan) became the preferred meeting place because of its central location. From this island, the Council met for military and political purposes and maintained relations with fellow Anishinaabeg including the Mamaceqtaw (Menominee), the Asakiwaki (Sac), and the Meskwakihaki (Fox), as well as with a myriad of other Nations such as the Haudenosaunee, the Dakota, the Wyandot, the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), and, later in history, the Wemitigoozhiwag (France), the Zhaaganaashiwag (England) and, eventually, the Gichi-mookomaanag (the United States).

Although the idea of the Council was directed toward maintaining balance of power within its own Anishinaabe communities and keeping peaceful relations with surrounding Nations, unresolved disputes regularly erupted into wars, notably with their most bitter enemies the Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) and Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) of the Haudenosaunee/Six Nations Confederacy who constantly threatened them from the east and the Dakota, the Ho-Chunk, and the Meskwakihaki, inveterate enemies from the south.

During the French and Indian War and Pontiac's War, the Council fought against the Zhaagaanaashiwag; and during the Northwest Indian War and the War of 1812 they fought against the Gichi-mookomaanag (in the latter war they played a prominent role in Tecumseh's Confederacy). After the formation of the United States of America in 1776, the Council became the core member of the Western Lakes Confederacy (also known as "Great Lakes Confederacy"), joined together with, among others, the Nii'inaawi-Naadaweg, the Omàmiwininiwak, the Odishkwaagamiig, the Ozaagiiwag, and the Meskwakihaki.*

Coming of the Three Fires by Leland Bell

Midewiwin and the Three Fires Council

In the olden days, before the Europeans invaded Anishinaabewaki and destroyed much of Anishinaabe identity, the Midewiwin was integrated in all facets of Anishinaabe life. The Midewiwin lodge was the source of Anishinaabe governance, its influence largely instrumentalized through the doodem (clan kinship) system. A great deal of visionaries and healers of the Midewiwin were active not only in the spiritual, but also in the political domain; particularly in the context of the Three Fires Council. Because of their exceptional powers and skills and their knowledge of the Seven Grandfather Teachings, when the Ojibweg were confronted with the European and American military powers and settlers encroaching and flooding the borders of Anishinaabewaki, the Mideg were looked upon by their communities as apt political leaders, advisers, and decision makers fit to represent their People in trade and treaty negotiations with the Zhaaganaashag (British) and Gichi-mookomaanag (Americans) – and thus earned and achieved the kind of status, prestige, and authority that was otherwise only reserved for hereditary ogimaag (chiefs).  It was, and still is, commonly understood that the survival of the Three Fires, and the Anishinaabeg as a whole, their cultural values, and their traditional organizational community/doodem (clan) structures depend a great deal upon the ability of high-ranking Mideg – with Nooke doodemag (bear clans) leading the way - to deal with the military and political powers of the Europeans and Gichi-mookomaanag and with the gigantic political and environmental challenges that faced - and still face - the entire Anishinaabe Nation.

The Three Fires Lodge: A story of Spiritual Reawakening & Brotherhood

The Three Fires Council is still very much alive today, not only politically but also in a spiritual/religious sense;  the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, a contemporary movement of the Midewiwin Society, was inspired by the historic Three Fires Confederacy. Its contemporary function is often described as a movement of spiritual revival, maintenance, and strengthening of the original Teachings, Rituals, Ceremonies, and Prophecies of the Anishinaabeg; all vested in in the Midewiwin, the Original, Historic Anishinaabe Lodge of the Good Hearted Ones that has its origin in the ancient Dawn Land. The ceremonies take place in a spiritual place called the Mide-wiigaan or Midewiwin Lodge. The Mide-wiigaan, a gift from the benevolent spirit/human Wiinabozho to the Anishinaabeg, is typically an elongated framed structure made of maple saplings with openings on the eastern and western ends (see below image).

Midewiwin Teaching Lodge

Today, there are only a small number Midewigaanan that are actually in use, mainly in southern Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, led by Grand Chief Edward Benton-Banai, is the largest Midewiwin Lodge with members from Wisconsin, Michigan, Manitoba, and Ontario and a handful from other territories and nations.**

Nowadays, Indigenous nations such as the Mamaceqtaw (Menominee), Ojibweg (Ojibwe), Odaawaag (Odawa), and Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), who consider themselves as the Anishinaabe People, as well as other Native nations, partake in the annual ceremonies of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge. The revival of the Midewiwin Lodge is in accordance with the Seven Grandfather prophecies and teachings, spiritually delivered to the Anishinaabe people long before the predicted arrival of the Europeans on the east coast of Turtle Island (North America).

Like the ancient Midewiwin, the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge is considered a sacred place, both earthly and in the Spirit World, that was given to all Spontaneous People (Anishinaabeg) by Gichi-manidoo. The Three Fires has two interrelated meanings: on an earthly level it signifies the political brotherhood of Ojibweg, Odaawaag and Bodéwadmik; on a spiritual level it refers to Mind, Body, and Spirit. The Three Fires Mide Lodge is presided over by the Spirit, called Mide Manidoo, in the form of Midewewe’igan (also called Mitigwakik), the Grandfather Water Drum. The Grandfather is supported by Oshkaabewis, his ceremonial helper, called the Little Boy Water Drum in reference to the above-told origin story of the Midewiwin that says that a little bear boy descended from the Sun and remained for some time among the Anishinaabeg to teach them the mysteries of the Midewiwin.

Members of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge are initiated into the various levels of the Midewiwin (eight in total), and come from across the Turtle Island (North America). The Three Fires Mide members meet in fellowship frequently, mainly at the four seasonal ceremonies which are held in Anishinaabe communities throughout Anishinaabewaki, the land of the Anishinaabe Peoples.

Three Fires One spirit One Mind necklace designed by Nativw Woodland jeweler Zhaawano Giizhik

Three Fires, One Spirit, One Mind

In this elegant necklace, the circular shape and the tightly woven material of the stainless steel choker necklace symbolize the circle and the unity strength of the Anishinaabe Peoples as a whole. The three combined gold feathers of the pendant symbolize the founding of the historical Three Fires Confederacy, and, along with it, the recent revival of the ancient Midewiwin Lodge. On a deeper level, the feathers symbolize unity of Body, Mind, and Spirit. The deep red color of the three red coral beads adorning the upper part of the feather shafts represent the Sacred Ancestral Council Fire of the Anishinaabeg as well as the blood kinship and survival strength that binds them as a People, politically (the Confederacy) as well as spiritually (the Midewiwin Lodge). The red of the red coral represents all Peoples who come to the Lodge, not just those who are of Anishinaabe descent. Everyone is welcome to partake in the ceremonies as long as they are of sincere heart, mind, and spirit and show a life-long commitment to seek spiritual truth, knowledge, and healing through the Seven Teachings that the Grandfathers from the Dawn Land had passed on to the Anishinaabe Peoples before they started a two millennia-long migration journey from the shores of the Great Water in the east.

Finally,  the two gold dividers placed in between the red coral beads symbolize the realms of Earth and Spirit that converge in the rituals and ceremonies of Niswii-mishkodewin Midewiwin, the Three Fires Midewiwin.

So the story goes...


Giiwenh. So the story goes about the origin of the Three Fires of the Anishinaabe Peoples and, along with it, my jewelry and paintings of kindred artists that reflect the spirit of the idea behind the Council and the Lodge of the same name. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to me today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, we hope to see you again soon.

Click here to read the first story in the Teachings of the Eagle Feather series, which centers around a set of wedding rings titled "Growth is a Mystery."

Zhaawano Giizhik at Agawa Rock offering tobacco to his ancestors

About the author/artist and his inspiration

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 Baawitigong (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. For this he calls on his manidoo-minjimandamowin, or 'Spirit Memory'; which means he tries to remember the knowledge and the lessons of his ancestors. In doing so he sometimes works together with kindred artists.

To Zhaawano's ancestors the MAZINAAJIMOWIN 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 that they felt they were an integral part of. 

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 lake's coastlines where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground and the underwater meet.

The way Zhaawano understands it, it is in these sacred places invisible to the ordinary, waking eye that his design and storyteller's inspiration originate from.

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