Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 10
"Sunset at Gichigami"
Such is the rhythm of life…
The distinct graphic overlay design of this set of overlay wedding rings titled Bangishimon Gichigamiing ("There is a sunset at the Great Lake") reflects the land of vast forests and lakes that for many centuries has been inhabited by my ancestors, the Baawitigo-Ojibwe-Anishinaabeg from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The design with its dramatic, hard-edged outlines is typical of the characteristic “pictographic outline” drawing style of the Canadian Medicine painters, kindred artists who paint in the discipline of the Native Woodland School of Art.
The wedding rings feature a stylized image of the waves of Anishinaabewi-gichigami or the Anishinaabe Sea, the great lake that today is known as Lake Superior.
Another name that our People use for Lake Superior is Gichi-ogimaa-gami, a name derived from Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language). This literally means, "it is a great chief lake" - which indicates it is the largest of Nayaano-wiishkbiwii-nibiimaang gichigamiin (the five Great Freshwater Lakes). Nowadays, however, the lake is often simply called Gichigami, which literally means "it is a sea, or great lake."
For six centuries or more, Gichi-ogimaa-gami, whose abundant waters, continually ebbing and flowing with the seasons and feeding into the rest of larger Great Lakes basin - and from there on out in a myriad of rivers and waterways that ultimately drain into wiisagiwi-gichigami, the Atlantic Ocean -, has been the home of my Native ancestors, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg. These People, direct descendants from the great Waabanaki Nation of the Eastern seaboard, have for generations lived close to the lake's water edge to survive.
Since the days when these Algonquian speaking immigrants first came to this region of bountiful freshwater lakes and islands and rivers and forests, its waters have nourished many generations of the People, physically as well as spiritually.
The lakes’ immense stretches of water are not only a source of food; they are also a MANIDOO (spirit), a sacred source of many life forms. Therefore, whenever a person or a group of persons pass a remarkable or dangerous place on the Great Lakes, one is supposed to say a prayer, accompanied with a gift of asemaa (tobacco). Always place tobacco in the water when crossing a lake...
But the waters of Gichigami aren't just a source of food and spiritual beliefs! Besides bawaajiganan and naagwi'idizowinan, dreams and visions, they provide our Peoples with an endless supply of of aadizookaanan, the sacred stories that have been passed on by many, many generations of storytellers; along with the water, all kinds of fish species, turtle spirits, snakes, muskrats, water birds, mermen and mermaids, underwater serpents and panthers as well as a myriad of other water creatures, play a central role in our traditional narrations and creation stories.
Copper, precious gift of the Underwater Spirits
The red gold used in making the above ring set is a reference to both the setting sun behind Gichigami and to copper, the sacred metal of the Ojibwe Peoples. The Island named Miinoong (“the beautiful place,” present-day Isle Royal, Michigan) as well as the nearby Keweenaw Peninsula used to be a common hunting ground for Native Peoples from nearby Minnesota and Ontario. It has been inhabited by Ojibweg for at least 400 hundreds of years (it is said that the Grandfather Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge sounded its voice there too) yet it is also a fact that large quantities of ozaawaabiko-zhooniya (copper) were mined on the islands by many generations of Native Peoples over a time period of at least six thousand years. For the Anishinaabeg, who believed it was a sacred gift of the Underwater Spirits, copper was known to hold extraordinary healing powers as it possesses the best energies of the earth. In recent times (since the 19th or 20th century) copper is a directly related to the powerful Mishi-bizhiw (the Horned Underwater Lynx) and Animkiig (Thunderbirds). The Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Lodge of the Ojibweg, use miskwaabikoon (pieces of copper) in their ceremonies and the copper deposits were often frequented by Medicine People who came there to dream and have visions (see the inserted image, a canvas by the late Norval Morrisseau, which he painted in the 1970s).
What is noteworthy in this context is that the Anishinaabe name of our People's all-time most prominent artist, Norval Morriseau, is Miskwaabik Animikii: it means "Copper Thunderbird." Needless to say that in our culture it is a name of great power...
The sun and the waves as metaphors of life
The white gold of the surfaces of both rings depicts the light of Gimishoomisinaan Giizis, the grandfather of all Life on earth as he rises each morning in the east to perform his ritual dance across the southern sky; the red color of the waves represents his warm glow coloring the Great Lake red as he sinks in the water at the end of each day; the outlined waves of the Lake and the beams of the setting sun – the bottom layer of silver that shows through the cutouts in the surface of the rings – have been oxidized (blackened) in order to accentuate the (picto)graphic character of the ring designs.
The symbolism of these wedding bands refers to the opposing and complementing forces that not only exist in nature, but also in human life – and, in particularly, in wiidigendiwin, the sacred bond between two partners for life. What goes for nature – the daily rhythm of sunup and sundown, ebb and flood, day and night, etcetera – also goes for the lives that we share with our partners; after all, don’t relationships ebb and flow like the waves of Gichigami, and don’t they, like the seasons, have cycles? Up and down, back and forth, give and take, push and pull. Such is the nature of marriage, and such is the rhythm of life…
So the story goes...
Giiwenh. So goes the Teaching Story about the Sunset at the Great Lake... such is the story of the wedding rings. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to my storytelling today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.
Click here to read the first episode in the Spirit of the Great Lakes series, which centers around the incredible story of the courageous Mother Earth Water Walkers and showcases several paintings by Simone McLeod, artwork by Leland Bell, and a pen-and-ink drawing and a gold pendant by myself.
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 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 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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