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Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 1

"Looking into the Healing Mirror"

Onaabani-giizis (Crusty Snow Moon; March 30), 2017

Wiinabozho and the Storytellers' Mirror protosketch by Native Woodland artist Zhaawano Giizhik

Illustration: pen-and-ink protosketch of the digital painting "Wenabozho and the Storytellers' Mirror" by Zhaawano Giizhik, 2012.

"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 many branches to choose from."*

- James Mishibinijima (painter)

"Sometimes the most painful lessons in life are delivered by someone masquarading as a soulmate."

- Steve Maraboli (writer)

"Intimate relationships are perilous because of the exposure and lack of control they involve. Being seriously wronged is a constant possibility, and anger, therefore, a constant and profoundly human temptation. If vulnerability is a necessary consequence of giving love its proper value, then grief is often right and valuable. It does not follow, however, that anger is so."**

- Martha Nussbaum, philosopher

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

- James Baldwin, writer

"We have two brains: the one in your head and one in your heart. We as Nehiyawak (Plains Cree) think from the heart. The Mooniyaw (white man) speaks from the brain because of the education system, and we were taught that way in Residential School. But everyone is capable of thinking from the heart. The idea is to move that person from the head back to the heart."

- Patrick Buffalo, horse therapist

Boozhoo, aaniin!

Welcome to part 1 of my brand new blog series titled Teachings from the Tree of Life, in which I connect the storytelling art of myself and kindred artists with an old Teaching that has been passed down to us by countless generations of ancestors from the time the Anishinaabe Peoples still lived in the old Dawn Land along the borders of the Atlantic Ocean. The story that I tell today features a pen-and-ink drawing, a protosketch of the painting Wenabozho and the Storytellers' Mirror that I did in 2012. This painting marked the beginning of a fruitful, 4-year lasting artistic collaboration with painter artist Simone McLeod, originally from Pasqua Nation in Saskatchewan. Countless tales have been spun around the mystery of the Storyteller's Mirror, and although the collaboration and friendship have come to an end, the stories continue to grow  ... 

Today's Teaching focuses on dealing with abusive relationships and broken friendships and the pain that comes of breached trust, a trauma that can forever change a person's life.

In some relationships, hurting the other becomes a person's habit. It's poison, it kills. When one soulmate destroys the other because her/his inner child is broken it emotionally hollows out the one who is betrayed and left behind. The damage caused by the breakdown of the once intimate relationship is internal and goes deep; it goes to the very core of who we are. The betrayal literally kills the universe of the person who is being betrayed. It literally kills that person. The one who does the killing is only able to feel her/his own pain and moves on without feeling remorse about what she/he did to the other who had initially put all of his/her heart and trust and faith in her/him.

I truly believe that a partner constantly finding fault in his/her soulmate and systematically projecting her/his negativity and narcissistic victim syndrome on the other destroys much more than just his/her heart. Traumas and syndromes cause more traumas and syndromes and it has serious Universal implications. The pain and the hurt caused by this type of relational abuse hurts our People at large and every living thing in nature and the harmful effects reverberate and leave scars troughout all of the Universe.

How can we heal the trauma? Will we, as individuals and as a collective, ever be able to heal the scars? How do we detoxify and purify our tattered minds and spirits and find back the Way to the Heart?

The literal meaning of the word trauma is "wound."

We must find ways to put balm on the wound. Ceremony is the balm on the wound.

Confucius said: To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.

With that in mind, I believe that what is needed to set our hearts straight is to, individually as well as collectively, understand our original purpose and responsibility to mother earth. But before we can reach this basic understanding, in order to heal a traumatized mind, a sense of belonging has to be established in our hearts. Our ceremonies, which (re)create this sense of belonging, trigger this process, are the binding psychological factor in this process of reconnection with the earth. The healing does not lie in abstract ideas about the earth. It lies in reconnecting with family of past and present. Healing is a step-by-step process and we must begin somewhere. It starts with ceremony.  We must first put balm on the wound. Ceremony, and our storytelling traditions, are the balm on the wound.

And let's not forget our language. The importance of knowing or at least having a basic understanding of anishinaabemowin is often underestimated. Without it there is no true understanding of our stories and ceremonies. Without our stories and ceremonies there is no healing. Without healing there is no true understanding of our original purpose and responsibility to mother earth.

When asked about his first steps on the Traditional Path that had been blazed by his ancestors, Anishinaabe Elder David Courchene/Niigaani Aki Inini from Sagkeeng First Nation reserve, a spiritual teacher and founder of the Turtle Lodge, answered that in his late-adolescent years he had the foresight to turn to ookomisan (a grandmother). She saw right through him and said to him:

"You have a lot of anger in you, and that is not the way to live. With anger, you will darken your heart, and you will poison your blood. We want you to have a free spirit, but that spirit has to be grounded with values that make you a good human being. So we will begin by taking you to the beginning."

David was in his early 20s when he took his first step into a Sweat Lodge.

"(Going to a Sweat Lodge) was the beginning of my journey," he says. "It was the beginning of knowing who I was."

To me, David Courchene's testimony is a beautiful example of the importance of returning to the ancient lessons and ceremonies of the gete-ayaa'ag, the ones who walked the land before us. We, as individuals as well as People, are in dire need of the healing mirrors that were passed on to us through storytelling and ceremony and through our language, now more than ever. We must set our hearts right and we must find the right ways do do this. There is much to be learned from our Elders who are still among us and who survived many battles and storms in their own lives. We must be strong.

I must be strong.

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

*Excerpt from Mishmountains Blogspot, "Teachings from the Tree Of Life."

**Excerpt from Brain Pickings. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Forgiveness, the Emotional Machinery of Trust, and the Only Fruitful Response to Betrayal in Intimate Relationships.

Zhaawano Giizhik at Agawa offering tobacco to the spirit of the rock

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.

Photo credit: Simone McLeod.


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