Updated: Namebini-giizis (Suckerfish Moon) / Makwa-giizis (Bear Moon), February 27, 2022
Teachings of the Eagle Feather, Part 16
"Wings of the Sun Hawk"
“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 Anishinaabeg, because they can fly in the air, walk on the land, swim on the water, and dive underwater, going where we cannot.”¹
The story of Gekek the Hawk
Boozhoo, aaniin, hello,
I am Zhaawano Giizhik. This blog story is the sixteenth already in a series titled Teachings Of The Eagle Feather, featuring my works of art along with those of kindred artists. Both my stories and my artworks seek to provide an insight into the unique izhinamowin (world view) of the Anishinaabe Peoples.
Today's story is the story of Gekek, the Hawk. The story is woven around a set of wedding rings (featuring stylized hawk feathers), a bolo tie, and a graphic illustration by myself (a Hawk/ Thunderbird flying toward the sun) as well as three powerful acrylics painted by second-generation Anishinaabe Woodland painters: one by the late Allen Ahmoo Angeconeb and two by my dear friend, the late Moses Amik. (To read more about the theme of the hawk feather see also: The Way We See the World.)
The theme that connects the ring set and the paintings is the Hawk and his close relationship with both the natural world (humans, other bird species, the sun) and the realm of sky spirits; particularly the Thunder Grandfathers, who in spring and summer present themselves on earth as avian characters (Thunderbirds) and, although on rare occasions, as humans (grandfathers).
Who is Gekek? To gete-ayaa’ag, our ancestors, he was much more than just a bird of prey. They regarded him as a powerful aadizookaan (grandfather of the nonhuman class) and manidoo-izhinaazha’waagan (a spirit-messenger) of the sun and the Great Mystery. He shows the People a far vision, foresight, and the virtue of deliberation. His sharp vision, indicating prescience and preknowledge, is his most noticeable and valued attribute. He is also regarded as a powerful bawaagan (a guardian spirit) who appears in some people’s dreams. (To read more about Gekek as a dream messenger see my blog story A Vision of Healing.)
Hawk as ancestor, leader, messenger, teacher
Anishinaabe society is basically structured around a very intricate system of kinship - called gidoodeminaanig in the Ojibwe language, which translates into “our blood relations,” or “our clans.” Our People had originally five to seven clan or doodem groups, nowadays divided into at least sixty-five different clans (odoodeman). Each doodem, which is represented by either a bird, a fish, a land animal, body parts of an animal, a tree, or a spirit that lives in the lakes or the sky, denotes a common ancestor and makes all those who are born under its sign one in birth, function, and purpose.
As they disclose norms and principles for bimaadiziwin, or living long and healthy lives, animals, as elder brothers of humans, represent the basic needs of human society. Each different animal (or spirit being) is a silent metaphor for human flaws and weaknesses; yet at the same time they seek to instill in clan members certain virtues to emulate and provide them with a set of life-long mutual kin rights and obligations to live up to. These duties and moral responsibilities, called mino-bimaadiziwin (literally: “good life”) apply to individuals and everyday life but are also understood in a communal and a spiritual sense that is far beyond the present.
Among the Anishinaabeg, people who are born into Gekek doodem, the Hawk Clan, are known as born leaders; in daily life they tend to be initiators and, as they have the ability to soar high above, combined with an extraordinary sharp eyesight, they possess the power to catch insightful glimpses of the bigger picture – which makes them more observant than most other people and gives them a great sense of perspective. Hawk people, therefore, have the ability to look straight through other people. They are often known to be bringers of spirit messages and foretellers of change and as such help identify a transition in one's environment. Like the hawk itself, Hawk clan members intuitively know how to wait patiently in order to accomplish a goal, and once they strike at their prey (act) they make sure to do so with speed and precision. Thoughtfulness, deliberation, and averseness to corruption and nepotism are therefore virtues that you find often with Hawk clan people and they remind us to behave well and never cease to be awake and aware when it comes to moral issues like injustices and wrongdoings.
Hawks hunt in groups and often mate for life; thus they challenge us to think about, and assess, the people we associate and surround ourselves with. Equally importantly, they remind us to be loyal toward the ones we love and those who depend on us.
Gete-ayaa’ag, our ancestors, admired the hawk for its physical beauty, speed, endurance, perseverance, fearlesness, and sharp eyesight. They acknowledged him as a spirit grandfather who bears on his wings and brings to earth and her Peoples great wisdom, broad perspectives and a deep mental awareness.
In a cosmological sense of the most sacred nature, Gekek is gekinoo'amaaged (a teacher) who teaches anishinaabeg (mankind) to live in balance with all things that support mino-bimaadiziwin, the sacred web of life. As a prominent member of the binesiwag, the Winged Ones, he draws our attention to the light of Giizis, the day-sun, and in doing this he remind us of how much we are all connected with GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of the Universe.
Hawk and the metaphorical meaning of the Sky World and its Beings
Giizhigong is how the gete-ayaa’ag called the Sky World and all of its beings, corporeal as well as incorporeal. In Anishinaabe izhinamown (our traditional worldview), these aadizookaanag (grandfather-beings, or cosmic spirits; literally: "makers of sacred stories") are symbolized by the sun, the moon, the stars, and by rain and thunderclouds which represent the physical orders of the universe.
Traditionally, another class of Sky Beings is represented by bineshiwag, or taloned birds of prey. Conceptually, Animkii Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds, supernatural creators of thunder and lightning, are sometimes grouped with Gekekwag (hawks) and the hawk-related bird species – like, for example, bibiigiwizens or boonose (the sparrow hawk) and gekegoons (the pidgeon hawk). Naturally, Migiziwag (bald eagles) and Giniwag (golden eagles) also play an important metaphorical role in the world of the Bird Nation; they, too - and golden eagles in particular-, are regarded as natural counterparts of the supernatural Thunderbirds.
Thunderbirds, which come in different sizes, have always been considered the most powerful group of cosmic spirits; they are believed to have come to earth both to nurture it and to restrain the, potentially harmful, powers of another group of aadizookanaag, the underwater creatures. They assist the Anishinaabeg by driving away these earth and water spirits - such as the mishi-ginebigoog or Serpents of the Lake; the battles between Thunderbirds and their horned adversaries often result in raging waters and seething storms. (This, in itself scary-looking, class of aadizookaanag by the way, is, contrary to popular belief that was introduced by European missionaries, not at all deemed evil by traditional Anishinaabeg, who do esteem their medicinal powers greatly.)
Thunderbirds, like their natural counterparts the hawks who tend to congregate in mountainous areas, are known to live on high rock cliffs and along waterways and from these sacred places, often enshrouded by dense clouds, where earth’s energies are deemed the most powerful, they gather these energies and distribute them throughout the land, the waters, and the skies.² They live in these high places in nests of stone during the winter but as soon as spring and fall arrive they migrate - and sometimes even merge, symbolically as wel as physically - with the hawks and other birds as they travel to and from their breeding grounds...
According to tradition the Thunderbirds, or “Old Men (Grandfathers) with Wings” as they are often euphemistically referred to, came to Aki, the earth, in the beginning of times to govern the quality of our People's existence, and that of the animals and plants, with supernatural powers over which the Anishinaabeg had little control. They were, directly as well as indirectly, connected with the four directions, the winds, and the seasons. They were in charge of warm weather and directed niiwing ondaanimad (the four winds) and mediated with them. Thunders became thus associated with fertility, and with the creation of clouds and rain. Thunderbirds - as conceptualized, concretized versions of the Thunders (their images often depicted through abstract imagery on ceremonial items such as drums and pipe bags) - are sent to earth to impart knowledge and foretell the future; like their natural counterparts the hawks, they perceive what lives in the hearts of human beings and punish those who have impure thoughts and live immoral lives. From another aadizookaan, the sometimes foolish but also wise teacher Wiinabozho, the Anishinaabeg learned to offer the sacred asemaa (tobacco) to the thunder Grandfathers. An act that became a customary rite through the ages and that is still practiced today.
Although usually associated with hawks and eagles, Thunderbirds are also capable of metamorphosis into other beings and sometimes even endowed with a human form, mostly in the shape of omishoomisimaag (grandfathers of the human class); they were even known to sporadically mate and produce offspring among human beings… Like I mentioned before, they are also known to appear along with all the other migrating birds as soon as the winter is over, and by the time the trees shed their leaves they are believed to return to Thunder Bay - Animikii-wiikwedong, which literally means "Bay of the Thunder" in the Ojibwe language -, a large stretch of water on the north side of Lake Superior, to rest until spring arrives.
Animikii-wiikwedong is symbolized by the oval turquoise stone featuring the above bolo tie, designed and handcrafted by the author.
Thunderbirds and raptors as protectors
The Thunder Grandfathers, as do raptors like hawks and golden eagles, are known to watch over anishinaabeg – the people. They are also known to foresee events and give warnings to protect humans, and some medicine men and women, provided they possess extraordinary healing powers, choose them as their patron (throughout history this has been conferred only upon a few). A story that I recently wrote, titled Giibwanasi and the Thunder Eagle Woman, reveals the metaphorical meaning of the hawk and the golden eagle in anishinaabe izhinamowin (the cosmology of the Anishinaabeg Peoples). Loosely based on an old aadizookaan (traditional tale of a sacred nature) that was immortalized in Miskwaabik Animikii’s famous six-panel painting “Man Changing into Thunderbird,” the story tells of a young man from Wiikwedong/Kikonaang (Kettle Point, Ontario) who dreamt of a waabigekek (white hawk) and, after a long and arduous quest, enters the Sky World to marry a beautiful golden eagle girl whom he loves. This is not an easy task since the girl of his dreams - a shapeshifter who assumes the form of, alternately, zazegaa-anishinaabekwe - a beautiful woman - and giiniw, a golden eagle - happens to belong to the Thunderbird Nation…
In a nutshell the story goes as follows: after a long journey, a quest full of adventures and perils and overcoming adversity – during which he, symbolically, follows the legendary route³ the forebears of his People traveled as they migrated from the eastern Dawn Lands on the Atlantic seaboard to Lake Superior and beyond -, leads Snow Hawk (for that is his name) from the southeastern shore of Lake Huron all the way to Lake Superior’s Thunder Bay. There, on an island in the bay, close to the Thunder Mountain nowadays called Mount McKay, he manages to find a passage to the Sky World where he finds the beautiful thunder eagle woman he wants to marry. Despite of his bride-to-be’s warnings not to arise the anger of the Mishiginebig, the Great Horned Water Serpent Spirit, Snow Hawk decides to wrestle him in order to save the Animikiig (Thunder People). After Snow Hawk, who is capable of shapehifting into the raptor that had appeared to him in a dream, kills the underwater monster, the Thunder People thankfully accept him in their midst; he then is allowed to transform from a human/hawk into a Thunderbird and finally marries the love of his life.
To read the complete story about Snow Hawk’s quest for Thunder Eagle Woman, and his transformation into a Thunderbird, see my blog story Giibwanasii and Thunder Eagle Woman.
About the wedding rings and their symbolical meaning
These unique, 0.39 inch wide graphic overlay wedding bands consist of 14K yellow gold; the feather inlays, stylized images of Gekeko-miigwanag (hawk feathers), are 14K red gold. Both rings show oxidized⁴ recesses of sterling silver, which creates a dramatic contrast with the red gold feathers.
Shape and colors of the feather inlays symbolize the flight of the hawk whose wings bear wisdom and insight and whose feathers carry our good thoughts and prayers toward the light of Giizhig, the day, and toward Giizis, the Sun who is the grandfather of all life energy. And when you look up to a hawk soaring high in the sky, asemaa⁵ in hand and saying a prayer to this mighty grandfather spirit-bird, it is easy to envision his spirit merging with the light of day as his wingtips touch the sun; and when you squint your eyes against the bright daylight against a blue sky you may even imagine for a short moment that his feathers have turned into the same flaming color as the sun itself...
Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw dibaajimowin. And that is the end. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to relate to you this story. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.
Mino bimaadizin! Live well! Migwechewendan akina gegoo ahaw! Be thankful for everything!
¹ Source: Angeconeb, Debassige, and Thomas, The Art of the Anishnawbek.
² Chisholm and Gutche, Superior, p. 63
³ Read about the Seven Fires migration of the Anishinaabeg in Journey of Our People
⁴ oxidized: treated with a suphur solution which darkens the visible areas of the lower
parts (the sterling silver insides) of the rings
⁵ Asemaa: tobacco
Paintings (from top to bottom:)
Manidoo-giizisbinesi (Spirit Sun Bird), digital painting by Zhaawano Giizhik, 2018
Shamans Talking, acrylic on canvas by Allen Ahmoo Angeconeb (1977)
Thunderbird, acrylic on canvas by Moses Amik (2006)
Above Looking Down, acrylic on canvas by Moses Amik (year unknown)
About the author/artist and his design 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 a second- generation Woodland artist who writes stories and creates graphic art and jewelry designs, 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.