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Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 11: Nibi, Source of Life, Teachings, and Stories

Updated: Mar 3, 2020


Namebini-giizis / Makwa-giizis (Suckerfish Moon / Bear Moon, February 22, 2020)


"Water has to live, it can hear, it can sense what we’re saying, it can really, really, speak to us. Some songs come to us through the water. We have to understand that water is very precious… If we discontinue our negligence, we can change things around. That’s why I am really embodying the (Midewiwin) prophecy. You’ve heard of ‘Walk The Talk,’ this is why I walk."

- The late Josephine Mandamin (February 21, 1942 - February 22, 2019)


Boozhoo, aaniin, hello,

Welcome to part 11 of my blog series titled "Reflections of the Great Lakes."

The series features my jewelry and works of art, occasionally along with images of paintings by kindred artists.

The stories pay homage to the spirit and fascinating beauty and majesty of GICHIGAMIIN, the Great Lakes of Turtle Island (North America) and to the uncountable ZIIBIWAN (rivers and streams) that feed them, and thematically connect the jewelry and artwork displayed with the AANIKE-GIKINOO'AMAADIWINAN and MIDEWAAJIMOWINAN (traditional and spiritual teachings) of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg Peoples that for many generations have lived close to the Lakes' and rivers' shores to survive.

Part 11 is dedicated to the late Biidaasige-ba: "The One Who Comes With The Light" (Josephine Mandamin), Ojibwe Anishinaabe Menameg Doodem (catfish clan). Today one year ago (on February 22, 2019) Biidaasige-ba walked her last water walk, and departed for her final passage to the Spirit Realm, where she now lives among her loved ones and ancestors who went before her.

To read more about Nookomis Mandamin and the Mother Earth Water Walkers, see: Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 1.


Today's story features beautiful canvases by two of my favorite Anishinaabe Medicine (Woodland) painters, my friend the late Moses Amik and Bebaminojmat (Leland Bell), as well as two white gold ring sets created at my workbench. The rings are fashioned in the graphic outline style of my Anishinaabe and Ininew (Cree) brothers and sisters from Canada who paint in the powerful discipline of the Woodland School of Art.

The themes and designs of the canvases and ring sets refer to NIBI – the water, the lakes and rivers that have always fed and nourished us physically as well as spiritually -, to GIMISHOOMISINAAN GIIZIS the sun, to NOOKOMIS DIBIK-GIIZIS, our grandmother moon, and, in case of Mr. Bell's painting, to IKWEWAG, our women.

Since time immemorial, nii'inaa ikwewag, the women of the Anishinaabe Nation, have been the keepers of Gichi-Nibi, the sacred water circle. It is this connectedness of our women with the water, and the ceremonies that they are the guardians of, which is the central theme of the teaching story I relate to you today.

Giganoonigonaa nibi: the water speaks to us.

Our People believe that, since there is no life without water, the waters of the Oceans and the Great Freshwater Lakes, as well as the water that fills the rivers, the inland lakes, the ponds, and the wells that dot the surface and undergrounds of our beloved Turtle Island, should never be taken for granted. Just as humans are mostly composed of water, so is Mother Earth. Nibi is not merely an element but a soul or spirit who gives us beauty, growth, generosity. Nibi gives us an endless supply of Teachings, Lessons, and Stories. Nibi gives us peace.

Haw sa! The time has come for us human beings to honor, in the spirit of Nookomis Josephine Mandamin, the debt that we have toward Nibi and acknowledge Nibi's primacy in our world and in our lives...


~~ The waves of the Great Lake and the rising sun as metaphors of life ~~

The above ring set of 14K white gold and 14K red gold, created by hand with the aid of the overlay technique, is titled Gichigami Manidoo (Spirit of the Great Lake). The graphic design of these storytelling rings is an artistic reference to an age-old teaching of the Midewiwin, the ancient Lodge of Wisdom and Knowledge seekers of the Anishinaabeg Peoples.

The white gold of the rings' surfaces as well as the outlined waves of the Lake and the beams of the inlaid sun refer to 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. In addition, the red color of the interior of the ladies' ring symbolizes zhoomaanikiwaabik , also referred to as ozaawaabiko-zhooniyaa (the brown silver, i.e. copper), the sacred metal of the Anishinaabeg Peoples that they have been harvesting since time immemorial from the depths of Gichigami (Lake Superior).


"In our Anishinaabe teachings, women are responsible for the water. In our full moon and water ceremonies, the women sing, pray for and lift the water in copper vessels. Copper is an ancient metal that has distinct and powerful conductive properties. It is antimicrobial in nature... For Anishinaabe women, we believe copper vessels clean, heal and amplify our prayers to and for the water. It is a sacred relationship of ancient wisdom and knowledge that we embrace and honour."

- Noodinikwe (Mary Anne Caibaiosai): Why We Walk


The symbolism of the wedding rings 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…


"Listen! Stop fighting, stop gossiping, stop being number one, stop all negativity and LISTEN, to the winds, trees, splashing waters, birds, animals and above all dreams, sit on mother earth for a while and just LISTEN. We are at the cusp of something great, the water walk finished but it did not end, it is only a beginning of something we have yet to experience...Our young are ready and watching and waiting for you all to put aside your petty, childish ways and include them in all that you do. You must be sovereign enough to say it is time. Time to be Anishinaabe.

Our Grand Chief said it so eloquently when we gathered at Madeline Island; he said: ‘this is not the end but the beginning of the lighting of the 8th fire.’ Are we ready to say we are truly Anishinaabe? Ahaaw Mi'iw."

Moses Amik Anishinaabe Warrior
"Warrior," acrylic on canvas by the late Moses Amik (2006)

~~ Nibi brings Life, Wisdom, and Peace of Mind ~~

Since there is no life without water, we never take the waters of Gichigamiin for granted, nor the water that fills the wells, the inland lakes and ponds, the rivers, and the great sea waters (oceans). Like I said before, Nibi is not merely an element but a soul (spirit) who gives us sustenance, beauty, growth, generosity, and peace of mind. Nibi is a teacher, and a storyteller.

Nibi gives us life.

To us, bimaadiziwin or life has always been characterized and driven by factors of a material as well as spiritual nature. Anishinaabe ishinaamowin/izhinamowin, our traditional worldview, as well as the social structure of our communities and cultural traditions, are based on the lessons taught by bagwaji-bimaadiziwin, the cycle of nature, and on an innate understanding that existence is a dynamic and continuous interplay between all of creation.

Just like the tides of the lakes are continuously changing, this mutual interaction between life forces is a flowing, dynamic entity that affects - and is affected by - everyone and everything in the here and now, the past, and the future.

To the Anishinaabe, everything and everyone – natural objects and phenomena, human beings, man-made objects, animals, plant beings, spirit beings - are interconnected and exist beyond linear time and space.


~~ A free-flowing river by moonlight as a metaphor for a free spirit and a serene heart ~~

The dramatic, flowing "spirit line" design of the above wedding rings, which I titled Zagaate Ziibi (A River Shines like the Moon), symbolizes all of the above. The wavy spirit line, which reminds us of ebb and flood, stands for life in its fullest sense.

Having said this, the serene character of the rings and the round moon symbol inlays also have a meaning that goes far beyond what it initially appears to be.

The title, the stylized design as well as the color of these overlay wedding rings, which relate to a free flowing river by moonlight, are a metaphor for our spirit. Our spirit which, despite all ‘‘rational’’ constraints and limitations we tend to create for ourselves, is essentially as free as the flight of a bird – or the course of a river.

The inlaid orbs of white gold (moon symbols), connected by means of the free-flowing spirit line, symbolize illumination and enlightenment. The orb consisting of two halves is a unity symbol, symbolizing the duality as well as the complementary forces that exist in nature and in human nature

Anishinaabeg know that everything in Creation has spirit. The plants, the trees, the wind, the rocks and the mountains have spirit. The sky world, including the moon and other planets, has spirit. The water has spirit. All of these are part of our first family, the natural world.


There’s that feeling of sensing Mother Earth. There’s times when I stand by the water, and I can feel the pulsing, the pulsing of the water standing by the shore. I can feel that connection myself with the water.

- Josephine Mandamin


~~ Nibi Waaboo, the Water Song ~~

Our People, particularly our women, perform age-old ceremonies that are directly related to the water and to the moon. An important part of this ceremony is called "MIDE WAABOO" (Literally; Medicine Water). In this ceremony, during which a song is sung called NIBI WAABOO or WATER SONG, a Midewikwe (a member of the medicinal, spiritual, scientific, philosophical, and artistic society of the Anishinaabe Peoples, the MIDEWIWIN) holds the water up in a vessel made of the sacred copper, while the water song is sung by the Midewaanikweg (Sacred Water Line women) attending.

Bebaminojmat (Leland Bell) art
Offering a Bowl of Water of Life, acrylic on canvas by Anishinaabe painter Bebaminojmat (Leland Bell)

The water songs can be sung at each new moon or even every day to bless the spirit of the water. This can be at the lake shores and at river banks, at wells and the great ocean - even at the sink in your kitchen: anywhere where there's water present. Traditionally, during the NIBI WAABOO performance, a ceremonial staff is being used and certain teachings are being shared. Women in a circle play hand drums, or, like it was done in the old days – before the Dakota gifted us with drums–, clapper sticks of white birch bark.

The MIDE WAABOO is particularly held each year at the thirteenth moon - which is the moon at the end of February/March. It is established that the water song, like all women's ceremonies, shall be sung at the new moon and only by ikwewag, the women. It is to be sung one time for each of the seven directions - east, south, west, north, the skies, the earth, and within oneself.


~~ Origin and pronunciation of the word nibi ~~

Now, let us dwell a little bit on the word Nibi, which is Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) for water. Nibi, depending on the region, is pronounced, nih-BEH or ni-PIH. The first pronunciation can be heard among the Nakawe-Ojibweg (Saulteaux) of western Ontario while the latter is favored by Ojibweg in, for exampe, Minnesota.

A few years ago my friend Michel Sutherland from Fort Albany, Nishnawbe-aski in Northeastern Ontario, related to me the following dibaajimowin (true life story) about the etymology of the word nibi. According to this Anishinini (Oji-Cree) story, the word nibi derives from the old form b'he; later on, throughout time, it evolved in "nibi": Niin, or ni= my; b'he = water.

My water.

"My uncle and I, in 1981, went spring goose hunt, 8 kilometers south from our community. He watched my careful meditations in the mornings, all day, and in the evenings, I was not aware that was what he was doing, but sharing life together was what we were doing. After his long walk, kneeling down near the wood stove I handed him a cup of water. Quietly staring at the stove, he said, water is life. You are water, everything around us is made of water, touch a tree as you would touch your own body, it is solid but this these containers carry water, this what our ancestors believe. Now-a-days, we say 'Nibi' or 'Ni'pi' for water, but in the old days when our ancestor wore no clothing but a strap and a breach called water 'B'he' and I tried to pronounced it 'Pi' or 'Pe' and he said no, not that way and again pronounced it properly 'B'he,' later on , in the time, after we met the White people is when we started to say 'Ne'b'he' to mean: my water. Then later, it was pronounced 'Ni'pi.'"


"Our teachings are that ceremonies have protocols, or ways of proceeding. One of these is to smudge with sage, a traditional medicine that involves lighting the sage and lifting the smoke over one’s eyes, ears, mouths, hearts and hands. This action cleanses our thoughts, visions, words and feelings. Josephine (Mandamin)

acknowledged this walk was a ceremony and so we smudged before picking up the pail and eagle staff. As part of the ceremonial protocol during the walk, women were asked to wear long skirts. There are traditional teachings that go with the wearing of skirts... it is said the long skirt represents our closeness to Mother Earth, and our respect and honour for the water. The eagle staff is a sacred item that represents vision. The eagle is the being who sees the furthest; he sees his prey from great heights."

- Noodinikwe (Mary Anne Caibaiosai): Why We Walk


~~ A Traditional Moon Teaching ~~

Now, let me relate to you a traditional teaching about the moon, partly based on a lesson shared by Midewiwin Grandmother Beatrice Menasekwe Jackson of Migizi Doodem (the Ojibwe Bald Eagle Clan).*

The moon is called Grandmother Moon, and great respect is given to her. In the Anishinaabe world, she is referred to as Wezaawigiizhigookwe, Yellow Sky Woman, our Grandmother Moon.

Women’s life-giving cycles are linked to the cycles of the moon, which is why our Peoples regard women as carriers of the water message.

Ojibwe moons calendar
Ojibwe Turtle Moons calendar.**

The cycles of the moon determine our yearly calendar. The changes that come with each of the passing moons indicate the times for planting, harvesting, hunting and gathering. In the Anishinaabe Calendar, the names of each month includes the word “Moon.” These names (see the above turtle moon calendar, which has 13 moons) reflect the close connection between the cycles of the moon and the plant and animal life on Turtle Island. The names of the 13 moons differ depending on the region.

It is said that Grandmother Moon watches over the waters of the Earth. We see this in her regulating the tides. Grandmother Moon controls all female life. Much of the water life spawns according to the cycles of the moon.

It is said that Grandmother Moon is especially close to women because she governs the women’s cleansing cycle, the natural cycle of menstruation known as “moon time.”

Just as Grandmother Moon watches over the waters of the Earth, it is said that women watch over the waters of the people. Water always comes before new life.

It is said that the moon cycle is a gift to women. It is a time to cleanse herself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The moon time is considered a time of power, second only to the ability of the Great Mystery to give life. That is how strong that power is.

Women can ask Grandmother Moon for direction in life, for wisdom, and for help for her children and others. Grandmother Moon can give her healing and balancing energy to women.


Some teachings say that when the moon is full, women can ask Grandmother Moon to give them energy. Around the full moon, women on their moon time become very intuitive. It is an opportunity for women to take time for themselves to help foster their intuition and to have strong dreams.

When the moon is full, a woman can do a ceremony to honor and seek guidance from Grandmother Moon. The ceremony can be simple. A woman can sit on the ground and ask Grandmother Moon to replenish her body with new energy. She takes water with her when she asks the Moon to bless her. The water then becomes her medicine.

In the Midewewin Ceremonies of the Anishinaabe Peoples women are taught a certain ceremony they do every full moon time. When the moon comes to show her full face she reminds the women of their role and responsibility as a woman. The ceremony involves lighting a fire; ASEMAA (tobacco) is offered to the fire; NIBI (water) is prayed for and shared. Sacred foods are offered to the fire. Cloth offerings are given to the fire as well. ISHKODE, or fire, is understood to be a male energy. By balancing ISHKODE and NIBI through ceremony, male and female energy are symbolically balanced again. The ceremony is explained when you are actually doing the ceremony. It is a special time to honor our mother the earth, our grandmother moon and our ancestors who came before us.


"The water of Mother Earth, she carries life to us, and as women we carry life through our bodies. We as women are life-givers, protectors of the water, and that's why we are very inclined to give Mother Earth the respect that she needs for the water.

We’ve known for a long time that water is alive. Water can hear you. Water can sense what you are saying and what you are feeling. There’s been a place where I put tobacco in the water, where the water is so still. It was dead. I prayed for it. I put my tobacco in the water and my tobacco started floating around. So the water came alive. It heard my prayers. It heard the song. So I know it listens, and it can come alive if you pay attention to it. Give it respect and it can come alive. Like anything. Like a person who is sick… if you give them love, take care of them, they’ll come alive. They’ll feel better. It’s the same with our mother, the earth, and the water. Give it love."

- Josephine Mandamin


Giiwenh. That's how far this story goes. Thank you for reading & listening.

Nibibimaadiziwin. Miigwechiwendan akina gegoo ahaw! Water is Life. Be thankful for everything!

*UTFAV 1/19/11

** Turtle Moons Calendar image, courtsesy of Beth LaPensée.

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