Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 12: The Lake Remembers
Updated: May 6
Namebine-giizis/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Suckerfishing Moon/Budding Moon), May 12, 2020
Updated: May 6, 2023
Inaabin zaaga’igan gawaakamig.
igiwe aazha gaapime ayaawaad.
(“Look into the clear lake.
The image you see in the water is not yours.
What you see is the reflection of those who came before you.”)¹
Boozhoo, aaniin, biindigen!
Welcome to part 12 already of the blog series titled "Reflections of the Great Lakes."
The stories pay homage to the spirit and fascinating beauty and majesty of GICHIGAMIIN, the Great Lakes of Turtle Island (North America), and thematically connect the jewelry and artwork displayed with the Seven Grandfather teachings of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg People who for many generations have lived close to the Lakes' shores to survive.
Today's story is woven around two very touching poems by Simone McLeod (about the spirit of the trees), a gold and silver ring set designed and handcrafted by myself, titled "Earth Blood," a sacred Anishinaabe story about the origin of maple syrup – and on top of that accompanied by illustrations by Simone and three other Anishinaabe painters, Bebaminojmat (see above image), the late Carl Ray, the late Cecil Youngfox, as well as a pen-and-ink drawing and a painting by myself.
~~THE SPIRIT OF THE TREES ~~
I remember a saying – I’m not sure but I think it was Ahniyvwiya (Cherokee) writer Craig Strete who said it – that has made a deep impression on me. “If you want to know the past, talk to the trees.” I was still a young teenager when I heard it but the observation made me realize that a tree is a living being, like a human being is, or a tiny ant, or a mighty eagle, or a rock, or a star, or mountain, or a river, or a lake. Even the fog that forms over the lake shortly after sunrise is a living being.
A tree in all its beauty grows strong roots
Safe, deep within mother earth.
What happens around it
May leave gnarly scars on the outside.
But still the tree grows tall and strong
Performing insurmountable tasks
In its lifetime.
Today I give thanks to the spirit of the trees
In my life.²
As I got older I immersed myself – by going into ceremony and reading books and talking to knowledgeable Elders, but also by delving deeply into my subconsciousness, or "spirit memory" if you will – in the ancient world view of my Native ancestors, and this is how I learned that Anishinaabe metaphysics interprets the countless phenomena, forms, and forces of the natural world specific to man’s immediate environment not just in a rational but also, and foremost, in a spiritual, cosmological context. In the Native's spiritual worldview, a great respect is manifested for all entities within the cosmos, even those that are more remote to mankind. All life forms are considered (more or less) animated and inter-related “persons” or “relatives” possessing a consciousness, rationale, and a will of their own. And, if I may add – but this is my own imagination talking – possessing the power of dreaming as well.
There isn’t much imagination needed, then, to realize that all things alive possess memory as well – or minjimendamowin, as it’s called in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language. If this goes for the trees, it equally goes for water since trees carry water, or sap, from their roots to the leaves. (The sap of the maple tree, for example, is called aninaatigwaaboo in our language; its literal meaning is “water of the man tree.”) It is also easy to imagine that, since trees and the water typically live longer than humankind and everything else on the planet, they can tell us a thing or two about what has passed in our world and environment, long before we, as humans, entered the stage.
And this is exactly why we, when we speak to the trees and the waters and every other natural phenomenon that we encounter in nature and in our dreams and visions, use the honorary titles of Nimishoo: “My Grandfather,” and Nooko, “My Grandmother.”
SPIRIT OF THE BIRCH TREE
I touch you You feel me My eyes closed Your spirit opens
Touching me I lay my hands
On your skin Birch tree
You offer Yourself
Selflessly My records
My history Is your gift
To my people Countless moons
You shared much Your roots
Deep within me Birch tree ³
~~ THE SYMBOLISM OF THE RINGS ~~
This contemporary, stylish designer ring set of 14K palladium white and red gold and sterling silver, which I created by hand with the aid of the overlay technique, is titled Aki Miskwi (Earth Blood). Both the title and the sleek design of the rings, which are executed in a comfort fit – which means the bands have rounded inside edges for increased comfort –, are an artistic reference to an age-old teaching of the Midewiwin, the ancient Lodge of Wisdom and Knowledge seekers of the Anishinaabe Peoples. This teaching, which we will dwell on more below, is generally referred to as manidoo-minjimendamowin, which means “blood memory” (literally: ”spirit memory").
The flowing, oxidized wave that you see integrated in the design of the rings refers to water, which is considered to be the life-giving blood Mother Earth. It is a graphic illustration of the ancient belief that water, which carries the DNA and numerous memories of countless beings that lived in the past, has the fluidity to keep adapting to the present and future. It does this in a sacred and continuous transition.
~~ THE SACRED TALE ABOUT HOW THE MAPLE TREE SAP CAME TO THE PEOPLE ~~
Ahaaw, ningad aadizooke bezhig miinawaa... Let's tell a sacred tale now... a tale about the origin of maple sugar-making as it is known in the land of Minisooding (present-day Minnesota).
“In the beginning when the world was still young, GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, decided to make life easier for the Anishinaabeg, who were starving. One day a man stood at the lake gazing across when he heard a voice behind him. It was the spirit of Aninaatig (the Man Tree) who addressed him saying that the Great Mystery pitied the starving Anishinaabeg and that from now on the trees would gift them with their stories and nutritious sap. The voice gave the Anishinaabe inini at the lake instructions on how to tap the trees. The maple trees were full of thick, sweet syrup that dripped out easily when a branch was broken from the tree and the Anishinaabeg knew they would never have to grow hungry again after the hardships of winter.
One day, Wenabozho, the supernatural hero and friend of the People, decided to visit the Anishinaabeg, but they were not in the village. No one was hunting, fishing, or working in the fields. Finally he found them in a forest of man-trees, lying around on the ground, catching syrup in their open mouths from the dripping maples. Wenabozho decided that after all the hardships in the past, life had become too convenient for his People; they would all grow fat and lazy because they would never had to work anymore.
So it was then that Wenabozho made a basket out of birch bark, filled it with water, went to the top of the man trees and poured the water down their trunks. Suddenly, the thick syrup turned thin and watery, just barely sweet. From now on, Wenabozho said, the Anishinaabeg will have to work for their syrup by collecting it in great amounts in a birch basket like mine, and then boil off the water by heating the sap with hot stones. In this way, people will appreciate their hear-earned syrup. But Wenabozho made it so that maples only produced the sap during certain times of the year, at the end of winter, so the Anishinaabeg would spend the rest of the year working in the fields and hunting and catching fish. And this is how it has been ever since..."
~~ WHAT DOES NIBI (WATER) MEAN TO THE ANISHINAABEG PEOPLES? ~~
Anishinaabeg, particularly those that live close to the edges of gichigamiin, the freshwater lakes, have always had a close relationship with nibi, the water. There exists a tradition among our story keepers that says that humankind originated from the fish (to be exact, from the scales of the fish) that live in the salt waters of wiisagiwi-gichigami, the Great Atlantic Sea. Another tradition speaks of the emergence among the Waabanakiig – as the Anishinaabeg called themselves when they still lived in the Atlantic Dawn Land – of six midemiigis-gaa-niigaani-gikendangig from the Ocean. These Mystery Beings, who appeared as cowry shells, established among the Waabanakiig the spiritual principle of Niizhwaaswi Gagiikwewinan (Seven Sacred Teachings) as well as a system of kinship based on odoodemag (clans or totems). These teachings, or laws, would become the foundation of Midewiwin spiritual practice among te Anishinaabeg Peoples. Many strings of life later – probably about six or seven hundred summers ago – there was another legendary emergence, this time of five Prophets who came from the waves of Mishigami, or Lake Michigan. The teachings of these mysterious sea beings resulted in a new odoodem framework, and were ultimately followed by a historical political alliance – formed by three large Anishinaabe bands: the Ojibweg, the Odaawaag, and the Bodéwadmik, – that even today plays a vital role in our society and lives.
"The Nibi (Water) Walks are Indigenous-led, extended ceremonies to pray for the water. Every step is taken in prayer and gratitude for water, our life giving force.
We walk for the water, and as we heal the water we heal all of life. We are not a protest. We are a prayer for the water."
Principle of the Nibi Walks
To us, nibi is an organic system like a tree, a plant, or the human body. It is like any circulatory system that ensures the ongoing health and well-being of the body that is the bearer of such a system. The Anishinaabe inhabitants of the Great Lakes area, who have always been aware of the existence of rivers that run underground, know that these underground waterways are the veins of OMIZAKAMIGOKWE, or OGASHINAN (Everywhere-on-Earth-Woman, or Grandmother Earth). As she flows through the rivers, lakes and streams, nibi seeps through underground passageways or bursts out of the surface of the Earth in the form of artesian wells. Nibi is regarded as the life blood of Grandmother Earth, as she purifies and feeds her. It is important to understand in this context that, since nibi is the source of life and women have the gift of life, she is deemed the responsibility of ikweg, our women. It is the women who know that the waters of the Great Lakes must be protected, kept pure, for all life now and to come.
~~ KETTLE DRUMS, THUNDERBIRDS, UNDERWATER SPIRITS, AND THE SACRED COPPER ~~
Since Nibi is such a vital life force it has always been part of our spiritual traditions and ceremonial practices. As such nibi is often associated with Thunderbirds, and with the wood of trees - or with a combination of both. And since the Thunderbirds cannot be thematically separated from their eternal antagonists the underwater spirits - who, in turn, are associated with copper, which, in turn, has been used for many generations by our women to carry the sacred water of the lakes -, it is easy to see the scope and depth of the significance of water in our everyday and ceremonial lives, and to realize that it is a unifying force that flows through all living things and all levels of the cosmos - and as such continually nurtures our well-being, our stories, and our dreams and visions.
The mitigwakik (literally: wooden vessel), the Midewiwin water drum, is a wooden kettle drum, traditionally made by hollowing out a basswood log. Before each use, a few inches of water is poured into the drum and a wet heavily tanned deer hide is stretched over the drum; a willow hoop secures the hide. These Midewiwin Drums, sometimes called Grandfather Drums and traditionally used by high ranking members of the Midewiwin and decorated by the owner depending upon his doodem/clan and/or rank within the Lodge, can be heard from long distances. Mitigwakikoon are regarded as living entities, aadizookaanag (grandfathers of the nonhuman class), and important messengers in the Midewiwin hierarchy. According to Midewiwin belief the sound of the Grandfather water drum "causes the sky to brighten up and the water to be calm for the person who carries the drum."
Animikiig Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds who are seen as supernatural counterparts of eagles and hawks, are traditionally associated with nibi in various aspects and levels. They are known to assist the Anishinaabeg by driving away the ominous underwater manidoog (spirits) that lurk the waters of te lakes during spring and summer. Thunderbirds and the misi-ginebigoog or Sea Serpents of the lake are adversaries; many stories relate of Thunderbirds feeding upon the great horned Sea Serpent. The battles between Thunderbirds and these mishi-ginebigoog often result in raging waters and seething storms.
On Manitoulin Island, a common type of drum is the Bineshii Dewe’igan or Thunderbird Drum; the design of this type of drum and certain songs and rituals that go with it are brought to its owner by a Thunderbird Spirit who shows him or her how to make and use it, and the design he or she must paint on it. The colors of the Thunderbird designs, which represent manidoo animikii bineshi miikana or Spirit Road of the Thunderbird, usually depict some of the revitalizing tasks the Thunder Grandfathers fulfilled when they brought the rain to the earth so that life on earth would continue, like cleansing the earth, the lakes, and the rivers, and sustaining the plants and the trees by giving them water when they return each spring with the migrating birds… it is the sound of these drums, imitating the thunder rolling through the sky, that reminds the Anishinaabeg that the Thunder Grandfathers represent the linkage between the birds of the sky world, the plants of the middle world (the earth), the lakes and rivers, and the creatures that live beneath the lake surfaces.
This is why Thunderbird designs so often figure on drums, and since the power they contain flows directly from these avian Grandfathers, both the water drum and the Thunderbirds are regarded with awe and reverence. The design, colors, and sound of the drum remind us that as long as we don’t forget about the Thunder Grandfathers, they will always look after our People.⁵
Zhoomaanikiwaabik -- or ozaawaabikoo-zhooniya ("brown silver") as it is called by the Ojibweg from Wisconsin and Minnesota – is how the Anishinaabeg call copper. This metal, since it holds various spiritual and symbolic meanings in connection with water, has always been regarded as extremely sacred because it is believed to be a beneficial gift from the water spirits that dwell the underworld of the lakes. Over a time period of at least six thousand years large quantities of the brown treasure were mined on islands in Gichigami, as we call Lake Superior. For at least two centuries our People directly relate copper to the powerful Mishi-bizhiw (the Horned Underwater Lynx) – and therefore also to the Animkiig (Thunderbirds), inveterate antagonists of the underwater beings. Even today practitioners of Midewiwin use miskwaabikoon (pieces of copper) in their ceremonies and in the past the copper deposits in Gichigami were often frequented by Medicine People who came there in canoes to dream and have visions.
The above photo, taken in the summer of 2015 by Simone Mcleod, shows Mishibikwadinaang (nowadays Michipicoten Bay), which lays in the northeastern corner of Gichigami. In the foreground of the photo I sit high on the black volcanic rocks protruding into its waters as I ponder the many stories I've heard of Mishibizhiw, the Great Underwater Lynx, who is known among our Peoples for guarding the vast amounts of copper and silver in Gichigami.
During the 17th century, when European missionaries arrived in the area, it became extremely taboo and forbidden for outsiders to harvest the sacred metal from the region. It was even worse to take the copper from Mishibizhiw's home, Michipicoten Island; this was considered to be stealing from Mishibizhiw himself. When traveling the northern shores of Gichigami I sensed Mishibizhiw's presence everywhere I went -- particularly in the Michipicoten and Thunder Bay areas –, and I began to realize how strongly our history and our belief system and our ceremonies, stories, and songs are connected with, and draw from, these immense stretches of water. It was then that the story, which I present to you today, started to form in my head and heart.
"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." - The late grandmother Josephine Mandamin ⁴
~~ THE DNA OF WATER ~~
In 2009, The French virologist Luc Montagnier, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2008 for the discovery of HIV, stunned many fellow Western scientists with claims that DNA emits weak electromagnetic waves that cause structural changes in water that persist even in extremely high dilutions. Montagnier considers himself an intellectual heir to the (controversial ) French scientist Jacques Benveniste, who claimed in a 1988 Nature paper that water can retain "memories" of compounds even when diluted at a very high level. "Water memory" defies conventional scientific understanding of physical chemistry knowledge and is not accepted by the scientific community, yet the idea is widely applauded by proponents of homeopathy.
When I read about Mr. Montagnier’s finding I thought by myself, “hoowah! - this confirms my conviction that there actually is such a thing as nibi-minjimendamowin, Water Memory!”
If this is the case, I wonder, then, if Gichigamiin, as we call the North American Great Lakes, might be, what would be called in our language, gikendaasowin-gichi-ataasoowigamigoon, huge storage rooms of knowledge? Dibishkoo mide-wiigwaasi-makakiidog iidog? Kind of like birchbark scroll storage boxes that hold mnemonic information, passed on by Midewiwin – the Lodge of healers and wisdom and knowledge keepers?
I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Geget, water does more than sustain life – it contains and transports pieces of memory that persist throughout ages, even in extremely high dilutions. The lakes that contain all that water are living entities, teachers that have for countless generations passed on legends, knowledge, and wisdom to our Peoples. Much of this has been forgotten, and I think it is therefore important to understand, and relearn, this ancient knowledge.
So, all we must do is understand this, and go to the lake and bring our asemaa (tobacco). All we must do is sit down at the waterfront and honor the water, lay the tobacco down on the water. Let us close our eyes, empty our minds, and imagine the water flowing through our body and cleansing our spirits. Let us become formless, shapeless - like the water itself. Then, let us talk to the water. Listen to the water. It will talk back to us. Let us learn from it.
Miigwech gibindizaw, thank you for listening.
“Collecting consciousness is not easy to explain. But when we are walking with the water, we are also collecting thoughts with that water. And in the collecting of thoughts, we are also collecting consciousness of people’s minds. The minds, hopefully, will be of one, sometime… You have to walk with a pail as if you are walking with a water stream. It's very important to keep the water moving because you've made that promise to keep it moving while you are walking.”
- The late grandmother, Mother Earth Water Walker, Josephine Mandamin ⁴
> To view another ring set whose design has a lake-related theme, see part 10 in the series: Sunset at Gichigami.
¹ Phrase taken from Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 3.
² Poem by Simone McLeod © Simone McLeod 2014-2020
³ Poem by Simone McLeod ©Simone McLeod 2014-2020
⁴ To read more about Grandmother Josephine Mandamin and the Mother Earth Water Walkers, see: Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 1.