Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 16: Silver, Precious Metal of the Spirits
Updated: May 20, 2022
Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon)/Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon), May 11, 2022
Today, let's talk about "decolonization" - for lack of a better word.
To "decolonize" is a big thing nowadays.
This is why people, mostly of Anishinaabe and Ininew descent, often frown on me for using precious metals in my jewelry and wedding rings. Aren't gold and silver settlers' metals? they ask me. Shame on you! Don't those metals reflect the kind of status that settlers pursue? It isn't natural for Natives to use it! You should use wood, stone, shells, and bark, and other gifts of mother earth instead!
Of course, I could retort by saying something like "Hoowah! It isn't 'natural' for us to buy our food instead of hunting and foraging for it. It isn't 'natural' for us to use plastic beads instead of porcupine quills in our artwork. It isn't 'natural' for us to live in gigantic structures made of concrete instead of dwellings made of natural fabrics, and it isn't 'natural' to drive huge iron ponies instead of paddling canoes of birchbark." But I don't. I tell them a story instead.
It is a story connected with Wenabozho, the Great Underwater Lynx, and the Sleeping Giant of Thunder Bay. It is a story that lives deep in our hearts and our collective blood memory. All I have to do is refresh it...
What most people have forgotten is that silver and copper are, historically and spiritually, linked to the Gichigami Anishinaabeg and Ininewak (Ojibweg and Cree from the Lake Superior area). The Natives from that area have mined, and crafted into jewelry, both metals for centuries, long before the European settlers arrived. In fact, our ancestors held both metals highly sacred.
"Ok, so silver and copper ARE Native metals, but why not use copper or brass (yellow copper) instead of gold then?" I am sometimes asked. My answer to that is that copper or brass aren't the kinds of metal you want to have in your wedding ring (unless you want your finger to turn green) and that I use gold to symbolize the sacred copper. I use mostly 14K gold, which is an alloy of gold and silver. Almost half of this alloy consists of silver and/or copper by the way.
~~ GIFTS OF THE UNDERWATER SPIRITS ~~
Both silver and copper have been mined for many thousands of years from deposits in the Thunder Bay area and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and have been used, worked, and traded by many generations of Native Peoples – probably even by those that lived there long before the Anishinaabe settlers arrived from the east. Because of their spiritual and economic importance to the Gichi Gami-Ojibwe Anishinaabeg, both metals were held in high cultural regard and formed the Anishinaabe identity to an extent that can hardly be underestimated. Copper and silver, along with other beneficial “beings” such as fish and other sea creatures – like underwater serpents –, have always been deemed extremely sacred – and as such held various spiritual and symbolic meanings. Our ancestors regarded both copper and silver as gifts from the water spirits that dwell the underworld of the lakes; to them, the natural gloss of the metal reflected light against the darkness in which many spirits, some of which possibly malevolent, were suspected to lurk. Because of the sacred nature of silver and copper, the Ojibweg who mined these metals were usually very secretive about the locations of the mines – which in themselves, relating to the extremely sacred mood or atmosphere of these places, were considered manidoowid (possessing sacred, spiritual powers), and I would not be surprised if the old ones regarded them as ideal locations for having dreams and, possibly, vision-seeking.
~~ THE IMPORTANCE OF SILVER ~~
In the second half of the 18th century, silver - along with furs - became the most prominent trade good in the Great Lakes area, even more important than copper, miigisag (wampum), and glass beads. Arm bands, bracelets, rings, brooches, earrings, gorgets, hair plates, and a myriad of other silver jewelry items were crafted and traded back in those days. But the ancestors never forgot about the sacred nature of silver as it infused great spiritual blessings and power into their sacred items – such as ogimaa dewe'iganag (big dance drums) that were sometimes decorated with silver plates or disks. So sacred was silver deemed that when an Ojibwe took the life of a bear, he sometimes adorned its head, along with wampum belts, with arm bands and bracelets of pure silver, after which the bear was laid on a scaffold within a lodge with a large quantity of asemaa (tobacco) placed near his nostrils...
Illustration: set of wedding rings, titled Wenabozho Aanji'onishkaa (Nanabush Reawakens).
Ojibwe-style graphic overlay wedding ring with red gold inlay and oxidized outlines. See the New Fisher star Creations website for details.