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Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 19: Song of the Sturgeon

Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) - May 20, 2024


Wenabozho's Sturgeon Song painting by Zhaawano Giizhik




We used to smoke our pipes

Offering smoke to the fish

Singing songs to the fish  

Singing songs to the fish.


We used to smoke our pipes

Offering smoke to the fish

Sharing stories about the fish

Sharing stories about the fish.


We told stories about Maajiigawiz

How he defeated the giant bear of the West Tossing his brains in the white crests

Of the lake, turning into fish.


We told stories of how the fish

Came from the stars above

Raining down like hail

Hitting the waters of the lake.

We told stories of how the fish

Within the ‌quietude of rocky riverbeds

Observed the sky as they watched

The motions of the sun, moon, and stars


We told stories of the sturgeon

As old as gichigami itself

Emerging from the depths of our dreams

Feeding us with wisdom, wonder, and song.

We used to smoke our pipes

Offering smoke to the fish

Singing songs to the fish  

Sharing stories about the fish.


Boozhoo! Hello! Biindigen miinawaa, welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge, where there is love and learning!

My name is Zhaawano Giizhik. By way of an illustrated blog series called "Reflections of the Great Lakes,"  I seek to capture and pay homage to the spirit and fascinating beauty and majesty of Gichigamiin, the Great Freshwater Seas of the Anishinaabeg People, and of all the creatures that live near, on, or beneath them. 

To my Anishinaabeg ancestors, the waters themselves and their undercurrents and beaches and mist-covered islands have always evoked a myriad of mysterious representations of manidoo. These spirit beings, such as mishi-bizhiwag (great horned underwater cats), mishi ginebigag (great horned underwater snakes), nibiinaabekwewag (mermaids), and mishi-name-ginebigag (great snake sturgeons), occasionally appeared in natural guise with distinct animal (and sometimes human) personalities.

Lake sturgeon is one of the fish spirits native to the Great Lakes region that play a role in many aadizookaanan, or sacred stories of the Anishinaabe Peoples that live close to the water. This ancient, extremely tough fish species, which survived pollution, over-fishing, and dams, can grow to be more than six feet long. Sturgeons swam in ancient seas while gete-ogiikadaanaangweg (dinosaurs) still walked the earth...

Wii winaanaa-naadaashimag mishi-name
Mii, wii gagwedibenimag.

"I shall go after the great sturgeon in the wind
Thus, I shall test the great sturgeon."


"I set my nets near the shore
I set my nets halfway across the lake."*

Since time immemorial, lake sturgeon, besides playing a fundamental role in the economic life of the Anishinaabeg and Ininewak (Cree) Peoples whose communities were, and still are, depending on fish as a major food crop during the entire year and as a central item of exchange, takes a central place in their ceremonial life as well. Being an important connection with both the natural and the supernatural world, Name (pronounce nah-MEH), as he is called in Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language), is still known as Aadizookaa Giigoonh (pronounce aah-dih-zoo-KAAH-kee-KOHN) , a Grandfather Fish who provides spiritual help to the People.


"Sturgeon Moon Over Thunder Bay," painting by Zhaawano Giizhik


Illustration: "Sturgeon moon Over Thunder Bay,"©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik,

Wenabozho, the beloved friend and teacher of the Anishinaabeg Peoples, steers his canoe into the center of the Thunder Bay. Once there, watched by the sleeping giant in the background and the clever loon in the foreground, he offers the smoke from his pipe to the great sturgeon that swims in the lake and dances on the moon. The wisps of clouds and fog dancing in the night sky are the abode of the Thunderbirds that gave their name to the bay. The seven fires depicted in the moon and the dots (eggs) surrounding the sturgeon in the lake represent the seven Grandfather teachings that the sturgeon received to pass on to the peoples who for many generations lived close to gichigami and whose descendants still live off the fish that swim in its depths. In the story depicted In the painting, the sturgeon was chosen to give birth to, and carry on, the teachings because he is an ancient creature who outlived all other creatures on earth. The seven teachings, or grandfathers, are called wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and finally, truth.


Traditionally, Grandfather Sturgeon, since he offers himself abundantly to the spearers during the fishing season, symbolized to our ancestors values like selflessness and sustenance as well as the need for modesty and wise and generous sharing. When a person killed an animal or collected the first fruits of the season  like maple sugar, blueberries, and wild rice , he was supposed to, in the spirit of Name, first offer it to the Spirit-Grandfathers of the Universe and then divide it among the camps. Then, and only then, he would cook his own share and invite all the old people to come and eat with him.

Name, along with other fish species such as Namebin (Sucker), Adikameg (Whitefish), Owaazisii,** (Bullhead catfish), Maanameg (Catfish), and Ginoozhe (Pike), is also known to have played a fundamental role in structuring Anishinaabe society through its clan system. In Anishinaabe society, families, which have an extended nature, are traditionally organized into clans; the purpose of these clans is to divide labor and spiritual/ceremonial tasks, provide general support, and to stress identity of self and the group. Through the clanship system founded by the Anishinaabe ancestors, these fish species as well as a myriad of land animals, reptiles, and birds, instill in the respective clan members certain virtues to emulate and provide them with a set of life-long responsibilities to live up to. One’s clan animal/clan fish/clan bird has a direct counterpart in the night sky and is therefore not to be consumed; to do so would be spiritual cannibalism.


"Sturgeon Moon Over Thunder Bay" - detail.


Anishinaabe clan symbols superficially seemed to refer to earthly animals and fish and birds which in modern society has often led to the misunderstanding that descending from a clan animal was equivalent to having that animal as one's progenitor; yet in reality the clan symbols directly related to stellar constellations, seen as the destinations of the afterlife journey. To "descend from," according to the old Anishinaabe tradition, essentially meant "to pass from a higher place or level to a lower one." For instance, to say “name nindoodem” ("my totem is the sturgeon") did not mean the person believed a sturgeon was his literal forebear; rather it meant that all members of odoodem (his/her clan) achieved their cosmic rebirth in the star world – meaning, somewhere along the banks of the Great River of Souls (the Milky Way).

Giigoonh (Ojibwe Fish clan) is one of the oldest Ojibwe phratries (clan groups). Fish clan members claim their ancestors were the first to appear out of the Atlantic Ocean. But, like I said in the above paragraph, there is also a direct link between the fish clans and the stars of the Jiibay Miikana (Milky Way). Noticing how they constantly watch the sky while they swim in the currents of rivers and streams, gete-anishinaabeg understood that giigoonhyag have knowledge of the stars as much as they understand the motions of the sun and moon. The Fish Clan are therefore regarded as the peoples' knowledge keepers and philosophers. Even today they are responsible for solving disputes between the two principal leader clans (Crane and Loon) of the Nation on earth, and in the night sky they are responsible for guiding the jiibayag of deceased clan members toward their final resting place among the stars.


The complex and varied place that Name occupies in the cosmological world view of the Anishinaabeg and the Ininiwak is illustrated by various oral stories, with a metaphoric, often sacred nature, revealing the extraordinary social and spiritual relations that exist between man and this Grandfather Fish. 


"Legend of the Snake Sturgeon" by Amimikii Binesi
"Legend of the Snake Sturgeon" acrylic on paper (early 1960s) by the late Amimikii Binesi (Norval Morrisseau)

In some of these stories, Name is a descendant of a snake, and there are many tales relating of Mishi-name-ginebig, the Great Sturgeon Snake, or Name Odakanid, the Horned Sturgeon as he is sometimes called, prowling the waters of the lakes, that sometimes described as a huge snake with a fish tail, a red belly and a box-shaped head, sometimes with horns , if consumed, will strangle a human being, or even transform him into a snake... 

Giiwenh. So goes the teaching song about Mishi-name, the Great Sturgeon... Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to our storytelling today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon. 


>Read the next story in the Reflections of the Great Lakes series: Wenabozho and the Moose Sturgeon (Soon to be posted).



*A free rendering by Zhaawano of a traditional Midewiwin song for good fishing. Source: Basil Johnston, Ojibway Ceremonies, University of Nebraska Press Lincoln and London, 1982.

**It is said that long ago, the Name clan split off from the Owaazisii (Awaasii) clan.



Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 1: The Lake is Singing My Song

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 2: Nibi, Source of Life

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 3: Look into the Water of a Clear Lake

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 4: We Are Still Here!

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 5: The Spirit of Manoomin

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 6: Mishi-ginebig, Patron of Healing and Wisdom

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 7: Mishi-name, The Great Sturgeon

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 8: A Good Way of Life

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 9: Earth Song

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 10: Sunset at Gichigami

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 11: Encounter with a Black Bear

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 12: The Lake Remembers

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 13: Tobacco, Sacred Gifts of the Thunderbirds

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 14: Zhingibis and the Spirit of the North Wind

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 15: Zhingibis and the Heart Berry

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 16: Why I Use Silver in My Wedding Rings

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 17: Animosh and the Twins

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 18: They Speak From a Great Distance

Reflections of the Great Lakes, part 19: Song of the Sturgeon


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