Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 26: Sky Blanket and the Gifts of the Little Spirit Tree
Updated: Jul 5
~~ The story of a non-conformist, Two-Spirit woman who followed her vision and became a teacher to her People ~~
Updated: Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon)/Ode'iminii-giizis (Strawberry Moon), June 8, 2022
Aaniin! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. (Hi! Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where there is love and learning.)
Today's story is part 26 in a series named "Teachings of the Eagle Feather." The series is a collection of teaching stories provided with jewelry images and illustrations of artwork by myself as well as by kindred artists. The stories are what I like to call, oshki-aadizookaanan (contemporary traditional stories) -- that is, newly created stories which retain elements of the gete-aadizookaanan (old traditional stories) of our People, the Gaa-zaaga'eganikaag Anishinaabeg, "Those of the land of many lakes" -- the Great Lakes area of North America.
The story is woven around four paintings by my hand as well as a set of sterling silver wedding rings, which I recently created at my workbench. The title of the ring set is Giizhig Egwaniizid Izhinamowin (Sky Blanket's Vision).
Ahaaw, ningad-aadizooke noongom giizhigad! - Alright, now let's tell a sacred story!
Binawiigo, once in the very long ago, there lived on an island in the northwestern part of Anishinaabe Gichigami* a widowed woman. As was rather customary back in the day, this woman, whose name was Gagewin (Everlasting Mist), chose to remain single after her husband had crossed over to the spirit World. She lived alone with her daughter, who was called Giizhigegwaniizid (Sky Blanket; literally, Covered by the Sky). Mother and daughter lived pretty much on themselves and hardly associated with their fellow anishinaabeg on the mainland.¹
Gagewin taught Sky Blanket how to hunt rabbits and fabricate mats, rabbit skin robes, and birch bark roof coverings. She also initiated her daughter into all the many secrets of mashkiki (medicine) and all the year around mother and daughter kept up with the many occupations that came with each season.
In iskigamizige-giizis (the Sugarbushing Moon; April) they made maple sugar and maple syrup, in ode’imiini-gizis and abitaa-niibini-giizis (respectively Strawberry Moon/June and Halfway Summer Moon/July) they gathered berries, in manoominike-giizis (Ricing moon/August) they harvested wild rice, and in waatebagaa-giizis (Leaves Turning Moon/September) and binaakwe-giizis (Falling Leaves Moon/October) they caught fish and killed large and small game which they then dried for winter use. In conclusion, biboonishiwin (winter time) was reserved for aadizookewin; which means that as soon as the rivers froze and there was snow on the ground -- when it was assumed the spirits were asleep --, Gagewin would tell her daughter the sacred stories of the Ojibweg.
One day, when she had reached the age of sixteen summers, Sky Blanket married a man from the oodena (village) on the mainland, but after seven moons she left her husband – who had a hard time getting used to her unconventional and independent ways -- and returned to the island to live with her mother. Mother and daughter took up their economic tasks as before. In between performing her daily tasks the young woman used to venture off to remote glades in the dense woods that covered the island, or to steep cliffs along its ragged shoreline. It was in such sacred places, where she sensed the near presence of manidoog (spirits), that Sky Blanket sought meaning and self-discovery.
"It was in such sacred places, where she sensed the near presence of manidoog (spirits), that Sky Blanket sought meaning and self-discovery." Image: "Two-Spirit Vision Quest" ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
It was not before long that the people of the mainland started to whisper that Sky Blanket was ininiikaazo, which means so much as “woman who endeavors to be a man.” The rumor increased when Sky Blanket was seen to regularly visit the village at night and go into the wiigiwaam of a widowed ikwe (woman) her age, only to leave it at daybreak. The men of the village did not mind much, arguing that each person is unique and should develop strength according to their dreams and nurture the skills that they were gifted with at birth; in their eyes, the island girl was a gifted person, an asset rather than a disgrace. Did she not have two spirits live inside of her, that of a man and that of a woman? Did this not make her doubly blessed? the men said.
Mii go gichi-wiiyagaaj, but alas! The women in the village tended to frown on the island girl’s behavior and, frankly, there was -- as is so often the case in the human world -- plenty of gossiping going around...
One night in the Ricing Moon, Sky Blanket, who was free as a bird and the wind and continued to live her life in defiance of the anti-sentiments harbored by the oodena anishinaabwekweg, had a dream. In it, a migizi bawaagan (bald eagle spirit) in the shape of an ikwe (woman) appeared who told her to go out to a certain spot on the shoreline of the Great Lake and look for a gete-giizhikaatig (old cedar tree) with gnarled and twisting branches growing out of bare rock.² On the rocky surface beneath this little tree, the Eagle Spirit Woman explained, she would find objects that she must use to teach her People.
"Sky Blanket did as Eagle Spirit Woman had told her. At sunrise she steered her canoe into the direction of the place of the Grandmother Little Cedar Tree, but not before she offered asemaa to the Mishibizhiw, the Great Horned Underwater Cat whom she knew lurked nearby the rock the tree stood on." Image: "The Teacher" ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
Sky Blanket did as Eagle Spirit Woman had told her. At sunrise she steered her canoe into the direction of the place of the Grandmother Little Cedar Tree, but not before she offered asemaa to the Mishibizhiw, the Great Horned Underwater Cat whom she knew lurked nearby the rock the tree stood on. Once she found the tree she spotted between its roots freshly picked sweetgrass and two tail feathers -- one of migizi (a bald eagle), the other of a giniw (a golden eagle)! Thinking back of the words of the spirit messenger that had visited her the night before an image formed in her mind, and she knew she had to take the sweetgrass and the feathers to the village and teach the women. Sky Blanket, being very grateful for this gift, lay down a handful of asemaa on the spot where she had found the feathers and the wiingashk and tied special offerings to the gnarled branches of the sacred tree. Before she left she addressed the tree as follows:
Boozhoo Nooko. Boozhoo gakina manidoog gaye gaa-waabanjigaazowaad gaye gaa-waabanjigaazosigwaa gaye dash. Giaasamigaabawi'ininim debasenindizoyaan. Nimbagidinaan asemaa gaa-gikinoowizhiyan, mii dash zibiingway nishkiinzhigong miinawaa dash gete-nagamonan ninde'ing gaye. Niiyowaanimadong gaazhenindang mashkawendamowin. Mii dash Gimishoomisinaan Giizis gaye Ginookomisinaan Dibik-giizis gaye Gigiminaan Miziwekamigokwe gaye gibagwaaj-inawemaaganinaan gibezhigwenimimin noongom.
("Hello, Grandmother. Hello, spirits seen and unseen. I have come before you in a humble way. I offer this tobacco for guidance, with tears in my eyes and the old songs in my heart. To the four directions, to the power of creation. To the grandfather sun and the grandmother moon and to the mother earth. Now our minds are one.")
After saying her prayers Sky Blanket returned to the island, where she bound the feathers together and wrapped a piece of soft deer hide around the shafts. Next, she steered her canoe toward the village of her tribe …
"That evening, as soon as everyone had assembled under the light of the moon and smiled upon by countless stars shining brightly, the young woman, standing tall, spoke in a clear voice of her vision that had directed her to the eagle feathers and the sweetgrass beneath the sacred cedar tree." Image: "The Teaching" ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
Sky Blanket reached the village by the end of the afternoon and the first thing she did was announce a meeting with all the women. Seven ookomisag (grandmothers), representing the Crane, Loon, Catfish, Turtle, Bear, Marten, and Hoof clans announced that they would be present. That evening, as soon as everyone had assembled under the light of the moon and smiled upon by countless stars shining brightly, the young woman, standing tall, spoke in a clear voice of her vision that had directed her to the eagle feathers and the sweetgrass beneath the sacred cedar tree.
“The Old Ones tell us,” Sky Blanket said, “that carrying an eagle feather is a sacred act and that it comes with great responsibilities. Is it not true that the power of such a feather comes directly from Binesiwag (the Thunderbirds)? A person who is worthy of bearing an eagle feather must therefore acknowledge that they are recognized by the Thunder Grandfathers themselves as being able to use their formidable spirit powers.”³
After a brief pause, during which she, smiling, looked the seven ookomisag thoughtfully into the eyes, Sky Blanket resumed, “To be given a feather of Ogimaa Migizi (Grandfather Eagle) is therefore the greatest honor to receive, because it recognizes gichi-manidoo-minjimendamowin (great spirit power) as well as gichi-zhawenjigewin (a great blessing).”
As she carefully took her prized possession out of her medicine bundle she continued, “Aanish, well now, these two eagle feathers represent niizh ojichaag-gikinoo'amaagoowin: A TEACHING ABOUT TWO-SPIRITEDNESS.”
Holding the eagle feather fan in one hand and three strings of the sweetgrass in the other, Sky Blanket looked around the circle of women and continued: “These eagle feathers represent two spirits. However, when tied together, the feathers are one. These feathers tied together embody the blessing of two spirits that since I was born live in my breast, that dwell in my soul, and that stir my heart.”
"Sky Blanket paused for a few eye blinks, reflecting, then continued: "The Gift of Medicine that our relatives the eagles give us is symbolized by their feathers. When you take a close look at these tail feathers that I am holding in front of you, what we see is the duality in our lives which, through its contrast and contrarieties, helps keeping balance in the circle of life." Detail of "The Teaching," ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
Sky Blanket paused for a few eye blinks, reflecting, then continued: " The Gift of Medicine that our relatives the eagles give us is symbolized by their feathers. When you take a close look at these tail feathers that I am holding in front of you, what we see is the duality in our lives which, through its contrast and contrarieties, helps keeping balance in the circle of life. These feathers are both white and black. This color contrast represents many things: light and darkness, life and death, summer and winter, eb and flood, and peace and war. The black and white represents male and female."
Gently putting down the eagle feathers beside her, she then started to braid with nimble fingers the strings of sweetgrass into one single braid. Next, she held the carefully wrought braid high up in the air, saying, ”the three braids of the sweetgrass, in our culture, represent mind, body, and spirit. It was Grandfather Eagle who taught me last night that they have another meaning as well: Our community is tripartite as it is bound together by women, men, and naawe-nangweyaabeg: "Those Who Are in the Middle" or "Those Who Sit in Half Sky" -- who are neither woman or man – or both at the same time!
Ishte! The three-strand braid teaches us that everyone is born unique, everyone deserves a place under the sun and must perform their role in life as was predestined for them! The apikan (braid) reminds us that it is our tradition to acknowledge, respect, and honor the spiritual gift that each of us is born with, regardless if we are inini (man), ikwe (woman), or niizh ojichaagwag (two-spirited)! Through my dream, and through these eagle feathers and the sweetgrass that I hold up high tonight before your eyes, witnessed by the aadizookaanag (spirit grandfathers) that reside and abide to the four directions and by nookomis dibik-giizis (grandmother moon) who shines her light on us tonight, Mishoomis Migizi tells us that we must honor and respect this teaching as it reflects our beautiful values, traditions, and teachings that say that all life is sacred!”
As soon as she had concluded her teaching, Sky Blanket stopped talking and a deep and long silence filled the open space where all the women of her tribe had gathered. Everyone present that night was humbled by the simple power and truth of the dream that had just been related to them. The brave island woman, by sharing her dream about the sweetgrass and the eagle feathers, had taught everyone present a powerful lesson in the most modest of ways. Enh geget, the Two-Spirit teaching held a valuable lesson, not only to the clan grandmothers and all women present that night but to all Anishinaabeg, women and men, enh, even to the yet unborn.
Haw sa, from that day on, the Anishinaabeg Peoples acknowledge certain important ceremonial roles for every person born in the body of a man or a woman but who do not constrict themselves to what is considered typical of an inini or an ikwe.
And even now, in the present time, the Anishinaabeg remember She-Who-Is-Covered-by-the-Sky as Aabita-giizhigwebikwe ("Sits-in-Half-Sky-Woman" ). As such she would become the guardian spirit of the countless niizh ojichaagwag who since that day have excelled as our pipe bearers, fire keepers, spokespersons/leaders, warriors/defenders, healers, visionaries, knowledge keepers, caretakers, and craftspersons/artists …
THE SYMBOLISM OF THE WEDDING RINGS
"Sky Blanket's Vision" is the title of the above set of wedding rings. The theme of the rings is dualism. The stylized eagle feathers mounted on ring shanks of sterling silver symbolize spirit, and prayer. They refer, in particular, to the above-told story as they represent two spirits combined in one body.
Both eagle feathers, carried by a red gold ring shank and executed in white and yellow gold, are provided with a distinct counterpoint: a marquise-cut diamond and a carré-cut emerald , placed asymmetrically in the sides of the feathers. The sparkling white diamond which protrudes somewhat slantwise from the feather, symbolizes the sacred light that comes from the East, the direction of sunrise, knowledge, and rebirth. It stands for everything that illuminates, moves and flies. The green glow of the emerald, on the other hand, stands for the earth and the quiet forces of nature and everything in nature that is deep-rooted.
The twisted wire placed lengthwise on the feathers, in conclusion, represents the braids of wiingashk (northern sweetgrass) that plays a role in Sky Blanket’s vision. The silver braid, made of two strands that denote ikwewaadiziwin (feminine identity) and ininiwaadiziwin (masculine identity), symbolizes naawe-nangweyaabaadiziwin: being neither woman or man, but instead something that could be called a "middle gender." Sweetgrass, which our People regard as a sacred plant used in prayer and for smudging in our purifying ceremonies, stands for strength and healing and positivity, and, ultimately, for understanding the sacredness of all life forms.
The ring set, in short, carries a special blessing for a two-spirited couple, future companions-on-the-path-of-life …
Giiwenh. So the aadizookaan (narrative) goes about the brave Gichigamikwe named Sky Blanket who had a vision and taught our People about the sacred identity of Two-Spirited People and their unique, traditional role in our communities.
Mii sa ekoozid. Ahaw miigwech bizindawiyeg noongom. Thank you very much for listening to me today. Mi’iw akawe. That’s it for now.
* ^ Anishinaabe Gichigami: The Great Sea of the Anishinaabeg Peoples; Lake Superior.
¹ ^ Anishinaabeg on the mainland: The Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) that at the time of the story lived near what is now Grand Portage, Minnesota, located in Cook County near the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead Region in the extreme northeast part of the state. They are the ancestors of the Gichi-onigamiing Anishinaabeg, who now live in the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. This community was considered part of the Gichigamiwininiwag (Lake Superior Band of Chippewa), but is not a party to the treaties that they signed. The reservation was established as part of an 1854 treaty.
² ^ Manidoo-giizhikens, or Little Cedar Spirit Tree, an at least 300-year old, sacred Eastern White Cedar growing on the shore of what is now Lake Superior in Cook County, Minnesota. For many generations it has been, and still is, a traditional place to bring prayers and offers for a safe crossing and fishing success. Offerings of reverence and asemaa (tobacco) and zenibaa (ribbon) — and earlier, onaman (ocher) — are left at the foot of the tree. It is believed the underwater lynx Mishibizhiw lurks in the nearby waters.
³ ^ Read the story “The Amazing Journey of a Woman Named Two-Spirit Thunder.”
> Read part 27 in the series Teaching of the Eagle Feather series: Spirit of Thunder Mountain.
> Visit the New Fisher Star website to view art wall prints by Zhaawano Giizhik.