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Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 27: Spirit of Thunder Mountain

Updated: 5 days ago

Manidoo-Giizis (Spirit Moon), January 12, 2021

"Fire Spirit," acrylic on canvas by the late ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Miskwaabik Animikii/Norval Morrisseau) (1976).

Boozhoo indinawemaaganidog, gidinimikoo miinawaa. Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ningad-aawechige noongom giizhigad!


Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where legends and stories are told. Let's tell a teaching story today!


Today's teaching, part 27 already in the series Teachings of the Eagle Feather, is centered around five new sets of gold wedding rings designed by me and handcrafted in my jeweler's studio. Also added are several images of artwork by several Anishinaabe artists (Minowewegebon/Kevin Belmore, the late ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Miskwaabik Animikii/Norval Morrisseau), the late Carl Ray, the late Randy Trudeau, as well as a line drawing done by me.


The ring sets, although different in style and design, share a similar theme, namely the powerful medicine of the Eagle/Thunderbird that, according to Anishinaabe tradition, can be found on top of Mount McKay/Thunder Mountain. This flat-topped hill flanked by steep cliffs overlooking Thunder Bay in Ontario, which I climbed twice, is according to a local Ojibwe legend the winter home of the Thunderbirds. All five sets are storytelling rings created in the best aadizookewin izhitwaawin (storytelling tradition) of my People, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg from Turtle Island's Great Lakes area.

"Migizi over Nanaboozhoo," acrylic on canvas by Anishinaabe painter Kevin Belmore.

~~ THE TRADITION OF STORYTELLING ~~


It is said that from the first snowfall to the first clap of thunder, our Elders impart history, traditions, and life lessons to the younger generations through aadizookewin, or storytelling. For us, the aadizookaanan, or sacred narratives, which are rich with allegories and imagery, along with the gikinaamaagewinan (messages) they carry, form deep connections to who we are as Anishinaabeg. They remind us, how we as human beings, individually as well as collectively, relate to aki (the world), to bimaadiziwin (everyday life), and to gimanidookewininaanin (our ceremonies).

Moses Amik telling stories and herbal knowledge, Thunder Bay area, niibin 2015. Photo courtesy Simone Mcleod.

~~ THUNDER MOUNTAIN ~~


To start off with, let me first tell you about my personal experience with a bear on top of Thunder Mountain. In Miin-giizis (the Berry Moon/July) of the year 2015, I spent a week in Animikii-wiikwedong (Thunder Bay, Ontario) with my then life-companion Simone McLeod who was my tour partner for an unforgettable 5-week trip along the northern shores of Gichigamiin, the Great Lakes. On our last night in Thunder Bay she and I met up with our late artist friend Moses Amik​ and I shared a story with him about an experience I had a few days earlier on top of the nearby Thunder Mountain (named Mount McKay by Euro-Canadians).


I related to Moses how, as I was standing on top of Animikii-wajiw, the Thunder Mountain, looking for the Thunderbird nests that I had heard about in the stories, I stood face to face with makade noozhek (a black female bear), who came out of a bush and who, standing on her hind legs, seemed as surprised to see me as I was awe-struck by her suddenly being there. (Later, I heard from an Ojibwe lady who lives on the nearby reserve that in the summer bears go up the mountain with their cubs in search of berries.) The following day Simone and I returned to the spot where I had met the bear, and after we had prayed to makwa's spirit and tied ribbons and cloth to the bushes and hung up tobacco ties in a tree, Simone discovered a wide, shallow crater nearby covered by low shrubs and fern. It was easy to imagine snake bones and Thunderbird egg scales scattering around the place! Could it be one of the nests the sacred stories tell us about? I asked Moses, who at that time lived in Thunder Bay and whom I knew to be a spiritual person, if he knew the story of the Thunderbird nests of stone, and how many times he had gone up there for ceremony. He grinned at me and said, enh, I am familiar with the stories about the Thunderbird nests and gaawiin, I have never climbed the mountain to pray or fast or leave my tobacco ties and ribbons and cloth up there. Us Indians know it's a heck of a climb you see… Anyway, it was the start of a long night laughter and storytelling I will never forget, and that has inspired me into writing several stories like the one you're reading now …

Thunder Mountain, renamed "McKay" by Canadians, still has great spiritual significance for all Anishinaabeg.
Moozhag imaa animikiig gii-noondaagoziwag, pane aanakwad gii-ayaamagad ogidajiw; mii dash gaa-onji-gotamowaad, ingiw Anishinaabeg ...

"All the while at that place could be heard the sound of the Thunderers, continually was there a cloud on top of the mountain; and that was the reason why the Anishinaabeg were afraid of the place ..."

"Is there only one Thunder Mountain, or Hill, to be found in the vast area that is called Anishinaabewaki (Anishinaabe territory)?" you may ask. The answer to that is no, Animikii-wajiw in Ontario is not the only place that, according to our traditions, houses Animikii Binesiwag (Thunderbirds).


So what other thunder mountains do we have besides the one at Thunder Bay ? Let's see... The Anishinaabeg of Michigan's southern peninsula speak of a high rock on Thunder Bay Island at what is now Alpena, which is also said to be home to the Thunderbirds. In the northern part of Wazhashkoons (currently known as Wisconsin State), the Mamaceqtaw (Menominee) have stories about Thunderbirds living on a great mountain that floats in the sky and the state’s Thunder Mountain is also said to be frequented as a nesting place by Thunderbirds. There are also stories about a mountain called Devils Nest in what is now North Dakota, where according to a local Ojibwe tradition a Thunderbird built a nest using sticks and brush.

~~ THUNDER MEDICINE ~~


These above wedding bands, made by hand in the dramatic and minimalistic graphic overlay style that is my trademark, are constructed of white gold (the exteriors) and sterling silver (the interiors). Both rings feature abstract, strongly stylized feathers of Animikii-binesi, or Thunderbird. The rings are my personal homage to the Winged Thunderbird Grandfathers, who in springtime descend from the mountain to watch over all life on Aki, our mother the earth.

The red gold, flame-like feather designs symbolize Sacred, Healing Medicine of Animkiig, the Thunder Grandfathers who dwell in the four corners of the Universe, and the awe-commanding, tremendous electrical forces that they spread across the sky and the earth when they hunt the serpents of the underworld. But it is not just wrath they seek! As the tradition goes, in springtime, the sacred Thunder Medicine, along with pools of fertility-bringing rain, is being carried upon the mighty wings of the Thunderbirds as a blessing to the thirsty earth and also as a gift to the needy Anishinaabeg.

The above wedding ring sets, despite the slight differences in design and choice of material, have three things in common: Their geometric, symmetrical design, the use of precious stones, and the theme of today's story, the Thunderbirds and the Mountain.


The two-tone white gold rings, each set featuring one or two precious stones, are appliqued with abstract, geometrical designs, their matte finish subtly contrasting against the highly polished ring shanks of pallladium white and red gold. These applique designs were modelled after the wings of a Thunderbird.


When you look at the rings upside down, the appliqued (and, in the case of the ring set shown top-center, cut-out) wing designs will show as stylized mountains; an artistic reference to the Thunderbirds nesting on the volcanic table mountain that are the main subject in today's story. Thus, the wings of the Thunder and the mountain home of the Thunderbirds join and interact together in one and the same design. The sparkling fire of the carré-cut diamonds or blue sapphires, mounted in the center of the wings/mountains designs, symbolize the powerful medicine and the awe-commanding, tremendous electrical forces of Animikiig, the Thunder Beings of the Sky. The sets are my personal homage to the Thunderbird Grandfathers, who in springtime descend from the atmosphere to watch over all life on Aki, our mother the earth.


To see details of the ring sets, visit the Gwayakwaadiziwin (Honesty) collection on the New Fisher Star Creations website.

Anishnawbe Miinigozwin, silkscreen by the late Ahmoo Angeconeb (1973) depicting the Anishinaabe cosmos.

~~ THE ROUND LODGE ~~


Waawiyekamig, the "Round Lodge" as the Anishinaabeg traditionally conceive the cosmos, basically exists of three layers that are densely populated by countless manidoog, or mysteries (spirits); mystical forces and sources of sacred power suffusing and animating all things on earth that were created naturally. The layers are connected by a vertical "axis mundi," a giizhikaandag (northern white cedar) or "tree of life" that has its roots in the underworld and its top growing into the upper layers of the sky vault.


The first layer of the cosmos (see above image) is called Anaamakamig, the underworld. The underworld of the rivers, lakes, and seas house a myriad of manidoog (spirits) and aadizookaanag (spirit grandfathers and shape shifters). Both categories, manidoo and aadizookaan, are represented by fish and the fish spirits (gigoonhyag), including Makadeshigan and Nibiinaabekwe/Nibiinaabe, respectively the Spirit of the Underworld and the Mermaid/Merman, and Mishi-ginebig and Mishi-bizhiw, respectively the Horned Snake and the Horned Lynx. Mishiikenh, the mud turtle, is known as a grandfather and spirit messenger, an important intermediary between the lakes and rivers and their underworlds.


The second layer of cosmos is Agidakamig, the middle world, the earth’s surface called Mikinaakominis (Turtle Island) that houses countless corporeal and incorporeal beings; represented in the above image by anishinaabeg (humans), mitigoog (trees), and makwag (bears). Makwa Manidoo, the Bear Spirit who guards the third door of the Midewiwin lodge, is a wise teacher and an aadizookaan (spirit grandfather) who opens doors to the spirits that live in the middle world.


The third layer of cosmos is Giizhigoong, the Sky World and all of its beings, corporeal as well as incorporeal. These beings are symbolized in the image by giizis the sun (symbolizing Gitchi-manidoo, the Great Mystery), anangoog the stars, dibik-giizis the moon, gimiwan and animikiiwaanakwadoon (respectively rain and thunderclouds, which represent the physical orders of the universe) as well as by bineshiwag (taloned birds of prey). There exists a natural linkage between the birds of the sky world and the plants of the middle world, and, at the same time, a spiritual connectedness of the birds with the physical orders of the cosmos like sun, moon, earth, stars, thunders, lightning, rain, wind, fires, et cetera. This special union with all of nature enables birds to sense the changes of the world, the changing of seasons, and the future events or conditions of things.


~~ GIINIW THE WAR EAGLE ~~


Gimishoomisinaan Giniw, the Golden (or War) Eagle Grandfather with the black head, is one of the taloned bird species of the natural world that represent the supernatural powers of the Thunder Grandfathers. Known as the protector of Ziigwan, the Spring Grandfather who also lives in the East and as the one who watches over all women – particularly those who are in new beginnings –, Giniw is regarded as antipode of the almighty Migizi (bald eagle). Wiindigookaanan, or Contraries – a special category of people who have gained some of the medicine, or power, of the animikiig, the Thunder Grandfathers – regard Giniw as their ogimaa (chief). Giniwag are known to land on trees struck by lightning.

"The First Feather," red on black line art by Zhaawano Giizhik ©2021 Zhaawano Giizhik

The Anishinaabe Elders tell us that carrying an eagle feather is a sacred act and that it comes along with great responsibilities since it is believed the power of a feather comes directly from the Thunderbirds; a person who is worthy of bearing an eagle feather must therefore acknowledge that he or she is recognized by the Thunder Grandfathers themselves as being able to use their formidable spirit powers. To be given a feather of a golden eagle – or of a bald eagle – is therefore one of the greatest honors to receive, because it recognizes achievement and great acts or deeds.


Large taloned birds, such as the giniwag, are thought to nest on high cliffs, paticularly those situated along waterways. The large white streaks that can be observed on certain rocks and cliff walls would be, for our ancestors, the birds' droppings, and would therefore be a sign of the living locations of the Thunderbirds. It is assumed that large concentrations of ashkaakamigokwe mashkawiziiwinan, mother earth's energies, can be found on top of those high rock cliffs. The binesiwag that nest there were believed to disperse these sacred energies into wendaanimag noodinoon, the four winds (cardinal points), with which they therefore had a special relationship.


This is why, to the Anishinaabeg and Ininewak Peoples, the Animikii Binesiwag are mizhinaweg (messengers) that mediate aki's sacred energies between nimaamaa-aki (the earth) and ishpiming (the sky). As such, they are believed to be essential links between the spirit and physical world. And for the same exact reason our ancestors never neglected to offer asemaa (the sacred tobaco) in places where the Thunderbirds are thought to reside or when a storm was approaching.

Thunderbirds and mosquitoes in stone nests by the late ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Miskwaabik Animikii/Norval Morrisseau)

~~ SUPERNATURAL TEACHERS AND MAKERS OF STORIES ~~


According to tradition, Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds, were created by Wiinabozho – a semi spirit central in Anishinaabe creation storytelling – to fight underwater creatures and to protect humans against possibly harmful spirits. While Thunderbirds are associated with taloned birds like eagle and hawks, they are also known to appear along with all the other migrating birds as soon as the winter is over, and by the time the trees shed their leaves they are believed to return to their nests on top of table mountains to rest until spring arrives.


As “spirits of the sky realm, Thunderbirds are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the aadizookaanag – Spirit Grandfathers, Supernatural Makers of Stories – that guard the four cardinal points of the Universe. They are said to be related to the summer which is the time of year when the storms rumble over the Great Lakes , the heat, the sun, the south, and the red color that symbolizes this cardinal point. The peal of thunder echoing from every side of the lakes which are surrounded by dense forests and bordered by rocks – makes it impossible to be unaware their powerful presence. They leave their homes on high cliffs and mountain peaks in the west in the beginning of spring and come to Earth in different forms and guises and sizes as winged beings, or sometimes even in human form – to visit the Anishinaabeg and also to drive off the (possibly malevolent) underground spirits from the Earth and the waters of lakes and rivers. They are in charge of the warm weather and procure and maintain the warm seasons on Earth, which is why they migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall. Their thunder claps herald the presence of powerful manidoog or Spirit Beings, and their lightning arrows carry strong Medicine.


It is also said that the eyes of the Thunderbird Grandfathers, who have a close and beneficial relationship with humans and are known to impart knowledge and foretell the future, are able to see and explore the hearts of human beings and discern their skills, talents, and desires. This brings up memories of a long time ago when the Anishinaabeg still wandered aimlessly on the face of Aki (Earth), disheartened and disorganized and standing on the brink of extinction; it was then that Grandfather Binesi was sent to Earth to aid the People in finding their place in the world and in making them aware of their collective and individual skills and talents needed for developing self-worth and for survival in a harsh and hostile environment. Thunderbird also taught the Anishinaabeg to organize themselves in odoodeman (clans), thus shaping the bedrock of a strong society.

"Thunderbird and Serpent," acrylic on canvas by the late Anishinini (Oji-Cree) artist Carl Ray.

~~ SKY BEINGS VERSUS UNDERWATER BEINGS ~~


Before Christian dogmas started to infuse Anishinaabe izhinamowin (worldview), our remote ancestors did not draw neat lines between the different layers of the Universe; creatures of the sky, earth, and water, while different beings, were seen as interrelated and integrated in a cosmic whole. The modern-traditional Ojibwe conception of a hierarchy of powers Gitchi-manidoo (The Great Spirit) on top, on a lower level the four winds, followed by the underwater serpents, and, at the level below this, our semi-spirit and benefactor Wiinabozho , does not appear to have been part of early izhinamowin.


It was under the influence of the Europeans with their dualistic and patriarchal thinking that the old Anishinaabe worldview shifted into a more “vertical” and male-dominant belief. The relationship between the different beings and creatures of earth, underworld, sky, and water became characterized by a more dialectical nature. In this new view, the different realms of the cosmos, although connected by the Tree of Life, became more or less opposed to one another. Which is not to say that the creatures that dwelled these realms are seen as not interrelated; the kinship ties between sky birds, sea creatures, manidoog (spirits), and anishinaabeg (humans) have always been there, and there is a continuous interaction and reciprocal exchange between them. Making rigid classifications has never been part of Anishinaabe izhinamowin. That has just never been the Ojibwe way. Still, as colonization advanced in the 18th and 19th century, the creatures of the earth, the water, and the sky became separated into specific regions and almost exclusively depicted as inhabiting their own, respective natural habitats.


In this “modern” traditional outlook, there is an extremely tension-laden movement between sky birds and sea creatures. This cosmological duality opposes on one side the large taloned birds – symbolizing the ethereal cosmos and representing fatherly masculine strength and courage to parallel the equally powerful and mystic water beings. Prominent examples of this group are mikinaakwag (Snapping Turtles) and ginebigoog (water snakes) and amphibian creatures like omakakiig (toads/frogs), otawagamegwag (salamanders), and Mishi-bizhiwag (supernatural Horned Cats). Yet it is particularly the constant, unrelenting animosity between the supernatural Thunderbirds and Mishi-ginebigoog, the Underwater Serpents, that reflects and symbolizes the eternal duality that exists in nature.


Another animal category that, in the modern Ojibwe cosmology, symbolically opposes the patriarchal domain of the raptorial birds consists of the naayogaadedjig (four-legged earth animals). First in mind come the moozoog (moose), waabitiig/omashkoozoog (elk), and bagwaji-bizhikiwag/wiishkiig (plains and wood buffalo); these huntable, meat-giving land animals epitomize motherly feminine altruism, reproduction, and sustenance. Dreaming of one of these animals is generally considered to bring good medicine. An also prominent member of the naayogaadedjig that symbolize values that are opposed to those of the binesiwag and also bring fortuitous dreams are makwag, the bears; for her sympathy toward the needy anishinaabeg (human beings) and her volunteering to give her flesh to them, makwa was chosen by our ancestors to be the ultimate symbol of nourishment, guardianship, and motherhood.

~~ HORNED UNDERWATER SNAKES ~~


Thunderbirds, which come in different sizes, have always been considered the most powerful of all manidoog and aadizookaanag. They are known to live in nests of stone or of sticks and brush, filled with the bones of serpents, built on high mountain peaks enshrouded by dense clouds, and to migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall. They assist the Anishinaabeg by driving away the ominous earth and water manidoog –such as the Mishi-ginebigoog or Serpents of the Lake.


The battles between Thunderbirds and these horned adversaries often result in raging waters and seething storms ...**

"The Rock Painter," acrylic on canvas by the late Carl Ray.

~~ THE ORIGIN OF ONAMAN, THE SACRED BEAVER BLOOD ~~

Thunderbolts were believed to be the weapons with which Thunderbirds attacked and killed the horned reptiles that lived in the lakes. Sometimes the light bolt missed its target: the quartz veins in the rocks would be the result of these impacts. If a bolt touched a tree when it was in a stone form, it turned around the tree leaving a deep trace. It was believed that, if you dig between the roots, you should be able to find animikii-asin, the "thunder-stone," used in medicine to avoid the storms. One aadizookaan (sacred story) relates of a man who, following on one of these numerous fights between Thunderbirds and reptiles, collected between the horns of a mishiginebig some red material that he scraped and ground. He thus obtained onaman (red ocher) that he used for the body painting and for medicine.


Another aadizookaan gives, as the origin of the onaman, the blood of the giant beaver. Giant amikwag (beavers) lived on earth for a very long time, until the fattest and most careless of the bunch was attacked by a hungry Thunderbird. The Thunderbird transported the bleeding beaver in the air, its claws clutching the back of the wounded animal. While Thunderbird was flying over the forests, the red blood of the Spirit Beaver fell on the ground and was absorbed by the rocks and the sand. This caused the earth to color red. In these places the Anishinaabeg extracted the onaman, which, when mixed with bear grease, was used to depict the rocks and steep cliff walls that border the lakes with their sacred spirit writings (pictographs).

Vision Quest, acrylic on canvas by the late Randy Trudeau.

~~ THUNDERBIRDS AND THE SEEKING OF LIFE-GUIDING VISIONS ~~


In the old days, Anishinaabeg weshkiniigijig (youth of both genders) underwent a ritual complex called makadekewin, or “Vision Quest.” They received preparatory instructions for the makadekewin from their grandparents or trusted community Elders. Final preparation required gii'igwishimowin, or spiritual fasting, which typically lasted eight days.

The waaseyaabindamowin, or dream-vision (literally: "being in a state of being light, or clear") was usually sought after in remote, mystic spots where there was a large density of spiritual presence. Isolated fasting and plaintive contemplation, usually for four days and nights, were necessary to reach such a state of spiritual enlightenment which, once realized, ideally provided for guidance for life. In times of confusion, stress, or trouble, the owner of a waaseyaabindamowin could reflect on the most minute elements of the dream-vision or upon the broadest cosmological symbolism of the dream-vision. The waaseyaabindamowin was usually of a bawaagan: a guardian spirit in the form of an animal or a bird. The subject of the waaseyaabindamowin could be an awe- inspiring thing or phenomena or an animal, such as Fog, Hail, the Northern Lights, Thunder, Lightning, Rainbows, the Morning Star, or the bank-dwelling water spirits called Memegwesiwag, or an Eagle or a Bear, all of which had profound cosmological significance. The subject of the dream-vision would become an alternate symbolic identity, and a secret ritual name. ***

The higher the altitude of the location and the more powerful the subject of the dream, the more spiritually powerful the dreamer would become in his later life. A dream-vision of Migizi (Bald Eagle), or a Giniw (Golden Eagle), or an Eshkamegwenh (Osprey), and, particularly, a Binesi (Thunderbird), was gichi-mashkawendaagwad (deemed extremely powerful). A possible stage for such a dream-vision could be a bird's nest at the top of a tall, limbless zhingobiiwaatig (pine tree) at the edge of a steep cliff. But such precarious perches, filled with dangerous levels of the spiritual energy of the raptorial birds that inhabited them, were only reserved for the bold; no humble or timid youth would seek such a dream since they would likely fall to death ... Lesser visions that were less demanding on the dreamer were never a cause for shame. Yet there are instances known of Anishinaabe teenager vision-seekers who were bold enough to go out to a rocky area to build a nest of sticks in a tall tree; some of them even stayed seven or nine days or whatever it took to achieve a vision. Needless to say that if they received a vision and could make it back to their community alive, their future would be marked with gichi animikii-manidookewin (great thunder power) ...

Shaking Tent Seer, acrylic on canvas by the late Carl Ray.

~~ SHAPESHIFTERS AND SHAKING TENT SEERS ~~

According to tradition the Thunderbirds came to Aki, the earth, in the beginning of times to govern the quality of man’s existence, and that of the animals and plants, with supernatural powers over which the Anishinaabeg had little or no control. Thunders became thus associated with fertility, and with the creation of clouds and rain.


A certain type of Anishinaabe Mide doctor, called jaasakiidjig, a special category of healers belonging to the fourth degree of Midewiwin practitioners – seers who sometimes use the Shaking Tent –obtains medicinal power from the Thunder Beings, along with that of other spirits (of which the snapping turtle and the bear are the most prominent); they use these formidable powers to heal patients.


Although usually associated with hawks and eagles, Thunderbirds are also capable of metamorphosis into other beings and sometimes even endowed with a human form, mostly in the shape of omishoomisimaag (grandfathers of the human class); they were even known to sporadically mate and produce offspring among human beings…

"Mosquitoes Hit with Thunderbird Lightning," acrylic on canvas by the late Anishinini artist Carl Ray.

~~ WHY TREES ARE STRUCK BY LIGHTNING ~~


Several Anishinaabe aadizookanan relate of the reason why Thunderbirds strike mitigoog (trees) with lightning. The reason is twofold: the connection Binesiwag/Thunderbirds have with the supernatural benefactor Wenabozho (see: the story "Wenabozho and the Thunderbirds" as told below) and their relationship with another class of Sky Beings, namely zagimenhyag (mosquitoes).


It is believed that zagimenhyag have a close relationship with both binesiwag and anishinaabeg. After all, are Thunderbirds and humans not both nurtured by their blood? In fact, some stories even mention that zagimenhyag stay with the binesiwag while nesting on the mountais in winter. Tradition has it that one day when the binesiwag asked their friends the zagimenhyag why their stomachs were always full of blood, the zagimenhyag fooled them by saying they got it from mitigoog (trees)! From that day on, the Thunderbirds started to hit the trees with their lightning. (Other sources relate they took revenge on the mosquitoes themselves.) And this is why the Anishinaabeg, although zagimenhyag can be a real pain in the butt in the warm moons, are thankful to their little winged tormentors. If the zagimenhyag had not lied to the Thunderbirds about where they got their blood, the latter would surely have killed all the Anishinaabeg ...

As we learned in the above, Thunderbirds are known to appear along with all the other migrating birds as soon as the winter is over, and by the time the trees shed their leaves they are believed to return to Thunder Bay Animikii-wiikwedong, which literally means "Bay of the Thunder" in the Anishinaabe language , a large stretch of water on the north side of Lake Superior, to rest until spring arrives.


The stylized mountain design that you see depicted on the Spirit of Thunder Mountain rings (see above image) is a reference to the volcanic table mountain I mentioned in the beginning of this story. This mountain which non-natives call Mount McKay – the local Anishinaabeg, who since time immemorial use the mountain for sacred ceremonies, call the mountain Animikii-wajiw ("Thunder Mountain") that, flanked by steep cliffs rising 900 feet above the Thunder Bay, houses the wintering Thunderbirds in huge nests of stone. Thus, the wings of the Thunder (the flaming feather of red gold) and the mountain home of the Thunderbirds join and interact together in one and the same design.

View on the flat table-top of Animikii Wajiw. An Ojibwe wiigwaasi-nisawa'igan (birch bark tipi) in the foreground.

~~ WENABOZHO AND THE THUNDERBIRDS ~~


There is an old Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) aadizookaan about Wenabozho (Nanaboozhoo) who climbed the mountain in search of Thunderbird feathers. Often, these aadizookaanan,or sacred stories, revolve around aadizookaanag (“supernatural makers of stories”) who possess physical and personality traits akin to humans, animals, plants, and even the elements. The most important and beloved aadizookaan is Wenabozhoo, who, as a shapeshifting spirit, teaches the Anishinaabeg right from wrong through his foolish actions and fantastic adventures while offering lessons on, what is called mino bimaadiziwin: how to live life in a good way and in harmony with all of our relatives including the plants and the animals, the soil, the rocks, the water, and the air.


In the version of the story that I'm about to tell, the aadizookaan is related from the perspective of a Thunderbird grandmother who, in the context of Waawiindaasowin (a naming ceremony), explains to an Earth Being named Ge-wazaswinebiikwe (Will-Sit-on-the-Nest-Woman) how she got her own name.*


“Once, when I was still weshkiniigid (a young woman), there lived on earth a manidoo-gwiiwizenh (spirit-boy), who was named Nanabozho (Trembling Tail) by his grandmother Nookomis and who taught your People how to live on earth.


It is said that this spirit boy lived in the sky but at one time was sent to earth to be a teacher.

One day Wenabozho (for this is how we call him when we talk about him) asked Nookomis what was the biggest fish in the lake. She replied that there was a gigantic ginoozhens (pike) that lived by a rock ledge but it was very powerful and would harm Wenabozho. No one could kill the fish because no one could get down there where it lived.

Wiinabozho thought about how to hunt this ginoozhens, so he got some wood to make a bow and arrows. Then he asked his grandmother if there were any binesiwag (birds) whose feathers could be put on the arrows to make them effective. She told Wenabozho. the only feathers strong enough come from a binesi that lives in the sky, at the opening of the clouds. One would have to go there to get these feathers.

Wenabozho climbed to the highest cliff and inashke! behold! there he discovered the nest in which I happened to live with my babies when I was still a young woman. Inashke Wiinabozho iidog anooj gii-izhichige, you see, Wenabozho was always up to something! When Wenabozho saw my children he turned into a waabimisaaboz (white jack rabbit)! Thinking he was truly a hare, I took him to my nest for my babies to play with. Wenabozho stayed in the nest for a long time; the babies played with him but never wounded him. One day I went away to hunt for more snakes for my babies. Quickly Wenabozho turned back to a boy; he clubbed my kids and pulled out their feathers. Before I could return, Wenabozho jumped from the high nest with the bundle of feathers but he did this so rashly that he was knocked out. But Wenabozho was not killed because he is manidoo (a spirit)! When I returned to my nest, I saw what happened and, stricken with grief and rage at the loss of my children, flew after that darned Wiinabozho! Thunder rolled from my beak and lightning flashed from my eyes! Wenabozho ran for his life clutching his bundle of feathers, but soon grew tired. As I reached for him with my claws, Wenabozho saw an old fallen birch that was hollow inside. He crept into the hollow in the nick of time! I had no choice than to end my attack because our People, as you know, regard birch trees as our own children! Wenabozho was safe.


Next, after I ascended back into the sky mourning the death of my babies, Wenabozho came out and proclaimed that the birch tree would forever protect and benefit the Anishinaabeg. Wenabozho fixed his arrows and went home. With these arrows he headed out on the lake in his canoe and killed the great pike that lived under the rock ledge.

Now, if you look closely, noozis, you can still see the short marks on the birch tree to commemorate my sharp claws which almost killed him. I also put "pictures" of my baby birds with outstretched wings into the bark so the sacrifice of my children would always be remembered! Upon returning to my tribe and after a mourning period of 3 suns and moons, a naming ceremony was held on my behalf, and this is how I received the name Misaabooz Baaginaazhikwe nindizhinikaaz, Woman-Who-Strikes-the-Great-Hare-with-Lighting!"


Smiling at the Anishinaabe girl who sat across her listening intently, the old Medicine Woman of the Thunderbird People, after a brief silence, resumed, "Now you know the story of my name, noozis, it is time to give you a name that tells yours!"


The scent of burning medicine lifted from the glowing grandfather stone as the old Thunderbird woman took a giniw miigwan (eagle feather) and fanned the fragrant smoke over Ge-wazaswinebiikwe. The Medicine Woman offered a prayer, which, although it was done in a strange tongue she had never heard before, Ge-wazaswinebiikwe understood it to be for a long and prosperous life.


Next, the old woman directed her gaze at the Anishinaabe girl and spoke in a thoughful manner. "Niizh Manidoo Animikii, Two-Spirit Thunder will be your name. You will wear this name with dignity and awareness of its sacred meaning. It is not only a prized possession, to be cherished and loved; above all, it defines who you are as a two-spirited being, a being of earth and a being of fire, as well as a being of masculine characteristics and a being of feminine characteristics. But whether you are a manidoo (a spiritual being) or whether you are anishinaabe (a human being), whether you reside in the sky or whether you dwell the earth, your new name will remind you to strive each day to be a good person. You shall align your identity and your future life with the name that is given to you today. You shall be dedicated to your Thunderbird family, your People on earth, and the language and you shall be a true leader to us all — not by command, position, or power, but by your moral courage, your kind behavior, and your genuine goodness. You will put to good use your keen insight and the ability to see things through both feminine and masculine eyes; you will use this gift, this niizho-izhinamowin ("double vision") to help your People on earth to spiritually grow and prosper. You shall become a teacher unafraid to grow strong and wise, and you shall make our People and your People proud."


After the renaming ceremony was over, Misaabooz Baaginaazhikwe gifted Ge-wazaswinebiikwe with a manidoowayaan (medicine bag made of snake skin) containing special items that she had assembled prior to Niizh Manidoo Animikii's arrival, and she explained to her that it was her role as Name-Giver to be Niizh Manidoo Animikii's aadizookaan (guiding patron) for life.


Ge-wazaswinebiikwe, whose name was now Niizh Manidoo Animikii, bade her Name-Giver giga-waabamin ("until later") and left the wiigiwaam, but not before the old woman put her hand on her arm and looked her straight into her eyes, saying, "Ayaamgwaanizin, noozis. Inashke go, zanagad ezhaayan. Be on your guard, my grandchild. It is difficult where you are going, you see ..."


~~ VISUAL REPRESENTATIONS OF THUNDERBIRDS ~~


To our ancestors, when someone dreamed of a Thunderbird or when a Thunderbird appeared to them during makadekewin (a vision quest), it was considered taboo to talk about him let alone say his name in public. In order to preserve Animikii's power, the Thunderbirds were only represented in symbolic and abstract ways. There was infinitely more power in the abstract form than in figurative depictions.


Throughout the ages stylized images of Thunderbirds have been reproduced on drums, bags, shoulder pouches, jewelry, tattoos, and so on. Zigzag patterns and outspread wings and "spirit lines" symbolize the powers of the sky manidoog,typically manifested through lightning and thunder. Thunderbird images (often in combination with images of snakes) are found carved in, and painted on, birchbark scrolls and cliff walls, and, since the 1960's, represented in paintings created by countless Anishinaabe artists who fuse modern painting techniques with traditional images. Famous for their (often surreal and vibrant) Thunderbird depictions are, for example, the late Norval “Copper Thunderbird” Morrisseau, originally from Ontario's Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, and the late Anishinini painter Carl Ray from Negaw-zaaga'igan Nitam-Anishinaabe (Sandy Lake First Nation). Also noteworthy are the late Thunderbay-based artists Roy Thomas and Moses Amik.


Since Thunderbirds travel singly or in pairs, Anishinaabe artists often depict their images singly, as two, and sometimes — since they represent the wendaanimag noodinoon or Four Winds created by the Great Mystery — as four.


The above Thunderbird illustration is by the late Hawk Pope of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band.

~~ LACROSSE, GIFT OF THE THUNDERBIRDS ~~


Detail of Man Changing into Thunderbird by the late ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ (Miskwaabik Animikii/Norval Morrisseau)

Last but not least, I want to share with you how, in our culture, the game of lacrosse and the Thunderbirds are connected.


The purpose and style of play of lacrosse have changed little over the last 400 years. It is played for fun, celebration, and socializing. But its main purpose has always been healing. Played in a ceremonial context, "stickball" (which sometimes takes place over several days) serves to restore balance to individual players and their communities and express respect for the connection between the Anishinaabeg and the plants, the animals, and earth and sky.


To our Peoples, baaga'adowewin (literally, "the repeatedly striking of something," which is how we call lacrosse) is not ruled by mere chance, but rather by cosmic forces. The game is believed to have been given to ininiwag (the men) by the Thunderbirds. Traditionally, the person who calls the game has dreamt of the Thunderbird. This winged bawaagan (guardian spirit) instructs the dreamer how the game is played.


Baaga'adowewin is really a battle on earthly level that mimics conflicts between the aadizookaanag (Thunderbirds versus Underwater Snakes and Cats) of sky and underworld. It is believed that the outcome of the game is predestined as it is already known by the manidoog (spirits) ...


Ahaaw sa. Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Ok then, that is the end of the today's story. Thank you for listening to me. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! Mino bimaadizin! Live well! Migwechewendan binesiwag miinawaa akina gegoo ahaw! Be thankful for the Thunderbirds and for everything alive!


* Source: The Amazing Journey of a Woman Named Two-Spirit Thunder told by Zhaawano Giizhik.

** Read "The amazing Journey of a Woman Called Two-Spirit Thunder" told by Zhaawano Giizhik.

*** Source: Roland Edward Fish.








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