Stories and Teachings from the Earth, part 3: Turtle and Bear, guardians of the Shaking Tent
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Waabaagbagaa-giizis/Waatebagaa-giizis (Leaves Turning Moon), September 9, 2020
Mikinaak Nagamon (Turtle Song)
Ogidibiig babaamaashiyaan Babaa-waabandamaan Aki Mikinaak ninga-wiijiiwaa Andone'waad Anishinaabe. Ogidibiig babaamaashiyaan Babaa-waabandamaan Aki Manidoo ninga-wiijiiwaa Nanaandawi'aad Anishinaabe.
Over the waters I fly about I search the World With the Turtle I shall go He searches for them, the Anishinaabe. Over the waters I fly about I search the World With the Great Mystery I shall go He heals them, the Anishinaabe.
Boozhoo, biindige, hello and welcome to a new story in the "Stories and Teachings from the Earth" series!
Today’s story centers around a sterling silver hair buckle (see above image) that I created some time ago. The design of the piece, a turtle’s shield a stylized “shadow box” bear paw inlaid with turquoise and red coral settings and, on the back, a Thunderbird design (not visible in the image), refers to the sacred spirit powers of the jaasakiid, or “Shaking Tent Seer.”
To be able to understand what a jaasakiid/jiisakiikwe/jiisakiwinini is, and how the turtle, the bear, and the Thunderbird relate to the theme of ceremony the shaking tent, let’s first take a look at a phenomenon that is at the center of the belief system of the Ojibweg and other Anishinaabe Peoples, called “Midewiwin.”
~~ THE GIFT OF MEDICINE ~~
Alternately pronounced as muh-DAY-w'win and mi-DAY-win, its literal meaning being “Lodge of Those Who Are In A Mide State” (Mide meaning something like “Sacred And Unseen”), Midewiwin is a prestigious lodge or association of male and female healers and thinkers and artists, respected keepers and protectors of the traditional Anishinaabe way of life and ceremonies that are many thousands of years old. Midewiwin persons are generally called Mide, plural Mideg; participants of the ceremonies are referred to as Midew, plural Midewiig. Mideg themselves sometimes give the following, traditionalistic, explanation about the meaning of Midewiwin: “Society of the Good-hearted Ones” or “The Good Heart Sound Of Life,” or “The Way of the Heartbeat.”
Midewiwin – some claim the word partially derives from the Anishinaabe word MINODE’ which means Good Heart, others suggest it derives from MADWEWE which means Sound Resonance, as in the echoing of the Mide waterdrum whose omnipresent sound represents the Earth’s heartbeat and that of the Great Mystery of Life – is said to have been founded many strings of life ago by the first herbalist/medicine man of his People, who went by the legendary name of Ode’imin (Heart-shaped Berry or strawberry). Under the skilful tutelage of his supernatural teacher Wiinabozho, who taught him to study the nature of plants from the conduct of animals, Ode’imin forever institutionalized the knowledge of curing and Bimaadiziwin, or the Code for Long Life and Upright Living. He taught the People the properties and the curative powers of all beings of the plant world and conferred to them the philosophy of Bimaadiziwin, which would forever be propagated through the ceremonies of the Midewiwin. Ode’imin explained to the ancestors that the physical side of life and the physical strength of a human being and that of his community should always be in perfect balance with the spiritual side of life and being, and that a healer could only reach the highest possible order of healing powers through a high ethical standard, and not by knowledge alone. So, what counted for an herbalist was not only knowledge of plant and self, but also the ability to bring together the healing capacities of both plant and self. Only an herbalist gifted with and keeping up a high standard of inner power could expect the plant being to reveal his own healing power; only then the plant would allow the herbalist to confer his (or her) inner curative power upon the plant itself.
And to this day, whenever or wherever villages and homes are being established, we as Anishinaabeg never neglect our duty to annually honor, celebrate, and carry on the gift of knowledge that was handed down to our ancestors by Ode’imin, the Heart-shaped Berry.
Two methods of treating the sick are in use among the Midewiwin; both methods depend on communication with, and the aid of, the spirit world, but most Mide specialists are basically plant doctors, herbalists who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious properties of an enormous variety of plants, herbs, roots, and berries. This herbal knowledge is often obtained from dreams, the remedies and knowledge and know-how handed down from the spirit world always being individual, and never general. Inaabandamowinan (dreaming) or seeking waasayaa-bindamiwin (a vision) are the primary means by which a healer can enter into direct social interaction with the spirit world. Some of the best Mide remedies are received from the bear through dreams.
~~ TURTLE , PATRON OF THE JIISAKAAN ~~
Then there is another type of Anishinaabe Mide doctor, widely referred to by Elders as JAASAKIIDJIG (Shaking Tent conductors; seers using jiisakaan, the Shaking Tent). Jaasakiidjig can be found among the Anishinaabeg (Ojibweg), Ininewak (Cree), Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Abenaki. and Penobscot. Gender names in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, for this type of medicine person are jiisakiikwe (when female) and jiisakiwinini (when male). The topic of jiisakaan is considered sacred and details cannot be shared publicly, which is why I will only speak of it in here in generalistic terms.
Jaasakiidjig belong to the highest degree of all the medicine practitioners in the Mide. These spirit-doctors treat the sick without material means, without using herbs and medicinal plants, but via
spirit-travelling. Knowledge is acquired through fasting. Some jaasakiidjig receive their power from the Thunderbirds. Others have claimed they draw spirit power from the water, or from the wind, or the earth. A special category of jaasakiidjig has the power to make a tent and everything that’s in it shake (hence the name, shaking tent) by inviting a myriad of beings from various spirit worlds, including the turtle, thunderbirds, and the bear. This is done between sundown and sunrise. It is with the aid of these spirit helpers from the waters, the winds, and the earth (mikinaak the snapping turtle being the most prominent intermediator) that jaasakiidjig pass on their spiritual medicine power to their patients or apprentices. People who turn to a jaasakiid are usually in great need of help. Besides curing illnesses, the spirits that are being invited to enter are sometimes also addressed in an effort to tell the future, or seek spiritual help against wrongdoing by outsiders. Those who seek help are bound to speak the truth inside the jiisakaan, and those who have been initiated through a jiisakaan ceremony swear they will never disclose anything that happens inside the jiisakaan and will be subject to judgement if they break their vow.
The above image shows an overlay, domed hair barrette with slide hair pin stick, featuring a stylized bear paw of turquouse stones and red corals; the hand-cut stones are set in yellow gold shadow box settings. The back of the barrette (not visible in the image) has a stamped image of a Thunderbird. The turtle, the bear, and the Thunder Beings are important spirit-helpers to the jaasakiid. Mikinaak, the snapping turtle of the lakes, is the guardian of the shaking tent and the most prominent intermediator between the jaasakiid and the spirits of the ancestors and the spirits of earth, sky, and underworld. See Gallery 2 for details about the hair barrette.
Some Ojibweg build their jiisakaan, which has a cylindrical shape, in the water, in order to receive power from it. Eight poles are cut and placed in a circle; two hoops placed inside the jiisakaan keep the poles in position. Deer hide, birchbark, or canvas is used to cover the cylindrical structure. Zhiishiigwanag (rattles) made of caribou hoof or tin are used to make a rattling noise while in the jaasakiid.
Miskwaabik Animikii, the late Ojibwe artist who dubbed himself "The Grand Ojibway Shaman Artist" and became widely known by his European name Norval Morrisseau, was raised on the Gull Bay shore of Lake Nipigon by his maternal grandfather who himself was a jaasakiid. Miskwaabik Animikii once said the following about the Shaking Tent practice: "All the Ojibway would gather and sit in a circle facing the shaking tent. This took place at night. The conjurer would disrobe, have his hands tied up and crawl inside the wigwam (jiisakaan). He would not speak but would have one Indian, or all, start asking questions, whatever each one wished to know. As the conjurer crawled inside, the tent itself began to shake and the rattles were heard. The Ojibway believe a medicine wind blows from heaven in the tent and that is how it shakes. All the dogs tied close by began to yelp and were afraid but the people were not, for it does not affect human beings. What come into the wigwam to sing or talk are the water god Misshipeshu (Mishibizhiw) and other spirits of bears, serpents and animals, thunderbirds, the evil Windigo (Wiindigo), the morning star, the sky, water, earth, sun and moon, also female and male sex organs. Each speaks in his own language but we have an interpreter whom we call Mikkinnuk (Mikinaak) (...) who interprets for all these beings. (...) A lot of people of the Ojibway tribe used this conjuring tent to conjure people but a lot also used it to cure people, to find lost things, to defend the people from evil sorcerers, or bad medicine-men, and to know about the future."
~~ THE BEAR ~~
Wii-da aangishkaakawen Anaamakamig. (“Your footprints will fade As if deep into the earth.”) - Ojibwe Medicine song to the bear
Makwa the bear is considered a teacher of mankind, one of the oldest spirits that walks the shield of the Great Sea Turtle - which is the face of the earth as we know it today . Since time immemorial the Anishinaabeg Peoples dream of the bear as offering to give medicines for the healing of man. With regard to herb medicine, Makwa is considered by herb specialists as ogimaa (leader) of all animals, which means that if a person dreams of Makwa he or she was chosen by the bear to be expert in the use of medicine made from plants and berries for curing illness.
Among the Ojibweg, it is Makwa who guards and protects their Medicine and Sweat Lodges – which is where Medicine persons cleanse their bodies and minds before entering the ceremonial lodges. It was a bear who gifted his hide when the very first madoodison (Sweat Lodge) was built; thus, in a symbolic way, his hide served to cover the Anishinaabeg as a People.
Traditionally, of all bagwaj-awensiinhyag (the wild land animals), Makwa the beer is perceived as the most spiritually empowered. The Woodland Peoples, including the Great Lakes Anishinaabeg, not only harbor feelings of awe and fear for makwag but also gratitude – to them, bears were gifts of Gichi-manidoo as they have many uses for them; it is safe to say bears are as important to them as the buffalo are to their cousins, the Nakawe Anishinaabeg and Ininewuk (Cree) of the high plains in the Northwest.
Countless tales, ceremonies, songs, and depictions on birchbark and other items involve bears as “contraries,” embodiments of the paradoxal nature of life, and as bush doctors and healers who transform and renew life and thus randomly shapeshift into humans and vice versa. In many occasions bear is addressed as “Anishinaabe”: a human being.
It is safe to say that bears are not just important figures in aadizookewin (storytelling) and in Midewiwin manidookewinan (ceremonies); makwa captures ojichaag (the “soul” or “essence”) of the Medicine Lodges, and of the Anishinaabeg as a whole.
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the west, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm." - Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk), Oglala Lakota wičháša wakȟáŋ (medicine man / man who communes with the spirit world.)
Some Medicine persons claim that they receive powers from Animikiig, the Thunder Beings. Who are these Beings from the skies, and how have they been conceived by our Peoples throughout time?
According to Anishinaabe tradition, the Thunder Grandfathers came to 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. The Thunders are often perceived as gigantic birds, called Animikii Binesiwag: Thunderbirds.
Binesiwag, the Thunderbirds, are said to be related to the wendaanimag noodinoon, the Winds that blow from the four corners of the Earth. The Thunderers are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the Aadizookaanag - Spirit Grandfathers - that guard the four cardinal points of the Universe. 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 vist the Anishinaabeg and to drive off 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, their lightning arrows carry strong Medicine. It is even 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.
In short, the Thunderbirds came from the skies onto earth a long time ago to bring nature life and fertility and gift the humans, in particular those who use knowledge of plants to heal the sick, with medicine, knowledge, and wisdom.
~~ THE TURTLE ~~
To our Peoples, Mikinaak, or Makinaak as (s)he is often called, embodies Aki, the Earth. (S)he is forever linked to the creation of Aki, and to the birth of the world as we know it. This creation came with true understanding of how we humans need to live in harmony.
Since Mikinaak, after a devastating flood that swept Aki, lent her/his back to assist in the Anishinaabe recreation of the world, (s)he holds a very respected position in the spiritualism of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg. From of old turtle has a special place of mediation in the worlds of the natural and the supernatural. After (s)he lent her/his back for creation, Nookomis Dibik-Giizis, grandmother moon, conferred on her/him special HEALING POWERS that have been held in reverence ever since.
Mikinaak the snapping turtle -- or Mishiikenh the mud turtle -- teaches the Anishinaabeg healing and communication with the Mystery World. Although physically the slowest of all creatures, (s)he symbolizes swiftness of the mind and is regarded as a master of communication (of thought). No wonder the jaasakiidjig, the Midewiwin-specialists often referred to as Shaking Tent Seers, elected the turtle as their patron!
~~ THE JIISAKAAN IN THE SKY ~~
The jiisakaan, in our cosmologic world view, is directly connected with the spirit world, of which the stars are part as well. The Anishinaabe constellation, Bagonegiizhig -- Hole in the Sky, or Hole in the Day, is the star cluster known as Pleiades. This constellation is only visible in winter and the fall.
The open star cluster of Bagonegiizhig represents the opening between the Earth and the star world, or the spirit world. The jiisakaan that the medicine person builds acts as a spiritual doorway that relates to the Bagonegiizhig . The seven stars of Hole in the Sky are believed to represent the seven poles used in the construction of the jiisaakaan. I will now relate to you a traditional Ojibwe story about how the Hole in the Sky star cluster came about.
"Seven children loved to dance and play, rather than help their parents in camp. The children’s mother went to seek advice on this problem and was told to place stones on their food. It was hoped that the children would appreciate the value of hard work if they were forced to remove the stones from their food before they could eat it. Unfortunately, this plan did not work. One day, the children danced so hard, they danced up into the sky where they can be seen to this day. Although you can clearly see them in the winter, they cannot be seen in the summer. One of the children fell back to earth, which is why most people can only see six stars in the cluster. It is believed that during the summer months, when ceremonies and dances are being celebrated by humans, the six children join them, returning to the sky with the onset of winter." - Anishinaabe anang-aadizookaan (a traditional Ojibwe star story) about the creation of the Hole in the Sky star cluster.
~~ A JAASAKID IS NOT A SHAMAN ~~
In conclusion, a brief note on the issue on the true nature of the jiisaakan, which is often, falsely, dubbed as being an offspring of the great tree of SHAMANISM .
Perhaps one could say the practice of jiisakaan, the Shaking Tent, comes closest to the definition of a SHAMAN: a specialist who with the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting enters a very deep or "ecstatic" trance, undertaking trance-journeys for practical purposes, in service to his or her community. However, SHAMAN, a term originally used for Native healers in SIBERIA, has become a NEW AGE-inspired catch-all term that is foreign to, and way too general to be applied to, any type of Turtle Island spiritual practitioner. Unfortunately, nowadays the terms "medicine man" and "shaman" are being used interchangeably to describe Turtle Island healers and philosophers and artists. Nowadays it is widely assumed that "shaman" is a Native American, or Inuit word, and that "shamanism" is a universal “Native Religion.” Yet there are MANY HUNDREDS of Native Nations on Turtle Island, each with their own culture, language, and spiritual belief system (of which Midewiwin/Jiisakaan is just one). Many of these Nations are very different from one another in their spiritual traditions, and none of them describe their beliefs as SHAMANISM. Art gallery owners, plastic medicine men, “Grand Shaman artists” and self-appointed gurus with a Native background, the entertainment industries, teachers, written publications, and a tsunami of misinformed New Age-inspired web pages (“shamanic portals”) all promote these unfortunate misconceptions. So I ask you, please, never to use the term SHAMAN when a medicine person from Turtle Island is meant. It is incorrect and, first and foremost, offensive. Miigwech.
Ahaaw sa. Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Ok then, that is the end of the story. Thank you for listening to me today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon! Mino bimaadizin! Live well! Migwechewendan akina gegoo ahaw! Be thankful for everything!