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Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 15: Spirit Bear and the Tree of Life

Updated: Jun 2

Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) - June 1, 2024


Spirit bear and the Tree of Life painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Medicine Bear and the Tree of Life" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik


Mashkiki naagdowendan maaba mkwaa. The bear takes care of the medicines. 
Waamdawaan ezhikognaawsad minwaa ezhizaagad gewii makoonhsman. Niibna kinoomaagewinan maaba wesiinh gimiingonaa. Weweni ginowaabam mkwaa ezhibimaadizid miidash danigendiman geyaabi kinoomaadwinan. 
Mewzhaa giigidwok anishinaabek gibeboon maaba nibaat mkwaa maamwesidoon bawaajigewinan miidash mshkikiiget. 
Pii shkiminookmik bizaagewet mkwaa giikendaan danowa mshkiki genakaazwaat bemaadzijik. . 
Mizhisha giinaagod maanda mishkiki, miigaazhi nisidwaamdamwaat anishinaabek waanakaazwaad. 
Manj go pii waabmad maaba mkwa kamiigwechendamomi. Gchinookiitaagna maampii mkwaa pane. 

"The bear shows us how he raises and loves her cubs. The bear gives us many teachings. If you watch how the bear lives its life, you will learn many more teachings.
Long ago, the people said the bear slept all winter, and during this time, the bear put many dreams together to create good medicine. 
In the early spring when bear comes out, it already knows the kind of medicines that will help the people.
This medicine was noticeable, this is how the people recognize which medicines to use.
Whenever you see the bear, we should give thanks. The bear works hard for the people."
-          An Odaawaa bear teaching



To the Peoples of the Great Nation of Anishinaabeg,[1] Makwa the bear is their first and foremost teacher. Among the Ojibweg, Odaawaag, Bodéwadmik and other tribes it is Makwa the bear who guards and protects the Midewigaan (Healing Lodge) as wel the Madoodiswan (sweat, or purifcation lodge) – which is where Midewiwin candidates cleanse their bodies and minds before entering the healing ceremonies inside the midewigaan. It was a bear who gifted his hide when the very first madoodiswan was built; thus, in a symbolic way, her hide served to cover the Anishinaabeg as a People.

To the Anishinaabeg Peoples, Makwa, whose name means “Born from Medicine,” is the ultimate symbol of mashkiki, or medicine.

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 are gifts of Gichi-manidoo (the Great Mystery) 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.


When a young Ojibwe man loses consciousness after jumping off a cliff into a river, “four bears came and walked around his body, singing a song. When the young man regained consciousness, he heard the bears singing; when he opened his eyes, he noticed the bears walking around him, and when they had walked around him four times, he rose up strong and well. Then the bears began to walk up the cliff and the young man followed them. This young man became a teacher and leader in the Midewiwin. From that day on, the young man sang empowered bear songs..."
– Odenigan (Hip Bone), a 20th century Medicine Man from Gaa-waabaabiganikaag (White Earth, Minnesota) explains the origin of makwa nagamonan (bear songs)


Spirit bear and the Tree of Life (detail) painting by Zhaawano Giizhik



To the Anishinaabeg, makwag (bears) are icons of ziigwan the spring season. Anishinaabeg have always mirrored themselves in Makwa's yearly pattern of hibernation, isolation, and emerging with new life as soon as the winter ends. This is why still today certain initiation rituals, puberty rites, and ceremonies of the Midewiwin – one of two Medicine Societies of the Anishinaabeg Peoples[2] – follow his cyclic pattern and invoke the bear's power of renewal. It is our belief that anishinaabeg (humans) and makwag (bears) are nearly identical.

Countless tales, ceremonies, songs, and depictions on birchbark and other items involve bears as “contraries,” embodiments of the paradoxical nature of life, and as bush doctors and healers who transform and renew life and thus randomly shapeshift into humans and vice versa. On many occasions bear is addressed as “Anishinaabe”: A human being.



One Ojibwe aadizookaan (sacred tale) relates of Wenabozho’s sisters Ziigwan (Spring) and Biidaaban (Break of Dawn) who were sick, and bedridden for days. There were no mornings anymore, and the winter lasted a long time as spring did not come that season. Wenabozho, the benign spirit and benefactor of the People wondered what he could do about it. He looked after his sisters but could do nothing to help them. Then his uncle, Makwa the bear, walked into his wiigiwaam and unbundled his medicines in front of Wenabozho. Next, he sat down and asked Wenabozho, who was very agitated, to sit as well.

Makwa grabbed ozhiizhiigwan (his ceremonial rattle) and he danced around the sisters who were lying down, barely breathing, and chanting, frantically shaking his zhiishiigwan, he rhythmically danced to the imaginary beat of a drum.

Suddenly the wind started to blow from four directions. From Makwa’s voice a manidoo (spirit) came, and more spirits came carried on all four winds inside the wiigiwaam. From all four directions the manidoog (spirits) came! They gathered around the sisters and the dancing bear. Next, Makwa grabbed a wolverine leg bone from his throat – it was the leg bone of a wolverine and pointed it in the air...then he pointed it in the direction of Wenabozho's sisters, and the healing began. Long story short, after Makwa’s treatment the sisters opened their eyes and started to breathe again! Wenabozho was very happy and grateful to his uncle for reviving his sisters! A few eyeblinks later the sun came up again, coloring the eastern sky crimson red, and the freezing weather gave way to beautiful warm spring weather…This is how Makwa the bear helped his nephew Wenabozho to revive his sisters and return the morning and the spring to the land and its People… Thus, bear would become the first in a long line of nenaandawi’iwed, or sucking bone doctors who heal people by gwiingwa'aagewin: using wolverine bones to suck out disease and take the pain away from a wound...

The gwiingwan in the expression gwiingwa'aagewin (which literally means: "making a thing shake with something") refers to when a meteorite rumbles through the air and shakes the ground upon impact. With that in reference, earthquakes were thought of as additional meteor strikes. Wolverines, as oral tradition says, appeared after such meteor strike, which is why their name (gwiingwa'aage) got attached to such events. And yes, the sucking bone of a Letting Medicine Man was made with the leg bone of a wolverine, because when snapped, it was easily hollowed out, and forming a sharp and smooth point for spiling into the skin to drain infections and other illness...


Spirit bear and the Tree of Life (detail 2) painting by Zhaawano Giizhik



Up until today, bear plays a pivotal role inside and outside the Anishinaabe Medicine Lodges. Makwa is from of old the predominant figure in the Midewiwin ceremonies and rituals and as such acts on all levels of this age-old society.

It is safe to say, however, that bears are not just important figures in aadizookewin (storytelling) and in Midewiwin ceremonies; makwa, along with Nigig the otter,[3] captures the “essence” of Midewiwin, and of the Anishinaabeg as a whole.

According to the ancient Teachings that our ancestors passed on to the present generations, Makwa represents the laws of Truth and Bravery. Of all the seven Sacred Teachings, the virtue of aakode’ewin (bravery) was deemed especially meaningful, for, as the ancestors have taught us, being brave is not about being audacious or acting the most daring or mighty; it is about being courageous enough to incorporate the other six teachings into one’s life, even if that means standing alone in the community. This is why the Midewiwin chose Makwag to personify their Lodge and why they represent the Anishinaabe Warrior odoodem (clan), in charge of defense. Since bear presides over the medicine plants and protects the healing ceremonies and sacred rituals that are being performed inside the Midewigaan, the ceremonial lodge of the Midewiwin, he/she was appointed to guard the Lodge’s eastern door.

So great are the spiritual and curative powers possessed by the bear, that Mide healers traditionally follow makomiikana (the bear path) in proceeding from a lower to a higher degree in the Midewiwin society. We are reminded here once more that Makwa is symbolic of the Anishinaabeg themselves: both bear and humans are known to “walk the bear path” both inside and outside the Lodge. In addition, a special ikwe-manidookewin (women's ceremony) is conducted called manidoo makwa ikwewowin miikana ("spirit bear grandmother path"); this ceremony, which is still being performed today, connects ikwewag (women) with their spirit by having them take on the strength of Grandmother Bear. Walking the Grandmother Bear Path gives women, in their roles of ikwe (woman) and weniijaanid (mother), and, for instance, of odawemaan (sister), ozigosan (aunt), and odaangoshenyan (cousin), support throughout their lives as it strengthens their place and purpose within their kin and community...


“After Gichi Manidoo had created all creatures on earth, he found they were dying off and decided he needed to get them to honor him, but he didn’t know how so he called a meeting of all the birds and all the creatures on earth to talk about it ‘somewhere across the Big Water, where this Manidoo was.’

The Manidoo needed someone to take his message to the people and asked who would do it. The Bear was there and said, ‘I’ll take it across to the people.’ The Bear went off with the message of Everlasting Life, but it was very heavy to carry, and he could hardly walk. When he came to a wall, he couldn’t get through it at first until he stuck his tongue out, which made a hole that he could get through. He did this each time he came to a wall, and the four wind manidoog stationed at each of the cardinal directions thanked him for the work he did. He came upon four walls before he finally got through to Midewigaan or Mide lodge.

The Bear had successfully carried the Pack of Life thus far when he met Miigis, the shell, who took over the trek down further east. Somewhere along this stretch of the journey the Miigis transferred the Pack of Life to the Otter, who carried it even further east until he reached the promised land on the west side of Gichigami (Lake Superior).”

~ Free after Eshkwaykeeshik (James Red Sky) 


Spirit bear and the Tree of Life (detail 3) painting by Zhaawano Giizhik



Bears have always been associated, and allied, with miigisag and therefore often depicted in line drawings covered with shells. One origin story relates of Makwa the bear who carried the Gift of Life, including the miigisag, to the Anishinaabeg “as he pushed a cedar tree through the four worlds and crossed a huge body of water to a large miigis-shaped island and as he emerged from the water he was covered with miigisag.” The ancestors knew that miigisag, which are native to salt water of the oceans, live deep within the earth; also, to them, as these shells are covered with a deep coating of enamel on the outer surface which gives them a brilliantly polished appearance, the shells were symbolic of early human characteristics. The idea behind this is that the Anishinaabeg were believed by some to have originated from the sea (the Atlantic Ocean) where they were still covered with scales; when they started to shed those scales, Anishinaabeg lost the power and protection that the scales originally provided…

Miigisag (sacred cowry shells) symbolize life-giving and healing powers, they are symbolic of the Sun which means they give the People warmth and light, and they symbolically refer to the origin of the Anishinaabeg and their Mide beliefs that came to them from Waabanakiing, the Dawn Land in the east, near the shores of the Atlantic ocean.


Makwa and Giizhigookwe painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Makwa and the Sky Spirit" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik



Another aadizookaan, an origin story really, relates of a time way before Wenabozho was born. His uncle Makwa the bear, a Naawakamig manidoo (spirit from the center of the earth) was born from medicine that came from the fourth Layer of the Earth. The spirit bear ascended to agidakamig, the middle world, the earth's surface called Mikinaakominis (Turtle Island) and sat there waiting for things to happen. When one day a female spirit that came from the Moon helped the first people, a twin that were lowered down from the hole in sky, this spirit bear climbed up to a tall cedar tree whose roots were deeply sunk in the earth and its tip pierced through the layers of the sky, meeting the twins halfway. The same spirit bear was known to build the first Lodge for a grandmother; this is where Wiininwaa, Wenabozho’s mother was born…For this reason, the Mide people place a trunk of the giizhikaatig (northern white cedar) called midewaatig in the center of the midewigaan – their ceremonial Lodge. To them, the cedar tree represents the Tree of Life, connecting the People with the beings of the underworld and the ancestors and clans in the sky world…


Makwa Meets Nigig on the Tree of Life Woodland Art painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Makwa Meets His Relatives in the Tree of Life" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik



Gete-ayaa, our ancestors, who felt blessed daily to live at night under a blanket of countless ananoog (stars), knew that as it was above, it was below; what is in giizhigong –the Sky World – is mirrored below, on agidakamig, – the Earth. This understanding reflected the ancestors’ deep-felt connection with miziwekamig (everything that exists in the cosmos).

In the above we have seen that bear and man walk parallel paths on earth. We also concluded that the Mide people and the bears, in a spiritual and ceremonial sense, walk parallel paths as well. To complete all eight levels in their Lodge, Mideg, as they must conquer and withstand various obstacles and temptations, proceed ("walk") from the first four degrees of learning, called earth levels, to the remaining four degrees of learning, called sky levels. Proceeding through the earth levels will teach them everything there is to know about plants and medicinal practice. Once they reach the sky levels they are able to come in direct contact with the spirits and ask for their help and mediation in healing the sick. They walk "the bear path," which is essentially a vertical path.

By the same token, it isn't difficult to imagine the path of the akiimakwa (terrestrial bear) when he climbs the tree of life to enter giizhigong, the sky land where his counterparts, the sky bears dwell. As makwa climbs the tree he will be met by the cheerful chuckles of Nigig, the sly and playful otter, who sits on one of the branches that points into the direction of medicine and healing. Other branches, which point to other directions and are inhabited by a great many other spirits and spirit helpers, carry various animals and creatures that also have a special place and function in the cosmology of the Midewiwin. Then, finally, as bear climbs to the top of the tree that pierces the different layers of sky, he or she will encounter the owl,[4] guardian of the Midewigaan and the Midewaatig, the Midewiwin Lodge and the cedar tree that represents the primacy of the plant beings and the connection between all layers of earth and sky. Next, the bear will, through the Hole in the Sky,[5] enter the land of his sky relatives that dwell there in the form of stars and star formations.

Following their tracks through the night sky, makwa will enter the sweat lodge constellation,[6] which he will leave cleansed, as if reborn. Next, he will walk into the direction of his relatives, the sky bears. He will witness how they form a pattern in the night sky resembling the shaggy shape of a Gichi Makwa (big bear) romping around the Galaxy. This gichi-makwa has a very long tail of shiny copper stars extending as far as the eye can see...[7] Once he reaches the sky dens of his relatives he will be reunited with his family for the first time since their separation — and one terrestrial bear will finally have returned home.


Shooting at the Moon, the origin of the Big and Little Dipper by Zhaawano Giizhik
"Shooting at the Moon (The Origin of the Stars and the Great and Little Bear)" ©2023 Zhaawano Giizhik


== Birth of the Great and Little Bear ==

There are many traditional Anishinaabe and Ininew star stories about how the the Big and Little Bear came about. Below is a story that I love and treasure. I based it loosely on the traditional Ojibwe story “The Bear, Part of the Big Dipper,” Ojibway Sharing Circle.

“Many strings of life ago, there were two dibiki-giizisoog (moons) in the sky but no anangoog (stars). With his bow and arrows, and guided by omishoomisan (his grandfather), an Anishinaabe boy named Makoons (Little Bear) sat in his canoe and shot at one of the dibiki-giizisoog, shattering her to form many anangoog (stars). Amid the glittering lights that lit up the night sky a very large wiigiwaam (lodge) magically emerged in the middle of the lake; a bright fire burned inside it. Suddenly, tayaa! a tall giizhikaatig (northern white cedar) grew out of the smoke hole of the wiigiwaam, and its top reached all the way into the sky! Marvelling at this mystic appearance, Makoons and his grandfather, whose name was Gichi-Makwa (Big Bear), steered their canoe toward the Lodge in the lake. At arrival they entered the big lodge and climbed the tree of life that was in there. Through the smoke hole, up, climbing the tree that went straight through the Hole in the Sky, they ascended into the sky to make a home among the newly formed anangoog. Thus, Makoons and omishoomisinan were responsible for the formation of the Big and Little Bear – nowadays called Ojiiganang and Ojiig-anangoons (Fisher Star and Little Fisher Star) by most Anishinaabeg.”



Traditionally, the Sky Bears are deemed eternal while the bears that live on Earth die of sickness or old age or at the hands of hunters and return as manidoog (spirits) to giizhigong, the Sky World, from where they descended when born in their giizhigomakwaanzhwan (sky dens). Thus, the life cycle of the earthly bears reflect and parallel the seasonal rotation of the great sky bear – in the form of cluster of seven stars – around Giiwedanang (the Returning Home Star, or Polaris/North Star). The bear that dwells in the sky cares for the earth from its giizhiig wiigiwaam (sky lodge) and the earthly bears reflect the movements of their cousin in the sky by digging for medicinal plants in the Earth in spring and summer; and also by finding a resting place in the earth's bosom when it is time to hibernate. Yet vice versa, the Earth Bears also care for the sky! Since the first humans (a twin) came from the sky, earthly bears by extension still care for and look after their descendants, the Anishinaabeg …


== Gichi-makwa and the birth of summer on earth ==

To our ancestors, it was Gichi-makwa (the Great Bear), and in particular the zenith of bear’s head, wh heralded the end of winter. According to an old tale of the Gichi-namegosibininiwag (Big Trout Lake, an Anishinini, or Oji-Cree People in Northwestern Ontario), as soon as the Big Bear disappears on the horizon, the bears that live on Earth reappear from their winter dens. In this story , when gaa-biboonikaan (the Bringer of Winter) kept the Aki (Earth) in his icy grip all year round, a myriad of colorful birds flew all the way to the upper sky regions, thus creating a summer abode among the stars. Gichi-makwa, who ruled over the sky, opened his celestial wiigiwaam and let the birds in, thus making niibin (summer) on Earth possible…


[1]. Anishinaabe, plural Anishinaabeg: a group of culturally related Indigenous peoples present in the northern part of present-day Unites States and in a great part of present-day Canada. They include the Ojibweg (including Nakawēk and Anishininwag ), Odaawaag, Bodéwadmik , Misi-zaagiwininiwag, Omàmiwininiwak, and Mamaceqtaw peoples. The Anishinaabeg speak Anishinaabemowin, or Anishinaabe languages that belong to the Algonquian language family. At the time of first contact with Europeans they lived in the Northeast Woodlands and Subarctic, and some have since spread to the Great Plains.

The word Anishinaabe translates to "Beings Made Out of Nothing" or "Spontaneous Beings". The Anishinaabeg believe that their people were created by the breath of a Great Mystery.

Although Anishinaabe refers to a much larger group of tribes and bands, the word Anishinaabe is often considered a synonym of Ojibwe. ^

[2]. The Anishinaabeg have, besides several minor or secondary Lodges, two principal Medicine Lodges: the Midewiwin and the Waabanoowiwin. In the old times the Midewiwin which means "Society of Those Who Are in an Unseen, or Sacred State" was the source of our governance, through the clan system of the Anishinaabeg. It was and still is there, in and around the Midewigaan, where our sick are being healed with the aid of medicine practice and where our children and our people are educated through traditional teachings, and it is still there where we are given our names and where we have our marriage ceremonies. Wabanoowiwin is the counterpart of the Midewiwin. As it means "Society of Dawn," Waabanoowiwin is a society of visionaries and astronomers who conduct their healing rituals under the cover of night and conclude them at dawn, when the morning star rises in the eastern sky. Their Lodge is circular as opposed to the Midewigaan, which has a rectangular shape. ^

[3]. One aadizookaan (sacred story) about the origin of Midewiwin relates of Nigig the Otter and how he brought the Ojibweg Medicine and the Midewaatik, or Midewewe’igan (Mide drum). Wenabozho, the beloved, benevolent aadizookaan (Spirit Helper) of the Anishinaabe Peoples, noticed that the Ojibweg were vulnerable and helpless against famine, sickness, and death, and he decided to help save them from extinction.

“When Nanabozho (as Wenabozho was called by Nookomis, his grandmother) was pensively drifting across the center of Aki (the Earth), he heard laughter in the distance, and as he moved closer he perceived a dark, slender, fast-moving object on the surface of the Big Lake to the west, and then in all four directions; and then, within the blink of an eye, the directions were brought together in what appeared to be a madoodiswan (purification, or sweat lodge) in the center of Aki. It was in this sacred place, where sky, water, and land come together, that Nanabozho saw Nigig, the Otter. Nanabozho, understanding and appreciating the magic phenomenon he had witnessed before his very eyes, instructed the Otter in the mysteries of the Midewiwin and he gave him a Midewewe’igan (Ceremonial Drum) and the Miigis (cowrie) shell, telling him how they should be used at sacred feasts and during the ceremonial of initiation; he also gave him a Zhiishiigwan (Ceremonial Rattle) to be used when curing the sick, and Asemaa (tobacco) to be utilized in invocations of the Spirits and in making peace with enemies.”

Nigig offered these sacred objects and instructions to the starving Anishinaabeg and thus saved them from extinction, and they gratefully chose him as symbol of Healing and elected him the patron of their Lodge. Nigig has various ceremonial roles in the Midewiwin Lodge, and it is said there are pictorial representations of him inscribed in several origin-migration birch-bark scrolls and in no fewer than seven scrolls containing mnemonics of Mide songs, and in at least two locations near a body of water sacred rock paintings of Otter can be seen with power lines emanating from his body. He gives his skin for the Midewayaan (Medicine Bag) that carries the medicinal herbs, charms, and miigisag (cowry shells) used for symbolically "shooting" novices during their initiation into the Mide Lodge. ^

Source: Zhaawano Giizhik, The Sound of the Mide Drum

[4]. Gookookoo, or Gookookoo'oo, the owl, watches over the Midewigaan (Midewiwin Lodge). When Wenabozho founded the Midewiwin he called on Gookookoo as one of the spirit beings who should help the soon to be created anishinaabeg (humans) conduct Midewiwin ceremonies. Gookookoo is a symbol for the degrees degrees in the Midewiwin Lodge, and several mide-wiigwaasag (Midewiwin scrolls) depict the image of Gookookoo. ^

[5]. The Hole in the Sky. Bagonegiizhig, the Hole in the Sky star cluster named Pleiades by the ancient Greek and consisting of seven stars ("Seven Sisters"), is a celestial opening allowing spirits to travel. According to modern-traditional Anishinaabe tradition it was through Bagonegiizhig that Giizhigookwe (Sky Woman) descended to the Earth in order to lower the anishinaabeg (first humans) to the earth. Bagonegiizhig also serves as a gate to the Jiibay-miikana, the Path of Souls, meant for the jiibayag (soul-spirits) of the deceased to travel toward their final destination among the stars. ^

[6]. The Sweat Lodge constellation: Madoodiswan or "the Sweat Lodge" appears among the same stars as the Greek constellation of Corona Borealis. The Sweat Lodge (called ""Madoodison" by the Southeastern Anishinaabeg) plays a sacred role in many Native cultures throughout Turtle Island (North America). The basic design for a madoodiswan is a low canopy of wooden poles covered with animal skins or canvas cloth. Participants gather within the sweat lodge as heated stones -– madoodoowasiniig, sometimes addressed as nimishoomisaabikoon or Grandfathers – are brought in and placed in a depression in the center. Water is poured over the nimishoomisaabikoon to create steam. The sweat lodge, which was gifted to the Anishinaabeg when a great sickness fell upon them, is a place to cleanse and heal the spirit, mind, body, and emotions. ^

[7]. Thousands of years ago, when the the gichi-makwa (Big Dipper) was closer to the celestial pole than it is now, its tail extended all the way to the bright star called Gichi Miskwaabik Anang ("Great Copper Star") – named Arcturus ("Guardian of the Bear") on the Western star maps.

The Big Dipper's seven bright stars form a portion of the constellation called "Ursa Major" in Latin. The Ursa Major, or Greater Bear, contains 15 stars in total. ^


Episodes of "Teaching From the tree of Life" series published so far:

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