Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 23: The Gift of Spring
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Namebini-giizis / Makwa-giizis (Suckerfish Moon / Bear Moon, February 18, 2020)
~~ Click on above image to view details of the ring set ~~
~~ LIFE IS A GIFT ~~
Waabanong onji-maajitaan babaandawaabiiyan. Mii’iwedi waabanong baa’onjishkaag bimaadiziwin…..Endaso giizhik ishpendamowin biionji-ombakone waabanong. Gaawiinina gidishpendanzii bimooko’ag gimishoomisinaan? Gaawiin ina giibiidamanjitoonsiin nawajgegoo ishpendaagwak. Na’endan gidinaamaagenimoyan gaye agaasenimoyan. Nawaj jina’endaman epiitenimoyan. “Begin your journey in the spring, in the east. East is where all life begins…..Every day, the beauty and power of creation are ignited in the east. Are you not humbled by the strength and brilliance of the rising sun? Can you not sense that there is something much stronger than you out there? Accept how small and insignificant you are. For the betterment of yourself and all Creation, strive to be humble.” - A Seven Grandfathers teaching about the East and the virtue of humbleness.
Boozhoo, hello! Biindigen, welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where legends and teachings are told. Today I share with you a story about springtime and the gift of life, symbolized by the seeds of the earth, and about how life starts in the east. The story is woven around a truly beautiful acrylic by one of my all-time favorite artists, the late Anishinaabe painter Daphne Ojig, a pen-and-ink drawing by me, as well an elegant set of sterling silver rings created at my workbench. All three show a common theme: spring, when biboon, the spirit of winter leaves the land and the waters and ziigwan, the spirit of spring, returns and new life sprouts forth from the earth in the form of seeds of flowers and trees.
Also included is an elegant pen-and-ink "outline" drawing by the late Ojibwe artist Stanley Panamick, a mixed media on paper by the late Anishinini (Oji-Cree) painter Carl Ray, and several colorful canvases painted by the late Ojibwe artist Miskwaabik Animikii (Copper Thunderbird) - more commonly known by his European name, Norval Morrisseau.
Let's start off with a modern parable, set against a contemporary backdrop but infused by a wide palette of traditional Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) story elements. I dedicate the narrative to two of my dearest friends, my brother, the late Ojibwe artist storyteller Moses Amik (Beaver) whom I miss daily and my Dakota/Ojibwe sister Azouwa (Ozaawaa) Kent whose spiritual outlook and lively warrior spirit inspire me greatly.
~~THE STORY OF MOSES NANIBUSH AND THE YELLOW SPRING FLOWER ~~
A sacred tale about a young man who had a dream that brought back the warm weather and about a yellow orchid that became an icon of the spring season…
Ahaaw, ninga-noongom-aadizooke. Now, I will tell you a contemporary traditional tale…
An Anishinaabe teenager named Moses Nanibush lived with ookomisan, his grandmother in her home on a reserve, which was situated between two big lakes, in the midst of a beautiful area of rapids and falls. His clan animal was nooke, the bear. Most folks on the rez called him Moses but, because he had an exceptionally kind and gentle nature, his grandmother addressed him as “Ziigwan,” which is Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) for “spring.” Although he was strong and a good student athlete in highschool, his family and friends knew him to be a dreamer, modest and pensive, and possessing a truly romantic soul.
It was late March and still bitterly cold. Despite (or because of?) the global warming, winter still held the waters of the nearby locks and rivers in its icy grip. This worried Mozes since his grandmother was sick and suffered badly from the perpetuating cold. This had happened before in the past, and when Jim was still a child, ookomisan had told her grandson to step outside the house, bring his bow and arrows with him, and aim skyward.
“Go and shoot up in the sky. Shoot Gaa-biboonike, the Bringer of Winter,” ookomisan had said. Moses did as he was told, and sure enough the weather warmed up. He smiled as he remembered it, and decided to take his bow and arrows out as soon as the Bringer of Winter, which white folks in town call Orion, emerged in the night sky. Then he fell asleep…
That night, Moses had a dream. He saw himself walking along the bank of a frozen stream. He walked tirelessly. In this dream he walked for days along the river bank, treading with a light and quick step, and, despite of his normally rather timid nature, a confident smile played upon his lips. One evening he encountered a log cabin. Moses noticed a big wiigwaasi-jiimaan (birchbark canoe) lying upside down at the back of te cabin. Surprised by his own sudden boldness he peeked through the window, and inside the cabin, which consisted of just one room, he noticed an old man with exceptionally long and snow white hair who beckoned him to enter. He sat at the remains of a fire in the center of the room, the reflection of its dying flames faintly flickering across the rough log walls and the old man’s wrinkled face. The scent of a mixture of wiingashk aniibishan (sweetgrass) and oziisigobimizh (shining willow), which the old man had toasted over the fire, filled the cabin. Moses noticed a whole bunch of animal hides hanging on the left wall; the right wall was neatly lined with rows of frames of agimag (snowshoes). The floor of hard-packed earth was covered with apishimonag (cedar branches) and scattered with piles of what looked to him like carcasses and antlers of waabitiig (elk), adikwag(caribou), and moozoog (moose). Except for an antique cabinet placed against the back wall there was no furniture in the room… Moses remembered seeing the old man in town once in a while, but not often. People said he talked to no one and lived a secluded life outside the reserve.
“Giin ina Wiinaboozhoo?” said the old man in a raspy voice, using an old Anishinaabe expression of greeting. “Are you Nanabush? I have waited for you. The spirits told me you would come. Biindigen, gisinaa agwajiing heh heh, come in, its cold outside heh heh! I have been told you are a mighty storyteller. So am I! Ambe, come, sit down beside me, let’s smoke the pipe and have some black medicine water (coffee) and let’s share stories.” As Moses, reluctantly, sat down on the bare dirt floor - it was freezing cold inside te cabin, almost as cold as outside! - he noticed to his horror the old man’s eyes were cold as stone, enh, the color of ice. He also sounded different from the elders he knew on the rez. The old man took an asinii-opwaagan (stone pipe) from his gashkibidaagan (pipe bag), filled it with a smoking mixture that seemed to the boy like apaakozigan (kinnikinnick; a mixture of tobacco and willow bark). After he lightened the pipe using an ember from the dying fire he took a few puffs, offering the smoke to the north; then, counterclockwise, to the west, the south, and the east. Then he offered the smoke to the earth and then to the sky. Next, the old man handed over the pipe to Moses, who was baffled by the order with which the old man had addressed the spirits of the four winds and the sky and te earth. He had never before seen anyone start their prayer in the north, let alone in a counterclockwise direction! True to his tradition, Moses started with the east before offering the smoke to the south, the west, and the north, and finally, like he was taught by his Elders, to the sky and the earth. When this ceremony was concluded the old man, who looked at Moses with a strange glow in his eyes, handed him a mug of coffee. Then he started to speak. “Let it be known that I open my heart and my home to you, my son, since you have been walking for many days. Your deeds and reputation preceed you! Ahaaw andodan, n’ga gwayak dadibaajimo noongom. Now listen! I will tell you a true story.”
After a short pause the old man looked at Moses with glaring white eyes, took a few pulls on his pipe and resumed, “Ahaaw! I know of an old man who lives alone in a cabin far north of the rapids, deep in the woods by the side of a stream that is perpetually frozen. Now, I will tell you about this man, who is truly remarkable in more than one way. You know, they say, waabi-makwa odoodeman; the white bear is his clan. As you will know, the white bear, who sits in the north, is the patron of winter. They say that in his younger days this man was a mighty e-bimodaakwed (bow man) and an equally skilled jiimaaninini (canoe man). No one was as skilled in hunting as this man, who colored the snow red with the blood of countless moose, lynx, and bears. No one paddled a jiimaan across the lakes and through the rapids and treacherous undercurrents more expertly than he did; they even say he could mystically steer his vessel through the air, high up in the sky. Folks in town and most people on the rez don’t like him much though, I think they’re afraid of him. Perhaps this is because they suspect that this man, he possesses powerful medicine, and not just when on the hunt or paddling his canoe. When he breathes, the water of the rivers and lakes stand still. The water turns into ice for as long as he think it’s fun and there isn’t a darn thing they can do about it. This man, this powerful canoeist, he happens to like the cold and the ice, he loves heavy snowfall and freezing hail storms. In fact, he hates the warm weather and he makes darn sure the waters stay frozen and the roads are inaccesible as long as he lives. Ha! Folks on te rez whisper he’s a wiindigoo, one of those winter monsters that feed on human flesh you hear about in the aadizookaanan, our sacred stories. Of course, he’s not, that’s just their superstitious nature talking.”
After a moment of silence, during which he stared pensively into the flames of his dying campfire, the old storyteller resumed: “But that this man has supernatural powers is without question. It is believed he is closely related to Gichi-ogimaa, the Big Chief Star called “Vega” in English. As you may know, there lives not a thing or being on earth that does not have a ruling spirit or star in the skies; this Gichi-ogimaa, or Chi-ogima Anang as he is often called, controls all the other stars and constellations and assigns them their roles. On earth, Chi-ogima Anang controls the force of gravity and causes the water to be lifted off the lakes and rivers. So powerful is this star that he is able to store up all these waters and later release them to cause snowfalls! This Chief Star, I’m pretty the old man I’m telling you about and that star are two peas in a pod! Therefore no one can stop the old man, he cannot be defeated, and as long as the Chief Star wills it, the spirit of biboon will cover the earth with a thick blanket of snow and the fish will remain locked underneath the frozen waters of creeks and rivers and lakes. As long as waabi-makwa, the spirit of the polar bear, rules the north and Gaa-biboonikaan, the star constellation called Orion by the white man, rises in the east and travels across the southern night sky, the animals and the people on earth will hide from this man’s icy breath in their snowed-in dens and caves and houses, and the very ground under their feeth will remain hard as flint for a long, long time.” The old storyteller drew a few puffs from his pipe and concluded by saying with a rather smug expression on his thin white lips, Giiwenh, so the story goes. Ahaaw noozis, daga aajimishin! Okay my grandson, now please tell a story to me!”
Now Moses, upon hearing the old man’s tale, thought a while before he responded. Since he had a lively imagination, and on top of that a poetic way of expressing himself, he said, rather cheeky, “Miigwech for your hospitality and for telling me the wiindigoo story, grandfather. Now I will tell you a true story about a boy I know, whose name is Ziigwan. Folks on the rez and in town happen to like this boy. They say that although he can be meek and shy, he’s also very sociable and always ready to help others in need. This boy, although not a skilled hunter and canoeist like the old man in your story, he is a born poet and he, too, has powerful medicine, which he, too, derives from the stars. But Ziigwan’s medicine is different from that of the old man you spoke of. Instead on Gaa-biboonikaan, the Bringer of Winter, his gaze is always fixed on the constellations of Ojiiganang and Mishi-bizhiw, the Fisher and the Great Lynx, which the white man calls Big Dipper and Leo, or Cancer, and which are directly overhead in spring.
This boy, they say that he is like Wiinabozho, the elder brother and teacher of the Anishinaabeg, who, they say, now rests in a faraway land in the west. Where he walks, all things, instead of withering away and dying, come to life. When he speaks, flowers start to bloom and birds start to sing. The warmth of his very soul melts the snow and even unlocks the frozen streams and lakes. They say the boy, whose name is Ziigwan, truly lives up to his name. They say he is like spring.”
After a few seconds of silence Moses smiled at the old man who sat motionlessly across him and then said, with a mischievous flicker in his boyish eyes, wiishtaa grandfather, it sure is cold in here! Let me rekindle the fire for the night. I will go outside for some firewood and be back in a while.” Before his host could respond the boy quickly walked outside in the night and started to gather firewood. As he was picking twigs from the frozen bushes alongside the river he noticed with a shiver the weather changed. Violent gusts of wind and freezing rain crossed the big lake that lay to the northwest, swept up the river, rattling along the tops of the bare trees lining its banks, and almost knocked over the boy who, arms full of firewood, sped to the door of the old man’s cabin. Safely inside, he immediately started to rekindle the fire, building it from a low flame to almost a blaze. The wind, which tore at the door he had just closed behind him as if it would wrench it from its hinges, blew clouds of fine snow into the room; the ground shook violently before he seated himself upon it.
“Did you notice the change in the weather, grandfather?” the boy, wide-eyed and still shaking, asked, gesturing toward the lake. The old man looked at him, his face without expression but his strange eyes seemed even whiter than before. “Enh,” he grunted, “I expect company. Our guest will be here any minute. Here, have some more gaapii(coffee).” As the old man handed him the black medicine water, Moses noticed that the old man’s hand shivered. The hand reminded him of talon’s claws. When he took the mug filled with hot coffee in both hands he had a feeling that someone was putting an ice cold hand on his neck, and he, too, shivered.
After a while he looked up and noticed the tongue of his host had become silent. The old man was trembling all over his body, and his wrinkled face was wet with transpiration. He was weeping speechless! Streams began to flow from his eyes! As the heat of the fire increased, the old man seemed to shrink, and hoowah!, in front of the amazed boy, within seconds he had melted completely away, leaving only a little pile of pale bones and melting snow. Then, tayaa! the door behind Moses flung open and the room became instantly filled with a roaring sound accompanied by heavy snow flakes that felt like razors carried on a violent wind. An icy cold pervaded the lodge. An invisible hand appeared over the place where the frightened boy sat, clearly with the intent to smother the fire. The fire, suddenly blazing with flames flickering wildly with millions of sparks flying around the room like angry bees, died down completely. In the blink of an eye the room became black like the night outside…
Then, suddenly a thick mist rose from the snow-packed floor of the cabin that seemed to muffle every sound in the Universe and the boy had another vision. Dreaming, he looked around, and he found himself alone in a wiigiwaam - a lodge covered with large sheets of birch bark. To his wonderment he noticed he wasn’t dressed in his usual jeans and shirt and winter jacket but instead wrapped in a blanket the color of the green earth in the month of June, and his long, unbraided hair was tied with a headband made of braids of fresh sweetgrass. Streaks of yellow paint adorned his cheeks, chin, and forehead. His soul vision saw eye-blinding flashes of white light that came from the smoke hole of the domed roof. A big thundering voice broke the silence, resonating in the lodge, saying, “Inashke! Nindabiiw. Nigimiigaadenimaa! Sha naa, ishpiming inaabin! “Pay attention! I am the visitor you have been expecting. I am your enemy! Look up into the Sky dammit!” Before Moses knew it the spirit that spoke to him lifted him up, through the smoke hole, into another dimension that lay above the earth.
As he sat on this higher plane, still dreaming, Moses noticed the star constellation that the old man in the cabin had talked about loomed light in the night sky; it shone very brightly and he could almost touch it. A tall stranger walked up to him. He had the shape of a man, though he seemed to be fashioned of ice. This huge scary-looking dude walked up to him with big, angry strides and judging from the mean look in his eyes he was up to a lot of no good!
The unfriendly spirit positioned himself in front of Moses, who quickly stood up. Blowing his ice-cold breath in Moses's face, he snarled, “Ambe oshkinawensh! Come on young fellow! I know who you are and I do not like you one bit! You must wrestle me. Only by defeating me the warm weather will return to the land and the lakes and the rivers beneath you.” “Hoowah! Why should I fight you?” Moses responded. “I am not looking for trouble and I’d rather have you leave me alone. Put me back on earth please, I just want to go home!” “It is not for you to question, nor to sneak away like a dog with it’s tail beween his legs” thundered the ill-tempered stranger. “It is the way of the world and you must obey.” Suddenly an ice cold wind started to blow, growling and snarling like a hungry wolf and a terrible blizzard blasted in from the north, darkening the sky, reducing Gaa-biboonikaan, the Winter Star constellation, to a pale light. Without further ado the stranger began to assault the poor boy with his bare fists that felt like ice-cold steel. Mozes almost shat his pants with fear. His gentle nature was no match for his mighty opponent’s hatred, whose ferocious blows almost knocked him unconscious. With each beating the boy became weaker, and he already envisioned himself lying senseless on the icy clouds he kneeled on, battered and bleeding and dying… But, amid his tormentor’s terrible blows, crouching and suffering badly, his vision temporarily blurred by blood and tears running into his eyes, he was tormented the more by the flame of conscience… in a flash of light an image appeared of his sick ookomis, who smiled at him. “Gigichimashkawizii noozis!” grandmother whispered, “Zoongide'en! Bimaaji’i Anishinaabeg, bimaaji’i aki.” You have great inner strength, grandson! Be brave! Save the Anishinaabe people, save the earth.”
Moses, who loved ookomisan very much, felt courage grow in his heart… still half-blinded, he raised himself up and with both fists he savagely attacked his hot-headed opponent, punching him wildly in his icy face, and knocked him unconscious. The spirit, his face turning purple, thumped on the ground. The wind still howled like a wolf, but less ferocious now – no longer in indignation or retribution but rather with a shuddering groan. The snow that a minute ago had poured down heavily upon the icy plane, swirling around through the air like a tremendously dense fog, stopped falling. Panting, bleeding, Moses sat down and waited by the unmoving form beside him. As soon as his tormentor recovered the wind started to howl again, and again Moses assaulted him. A terrible battle ensued, even worse than the one before, and Moses kept attacking his opponent relentlessly. The fight continued until the old warrior pleaded for mercy, promising to leave the boy alone, and return to his abode into exile - albeit temporarily.
The old warrior spirit from the north, although beaten in battle, stood still tall. Facing the boy, he addressed him in a somewhat faltering, yet solemn voice:
“Your heart is known to me, noozis, my grandson.
Since you have a generous and gentle nature and have always behaved in the most upstanding way and are sincere in your concern for the animals, the small and large birds, the fish and the human beings, and especially for gookomisan, your grandmother,
all the nations of the four-legged and fish and birds and your own people, as well as the spirits that dwell the corners of the earth and the stars that dwell the night sky, feel kindly disposed to you.
This is why the spirits have conferred upon you the power to conquer the fiercests and most relentless winter tempests, and gave you the ability to annually plant the seeds of the renewal, youth, and life into the bosom of the earth as soon as the days of gaa-biboonikewinini, the bringer of winter, are numbered, and end.
Such a powerful medicine is yours only as you find it necessary in your perpetual quest of doing good deeds.
Use this medicine wisely noozis, my grandson, and know that I respect you.
But remember this. You have beaten me this time but you shall not destroy me entirely. Each season has certain spirits that make that season happen. The star of the mighty hunter warrior called Gaa-biboonikaan shines less brightly now, only to temporarily retreat to Ningaabii'anong, the land in the west. I have grown weak and life must take his place; death must yield to life. This is the way of the world. However, in time I will recover from my injuries and I will come back in seven moons from now, when Gaa-biboonike’s Star stands upright again, high up in the southern sky. When I return to the earth I will challenge you again and beat you in battle.
Since it is my nature, noozis, I promise I will bring back winter and snow and ice to the earth and her children, and bring along with it decay, hardship and desolution, and death! You and I will always test our strength and battle for supremacy over the land and the lakes and the rivers on below earth. This, I assure you, will go on into eternity.”
The battered warrior disappeared out of sight and Moses, the voice of his antagonist still ringing in his ears, found himself alone on the frozen sky surface above the earth, which now was stained with the blood of himself and his beaten enemy. The wind, which had howled fiercely during the battle, lay down. Gaa-biboonikaan disappeared behind the western horizon and Waabananang, the Morning Star, soon folllowed by Giizis, he Sun, appeared in the east. A distant eagle, wings bathing in the golden light of dawn, swooped down over Rattle Snake lake (Lake Huron). A gentle warmth came over the icy plain where he had nearly lost his life; the place, now sun-drenched, suddenly looked serene. Looking down from his high abode, he noticed the cabin beside the river that he had visited a while ago, bathing in a peaceful morning light. The surface snow was melting under the glare of the spring sun and the ice on the river was thawing. Exhausted but contented, the murmuring sound of the stream beneath him delighting his ears, he closed his eyes and he sensed his body descending, floating almost, gently back to earth again…
When Moses woke up he found himself lying on the river bank where the cabin had stood. He searched for his reflection in the clear water of the stream and noticed the sweetgrass headband and the yellow face paint were gone. No longer was he dressed in a green blanket, nor did his body show any signs of the terrible fight he had been engaged in. During his sleep the snow and ice had disappeared and the soil had become green, lush, and beautiful again. The fragrance of growing herbs and flowers that came softly on spring breeze from the south filled his nostrils. The branches of the trees that lined the river bank showed fresh buds and the air filled with the humming of bees and the song of robins and bluebirds. Feeling revived and his spirit renewed, Moses stood up and searched for the old man’s cabin but not a trace of it was left. He did, nevertheless, find the remains of the campfire, and around the fireplace lay scattered the antlers and bones he had seen on the cabin floor. He had a moment of panic, and he frantically looked around for some sign of what had happened to the old man...
But then, to his surprise, he detected, right where the old man’s campfire had burned, a single flower called niimi'idii-makizin, or “dancing moccasin” (yellow lady slippers) in full bloom. He wondered if it had all had been real, or just a dream or hallucination… the old man inviting him into his cabin, the storytelling, the storm, the old man vanishing, the vision that had lifted him onto the sky plane where the cruel stranger from the north had wrestled him and where he had seen the face of his grandmother, talking to him, reassuring him, and giving him the strength to beat his formidable opponent… the invisible hands that then had gently lowered him back onto the earth…
Thinking back to the white-eyed old man in the cabin telling him stories by the fire, Moses realized he had witnessed the dying of winter. He had looked no other than the fearsome Gaa-biboonike, The Bringer of Winter, into the eye and, unknowingly, challenged him… then, with a shudder, he remembered the icy visage of the angry spirit that had attacked him in the old man’s cabin, and then battled with him in another dimension, high in the sky… Could it have been Giiwedin, the dreaded North Wind he had heard about in the stories ookomisan had told him as a child?
Moses instinctively understood that the spring flower before him, which had bravely lifted its little yellow head out of the ashes of old man biboon’s campfire, was a silent reminder of what had occurred and a symbol of the rebirth of ziigwan, the spring. He knew that the little flower was an image of himself. To him, its bright yellow pouch wavering softly in the warm spring breeze symbolized resilience and determination; the tiny makizinan that danced before his eyes represented life, and hope. Thinking of his grandmother, he smiled and started to walk home where she awaited him.
Giiwenh. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw bawaajigewin.
So the story goes. Thank you for listening to me today, for letting me tell you about this dream.
~~THE BEGINNING OF NEW LIFE ~~
For the Anishinaabeg and the Ininewak/Cree and surrounding Turtle Island Peoples, spring is close when Ojiiganang – which is how the Anishinaabeg call the Big Dippper - is directly overhead in the early evenings. As you can read in the above story about the yellow spring flower, ziigwan, to us, has always been a time of birth and renewal. Aki, the land, is freed from the harsh spirit of biboon; as soon as Gaa-biboonikewinini, the Winter Maker, retreats to the North the gentle and generous nature of Ziigwan is poured out onto the land and all the Peoples that inhabit it. However, although the snow disappears and the ice on rivers and lakes gradually melt, danger is still lurking for the Anishinaabeg Peoples in early spring. The arrangement of Bizhiw-anang, the star constellation called after the treacherous Underwater Lynx, is a reminder of the danger of the snow melt combined with spring rains; these, as well as flooding, unpredictable snowstorms, thinning ice on the lakes and rivers, and hard crust on the snow are characteristic of Gichigamiin (the Great Lakes region) during this time. Even in spring, the big lakes can be serene one moment and deadly with wind and waves the next. This phenomenon, to us, is directly related to the continuous conflicts that exist annually between the beings of the Upper World (the sky regions) and those of the Lower World (the lakes and rivers and their underworlds).
On a supernatural level, spring is heralded by the coming of Animkii Binesiwag (the Thunderbirds of the sky) and, around the same time, the awakening of the underwater spirits of the lakes - which, until then, had been safely contained beneath a thick layer of ice.
Conceptually, the Thunderbirds are grouped with gekekwag (hawks) and the smaller, hawk-related bird species. Naturally, migiziwag (bald eagles) and giniwag (golden eagles) also play an important metaphorical role in the world of the Bird Nation; they, too - and golden eagles in particular-, are regarded as natural counterparts of the supernatural Thunderbirds. Like the eagles and hawks who tend to congregate in mountainous areas, Thunderbirds are known to live on high rock cliffs and along waterways and from these sacred places, often enshrouded by dense clouds, where earth’s energies are deemed the most powerful, they gather these energies and distribute them throughout the land, the waters, and the skies. They live in these high places in nests of stone during the winter but as soon as spring and fall arrive they migrate - and sometimes even merge, symbolically as well as physically - with the hawks and other birds as they travel to and from their breeding grounds...
The Thunderbirds, supernatural creators of thunder and lightning, are regarded as the most powerful group of cosmic spirits; they are believed to have come to earth both to nurture it and to restrain the, potentially harmful, powers of the underwater creatures. Not only are they associated with fertility and the creation of clouds and rain, they are also seen as mirrors of the eternal dualism between forces in nature. They assist the Anishinaabeg and their supernatural protector and aadizookaan ("story maker") Wiinabozho by driving away the horned spirits - such as the mishi-ginebigoog and mishibizhiwag, the serpents and cats of the lakes; the battles between these two classes of aadizookanag often result in raging waters and seething storms on the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, on earth level, the first flowers appear in March, instantly transforming the country with their intoxicating fragrance and brilliant colors; the first tree leaves appear in the moons of April or May. Giigoonhyag, the fish, start to spawn, makwag, the bears, emerge from their dens, mitigoog (the trees) begin to shed their vital saps, and the first aandegag (crows) and ozhaawashko-bineshiinhyag (bluebirds) arrive from the south and fill the air with wings and rasping croaks and beautiful songs.
Geese and ducks are hunted on the lakes by our men. On the land, large game animals are hunted, such as adikwag (caribou) which, along with the winged beings, migrate from southern locations to more northern environments to bear their young. In former days these annual migrations used to provide vital food supplies for us. As plants, trees, and herbs begin to renew themselves after the winter cold, our Peoples traditionally gather roots and new leaves and plants for medicine, paint, ceremony, rituals, and food. We also harvest fish from the lakes for a great part of our diet and sap and bark from ininaatig (maple trees) and wiigwaas (birch trees), which we use for food and utensils, wiigiwaam (house) construction, and jiimaan (canoe) building, are being harvested as well.
For the Ojibweg of the northwoods, Ziigwan is traditionally the beginning of a new year. Binesiwi-miikana, the Thunderbird Path, the galaxy called Milky Way in English, turns north and the migrating birds, along with the supernatural Thunderbirds from their stone nests situated on a mountain near Thunder Bay, follow it. The rise of Ojiiganang, the Fisher Star constellation, is an indication to the People that it is time to move their camp into the forest and prepare for aninaatig ozhiga'igewin, or tapping of the maple trees. During the moon called April by Euro-Americans but, depending on the region, called by our Peoples iskigamizige-giizis (sugarbushing moon) or pokwaagami-giizis (Broken Snowshoe Moon), the whole family used to participate in the work in these ishkigamiziganingoon (sugar bush camps). Our Elders and family tradition decided who would tap the trees. Women and children collected the sap, boiled it down to syrup, and stirred it in the open air until it crystallized. Then the sugar was stored in baskets and animal skins and used to season meats and fish throughout the year. In the old times we used birch-bark baskets to gather the wiishkawaaboo. It was, and still is, a happy time of year after the long winter. At night time our ancestors went fishing in the shallow waters of the lakes and ponds and used a burning torch to be able to see the fish in the dark. Today, we still gather maple sap, but we use metal or plastic containers to gather it and iron kettles for boiling the syrup. Those who go fishing at night use an electric flashlight instead of a birch-bark torch, but the old traditions remain; although modern implements are used, the old tasks retain their spiritual importance. When fish is harvested by nets, mashkiki (Medicine) is placed on the nets to insure a good catch and we never forget to offer asemaa (tobacco) to the spirits of the trees and roots and plants and the four-legged that are being tapped or taken from the earth or killed on the hunt. And to this day, at ishkigamiziganin, the sugar bush camp, feasts and prayers are offered for the water spirits and to all those relatives who did not survive the winter.
The warm weather traditionally offers our Peoples relief from ice and snow. Families visit distant relatives and friends or participate in niimi'idiwinan (powwows) and jiingotamogan (ceremonial feasts) that are held across Anishinaabewaki, and matches of baaga'adowewin (lacrosse), and other games. Nibishiwin, or "summering" we call this. In the old days people used the many lakes and rivers by canoe to reach their destinations; of course nowadays we mostly travel by car.
~~ LIFE IS A GIFT, THE SEED IS A MYSTERY ~~
Manidoowi miinikaanense. Niigiwin manidoowin. Miinikaanense w'da-gikinaawajinowaan abinoojiin. Miinikaanense manidoowi, w'da-mashki-akiiwi.
“The small seed is a mystery. Birth is a mystery. The small seed symbolizes a child. The small seed is mystical, it will heal like earth's medicine.”
- Ritual words of thanksgiving in the Autumn ceremony of the Waabanoowiwin, Anishinaabe Society of Dawn, when a kernel of corn is planted as a symbolic petition for Life and Health.
The ring set, designed by me and crafted by hand in my jeweler’s studio, is titled ziigwan miinigoziwin, which literally means “Gift of Spring.” The design of the rings, inspired by Anishinaabe izhinamowin, our ancient worldview, tells a story of the physical and spiritual bond between two lovers that originates in the east, the direction of springtime, and the spring of life.
It is said that Waaban, the east, is where we come from. This is what our ancestors have taught us, it has been our izhinamowin since time immemorial. Waaban represents the springtime, and the spring (source) of life. Spring, as we noted above, is the time when new life begins and flowers begin to grow. Waabang (in the East) is where we begin our journey as anishinaabeg (human beings) coming from the spirit world into the physical world. Our journey begins in the East when Gichi-manidoo (the Great Spirit) breathes the spirit of life into us. And the Great Spirit, this sum of mystery, is the one that motivates and inspires all living things in this great circle called life. We as human beings are spirits on a physical journey, until our last breath.
Life is a gift. We are taught that, in order to honor that gift, the spirits that dwell in the East gifted our ancestors with the gift of asemaa (tobacco). This gift of asemaa is still being honored today and reminds us to be grateful for all life. It reminds us daily to be grateful and to be humble knowing that we as humans - and as married couples - will always require guidance and protection, and cannot exist without the gifts of the natural world around us – being the wind, the earth, the fire, the water, and all of those relatives and entities, natural as well as supernatural, that are alive with energy and movement.
The stylized eagle feathers adorning the rings stand for the spirit of life and for the search for thruth in all things. They are living prayers. The silver color of the feathers epitomizes the omnipresence of the sky and the light of the eastern direction and, in a metaphorical sense, the spiritual quality surrounding us in life.
The 0.236" x 0.118" marquise-cut emerald placed inside the eagle feather of the ladies’ ring represents aki (mother earth) and the miinikaanan (seeds) in her bosom; the precious stone stands, in color and form, for birth and youth, and for the fertile earth in springtime, when the seeds sprout forth from the earth and life returns to the land. It stands for the first sound of creation, and the time of morning that starts in the East. Last but not least, the color and brilliance of the emerald stone express the hope that the couple that wears the rings will walk a future road of healthiness and happiness.
All these spiritual entities, sky and earth, birth and rebirth, and the many gifts that the East and springtime bring us, come together in the ring design and represent the deep and organic love that two people feel for each other.
“And so I honor this asemaa as I prepare myself to go on this journey with you…”