Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 24
Updated: Oct 19
~~ How the Smoking of the Pipe Brought Peace and Healing to the People of the Three Fires ~~
Odemiini-giizis (Strawberry Moon) / Baashkaabigonii-giizis (Blooming Moon), June 30, 2020
Boozhoo indinawemaaganidog, gidinimikoo miinawaa. Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ninga-dadibaajimo noongom giizhigad! Hello my relatives, I greet you in a good way. Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where legends and teaching stories are told. Let's tell a true story today!
The story is woven around a "story necklace" handcrafted at my studio bench and titled Manidoo Niswii-mishkodewin (Spirit of the Three Fires). The elegant gold and stone-and-coral eagle feather chain necklace is infused with my love for the rich oral history of my People, the Gishigamiin Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) who for at least 1200 summers have lived in the heart of the North American Great Lakes. The story is also accompanied by a beautiful acrylic painting titled "The Fire and the Moon,"¹ details of a truly magnificent canvas (presented by the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation),² and a breathtaking mural,³ all created by one of my all-time favorite Anishinaabe artists, Anishinaabe painter Bebaminojmat (Leland Bell) from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island.
Now, I will tell a dibaajimowin (true story).⁴
A great many strings of life ago the Ojibwe, Odaawaa (Odawa), and Bodewadmi (Potawatomi) people were enemies. An Ojibwe man, whose name was Inendaamowin (Mind), had ten children, all boys. He brought them up to be ogichidaag (warriors) and all ten sons were killed in battle. There was also an Odaawaa man – he went by the name of Owiiyaw (Body) -- who had ten sons who were ogichidaag, and they too were all killed. At the same time, a Bodewadmi man, who was called Achaak (Spirit), had his ten sons killed in raids as well. Each father was left without children. All three men mourned their sons and could not see the point in living any longer. They wandered away from their families and into the woods, looking for a place where they could embark on their journey to the Land of Souls.
The Ojibwe man, who had grown into an akiwenziinh (caretaker of the earth, which is how we call the old men of our Nation) traveled west until he was completely exhausted. As he came to a beautiful place to rest -- this was on an island callled Mishi-makinaak-ong, the Place of the Great Snapping Turtle
-- he saw a gichi-mitig (big tree) which had a long ojiibik (root) running toward the east. The root was as long as a tree is tall, and very thick. He laid down and rested awhile, and then looked toward the south. There he saw another very long ojiibik-- as long as the one which went to the east -- running toward the south. He went to the west and north sides of the tree and found two other ojiibikan, each as long as a tree is high. All around the tree, the grass grew long and rich. He walked around the tree until he had come to the east, and that is when he realized that the four ojiibikan pointed exactly in the four directions!
As he looked up at the tree, he realized that there were also four huge wadikwanan (branches), one to the East, one to the West, one to the South and one to the North. The tree had beautiful aniibiishan (leaves), but only had these four branches, each extending out as far as the roots. As he examined the tree, he could also see that the tree had a big ojiibik that ran straight down into aki (the earth) and a huge branch that went up from the center straight to giizhig (the sky). There were no leaves on that branch until the very top, and then there only a few. All around the tree he could see the blue sky, and there was no wind or breeze.
As the akiwenziinh walked around the tree, he was happy and forgot all of his sorrow at losing his sons. He had never seen so beautiful a place. As he sat there, he heard a noise like someone crying. He looked around, but didn’t see anyone. At last he saw another akiwenziinh approaching from the south walking toward the tree, weeping and mourning just as he had earlier. As the newcomer came to the spot, he saw how beautiful it was and stopped crying. He looked around and noticed all the things about the tree and then he saw the first man. He saw that the man was mourning, and asked him why.
The Ojibwe man, who was sitting at the base of the great tree, said, "I had ten sons and I lost them all in war. I decided I had nothing left to live for and wandered until I came to this beautiful place." The Odaawaa man who bore the name of Body, said, "I did the same as you. I had ten sons and they were all killed and I did not wish to live. I wandered off to die and came to this place."
They talked over the past, and while they were talking they forgot their sorrow and felt happy. While they talked, they heard the noise of a person crying. Far off they saw a man approaching, mourning and crying. It was a man about the same age as the other two, and he walked along wearily. He was the man whom we spoke of earlier and who went by the name of Spirit. Both men watched him as he came from the west and approached the west root of the tree. Spirit stopped and examined the root, and he began to notice how beautiful the tree and the place was and wiped away his tears. As he came up to the tree, the Ojibwe man and the Odaawaa man asked him who he was and why he was mourning. He answered that he was a Bodewadmi and that he mourned his ten sons lost in war. Like them, he had wandered off to die.
They each told their stories and saw that the same thing had brought them to this place. The Ojibwe man said, "It is the will of GICHI-MANIDOO (the Great Mystery of Life) that has brought us here to meet."
They all agreed. As soon as the sun went down Mind brought a chunk of wood, and so did Body and Spirit. The three Elders started a common fire and then they explored the place together. It was already after midnight and they saw that the air was very still and calm around the gichi-mitig. It was very quiet and it seemed to them that every word they spoke could be heard by Anangoog, the stars, and Nookomis Dibik-giizis, Grandmother Moon. Together they said, "Manidoog, the spirits, have sent us here to hold council together. There has been too much fighting in our lives."
The Ojibwe man said, "I think I had better go back to my people." The Odaawaa man agreed, saying, "Ahaw, I think it has been wrong for us to fight all the time. We have suffered and neglected our children. It is best for us to go home." And the Bodewadmi man said, "Geget sago gii-debwe, all this is definitely true. It is wrong to allow our children to die because of the fighting between us. We should all go home, and stop the fighting between our Nations and live in peace."
They lit their pipes and smoked, agreeing on what they had said. They talked a long while. As they smoked and talked, the Ojibwe man -- having been the first to get to the tree -- felt he had a right to speak first. "Our people should unite as one. I will be the eldest brother. And the Odaawaa will be our second brother. And you, Bodewadmi, will be the youngest brother." They all agreed.
The Ojibwe man called Mind said, "My brothers, I will make a pipe and a stem for it. When I get home, I will present it to my people. I will tell them that I had ten children who were all killed in war; but I will wash that away. I will paint the stem of the pipe blue, like the sky, and we will use this pipe when we make peace with other nations."
And the Odaawaa man called Body said, "I will do the same. I will remind my people of my sons, and I will have them quit fighting." The Bodewadmi called Spirit said, “I too will make a bawaagan, a pipe of friendship. I will call a council of our people and tell them of our resolution, and explain the foolishness of allowing our people to be killed."
The Ojibwe said again, "It is good. Our spirits have brought us together at this point, and have brought us to agreement." They agreed that in ten days they would all meet and bring their Nations to the roots of the gichi-mitig, and at these roots the three Nations would live, each sheltered by one of the great branches. And then they all went their separate ways home.
Ten days later, the three men brought their people to the island. As they all got there, each set up camp on one root of the beautiful gichi-mitig. Again, Mind brought a chunk of wood, and so did Body and Spirit. The three Elders started a common fire in the same spot where they had lit a campfire 10 days earlier and they brought food so they could cook together. Seven images carved of wood were set on the ground. These effigies represented the odoodemag (totemic clans) of Ajijaak (Crane/Thunder), Maang (Loon), Noka (bear), Awaasii (catfish), Aa'aawe (pintail), Moozoonii-Waabizheshi (combined clans of little moose and marten), and Migizi (Bald Eagle). A drum started to beat and a voice chanted as Mind uncovered the blue-stemmed bawaagan (Pipe of Friendship), after which a helper lit the pipe with a coal.
The old man sang an ancient song of invocation, after which he pointed the blue pipe stem straight up in the air. Then he pointed the okij to the spirits of the South and then to the spirits of the West and lastly to the spirits of the North. Then he turned the stem down toward the central root of the great tree, offering it to the spirit that connects the middle world (the earth) with the waters of the underworld. One after another the Elders of the three Nations present that day smoked the bawaagan, blowing whiffs of smoke on the clan images, thus commemorating the peace that would now descend upon all the Three Fires People that had gathered beneath the Tree of Peace.
Next, when the pipe had returned to Mind he held its stone bowl in his right palm and the wooden stem in his left, and, chanting in a throaty, high-pitched voice, he danced the bawaaganagaawin (Dance of the Pipe of Friendship), meanwhile rocking the pipe – rhythmically, at first slowly and gently, then faster and faster as if being in a trance. After a while of dancing and singing he passed the pipe to his right and it was passed among the Elders in the circle who did the same – thus perpetuating an ancient ritual of sharing and celebrating important events and achievements that occurred among the Anishinaabeg Peoples.
After the pipe had passed in this manner around the circle twice, the old man handed it over to the oshkaabewis (ceremonial helper), who put it away. A beautiful rainbow, its vibrant colors of green, yellow, pink, orange, red, blue, and purple forming in an array of mysterious beauty, arched over the tree of peace. Sensing that there as something very special in the occasion, the people who had gathered beneath the tree now fixed their gaze upon Gichi-aya’aa (The Old One), a Medicine Man and Prophet of the Misi-zaagiwininiwag (Mississauga), a subtribe of the Ojibwe Nation, who appeared from the northeast and advanced in a calm and dignified manner toward the assembly of Three Fires Anishinaabeg.
Addressing the war chiefs of the Odaawaag and Bodewadmik, The Old One commenced to speak. “Niwiijikiwenhyag!” he said, “my brothers!” As is witnessed by the rainbow that you see arching over yonder great tree of friendship and whose seven colors symbolize the GrandFather Teachings, I now offer with a clean heart and a clear mind my hand and the hand of my People in friendship to you and your People. Too long now have our Peoples, who are children of the same forebears, been at war, thus weakening the strength of our great nation that once came from Waabanaki, the land of Dawn in the East. Too many of our finest boys and men lie buried in the soil of our beloved country, too long now have our women been weeping, too long have our children been uneasy by night and wary by day. It was not intended by Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery of Life, that our nations should kill and wound one another; but rather that they should live in harmony as brothers.”
After a short pause The Old One held up a fan made of three feathers of migizi (the bald eagle) wrapped in bright red cloth that the oshkaabewis had handed him and continued, now addressing the three old men who had met under the Tree of Peace: “Ahaw! These feathers of our relative the Eagle symbolize the bond that is being sealed between our Peoples, here today in this sacred place called Mishi-makinaak-ong, the island of the Great Snapping Turtle, and that will last as long as rivers run and the sun comes up in the east and settles in the west. This bond will be known by many generations to come as Niswii-mishkodewin (Confederacy of Three Fires). The red of the cloth wrapped around the feather shafts represents the embers that lightened the pipe of peace that is being smoked here at the foot of gichi-mitig, the sacred four-branched tree. The tripartiteness of the feather fan represents a sincere heart, mind, and spirit and the seeking of spiritual truth, knowledge, and healing in life; values that reflect mino-bimaadiziwin, the Way of a Good Life, based on the Seven Teachings of our Midewiwin Lodge, telling us how to live life in an honest and wholesome way.”
Next, The Old One carefully took the eagle feather fan apart and divided the three feathers among the three Elders, saying in a solemn manner, “Our Mide-wigamig (Great Midewiwin Lodge) is considered a sacred place, both earthly and in the Spirit World, that was given to all Anishinaabeg by Gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit of Life. The Three Fires has two meanings: on an earthly level it symbolizes the political brotherhood and combined warrior strength of Ojibweg, Odaawaag and Bodwewaadamiig;⁵ on a spiritual level it reminds us that there is nothing more powerful than Mind, Body, and Spirit working together in perfect harmony.
Accept these feathers and take them home as a reminder that from now on, you will be brothers. It is here, underneath the Tree of Peace in the Place of the Snapping Turtle that you will now commit to work together, each taking a task.”
Addressing Mind, the Ojibwe Elder, he then said: “You, being the Oldest Brother, will be the Faith Keeper, keeper and protector of the Midewiwin and traditional Anishinaabe way of life, and you will harvest manoomin (wild rice) in the autumn and gather heavy furs in the winter.” Next the war chief turned to Body, the Odaawaa Elder, and said: “You, being the Middle Brother, belong to the Trader People. You will transport the sacred food and the furs to our Third Brother the Bodwewaadamii, the Hearth Tender who lives in the south.” After this he addressed the Bodewadmi man called Spirit and said: “You, being the youngest brother, will will receive the sacred food and the furs from the Middle Brother in exchange for corn, beans, and squash, which then will be taken back north. All three brother nations will thus work closely together and be perpetually connected in an unbroken cycle. Soon, in a time that will become known as the Sixth Fire, a Gichi-ajijaak (Great Sandhill Crane) will lead our Peoples to a place where the waters of the Great Sea (Lake Superior) flow into Rattlesnake Sea (Lake Huron). Here, the Mide water drum will reverberate again across the islands and the waters of our Great Lakes. And each summer, the Three Nations will rekindle the flames of the sacred Fire and celebrate together at the harvest of fish at this place, which will forever be known as Baawitigong, the Place of the Rapids.”⁶
After he had finished his speech about the meaning of the fan of eagle feathers and his prophecy of the Great Sandhill Crane, The Old One offered his pipe to the ogichidaag (braves and warriors) of the three Nations. They all smoked, the pipe and their solemn faces touched by the crimson sunset sky. After that, they all lived as ANISHINAABEG (One People), and said "We are now One People, unified not by legislation but by the wish of Gichi-manidoo, the Great Mystery of Life. The common fire that we started at the roots of the great spirit tree represents our bond with each other, and the Bodwewaadamiig will be the tenders of this sacred fire.”
Mind, Body, and Spirit, the three old men who had met at the foot of the big tree on the island of the Great Snapping Turtle then made rules for the people to live together, and presented them as a path that everyone must follow. From the point at which they met under the tree, the three Nations lived in peace and friendship. From that time forward, they kept their rules and they lived in friendship and peace and intermarried with each other. They lived on as ANISHINAABEG.
~~ THE SYMBOLIC MEANING OF THE THREE FIRES NECKLACE ~~
The eight chain parts consisting of stylized eagle feathers that make up the necklace refer to Niizhwaaso-ishkoden (the Seven Fires), a prophecy that stems from a time long ago when the Anishinaabeg still lived in the Dawn Land and that marks phases, or epochs, in their history and lives. The feathers symbolize the legendary migration journey marked by Seven Fires that brought the Anishinaabeg from the northern shores of the Dawn Land (which bordered the Atlantic Ocean) to the Great Lakes; the eight feather, a concept that in recent years became integrated in the original Seven Fires Prophecy, symbolizes the lighting of a new fire, called Eko-nishwaaching (the Eight Fire). This eight fire reflects back to a better time, when the Anishinaabeg still lived in accordance to the Seven Grandfather Teachings that the Great Mystery gave to the People so that they would abide by the laws of nature and move as one.
The three combined gold feathers of the pendant and the “crown” of three pear-shaped red corals placed right above the sapphire stone symbolize the founding of Niswii-mishkodewin (the Three Fires), the bright red color of the corals representing the embers that lightened the pipe of friendship that was smoked at the foot of the sacred four-branched tree in the story. The Three Fires has two interrelated meanings: on an earthly level it signifies the political and military bond between the Ojibweg, Odaawaag and Bodewadmik, while on a spiritual level it refers to Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Giiwenh. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw dibaajimowin. Bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga!
So the story goes. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to share with you this true story. Please come see me again.
1 Coming of the Three Fires
Artist: Bebaminojmat (Bell, Leland)
Price: Contact Native Art Manitoulin.
Size: 24" x 30"
Type: Acrylic on canvas.
2 A painting by Bebaminojmat/ Leland Bell presented by Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.
3 The mural Survival (1985) created by Native Studies graduate Bebaminojmat/Leland Bell at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario.
4 A metaphorical story which I loosely based on a traditional Ojibwe story told by RedBird Gallery.
5 Bodwewaadamiig, Hearth Tenders,or Keepers of the Sacred Fire, is how the Ojibweg call the Bodewadmik.
6 Baawitigong: The present twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie located at the border between Michigan and Ontario.