Teachings of the Eagle Feather, part 36: Fire of the Thunder Beings
Updated: Jan 28
Gichimanidoo-giizis (Great-Spirit Moon), January 26, 2023
Aabiji-waasamoog igiweg manidoog ba-ayaawaad "The thunder spirits keep coming flashing their lightning"
Boozhoo, aaniin, bindigen miinawaa! Hello and welcome again!
Today we will take a linguistic approach to the phenomenon of waasamoowin, the lightning/electricity caused by the Thunder Grandfathers, or Thunder Beings of the skies.
In extension, we will look at some Ojibwe words for electricity – a form of energy that, in our perception, is directly related to the awe-inspiring electric power of the Thunder Beings...
Lightning: waasamoowin; waasamoo; waasigan; inaabiwin A discharge of electricity. A single stroke of lightning can heat the air around it to 30,000°C (54,000°F). This extreme heating causes the air to expand explosively fast. The expansion creates a shock wave that turns into a booming sound wave, known as animikii (thunder).
Electricity: animikii-ishkode; waasamoowin; waasigan A form of energy resulting from the existence of charged particles (such as electrons or protons), either statically as an accumulation of charge or dynamically as a current.
One of our words for electricity, animikii-ishkode, "thunder fire," best illustrates the extent to which electricity and the binesiwag, or "Thunderbirds," are relate to one another.
The Binesi (Thunderbird) motif, which symbolically relates to to the animikiig (Thunder Beings), figures prominently in several Ojibwe Anishinaabe stories, ceremonies, and depictions on rock, tree bark, animal hide, metal, and canvas and is the overall symbol that unifies all Anishinaabeg.
As “spirits of the sky realm,” Thunderbirds are considered the most pervasive and powerful beings of all the aadizookaanag – Spirit Grandfathers, Supernatural Makers of Stories – that guard the cardinal points of the Universe. They are related to water and to the south and the summer – which is the time of year when the storms rumble over the Gichigamiin (the Great Lakes). The peal of thunder echoing from every side of the lakes – often surrounded by dense forests and bordered by rocks – makes it impossible to be unaware their powerful presence!
The Binesiwag (Thunderbirds) leave their homes among the stars and on high cliffs and mountain peaks in the west in the beginning of spring and come to Earth in different forms and guises and sizes – as winged beings, or sometimes even in human form – to visit the Anishinaabeg and also to drive off the (potentially malevolent) underground spirits – snakes and cats – from the Earth and the waters of lakes and rivers. Binesiwag 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 (created by the flapping of their wings) and lightning (which comes from their eyes) herald the presence of powerful manidoog or Spirit Beings, and their lightning arrows carry strong mashkiki (Medicine).
According to traditional Anishinaabe anang nibwaakaawin (Ojibwe star knowledge), Thunderbirds are part of the great gathering of all beings. They came to Earth to help out the anishinaabeg (humans) as well, which is still reflected in the Binesi Doodem, the Ojibwe Thunderbird clan. Whoever is born in the Thunderbird Clan knows that their origin lies somewhere with the Thunderbird constellations in the Great Galaxy.
In conclusion, let's have a look at the Ojibwe words for lightning, and electricity, and their related verbs:
lightning: waasamoo+g (Southeastern dialect)
lightning; electricity: waasigan+an (Eastern Canadian Border Lakes dialect)
lightning: binesi-waasi+ig (Western Ojibwe - Turtle Mountain dialect)
Inaabiwin: /inaabi-/ stem of inaabi (verb bimaadiziwin intransitive meaning s/he looks to a certain place, peeks); /-win/ [noun forming final]
lightning rod: baaginawaabik+oon
lightning bug: waawaatesiih+yag (South-shore Ojibwe dialect)
lightning bug: waawaatesiinh+yag (Northeastern/North-shore Ojibwe dialects)
lightning bug: waawaatesi+wag
lightning bug: waasikonejiisi+wag (North-shore Ojibwe dialect)
lightning bug: waasikonesi+wag (Northwestern dialect)
electricity: animikii-ishkode+n ("thunder fire(s)")
electricity: waasigan+an (Northwestern/Western Ojibwe dialects)
generation of electricity: waasiganikewin+an (verb bimaadizi intransitive) (Northwestern/Western Ojibwe dialects)
powered (with electricity): waasamoo- (pv4)
electrician (male): waasamoo-anokiiwinini+wag
electrician (female): waasamo-anokiikwe+wag electric lamp: waasamoo-waazakonenjigan+an
flashlight: waasikwanenjigan+an (Northwestern and Western Ojibwe dialects)
lightning: there is - waasamoog manidoog ("the spirits are bright")
lightning: there is - waawaasese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there is - waawaasakonese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there is - waawaasikonese (verb bimaadad intransitive ) (Western Ojibwe dialect)
lightning: there is - waasakwa'am (verb bimaadizi intransitive2)
lightning: there is - waasamo+wag (verb bimaadizi intransitive inherently plural)
lightning: there is - waawaatese (verb bimaadad intransitive)
lightning: there is a flash of - waawese (verb bimaadad intransitive)
lightning: there is a flash of - waawese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there is a flash of - waatese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there are flashes of - waawaasikwanese (verb bimaadad intransitive ) (Northwestern dialect)
lightning: there is a flash of - waasese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there is a flash of - waatese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: there are bolts of - inaabiigise (verb bimaadad intransitive)
lightning: there are flashes of - waawaatese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
~~ WHY TREES ARE STRUCK BY LIGHTNING ~~ Several Anishinaabe aadizookanan (sacred stories) relate of the reason why Thunderbirds strike mitigoog (trees) with lightning. The reason is twofold: the connection Binesiwag/Thunderbirds have with the supernatural benefactor Wenabozho (see: the story "Wenabozho and the Spirit of Thunderbird Mountain") and their relationship with another class of Sky Beings, namely zagimenhyag (mosquitoes). It is believed that zagimenhyag have a close relationship with both binesiwag and anishinaabeg. After all, are Thunderbirds and humans not both nurtured by their blood? In fact, some stories even mention that zagimenhyag stay with the binesiwag while nesting on the mountais in winter. Tradition has it that one day when the binesiwag asked their friends the zagimenhyag why their stomachs were always full of blood, the zagimenhyag fooled them by saying they got it from mitigoog (trees)! From that day on, the Thunderbirds started to hit the trees with their lightning. (Other sources relate they took revenge on the mosquitoes themselves.) And this is why the Anishinaabeg, although zagimenhyag can be a real pain in the butt in the warm moons, are thankful to their little winged tormentors. If the zagimenhyag had not lied to the Thunderbirds about where they got their blood, the latter would surely have killed all the Anishinaabeg ...
they flash lightning: waasamoog (verb bimaadizi intransitive 2)
strike ST with lightning: baaginaadan (verb transitive bimaadad)
strike SO with lightning: baaginaazh (verb transitive bimaadizi)
lightning: make strike - baagijige (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
lightning: strike ST with - baaginaadan (verb transitive bimaadad)
lightning: strike SO with - baaginaazh (verb transitive bimaadizi)
lightning: string across the sky (as) - inaabiigagoode (verb bimaadad intransitive)
lightning: be making - waasamo+wag (verb bimaadizi intransitive inherently plural)
lightning: (s)he makes - waasamo+wag+-animikii+g
lightning: (s)he keeps on flashing - waawaasamo (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
generate electricity: waasiganike (verb bimaadizi intransitive) (Northwestern/Western Ojibwe dialects)
lightning comes from SP: onjiwaatese (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: be struck by - baagijigaade (verb bimaadad intransitive )
struck by lightning: be - baagijigaade - (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: be struck by - baagijigaazo (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
struck by lightning: (s)he is baagijigaazo (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
lightning: it is struck by - baaginaade (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: it is struck by - baaginaajigaade (verb bimaadad intransitive )
struck by lightning: it is - baaginaajigaade (verb bimaadad intransitive )
lightning: (s)he is struck by - baaginaazo (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
struck by lightning: (s)he is struck by - baaginaazo (verb bimaadizi intransitive)
See also: Star Stories, part 20: The Great Thunderbird That Dwells Among the Stars
Verbs, nouns: Ojibwemowin is basically a verb-based language. At least two-thirds of Ojibwe words are verbs. Nouns are not gendered in the Western sense (male/female) but are divided between a quality of "aliveness" called bimaadizi (often translated as "animate") and a quality of "aliveness" called bimaadad (often erroneously called "inanimate") objects. Many nouns are in fact verbs that are given a nominalizer, or noun-forming final (such as the ending “-win”) that turns the verb into a noun. For example, when you break down the noun zaagi'idiwin, "mutual love," what you get is /zaagi'idi-/ stem of zaagi'idiwag (verb bimaadizi intransitive "they love each other"); /-win/ (noun forming final).
Noun endings: Noun suffixes -an, -oon, - in, -g, -oog, -(y)ag, and -(w)ag) correspond with the quality of "aliveness" that characterizes them. Plural suffixes for bimaadad nouns end in -an, -oon, or - in. Plural suffixes for bimaadizi nouns end in -g, -oog, -(y)ag, or -(w)ag. See also: Bimaadizi/bimaadad.
Bimaadizi/bimaadad: The gender distinction in Ojibwemowin is not a masculine/feminine contrast, but is rather between a quality of "aliveness" called bimaadizi (often translated as "animate") and a quality of "aliveness" called bimaadad (often erroneously called "inanimate"). The literal translation of bimaadizi is "(s)he is alive," where bimaadad translates as "it is alive." (Ojibweg in the northeast use, respectively, the terms pimaadis and pimaatin to denote both qualities of aliveness.) The suffixes/endings of verbs as well as nouns reflect this distinction between both qualities of "alivenes": for example, -(a)g, -oog, -(y)ag, or -(w)ag are bimaadizi endings where -an, -oon, or - in are bimaadad endings.
In Ojibwe Anishinaabe grammar, all beings and objects of the bimaadizi/pimaatis class are permeated with a certain life quality based on THE WAY they EXIST in the world, where bimaadad/pimaatin “beings” and “things” and “objects” have a particular life quality based on how they PRESENTLY exist in the world. Ojibwe Anishinaabe nouns and verbs belong to either of both grammatical classes, which on their turn are based on an animistic concept rooted in thousands of years of observation and interaction with different life forms. The categories of bimaadizi/pimaadis and bimaadidad/pimaatin are characterized by a fluid and dynamically interactive nature. Many bimaadizi/pimaatis beings will eventually become bimaadad/pimaatin, and by the same token bimaadad/pimaatin beings will always influence the bimaadizi/pimaatis world. For example, mitig, a tree, which is understood to belong to the bimaadizi//pimaatis class, may be cut down or its twigs cut off to be made into a man-made object such as a chair or table or a cradle board hoop, which belong to the bimaadad//pimaatin class; or the tree or its twigs will eventually decompose and return to aki (earth), which, like most natural features, is looked upon as a relative of the bimaadad/pimaatin class. To read more about the bimaadizin/bimaadad subject, visit Artist Inspirations, part 8: Reflections on a Ceremonial Bundle and on the Nature of Our Language.
Transitive, intransitive: In Ojibwemowin, as in other languages, verbs are either transitive or intransitive. Intransitive verbs are categorized as bimaadad intransitive (often - erroneously - called "inanimate" intransitive, or VII) or bimaadizi intransitive (often called "animate" intransitive, or VAI), according to the animacy (bimaadizi/bimaadad) of the subject they take. Transitive verbs, on the other hand, are categorized as transitive bimaadad (often - erroneously - called transitive "inanimate," or VTI) or transitive bimaadizi (often called transitive "animate, or" VTA), according to the animacy (bimaadizi/bimaadad) of the object they take.
Dialects: In the above list, a distinction has been made between several Ojibwe Anishinaabe dialects.
Northeastern Ojibwe: Manitoulin Island, Ontario
Southeastern Ojibwe: Eastern Upper Michigan, Lower Michigan, Southeastern Ontario, Ohio
Eastern Canadian Border Lakes dialect: Southeastern Ontario
North-shore Ojibwe (Southern Ontario)
South-shore Ojibwe (Michigan and Wisconsin)
Southwestern Ojibwe (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Western Upper Michigan)
Northwestern Ojibwe (Northwestern Ontario)
Western Ojibwe (Western Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, North Dakota, Montana)
From top to bottom:
"Spirit Flight": An animated video version of a painting by the author. Animation by Bryce Morison. ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik
Image of a stylized Thunderbird, traditional Ojibwe style. Source: KRCC.
"Mosquitoes Hit With Thunderbird Lightning," acrylic on canvas by the late Anishinini artist Carl Ray.
"Thunderbird drum," painted drum with ancient Thunderbird motif ©2022 Zhaawano Giizhik