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What's Your Doodem, part 3: Cut-tail, Teacher Among Teachers (The Story of the Catfish Clan)

Updated: May 2, 2023


Gashkadino-giizis /Baashkaakodin-giizis (Freezing Moon), November 18, 2019



Boozhoo, aaniin!

Welcome to part 3 of my blog series titled "What's Your Doodem," in which I connect my and kindred artists’ storytelling art - in the form of rings, jewelry, and canvases - with stories of, and knowledge about, the odoodemag (clans) of the Anishinaabe, Nêhiyawak-Cree, and Haudenosaunee Peoples of the northern regions of Turtle Island - nowadays called Canada and the United States.

In part 1 and 2 we learned that in Anishinaabe as well as in Cree and Haudenosaunee societies the families, which have an extended nature, are organized into clans, or, in the case of the Anishinaabeg, into phratries (clan groups) that in turn are divided into clans and subclans.

The purpose of these phratries and clans is to divide labor and spiritual-ceremonial tasks, provide general support, and to stress identity of self and the group.

We also learned that in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibweg peoples, "ode'" means heart. "Odoodem" or clan literally translates as "the expression of one's heart"; in other words, odoodem refers to the extended family. To us, our odoodem system basically acts as family and marriage regulators in our communities and is still today an essential part of our identity as a People and our relations with Nations that surround us.

Among the older generation of Anishinaabeg, speaking Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe/Anishinini/Odaawaa/Bodewadmi Anishinaabe language) is still a source of pride to some and represents a symbol of unity. When Anishinaabeg can converse with each other in their language and know the other person's clan it's a source of pride that their culture is strong. When Anishinaabe people meet each other for the first time, they usually ask each other Gidaanishinaabem ina? – which means "Do you speak Anishinaabe?" And: Aaniin doodemiyan? or: Gidoodoodem'ina? - What's your clan? Or: Awenen gidoodem? - Who is your clan? (To the Anishinaabe, clan is a living entity, hence the use of the interrogative pronoun awenen, or "who.")



The Anishinaabeg, Ininewak (Cree), Haudenosaunee, and other Native Peoples of Turtle Island have always paid attention to the voices of the supernatural powers that dwell the four corners of the Universe; they have always listened to the voices of the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the rivers and lakes, the trees, plants and rock formations, and, in particular, to the voices of the animals, which are looked upon as the older and wiser relatives of mankind.

Animals have always inhabited the world of our Native Peoples, which they often shared with them, and from time immemorial, animals intersect the People's paths in many ways. Animals are regarded as mysterious, ambiguous even; they visit individuals in dreams and songs and chants for instructions and directions and they hold up a mirror to show them where their individual and collective vices and strength lie. This is why throughout the ages many generations of artists and craftsmen and craftswomen have inscribed and painted countless stylized images of their animal relatives on rocks and cliff walls, on their garments and medicine bags, on copper and led slates and on drums, and in sacred teaching devices such as birch bark scrolls. Our ancestors listened very carefully to the animal relatives and paid careful attention to their ways because they believed that animals disclose certain norms and principles that they, as humans, needed for living long and healthy lives; and because they understood that animals represent the basic needs of human society, they chose them as emblems for their phratries and clans. Thus, trough the clanship system founded by our ancestors, animals, even in our modern day and age, instill in clan members certain virtues to emulate and provide them with a set of life-long responsibilities to live up to - both individually and communally.


This epic painting by Simone Mcleod, which she made in 2013 and took her many moons to complete, depicts the gathering, many centuries ago, of the five major clans of the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg People at Baawitigong on Michigan's northern peninsula, which was the 5th stopping place in their 1,000 to 2,000 year-lasting westward migration. Here, in the upper great Lakes region, at the falls of the St. Mary's river not far from present-day Sault Ste. Marie, the Anishinaabeg discovered the fifth turtle-shaped island of the Seven Fires Prophecy that had been handed down to them by Midewiwin tradition. It was then that the era of the Third Fire began.

In this new land, of which Baawiting (Sault Ste. Marie) became the economical and political center, Five Mystery Beings emerged from the waters of Lake Michigan, teaching the new inhabitants of Michigan how they could formalize and extend a vast net of kinship that would forever cement the different groups together. Hereupon the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg of Michigan began to form five groups of patrilineal kin (odoodeman or totemic clans) whose members thought of themselves as descendants of an ancient animal ancestor. These clans were represented by six animals: Bear, Loon, Crane, Catfish, and Marten/Little Moose. The green dress of the Midewiwin grandmother in the center of the painting shows the Great Lakes with Baawitgong (Sault ste. Marie) as its centerpoint, symbolizing the center of Anishinaabe Aki, the land of the Anishinaabe Peoples. It is this respectful reference to the history of the People that not only deserves praise for mere artistic reasons; along with many other references to Anishinaabe history and clanship (the various references to the Midewiwin lodge and the Three Fires Confederacy; the 5 principal doodemag; the river with banks of colored grandfather stones and miigis shells symbolizing the life blood of Anishinaabe Aki and the legendary, 2000 years lasting westward migration from the Dawn Land), it gives Simone's painting the status of a time record of the history of her People. It is a powerful reminder for those who want to remember and a valuable learning tool for the youth and the future generations.

The five original doodemag (animal clans) that gathered at Baawiting - the area around the present-day Saut Ste. Marie - (depicted left to right: Bear, Loon, Crane, Turtle/Catfish, and Marten/Little Moose) hold a set of traditional responsibilities for the People. Each member regards himself or herself as member of a doodem first, then a community. Traditionally, clan membership includes certain colors, songs, and ceremonies, along with responsibilities that belong to the doodem in question.

The people whom Simone depicted in each clan image represent the role of the clans in their lives; the "X-ray vision" images placed inside the doodem animals depict the role of the clan in society.



An ancient oral tradition of the Ojibwe Peoples, depicted on birch bark scrolls and handed over by countless generations of Midewiwin (Great Medicine Lodge) People, relates the origin of the clan groups of the Anishinaabe Peoples, to which belong, among others, the Omàmiwininiwak (Algonquin); the Niswii-mishkodewin or Confederation of Three Fires (consisting of the Ojibweg, the Odaawaag (Odawa), and the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi); the Anishininiwag (Oji-Cree); the Odishkwaagamiig (Nipissing); the Misizaagiwininiwag (Mississaugas); and the Mamaceqtaw (Menominee).

The same Ojibwe tradition relates that thousands of years ago when the Anishinaabeg were still living in Waabanaki or Dawn Land along the northern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, six great beings emerged from the sea. These beings are called Midemiigis-gaa-niigaani-gikendangig; prophets who had taken the form of Miigisag (Seashells). These prophets established a unique system of kinship based on five phratries or clan groups divided into several different odoodemag (clans or totems). Each Miigis Being represented an animal, a bird, a fish, a tree, or a Spirit Being. The Miigis Being who appeared first out of the sea was a fish called Wawaazisii (Brown bullhead catfish); he would form the phratry whose clans would deliver the teachers, scholars, and healers of the Nation. Bullhead, along with Ajijaak (Crane), Nooke (Bear), Moozwaanowe (Little moose-tail), and Aan’aawenh (Pintail Duck), created the original five clan groups. The sixth Being that came out of the sea, a Binesi-miigisag-ayaa or Thunderbird Seashell Being, is said to have sunk back into the sea after being exposed to the light and heat of the sun; others claim that he sank back into the sea to save the Peoples because he was so powerful that it was impossible to gaze at him without perishing...





- Giigoonh or Namens (Fish) (Ojibwe clan)

-- Awaasii (Bullhead Catfish) (Ojibweg, Odawaag)

-- Maanameg (Catfish or “Cut-tail”) (Ojibweg, Odaawaag, Misizaagiwininiwag (Mississaugas))

-- Adikameg (Whitefish) (Odaawaag)

-- Namebin(aa) (Sucker) (Ojibweg, Odaawaag, Bodéwadmik (Potawatomis))

-- Name or Maame (Sturgeon) (Ojibweg, Bodéwadmik (Potawatomis))*

-- Ginoozhe (Pike) Ojibweg, Odaawaag, Misizaagiwininiwag (Mississaugas))

* It is said that long ago, the Name clan split off from the Awaasii clan.


Anishinaabeg gete-aya’aag, the mothers and fathers of olden times, who loved the sight of the flashing of silvered tails in shiny lakes and rushing streams, chose the silent spirit of GIIGOONH (fish) to be emblematic of teaching. Particularly maanameg (catfish) and awaazisii (bullhead catfish) as well as name (sturgeon) represented the noble arts of knowledge and science. The reason for this is that they spend much time sitting motionlessly beneath rocks on the bottom of streams and lakes - and therefore were perceived to be emblematic of virtues like mindfulness and self-reflection...

Giigoonh doodem (fish clan) members are known to help children to develop skills and healthy spirit. Since giigoonhyag constantly watch the sky while they swim in the currents of rivers and streams they have great knowledge of the sun, moon and stars. They are the teachers, scholars, and the intellectuals of the Anishinaabe peoples.

Among the Ojibweg, giigoonhyag are advisers to the Crane and Loon clans and are traditionally responsible for solving disputes between these two Leadership Clans. It is especially the task of the Elders of Giigoonh clans to teach about life through storytelling, chants, and dances, and to prepare the young for a vision quest.


Gelineau Fisher Visting Clan Members
Visiting Clan Members, acrylic on canvas by the late Ojibwe artist Gelineau Fisher



Maanameg, the catfish, who represents one of the five original odoodemag (clans) of my ancestors, the Baawitigowininiwag from Baawitigong (present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan/Ontario), is known for his preference for the quiet depths of a placid freshwater lake. Various catfish species also exist in the rivers as well as saltwater bodies of Turtle Island (North America). When maanamegwag spawn, their male species create holes in river embankments or around brush piles where the eggs are laid and hatched. The bullhead catfish, however, which is smaller than most catfish species, typically lays spawn at the bottom of a river, preferably in murky waters that can provide a hiding place for the fry after hatching.



Maanameg, or Awaasi(nh) as he is often called by by the Southeastern Anishinaabeg (my ancestors used the term maanameg to describe sturgeons), is still often metaphorically referred to as Giishkizhigwan, or "Cut-tail.” Among the Ojibweg, Cut-tail is the Teacher among Teachers as he symbolizes intelligence, and, particularly, the virtue of broadmindedness.

The “Path of Life” graphics depicted on the ring exteriors (inspired by a diagram of the Life Road, originally inscribed on a birchbark scroll kept by the Midewiwin; see above image), combined with the stylized catfish/bullhead designs in the insides, pertain to the central theme of the wedding ring set: the stages of life that we humans must pass through from birth to death, and, specifically, to what my ancestors called nibwaakaawin, or the various phases of LEARNING: the human cognitive process and the transfer of knowledge and know-how.

But, above all, the fish design depicted on the insides of the rings is a silent reference to the quality of being open to new things and ideas and people that cross our path along the way...

Miigwech for reading and listening and bi-waabamishinaang miinawaa daga: please come see me again!

> Visit my blog story "Teaching Stories part 9: Walking The Sacred Path Of Life" to read more about the Midewiwin Life Road.

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