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  • Writer's picturezhaawano

What's Your Doodem, part 5: Dance of the Otter

Updated: Mar 4

Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon)/Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon), May 10, 2022



Boozhoo, aaniin, hello, biindigen miinawaa, welcome again!

Zhaawano-giizhik nindanishinaabewinikaazowin. Waabizheshi niin indoodem ("I am Zhaawano Giizhik and I belong to the Ojibwe- Anishinaabe marten clan.") I am an artist who creates jewelry and graphic art, which I use as illustrations to my blog stories.

This blog story is the 5th in a series titled What’s Your Doodem, featuring my works of art, sporadically along with those of kindred artists. Both my stories and my artworks seek to provide an insight into the unique izhinamowin (worldview) of the Anishinaabeg Peoples of Turtle Island.

Today's story is the story of Nigig, the Otter.

From of old, Nigig the Otter represents one of the at least 17 doodemag (clans) that make up the Wawaazisii (Brown Bullhead) clan group. The doodemag that belong to this group are charged with Teaching and Medicine (Healing).

The Otter is an important clan because the Anishinaabeg know how much they are indebted to him. Nigig had once saved our ancestors from extinction by bringing a healing plant (ginebig-washk or “snake root”) from the depths of the waters, therefore he (along with Mikinaak the turtle) was elected the symbol of Healing.

According to tradition, Wenabozho, the benevolent messenger whom GICHI-MANIDOO (the Great Mystery) had ordained to help the People, noticed the poor condition they were in – poverty, sickness and even starvation had plunged them in sheer misery and despair – and he chose the otter to teach them about various remedies and rituals for treating the sick. For this reason the People of both Midewiwin (Society of the Sacred, or Unseen Ones) and Waabanoowiwin (Society of Dawn, a counterpart of the Midewiwin) elected Nigig the first and leading patron of their powerful Medicine Lodges.

“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 instructions and objects - along with the sacred Snake Root - 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 Midewiyaan (Medicine Bag) that carries the medicinal herbs, charms, and miigisag (cowry shells) used for symbolically "shooting" novices during their initiation into the Mide Lodge. Also, in the old days, his power was multiplied by the Anishinaabekweg (women) who portrayed his abstract, patterned image on various ornaments, costumes, utensils, weapons, and sacred objects.

Because of his habit of rising to the surface at night and then plunging under again, Nigig is symbolically linked with the moon, and thus also associated with several rites of initiation. Because of this, the Mideg (Mide People) keep their Mide-miigisaag (sacred Cowry shells) in a Nigig-midewiyaan: a bag of otter skin.

The people that belonged to my clan, the Waabizheshi or Marten doodem, sometimes depicted Otter as a hunter and warrior/strategist. To this day, his characteristics, like his playfulness, craftiness, adaptability, industriousness, and his adventurous and autonomous nature, are still core aspects of the teachings and the leadership of the Midewiwin Lodge. Otter symbolizes new life, and all of life is seen as an extension of Otter’s magical power. Just as the Anishinaabeg have drawn from time immemorial on the resources of both land and water to survive, so too the Otter, being one of their most important mediators between the physical world and the spirit world, lives in both environments, and the Anishinaabeg as a whole, and Otter clan people in particular, have always tried to emulate his talent for moving through both worlds with ease, playfulness, and humor.

But first and foremost, Nigig is respected and revered for having brought the Anishinaabeg the Gift of Medicine and the sacred water drum whose pulsating sound reaches far and corresponds with the voices and the heartbeat of the cosmos...

> To read more on the topic of the water drum, see The Way of the Heartbeat, part 1

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