The clouds tell stories
Giizhig Ikwe miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak (Sky Woman and the Great Turtle),
Watercolor (Opaque), 24 x 33, 2022
In April 2022, the University of Minnesota / Morris Campus purchased two of my paintings and commissioned me for a third painting. The choice of the subject of the painting was left for me to decide. Oddly, this was my first commission for a painting in my 40+ years as a fine artist. During that period, I received commissions for illustrations and graphic art for American Indian education programs and various Native organizations and agencies in Minnesota. My most recent commissions for illustrations (2021-2022) include colorings books for Dakota County Library and Osseo School District. The request for a commission for a painting was something different.
My question was what the subject matter should be. The main clue I had was that the painting would be for a new teacher education space at the Morris campus. As per email, U of M Morris is a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution. So, there would be no problem with a strong theme that focused on Ojibwe-Anishinaabe culture.
It was really a process of deciding what I should paint. The theme of education was foremost in my mind. In traditional life, we had no books or classrooms. However, teaching and learning were a part of daily life. Children were taught by example. Boys learned about hunting, trapping, and fishing by going out with the men. The women taught girls about gathering, cooking, and preparing hides.
Values and principals were taught through stories. Stories were largely told in the winter, especially Nenabozho stories. But some stories were also told outside of winter as well. Circumstances and situations dictated when certain stories were told. Additionally, stories weren’t always intended for children. Adults were often part of the intended audience for the storyteller.
There were/are two types of stories. Dibaajimowin were stories that largely focused on history, experiences, and personal narratives. Those who told these types of stories were called Dadibaajimoowinini. Aadizookaan were sacred/traditional stories about legends and myths. Sacred/traditional stories were told by Aadizookewinini.
In the 1980s and early 90s, I depicted storytellers in several graphite and ink illustrations. In 2020, I returned to the theme of storytelling in my painting “Aadizookewinini” (Storyteller). The storyteller is telling a story about Nenabozho transforming into a waabooz (rabbit). A group of children huddle together to listen to the story. One of the things I wanted to do was to show the inside of a wiigiwaam (lodge). I felt some people had the notion that wiigiwaaman (lodges) were small and cramped. However, wiigiwaaman were quite roomy with woven mats to cover the ground, with walls to hang items, containers to store items, and raised platforms used for beds.
Aadizookewinini, Watercolor, 2020
I decided that revisiting the theme of storytelling was a natural fit for the U of M Morris painting. I didn’t want to do a reimaging of “Aadizookewinini.” I wanted this one to be in a different environment – a summer scene on a lakeshore with a sky full of clouds. I decided that I would reimage a graphite illustration that I did in 1986. However, the drawing would be a point of reference for the painting.
The drawing was titled “Aadizookewinin” and featured a mindimooyenh (elder woman) and group of children on a lakeshore. The mindimooyenh is telling the story of Giizhig Ikwe (Sky Woman). Giizhig Ikwe, is pregnant with twins, and is seated on the back of the Gichi-Mikinaak (Great Turtle). The small paw of a wazhahk (muskrat) is depicted holding particles of sand.
The story about Giizhig Ikwe is of Seneca origin. According to Basil Johnston, Giizhig Ikwe is also part of the Ojibwe belief system. We know that the Ojibwe and Iroquois Confederacy were fierce enemies. But, at an earlier time, there was a period of peace and an exchange of goods and knowledge between the two. There would have been a cross-cultural transmission of stories and beliefs that impacted each other. At some point, the story of Giizhig Ikwe was exchanged and incorporated into the Ojibwe belief system. The Ojibwe had a creation story. But, the Seneca version added clarity to the Ojibwe concept of creation.
In “Ojibway Heritage,” Johnston writes:
High in the heavens there lived alone a woman, a spirit. Without a companion she grew despondent. In her solitude she asked Kitche Manitou for some means to dispel her loneliness. Taking compassion on the sky-woman, Kitche Manitou sent a spirit to become her consort.
Sky-woman and her companion were happy together. In time the spirit woman conceived. Before she gave birth her consort left. Alone she bore two children, one pure spirit, and the other pure physical being.
The new beings of opposite natures hated one another. In a fiery sky battle they fought and destroyed one another.
After the destruction of her children, the spirit woman again ,lived in solitude. Kitche Manitou knowing her desolation once more sent her a companion. Again sky-woman conceived. As before her consort left but sky-woman remained content.
The water creatures observed what was happening in the heavens, sensed the weariness of the spirit woman, and pitied her…Eventually they persuaded a giant turtle to rise to the surface of the waters and offer his back as a haven. When the turtle agreed, the water creatures invited the sky-woman to come down.
The sky-woman accepted the invitation, left her abode in the skies, and came down to rest on the back of the great turtle. When sky-woman had settled on the turtle, she asked the water animals to get some soil from the bottom of the sea.
Gladly all the animals tried to serve the spirit woman…All tried to fulfill the spirit woman’s request. All failed. All were ashamed.
Finally, the least of the water creatures, the muskrat, volunteered to dive…When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil.
While the muskrat was tended and restored to health, the spirit woman painted the rim of the turtle’s back with the small amount of soil that had been brought to her. She breathed upon it and into it the breath of life. Immediately the soil grew, covered the turtle’s back, and formed an island. The island formed in this way was called Mishee Mackinakong, the place of the Great Turtle’s back, now known as Michilimackinac.
The island home grew in size. As the waters subsided, the animal beings brought grasses, flowers, trees, and food-bearing plants to the sky-woman. Into each she infused her life-giving breath and they lived once more. In the same way were the animals who had drowned revived. Everything was restored on that island home.
The story of Giizhig Ikwe and, in particular, Gichi-Mikinaak, has become a homogenous, Pan-Indian narrative. Giizhig Ikwe’s role has been largely erased and, instead, Gichi-Mikinaak, the Great Turtle, has become a misplaced Pan-Indian concept of North America as “Turtle Island.” Also erased is origin of the Sky-Woman and Great Turtle concept among the Seneca and Ojibwe.
When I did my drawing, Aadizookewinini, in 1986, the Pan-Indian concept of Turtle Island had yet to be widely established. My drawing was specifically related to Ojibwe culture. It was part of the repertory of origin myths that formed the basis of the Ojibwe belief system. In addition to the drawing, I did a smaller illustration for a curriculum unit. I also did a color study that featured Sky-Woman and the Great Turtle for a 4’ x 8’ mural, but the commission fell through.
Obviously, I was familiar with Giizhig Ikwe through my art. Indeed, the story of Giizhig Ikwe and Gichi-Mikinaak is part of my mindset and belief system. For me, it explains how things came to be and how the world was created. However, it was a subject that required a fresh look. More importantly, I wanted the new rendition to project an authenticity that the previous works lacked.
One area I concentrated on was the grassy area on the lakeshore. It would have been simple enough to just paint blades of grass. I went to Sandy Beach at Red Lake to get a better idea of the flora and fauna of the lake shore.
The flora was dominated by the white flowering tops of bagizowin (swamp milkweed) and small yellow flowers with five petals. There were other types of flora, but I was interested in what struck the eye. Fauna included Memengwaag (butterflies), oboodashkwanishiinyag (dragonflies) and blue damselflies.
The time period of the painting is about the 1850s-1860s. Hide or nettle-woven strap dresses were traditionally worn by women. Strap dresses featured detachable arms that could be removed when the women were working. When broadcloth and stroud cloth became available through trade, women made cloth strap dresses that were usually worn for community gatherings. Because beads were limited in the mid-1800s, beads were used for outlining motifs and designs. The influx of beads in the 1870s-1880s led to fully beaded designs as epitomized by the beautiful art of bandolier bags.
The aanakwadoon (clouds) tell stories. How often do we, as children, lay in the grass and watch the aanakwadoon unfold the imagery of people and animals? As we’re taught in Ojibwe culture, aanakwadoon are manidoog (spirits) who unveil themselves in the skies above us. They may tell us a story or remind us of our connection to the Creation.
It was this in mind that I let the aanakwadoon shape and form the imagesof Giizhig Ikwe and Gichi-Mikinaak. Standing on top of the Mikinaak aanakwad (cloud), Giizhig stretches her hand out holding the particles of soil that the wazhashk (muskrat) brought to her. The outstretched hand of the mindimooyenh mirrors the hand of Giizhig Ikwe. At that point of the story, the young girl turns her head. The shapes and forms of Sky-Woman and the Great Turtle are emphasized by the words of the storyteller. For the young girl, the clouds tell the story.
A Ozaawaabineshii (Goldfinch) perches on a branch above the storyteller. The Ozaawaabineshii is the keeper and messenger of our language. Its presence emphasizes that Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language) is being spoken and understood by the children who are present. It further emphasizes that the song of language gives shape and meaning to our identities as Ojibwe people.
Giizhig miinawaa Gichi-Mikinaak is essentially a reaffirmation of storytelling and the role it played in traditional Ojibwe culture. Although our sacred stories are told today, their power of explaining our existence is deluded by colonialization and its science to explain existence in a linear and “logical” mindset. But our stories remain and provide balance and harmony with our connection to the natural world.
Whether through storytellers, art, or the clouds, our stories affirm our existence as human beings.
Ojibway Heritage, Basil Johnston, Columbia University Press: New York, 1976.
© Robert DesJarlait, 2022
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