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Morrisseau: Influence of Rock Art and Birchbark Scrolls

 

In the 1950's and '60's Morrisseau traveled widely to bush communities in Canada and visited some northern Minnesota reservations. He met with many who today are considered knowledgeable elders, both to learn from them and to teach. He visited many sacred sites where there are petroglyphs both carved and painted on the stone, places quite hard to reach, generally unknown. He taught by painting, as well as (later) writing.

I named this sky-figure Mide Skyman-- when I first saw it. Clicking will display it larger. It was donated (in black and white drawing) to Awkesasne Notes in 1974. Morrisseau is the progenitor of an entire stylistic school, sometimes called "Northern Woodland Painting" and sometimes referred to as "Legend painting", but to almost all Indian people who know and are moved by it, it is called "Medicine Painting." Compare Skyman with the ancient rock painting, below left.

Morrisseau would give paintings and drawings to people he stayed with back in the far shabby parts of reservations where government money and jobs never reaches, where the traditional old people tend to live.

One of Medicine Painting's features is the so called "mystic x-ray vision" where animal spirits (and sometimes people) are shown with non-anatomical symbolic-patterns insides, representing internal powers, rather than guts. Projections -- hooks, points, rays -- indicate various forms of power radiating from the beings, and connecting lines indicate either " power directed to" or a causal connection of some type.

Most of these conventions of symbolism are found in very ancient rock carvings and paintings all over the Great Lakes and Canadian Shield. They are also preserved incised on birchbark scrolls, which recorded history, Midè knowledge, and songs.

Mide sky figure is one of 2 ink drawings brought to Akwesasne Notes in 1974 by some young artists visiting from Manitoulin Island Odawa Reserve. The style is medicine painting. I was told the two drawings represent constellations -- this is Orion, the hunter. He is a sky-medicine healer, with an otter-skin medicine bag (which shoots curing Megis shells into people who are ill at Midewiwin grand ceremonies). From his head is a direct lightning-like connection to sky-power. I recognized the style as similar to Morriseau's, but thought it was one of his students.

While researching for this essay I came across the rock painting (a poor, reconstructed photo of it is shown above). Morrisseau knew about this. It was located along a rough, shortcut canoe route from Lac Seul to Lake Winnepeg, along the Bloodvein drainage. He took Selwyn Dudeny, author of a book about birchbark scrolls, there, and Dudeny photographed the Sky Mide rock figure. It's the obvious source of the drawing I now believe must have been made by Morrisseau himself, and brought to Notes by a student from the Manitoulin summer art-school. Those students -- who are far from the Winnipeg canoe route -- would not have seen the rock painting, as Morrisseau did. Along the Bloodvein from the wst shore of Lake Nipigon (where Morrisseau's grandparents' home was) to Lake Winnipeg is a route that Morrisseau took Selwyn Dewdeny in the early 1960's, showing him rock art. The rock art skyman is photographed in Dewdeny's book, The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. Since Morrisseau guided him on his explorations seeking rock art, Morrisseau certainly saw it, and seems to have been quite directly inspired by it.

Petroglyphs, or rock art as it is coming to be called, is (or used to be) found all over the U.S. and Canada. Petrographs -- paintings on the stone -- were usually meant to be renwed in periodic ceremonies. Most have faded badly, remaining barely legible. Petroglyphs, carven in stone, last better, but are subject to weathering and vandalism. Most people tend to think they are found only in the southwest and California, but this is not so. You can see a few of the thousands of Jeffers petroglyphs located in a shortgrass prairie ares of southwestern Minnesota, among quartzite boulders, near a mile-long line of boulders that is probably a solstice sunrise marker. In Ontario, sits can be visited at Petroglyphs Provincial Park., and there is another extensive northern site in Sanilac, Michigan. Here is a page with many images and links to rock art images worldwide.

Prairie glyphstones -- carvings on boulders ranging down to hand-sized rocks -- were once fairly common on the shortgrass prairies of Canada. No one knows, now what they mean: shrines, trail-markers, records of some kind of historic event at the site? This is a tracing and two photo-views of the Trochu glyphstone "unrolled". It is carved on all flat, smooth portions. Top -- with the horned Manitou -- and bottom are photographed. The Glenbow museum holds these and other prairie gluyphstones. Tracing and photos were made by Selwyn Dudeney, who was field-studying Canadian rock art for the Alberta-Glenbow Institute in 1960; it had not yet become a museum.

Those familiar with southwestern art will recognize the similarity of the asymetrical horns to certain kachinas and to ancient rock art of the Anasazi peoples. But for Anishinaabeg and related woodland peoples from Quebec throughout the northern woodland-lakes area, these rock figures also appear on birchabark scrolls, used as ceremonial, story and song mnemonics. They represent Manitous, often the Manitous of the 4 directions. Morrisseau uses many motifs from this ancient rock art and its more modern (but still antique) birchbark recordings.

Skyman is holding up a Midèwewin otter-skin medicine bag -- a midèwayaan -- made of an otter skinned with the head, paws and tail left on, the flesh and bones drawn out through a slit in the throat. Paws and tail are usually beaded. In Midè cermonies, initiates who are there for healing are shot by Midèwinini, who point the bag's nose at the patient-initiate. The patient is killed by the Migiis shells that fly into his or her body, which are later recovered, when the patient rises, having been healed by the repeated shootings, songs, and prayers.

Migiis shells are small white cowries that grow only on reefs in the South Pacific ocean. There, they have been called "money cowries" because of the great value the islanders give them. (It seems likely that these shells' values were sacred, they may have served a function like wampum, to record. White men also believed the Indians considered wampum to be like money, though this is not true.) In Ojibwe religious and cultural thought, Migiis is a great white shining cowrie shell in the sky, which led the Anishinaabeg on their long migration from the shores of the Atlantic to the west, around the Great Lakes. Migiis represents the sun.

Migiis shells, that is cypraea moneta the little white cowrie, have ben found in earth mounds forgotten in forests, long before the first known white contact. Since they grow only in south Pacific island waters, their prevalence in pre-contact days -- and the enormous respect and reverence in which they are held in Anishinaabeg religion -- is hard to explain. These shells have been immediatly valued and desired by every so-called primitive people, when introduced by traders. African traderes spoke of the "apparently insatiable demand" for this little shell, for example. It is as if every tribal people recognizes something very special about the undistinguished little shell. Other cowries are larger, more colorful, and are liked for ornament, but this one is reverencd.

The vertical strip shows 4 of a variety of representations of Migiis shells on a number of sacred Anishinaabe Origin scrolls, where the story and ceremonies for reenactment of the Creation story are recorded in pictorial mnemonics and diagrams. These take many years to learn -- the story and all the songs. Most of the birchbark scrolls are now lost. Those in museums cannot, in general, be understood unless by someone who spent decades of apprenticeship with a Midèwinini, learning them all. The picture and symbols are not a written language; they are mnemonics, reminders. Variants of these symbolic representations of the little migiis shell appear in Morrisseau's paintings often.

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