|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,
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
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.
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.
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.