Canadian native art...especially contemporary Ojibwa art...is sourced by a deep well of native legends and myths and it's become one of the last connections between the spiritual interpretation of a declining Ojibwa culture and the modern world.
I want to tell you about the Ojibwa people...as they were when I was a child and as they are now...and the thread that I'll draw through many of my stories will be Canadian native art.
My name is Nokomis. (I pronouce it with the accent on the first syllable.)
I'm an Ojibwa artist and storyteller who grew up in the bush north of Lake Superior more than seventy years ago.
In one context my name simply means grandmother. But I was an infant, not a grandmother when I was given the name by the elders of the turtle clan, so some explanation is in order.
The literal translation of Nokomis means "the great mother" because my namesake was the mother of Manitous's children. . . she was the spirit who brought forth the Ojibwa into the world.
I'm supposed to create the Ojibwa, too, so I tell stories.
This way of learning that comes from listening to cultural stories is called bzindamowin.
I don't think there's ever been a time I didn't tell stories.
In the bush, stories were entertainment. My father could go on a two day hunting trip and by the time he got home it was a two week story. My mother could cross the lake and have a cup of tea with her friend and by the time she got back she had enough stories to fill a book.
But stories were also used to educate...to make a point, to explain why some behaviors were inappropriate, why it might be best to choose another course of action, and especially to explain the mysteries of the universe.
What you may not know is that Canadian native art is the reason why many of those stories are still told.
About a dozen years ago it dawned on me that I still had a few more things to say about
and I just wanted young people to know what it was like to live in the bush without electricity, without running water and without a store close at hand.
I've always been a storyteller but I haven't always been an artist. The world of Canadian native art would have passed me by if it hadn't occurred to me one day that a good story might be even better if it had a good picture to illustrate the point.
I haven't had any training in the area of art. My work is sort of naive, but what the heck...it's my life and I get to paint it any way I please!
I used to travel back and forth across the country showing my pictures and telling my stories but old age has caught up with me. Nowadays I can barely walk let alone load and unload my van by myself.
I still want to tell stories so a few years ago I decided that it was finally time I learned how to be a techie so that I could sit on my duff and spread the word about Canadian native art and the great Ojibwa through this world wide web thing.
Who woulda thunk that being a techie is almost as easy as being an artist? It's just been a matter of hooking up with the best web site building company in the whole world...and telling some more stories.
Which is just my way of saying I've finally got a store operational on my website! The buttons are are at the top right of the page.
I feel like I've given birth!
It took me way longer than I expected but now it's done.
If my kids are reading this they're probably either laughing out loud or breathing a deep sigh of relief.
You see, when I was on the road telling stories about Canadian native art and how it explains First Nations culture, I printed up note cards and prints that I sold to all the nice folks who sat down and listened to me.
But when I had to stop travelling I just piled all that stuff in the basement and forgot about it. I know that secretly the kids have been rolling their eyes and muttering to one another that they'll have to be the ones to figure out what to do with all those goodies when I'm gone.
Hmph! I just figured it out for them. I'm going to sell it all to you!
Not only that, I'm going to give you the opportunity to buy Canadian native art from many of my artsy fartsy woodland artist friends, too.
Here's a link to the new store.
To understand Canadian native art, it helps to have an appreciation of where it was made, the lifestyle of its maker, the asethetic values of the society and more than a smidgeon of information about the spiritual beliefs embedded in the culture.
In the aesthetic sense contemporary Canadian aboriginal art didn't occur as a concept until the midpoint of the twentieth century.
Norval Morrisseau is the grandfather of Canadian native art. His vision of himself and his people created the possibility that native culture and native artists could stand along side the art and culture of mainstream Canadian society.
The Indian Group of Seven was the moniker Winnipeg Free Press reporter, Gary Scherbain, gave to a group of seven native artists who, in 1973, gave birth to the Professional National Indian Artists Incorporation.
The Indian Group of Seven influenced the development of native art in Canada. The impact first showed up on Manitoulin Island, birthplace of Daphne Odjig.
Although the training, lifestyles and creative motivation of contemporary native artists differ profoundly from their ancient counterparts, today's woodland art is actually sourced by traditional artistic representations used by prehistoric Eastern Woodland Indians.
Some discussion on the meaning of the symbols used in by woodland artists.
To understand the potential influence of Canadian native art, especially woodland art, it's worthwhile noting that long before Europeans arrived on the shores of North America, First Nations people, for one reason or another, faced cultural catastrophes and it was often artistic activity that rode to the rescue!
After the Professional National Indian Artists Inc was established members began mentoring young people and encouraging them to become artists themselves.
As galleries and museums began to rethink the definition of First Nation's art more and more native artists saw career possibilities. Here's a small sampling of contemporary native artists listed alphabetically. Not all would be considered woodland artists, some like Allen Sapp and Gerald Tailfeathers developed their careers independently.
I was born in the bush north of Lake Superior when the spiritual traditions of the Anishinaabe were still practised and I paint memories of that time of my life.
After Kitchi Manitou created the world the water spirits caused a great flood. It was Nokomis who re-built this Earth so that she could have a safe place to taise her children.
This page is a history of the New World from an Ojibwa perpective.
Now, at the beginning of the twenty first century, much of traditional Ojibwa culture has disappeared because the established methods of teaching children have vanished. Parents, grandparents, clans and spiritual guides are no longer the sole contributors to an Ojibwa child's value and belief system.
For the Ojibwa, belief is a process. It' a lifelong committment to consciously living life in a way that allows the spirtual essence of everything we know and everything we don't know to contribute to our sense of oneness with our universe.
For the Ojibwa, values are part of the spiritual journey ...not the destination.
Elders are the teachers in the school of life. Their experience is passed down from generation to generation through stories or by example.
Hundreds of years ago Ojibwa children didn't go to school, but that didn't mean they didn't receive an education. They had practical lessons in every skill that they would need to live a healthy...and happy...life.
Canoes, snowshoes and toboggans...perfect design by stone age craftsmen
The Indian canoe must be as close to engineering perfection as most inventions are likely to come.
Nowadays finding the tree is the hardest part in the process of making a birch bark canoe!
When my grandmother taught my parents how to make a birchbark canoe she put a lot of emphasis on the importance of starting with a good piece of bark.
Birch bark canoes are best built directly on a soft spot on the ground and in the shade so that the bark doesn't dry out and become brittle.
These step by step instructions on how to build birchbark canoes are simplistic but they will give you the general idea of what's involved.
Bushcrafts refer to the ancient skills and knowledge that enabled the Ojibwa to survive and even thrive in the natural environment.
Rawhide glue isn't rocket science. You just have to boil bits of hide until they become gooey...more or less!
A crooked knife refers to a knife that is made with the handle set at an oblique angle to the blade. It has many uses when you live out in the bush.
Tanning is a process of making leather from the skins of animals that otherwise would tend to decompose. Theres several commercial processes that I'm aware of, but I'm only personally familiar with brain tanning.
Brain tanning hides is a laborious process that uses an emulsified solution of animal brain and water to provide outstanding absorbancy to the final product. The end result is worth the effort!
Traditionally Ojibwa food has been hunted down, hauled from the water or gathered from the forests and along the waterways.
Maple syrup was so important that the fourth moon of the year (late March-April) was called Izhkigamisegi Geezis, the Moon of Boiling.
Making maple syrup and maple sugar was an annual spring time event and an important part of the Ojibwa diet wherever maple trees grew...it was a family affair.
Sugarmaking happened for several weeks in the Spring just as the frost broke and the sap ran up the tree. It was in the fourth moon - the Moon of Boiling, Izhkigamisegi Geezis.
Here's an authentic Ojibwa recipe passed through the generations of my family
This treat was baked over hot coals in what folks called a 'Dutch' oven. It was yummy.
Birch syrup is a good substitute if maple trees aren't available but the sap runs about a month later...probably because the birch grow in more northerly climates...and the tapping window is shorter.
The Ojibwa word for this tall grass seed is manomin. It was a staple food in the Eastern Woodland Indian culture for more than a thousand years.
Bannock wasn't a traditional Ojibwa food. It was introduced by the fur traders and it became a staple because it was easy to prepare over an open fire.
In the bush many plants were used to make "tea"...spruce needles, oswego, kinnickinick.
Bet you didn't know that you could make flour from a bulrush by drying the roots and grinding them into a powder!
Picking berries was an important activity for the women of my mother's generation.They were nutritious, tasty and they could be sold to passing tourists or to the travelers who ventured off the trains when they stopped at the station.
Eastern Woodland Indians is a term coined by twentieth century anthropologists and happily picked up by school boards attempting to simplify a program of native studies.
One of the Eastern Woodland tribes were the Ojibwa and their territory extended from the eastern seaboard, west to the headwaters of the Mackenzie River. Their lands were bounded in the north by the sub-Arctic tundra and followed the Mississippi River south to the Carolinas.
There were many similarities between the Eastern Woodland Indians who lived below the Great Lakes and their cousins who lived in the rocky forests of the Laurentian Shield north of the Lakes.
The Eastern Woodland culture thrived particularly well in the forests and fertile soil along the Ohio River and south along the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mound Builders is a term used to describe several First Nation's cultures that built earthen burial mounds and other earthworks across a large area of North America that extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the Appalachian mountains.
An Ojibwa elder's thoughts about native spirituality today.
I'm assuming you came to this page because you're curious about native spirituality. What you'll read here is certainly not the ultimate work on the subject...it's only my very personalized accounting of a few of the native legends that I was told as a child
The creation story of the Ojibwa begins with nothing because in the beginning there was nothing. There was nothing but an all consuming dark void.
Nothing that is ... except ... possibility.
The Ojibwa and some other First Nations people, refer to this part of the world as Turtle Island. This is what I was told of how Turtle Island came to be.
A vision quest is simply an ongoing search for the meaning and purpose of life.