Nokomis the Artist

Nokomis is an Ojibwa Elder and Storyteller

My name is Nokomis and that's me on the left.

It's a painting I did of my namesake the Great Mother of the Ojibwa. She was the gal who recreated the world when it was flooded by the spiteful water spirits. She was the mother of Manitou's children...and for better or worse she was made famous in Longfellow's poem Hiawatha.

I was born in the bush north of Lake Superior at a time when the spiritual traditions of the Anishinaabe (that's Ojibwa to you!) were still practised in a handful of communities.

In the old traditions, children were not named by their parents.

The elders would confer and when it was apparent who a child would be - meaning, what that person would contribute to the world in this lifetime, a name was ceremoniously bestowed.

When I was three years old, the Elders of the Turtle Clan named me Nokomis. I was supposed to create the Ojibwa just like my namesake.

It was a bit of a trick for a little girl to figure out how to do that... but the burden was lifted when I got to school. It was a one room school in a tiny railroad hamlet not connected to the rest of the world by a road. I was the only Ojibwa child in the school. On my first day my mother walked into town to register me then left for home. As soon as she shut the door the first words out of the teacher's mouth were, "What kind of name is that? We'll call you Pat!"

That worked for me at the time! I didn't get teased at school and I didn't need to worry my little brain about how to live up to my namesake, Nokomis.

At the time, it never crossed my mind that my elders knew more about me than I did myself. It never seemed possible that I could create the Ojibwa in the world. I eventually pulled it off. I learned to tell stories about the Anishnaabe and in that way to create the Ojibwa in the minds of the mainstream world.

But as a kid I was just that, a kid. It was clear to me where my real life's path would lead... I was going to be a mother. That's what girls did.

When I 'got big' I knew that I'd have children and it would be my job to cookand clean and sew, tan hides, make boots, clean fish, chop wood, pick berries, and dry meat. I knew that's what I'd do because that's what my mother did.

It was my mother's job to literally keep the home fires burning.

As a girl child I grew up at her side learning the skills that I'd need as a woman.

In the Ojibwa culture it tended to be the men who were in charge...but my mother was a strong woman and I learned early that Mom's opinion counted.

Such was my life more than seventy years ago.

But times change. Opportunities present themselves. I've had a mainstream Canadian lifestyle since leaving the bush as a young woman, but it's the the memories of my youth that I paint. They were the memories of a woman-in-training. That's why few men show up in my work. It isn't as if they weren't there...but they were off doing guy stuff and Mom and I were at home doing girl stuff.

There was a distinct division of labour in the Ojibwa culture of my childhood...and it was necessary.

At the time my family lived a traditional hunting, fishing, trapping lifestyle without a safety net of any kind. To avoid the influence of the churches and the heavy-handed control by Indian Affairs, my parents chose not to live on a Reserve. A life in the bush allowed the spiritual traditions of the Ojibwa to be a part of our lives.

But life in the bush also meant that when we got up in the morning the refrigerator was full of food...there was no refrigerator. If somebody didn't put on their boots, grab the gun and head out the door there was going to be a whole bunch of hungry people by nightfall. My father had big boots. It was his job to literally bring home the bacon.

He was the one who trained my brothers in the ways of men. They knew that when they grew up they would know how to build a house using only an axe and a crooked knife, or how to make toboggans and snowshoes, too. They would hunt and fish and trap. They would build and carry the drums. That was men's work and no one would be hungry when they were around.

By sharing these memories with you I have learned to be Nokomis... to create a vision of the Ojibwa in your mind so that you see more than the beads and the buckskin, more than an idea of 'a noble savage', more than 'a drunken Indian'. By being Nokomis and sharing my memories with you, especially the ones about sibling rivalry, I hope you sometimes recognize yourself.

My message is simply that you've had your life and I've had mine... and it's only been the props that have been different.

I've got lots of stories to tell and I'm not going to fret about telling them in any particular order.

But this is my very favourite story... my very first trip to the dentist...so please don't miss it.

But here's a list of stories about other parts of my life.