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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, Nokomis, 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.

Good grief!  Was I supposed to create the Ojibwa in the world just like my namesake?

It was going to be a bit of a trick for a little girl to figure out how to do that.

I was teased by my so-called friends because of that name, but the burden was lifted when I finally was old enough to go to school.

Now, I was one of the lucky ones.  I never went to a Residential School.  My Mom and Dad schemed and plotted and made some momentous life-changing decisions that made it possible for me to be educated with the rest of the Canadian kids. We moved close to a tiny railroad hamlet that wasn't connected to the rest of the world by a road and I began my formal education in an unpretentious one room school.  I was the only Ojibwa child in attendance.

On the first day my mother walked with me into town to officially enroll me in Grade One.  That done, she left for home. As soon as the door closed behind her, the first words out of the teacher's mouth were, "What kind of name is that? We'll call you Pat!"

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

The Great Mother of the Ojibwa, indeed!.

I was just a kid and 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 cook and 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.

My brothers on the other hand, walked in my father's footsteps.

The Vital Division of Labor

At the time my family lived a traditional hunting, fishing, trapping lifestyle in the bush.  We weren't living on a Reserve. My parents did this to avoid the influence of the churches and the heavy-handed control by Indian Affairs.  Also, and most importantly,  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 wasn't full of food. . . and that's because 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.  The boys worked alongside of him so that when they grew up they would know how to hunt for meat, harvest a trap line, build a house, use an axe and a crooked knife, or how to make a toboggan, or craft a set of snowshoes.

Such was life for a traditional Ojibwa family eighty plus years ago.

But the world turns. 

As Pat, I grew up, married, raised a family, and tip-toed or bulldozed through a mainstream Canadian life for another fifty years until . . . something happened.

A sunny summer afternoon found me sitting home alone and feeling very glum.  My plans and expectations for a healthy financial future had just crashed and burned and it was obvious to me that my 'go to' solutions to make money weren't going to be available any time soon.

My self-esteem, once my fortress, had just been battered by waves of rejection.  I felt a deep, unsettling anxiety.

But I took a deep breath and thought the words, "Now what am I going to do?"

And out of my mouth, out loud, came the words, "I'll be an artist!"

I dropped my cup of coffee on the floor.

It wasn't a casual utterance.  It was a statement about what was going to happen next.

I declared myself an artist!

I was stunned. 

I'd never done anything artsy in my life.  I couldn't even knit for heaven's sake.

But it felt PERFECT.

The feelings of doom and gloom had disappeared.  They simply evaporated.  There was nothing to worry about because I knew what I was going to do next.

So I cleaned up the mess on the floor and went into the kitchen to start supper.

The next day I bought art supplies.  Two months later I had my first show. I sold the first painting I ever did in my life for $225. 

There's more to the story and if you dig around you can read about it on this site, but to bring this very long story to an end, suffice it to say, it isn't Pat who tells the stories and illustrates them. 

My elders were right.

Who I am is Nokomis. 

What I do is create the Ojibwa in the minds of the world. 

It's not hard.  I just share my very ordinary life. Its had its ups and downs, its proud moments and its embarassing episodes.  My message is simply that your life and mine have been the same ... but sometimes the props have been different.