The Spirit Powers of Ojibwe and Odawa Art
Winona LaDuke

Manitoulin Island rises like a thundercloud from the depths of Lake Huron. It is here in the heart of Anishinabeg (Ojibwe and Odawa) territory that imagery and art are reborn. Alternately called Woodland or Legend painting, the art of Blake Debassige, Zoey Wood-Solomon, and Mishibinijima (James Simon) pleases the Anishinabeg eye much as the sounds of paddles slicing the calm waters of a lake or rice sticks gently knocking on stalks of manoomin (wild rice) soothe the ear. It is both quintessentially Anishinabeg and absolutely modern.

Woodland or Legend painting is an art tradition and style practiced primarily by Ojibwe, Odawa (Anishinabeg), and Cree (Eeyou) artists, from the northern woods of the continent. It is a form that has become more prevalent and revitalized over the past two decades and whose origins are imbedded in the legends and oral tradition of these peoples. "The teachings and legends depicted on my canvases," explains Mishibinijima, "have been handed down by the elders." The canvases bring new light to the relations of the Anishinabeg to Mother Earth. "Man must understand Mother Earth," Mishibinijima continues. "He must look at animals, plants, and fish to find answers. He forgets he is only a part of this chain of living things." Those relations are graphically illustrated in the culturally based style of Woodland painting.

For generations, the Anishinabeg have surrounded themselves with these images. Thousands of petroglyphs, or paintings on stone, are the handprint of the people on the land and the rock. Scattered on cliffs surrounding the Great Lakes and usually renewed periodically, they tell stories of the relations between humans, the spirits, the supernatural, and animals. Although the subject matter is diverse, certain stylistic elements pervade, like the outlined spirit lines emanating from both the interior and exterior of various figures, the depictions of spiritual power, and the relationship of the being to the greater world and to other beings.

The same figures and other forms also appear on birchbark scrolls--an ingenious and primarily Anishinabeg record-keeping and mnemonic system depicting oral histories, creation stories, songs, ceremonies, and migration records. Kept safely within the caches of traditional Anishinabeg practices, primarily the Midewin, or Grand Medicine dance, the sacred teachings have been passed down for centuries. Birchbark as a medium is amazingly hardy. "Left in water or buried in the ground, this bark will remain intact for decades, even centuries," writes birchbark scholar Selwyn Dewdney who cites a 1,000-year-old birchbark scroll remnant. Today, these design elements and recountings of history appear in the art of Manitoulin Island. It is a new millennium, yet art of perhaps two millennia and many generations past is today transformed and represented by these artists, each in a unique way.

The reawakening or remembering of the art form is attributed to the eyes and hands of Norval Morrisseau, widely credited as the founder of the Woodland School. He was born in 1932, on the Sand Point Reserve in northern Ontario, with the traditional name Miskwaabik Animiiki, or Copper Thunderbird. Morrisseau's grandfather passed on oral tradition and imagery to his grandson from their land on the shore of Gull Bay at Lake Nipigon, Ont. There, raised by his maternal grandparents, Moses Potan Nanakonagos and Veronique Nanakonagos, Morrisseau found the core of Anishinabeg art forms. A short stint in boarding school in Ft. William, Ont. and a fourth-grade education were the extent of his "formal teachings."

At 19, Morrisseau was afflicted with tuberculosis, a common disease in Native communities, and he was sent to a long-term care hospital at Ft. William, where he began to paint. It was also there that he met his wife, Harriet Kakegamic, who inspired him in his work and taught him Cree syllabics, a form of writing used commonly in the North and reflected in Morrisseau's own signature of his works. Teachings of his grandfather Potan, joined with a series of dreams and visions, became the muses that Morrisseau said called him to be an artist. "My paintings are icons, that is to say, they are images which help focus on spiritual powers, generated by traditional belief and vision." Upon recovery, Morrisseau traveled to visit many traditional Ojibwe villages and petroglyph sites, to nourish his artistic development and put it on canvas. His early imagery, like Two Bulls Fighting, is at the Glenbow Museum in Alberta, and paintings depicting shamans were donated as graphics to the once-leading Native publication Akwesasne Notes (in Mohawk territory at Rooseveltown, N.Y.). Much like the original art forms, his art has been scattered through the communities he visited, often left as gifts in acknowledgment of the hospitality he had received.

True to the birchbark and petroglyphs, Morrisseau uses traditional art styles of outlined figures and employs imagery like "X-ray anatomy" and "spirit power lines" that radiate from the spines of animals. His images show balls or seeds of "spirit power" reminiscent of the most sacred art. New representations of these elements are seen in the work of some modern Ojibwe artists, including Blake Debassige, Mishibinijima, and Zoey Wood-Solomon, who all have roots on Manitoulin Island.

Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater island in the world and home to five Anishinabeg reservations, including the Unceded Wikwemikong Reserve. Morrisseau's work was shared with young Ojibwes and Odawas from Manitoulin Island reserves in 1971 at an art camp known as the Scribben Island Summer Art Project. Native artists like Carl Ray, Daphne Odijig, and Frances Kagige exposed the teenagers to the art not only of European masters but also of Ojibwe masters. Blake Debassige (from the West Bay Reserve) remembers a light going on when he first saw Morrisseau's work. It was like "a thick curtain being lifted. I saw that we do have our own culture and art forms, and yes, it is possible. I totally embraced this style because it spoke to me."

Those paintings and images also spoke to Zoey Wood-Solomon and Mishibinijima, both from the Wikwemiking Reserve at Manitoulin. By then other Native artists like Cecil Youngfox (now deceased) and Peter Miigwan had begun to paint. The artists continued an emphasis on collective, group, and community as their techniques developed and influenced each other. Wood-Solomon remembers "seeing some of the paintings and thinking, 'I'd never be able to afford them.'" As if to say that the art belonged to the whole community, not to the individual, she recalls, "Peter Miigwan handed me a blank canvas and said, 'You're an Indian, so go ahead and paint!'"

"All of us worked together as a group, as opposed to as individuals," Debassige remembers. The artists often shared techniques and teachings. "I'd ask Cecil Youngfox," Wood-Solomon says, "'How are you doing your backgrounds now?' He'd just smile and start painting. I would just watch him." Debassige recalls, "Listening to elders, and researching legends was my schooling." The art grew "exactly the same way grandmothers taught their children: by experience, by oral history." Debassige is quite proud of the cultural collective that brought about and nourishes the art--a community base, which is quite different from the individualism so often encouraged in today's modern art world. Debassige's Birth of Nanabush, and paintings of various flowers from the region, often graphically represent the oral tradition on canvas, providing a fountain of cultural preservation, while accentuating individual interpretation and expression. All of the artists also often teach art in the community, passing on the cultural wealth they have accumulated to future generations of Native artists.

Living within one's own community offers both a wellspring of artistic and cultural material and a set of responsibilities. Mishibinijima looked to traditional Ojibwe symbols as a foundation of his work. "I'd ask the elders, 'Can I use that in my paintings?' They'd say, 'What's your intention?'" The artist took the hint and left some of the most revered and sacred symbols out of the public realm of his large acrylic paintings. Instead, Mishibinijima developed his own symbols, which reflected some traditional forms.

The land and waters, too, tell the stories, which may come to life in the paintings. Dreamer's Rock is a traditional place for prayer and vision-seeking for the Anishinabeg people of the region and is reflected as an animate spirit in Mishibinijima's work. Other sacred sites are depicted as perhaps a spirit woman looking upward from inside the mountain. Wood-Solomon's Mishibiiju (Great Panther) portrays the great mystery of the Underwater Panther, which, it is said, provides food for the thunderbirds and alternately watches and lurks in the waters of the Great Lakes. It is this rich oral history of great waters and land mysteries that provides a wealth of material for traditional artists.

Each art work by Debassige, Wood-Solomon, and Mishibinijima carries on these traditions and yet represents the avant-garde of Ojibwe art. Wood-Solomon's paintings often reflect simpler, black-outlined forms, filled in with brilliant colors, and depict the Ojibwe cultural experience, from jingle-dress dancers to cultivation of corn or the agony of colonialism. Debassige's work ranges from outlined plants and animals to surrealistic paintings like Tree of Life and closely etched spirit beings like Twins of the Self. Mishibinijima's intricate detail and use of symbols, adapted from birchbark scrolls and petroglyphs to represent various elements of his art and teachings, are brought to life with vibrant colors. Each artist's work spans personal dreams and visions, traditional teachings and stories, and avant-garde imagery. Common threads such as "spirit lines," "spirit balls," and X-ray anatomy run through their work and identify the imagery as founded by the Legend or Woodland School.

Wood-Solomon (born in 1954), lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Wood-Solomon's experience as an artist spans two decades and has included a number of public and private collections, including Three Sisters at the Oneida Casino in Green Bay, Wis., and the Algoma Collection in Sault Ste. Marie. She also has some pieces at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum shop in Santa Fe, N.M. Debassige (born in 1956) was a participant in the original 1971 Scribben Island Summer Art Program. His career of almost three decades spans the mediums of painting, lithographs, serigraphs, acrylics on birchbark, and wood carvings, which he signs as "Debosegai." He joins his wife, acclaimed playwright and director Shirley Cheechoo (Cree), in creating set designs, props, and costumes. Blake's work has been exhibited in Geronimo's Studio in Munich, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Canada House in London, and is contained within the exhibits of the Heard Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and many private collections. Mishibinijima (born in 1954) is widely represented in Canadian and European collections, including the Royal Ontario Museum, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, the Vatican Museum, and the Mishibinijima Art Gallery in Germany.

As the new millennium begins, Ojibwe people respond with imagery and beauty, reflecting the wealth of the community in their art. The art of the Legend and Woodland School is a reminder of that immense tradition, proving that much of the Anishinabeg world remains as constant as the rocks of the Canadian Shield and the waters of Lake Huron.

Winona LaDuke (Anishinabe) is a writer who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She is the author of Last Standing Woman and All Our Relations.

© Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; from American Indian, Fall 2000