Morrisseau's Missipeshu -- Cultural Preservation

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In one of his early Medicine Paintings, Norval Morriseau painted this " Underwater Panther" or "Great Lion" as some Anishinabeg have named it. Nicholas Perot, who traveled the Great Lakes areas around 1667, reported that southern Anishnabeg "honour as the god of the waters the Great Panther whom the Algonkins and others who speak the same language call Michpissy."

A more recent version of Mishipesshieu was chosen by the Canadian Museum of Civilization for its coat of arms. On the right (which in the oddities of heraldry is called "a sinister" -- left) is Morrisseau's more modern Michipejieu described as "by name Asticou" perhaps from some traditional story. On the left ("a dexter"--right, heraldically) is a representation of the Inuit Sedna (hostile woman who controls sea mamals -- not fish -- that were created from her chopped-off fingers after she was betrayed and tossed overboard to die) by Inuit sculptor Manasie Akpahliapik. Both spirits diving into a whirlpool. At the top is a copper representing the beaver crest of Haida Chief Ninstinets. surrounded by a stylized eagle feather crown. Unfortunatly, on the watery center shield is the astrolabe of early explorr Samuel Champlain, surmounted by a silver crown of Canada's maple leaves. "Multae culturae in una patria", the Latin slogan, means many cultures in one country, Land, water, and political-economic power went to the guys with with the astrolabe and crown, artistic talent to the First Nations. Click on it for a maginfication of Morrisseau's Missipesheu. This one seems to have no spirit guts, just a design, in its x-ray anatomy, not true of his older Medicine Painting of Missipeshiew, as we'll see.

Morrissau's unusual Indian name -- Copper Thunderbird -- indicates he is a go-between, an Oshkabewis. In Ojibwe legends, Thunderbirds are enemies of the underwater panthers and other underwater creatures. There is a split or war btween the underwater and undeerearth creatures and those of the sky. Underwater panthers are supposed to be made partly of copper, and there is a story told in variants from Leech Lake in northern Minnesota to Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin about an underwater panther who attempts to upset a canoe, and, when defeated by one of the paddlers, gives her a piece of copper (in som varients his tail or hand is chopped off and becomes a big piece of copper in the canoe). By having an Indian name for thunderbird-made-of-copper, Morrisseau unites the two warring powers of underwater-underearth and above-sky. It seems likely that this was done more elaborately in the Shking Tent rites that his grandfather practiced.

Inside the Missipeshu is Mackinac, the turtle and the shaking tent, with the Jissakid indicated at the top of the tent. On the right side is the first or guiding Maintou, Toward the tail are the 4 directions Manitos. We'll learn something about the Shaking Tent. It's interesting that the Innu people know the religious practice of shaking-tent too, by the name of Kushapatshikan. Anishnabeg peoples know it as Djesako (jiisakaan in the new double-vowel spelling).

Morrisseau shows Missipeshu protecting and containing the shaking tent, great turtle, the 4 directions Manitous, and the one Manitou who helps the Jiisakiiwinini. The painting suggests the idea that shaking-tent power comes mainly from the power of water. Morrisseau's grandfather, Moses (Potan) Nanakonagas, was a Jiisakiiwinini. Morrisseau was raised by his grandparents on the shore of Lake Nipigon, and attended only 4 grades of Thunder Bay residential school.

The idea that Missipeshu was an evil spirit seems to have been introduced by Christian missionaries and priests, for whom he was a horned "monster" whose under-earth and under-water desmesne made him an ideal representation for their preachments about Satan. He was bad-rapped as "Matchi Manitou" (evil spirit, translated as Satan or devil in Christian writings and preachings).

This made little sense to me, especially after I learned from an elder about a Menomini beadwork pattern which I was told was an old map for a river voyage, with families of Underwater Panthers representing various river hazards. Panther makes sense of hissings and roarings of wind and water, not only storms but river rapids. These may be dangerous, but they are parts of nature, they are not evil.

When the British distributed paper and money with the "lion of Britain" (with his spiky mane and tail -- such spikes are representation of manifestations of spiritual power on Ojibwe birch-bark scroll and rock pictographs) it would make sense for Ojibwe people to tell inquiring scholars that Missipeshu was a Lion, which they did. People born by an English father and Indian mother -- who didn't have a clan dodem, since this goes by the father's clan -- were sometimes said to have the Lion as their dodem. (Nowadays, in clan reconstruction, it is said to be Migizi, the eagle, if there is no identifiable father's clan.)

The power of rapids, or a storm on a broad lake, both of which hiss and roar like big cats, will be frightening to anyone, but especially to canoeists. Forces of nature do have great power, which isn't either good or evil -- it just is, whether or not it harms us. We can only try to avoid their rampages. If, through technology, we tried to end every storm, we would soon see how even such rampages of nature that may harm large numbers of people -- lik big hurricanes -- are to our world's ultimate benefit. We would find (if we were able to stop them) we would have so changed the planetary balance of atmosphere, climate, and weather that some great environmental catastrophe would surely ensue.

Morrisseau was raised by a grandfather who was a "Shaking Tent" person, on the then remote Gull Bay Reserve to the west of Lake Nipigon in Ontario. His grandpa was also a high degree initiate in the Midè or Grand Medicine Society, and his grandma was a Catholic. Morrisseau learned the knowledge that his grandpa and other elders were able to teach. Is it likely the grandfather would have taught the young boy "evil magic?" Is it likely the Catholic grandma would have allowed this, or remained with her husband if he were an evil practitioner of Bad Medicine? I don't think so. All that I have learned of several Indian religions inclines me to think no one has a Christian-like dualism between Good and Evil forces of nature.

There are powerful forces of nature -- one can use or learn to appeal to them in some way for help, but the choice to do good and help people with such power, or evil and harm them, is made by the individual who has the knowledge. People are good or bad. Nature, however symbolized, however perceived, just is.

WestCiv seems incapable of perceiving the world this way -- theologically, anthropologically, culturally -- except in the traditions of science, where knowledge of anything from storms to diseases (no one thinks disease is good! but many sudy it) is neutral, but choices that are bad (stupid, shortsighted) or evil (intending to harm) may be made as to what is done with that knowledge in applied technology. But science isn't part of the WestCiv European culture, it's a kind of separate house, that's been inhabited by wise folk of many societies over thousands of years. WestCiv saw nature as evil for centuries; their idea was to dominate, tame, subdue and if possible eradicate all that was wild and "savage" in it -- natural feaures and phenomena, as well as inconvenient aboriginal people. Western Christian culture propagators have always regarded beings shown with horns as devil-figures -- including those of woods religions in Europe, those painted on desert rocks or danced as kachinas in the southwest, and here in the north woods and waters. Three centuries of this propaganda made many Indians believe that, too.

In Morrisseau's powerful Medicine painting (copied by me from a photo) he shows the Shaking Tent inside Missipeshu, the underground water-panther.. On the left is Mikenak, the Great Turtle (whose broad back is this Turtle Island continent we live on). To the right are a lead Manitou (who is probably the dodem or special guardian of the shaking tent person who's shown as a red circle at the top of the "tent" and the 4 directions Manitos, who all have red hearts. Shaking Tent is called "Tchissako" (many variant pronunciations and spellings are rcorded).

Since I don't have Morrisseau's book (it was taken from my desk in 1975 before I more than glanced at it), I'll draw on Theodore H. Beaulieu, White Earth (MN) Ojibwe, who wrote a cultural series that appeared in the tribal newspaper, The Progress in 1888. Beaulieu wrote that 2 elders (Day Dodge and Saycosegay) -- both high-degree Midewinini (initiates of the Grand Medicine Lodge) -- were the source of this info, which was shared an attempt at cultural preservation. Beaulieu wrote in the form of a grandfather instructing youth, but with an edge of white-educated cynicism -- he calls beings the elders describe imaginary, and emphasizes stage trickeries of white vaudeville entertainer-magicians.

In 1970, now-famous White Earth writer Gerald Vizenor rescued these forgotten writings and published them in a small paperback, Anishnabe Adisokan (The Nodin -- Wind -- Press, a small Minneapolis publisher). Later editions were titled Summer in the Spring. These are all out of print; Nodin told me that Vizenor is having this book reprinted by an unknown university press. Meanwhile, here's the 1888 reservation newspaper article. Missipeshu isn't mentioned. By the late 19th century, the Christians had given him such a badmouthing that elders who knew otherwise just kept quiet, lest they be accused of being devil worshipers or Bad Medicine practitioners.

Beaulieu was western-educated -- he writes better than most PhD's do today -- and expresses a mild skepticism about these elders whose knowledge he is sharing. His newspaper was, after all, called Progress, and that's what educated young leaders hoped to instill in their tribal readers, the western idea of progress -- but they didn't want all the ancient knowledge lost, either!

Shaking-Tent Tchissakiwinini

It may not be known to many of our readers that not many years ago there existed a class of individuals among the Anishnabeg who were known as tchissakiwinini (the shaking tent practitioners), a person who knows spiritual magic, whose vocations and feats were similar to those of the eastern jugglers in such feats as rope-tying, knife-swallowing and fire-eating. These beings were looked upon as equal to the maskikiiwinini (plant medicine doctors), in fact we may say that representatives of the healing art were divided into four classes: Mashkikiwinini, dreamers, blowers, and tchissakiwinini.

We will now speak of the tchissakiwinini. They were supposed to be leagued with the imaginary dwellers of the earth spirits and to hold communion with the different maindoog,, spirits who presided over the destiny of the dead and living worlds. Prominent among which was the mechekans -- king of turtles -- who was regarded as a very powerful manidoo of good or evil, and who could converse with and look all over the world. Of course there were many other manidoog of minor power, but all were subject to the turtle. The mechikans would communicate with the outside world through the tchissakiwinini, and when any person desired to know something about their absent friends or relatives, or whether a sick person would overcome sickness and live, or whether death would follow, and where one would find some lost and stolen articles, as also a medium between the living and the dead to bring tidings from departed friends, they would repair to some tchissakiwinini and consult him about any subject they wished.

The mode of proceding was generally in this wise: when anyone wished some favor or the mechekans, they would go and consult the tchissakiwinini taking some gift along, usually asemaa, tobacco, with which to please the manidoo and be deserving of the good will of all the other manidoog who may take part in the ceremony. If everything was favorable, the inquiring party would be informed and invited to come at a stated time and place, where the tchissakiwinini would have erected the tchissakan (the shaking tent).

This was built of stout poles 8 to 10 feet long driven firmly into the ground in such a manner as to form a circular body. These were attached at intervals inside to strong hoops and bound with thongs or stout cords, and over this on the outside was fastened apakweshway, a cattail mat, so as to obscure the interior of the tschissakan from outside view.

When the shades of evening were falling -- this was the time that the inhabitants of the manidoo world were supposed to deign to hold communication with the living -- the tchissakiwinini would seat himself with his guest or guests about a fire on the outside, and all would join in a smoke, after which he would enter the tchissakan closing the opening after him, and ascend to the top, where he would sit for some time, singing and talking to the manidoo. (PG Note: I've heard he would be tied up, wrapped in a quilt, then tied again, and placed on the framework poles.) Those on the outside would join in the song, beating a drum at the same time. He would the descend (PG Note: Little manitowuk untie and unwrap him) when immediately the tchissakan would become very much agitated and begin to sway, while a great commotion and mumblings as of many voices could be heard proceeding for the interior. Other sounds would seem to come from round about the outside -- the tchissakiwinini are masters of ventreloquism.

At a given signal, all would join in the exclamation of ho, ho, ho, bendigan, bendigan. [PG Note: Not translatd, I think this means "they are inside there ! they are inside !"] Mechekans (the Great Turtle) had arrived and was ready to listen to and answer any and all inquiries. After all questions had been answered, the party would deposit his or her gifts and take their departure.

Beaulieu ends by saying that formerly about half the tribespeople were followers of Mide, the Grand Medicine lodge, the remainder being about evenly divided among tchissakiwinini, dreamers, and blowers. But he seems not to have been aware that many Lodge members had finder, dreamer, or other individual powers, too. People went to Midewiwini for curings, but to tchissakawinini for findings of that which had been lost, and for judgements, particularly judgements about thieves from whom one could not get back the stolen items. Beaulieu in other articles recounts some stories of such judgements.

Morrisseau has preserved (both in his writings and his paintings) knowledge that has either never been shared with non-Indians or has been systematically misunderstood and denigrated by them. Selwyn Dudeny, made a 1965 study of Mide birchbark scrolls, preserves the complete interpretation of one set belonging to James Red Sky, Sr., a Mide (and Presbyterian) elder of Shoal Lake. But Dudeny (who owns the above picture, or once did) is quite intent on a good/evil dichotomy, and forces Missipechu into the role of Devil. Dudney, who was a student missionary to the Ojibwe of Lac Seul in 1929-30, elaborates a whole mystery of evil ghost scrolls. He even suggests that the now-lost highest 4 degrees -- the Mide Sky Lodge -- are where initiates learned "Bad Medicine". This is entirely the opposite from what little I have heard about the Sky Lodge.

Morrisseau tells us something quite different, in his art and his teachings to Indian youth, which he has been engaged in for 40 years. Much of the strength of Medicine painting (which spread rapidly across the Great Lakes region from the late '60's on) comes from the fact that Indian people see these paintings -- and the metaphysical world view underlying them -- in a way that apparently the non-Indian world cannot perceive. Missipeshu, Manitous with horns, etc., are no more evil monsters than waves, wind, waterfalls, deep water, storms, fish, or large, fierce predators of the woods. Morrisseau's paintings have an extremely powerful effect, that is hard to put into words. I really wish some grand musum would prepare a beautiful color book of those early paintings, priced to be affordable by Indian schools and others. Glenbow and Roytal Ontario Museums are said to both have fairly large collections of his paintings, but most are not usually on display.

CREDIT NOTES: Morrisseau's Missipeshu was scanned from a small, muddy photo in Selwyn Dudney's book, The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway, Glenbow-Alberta Institute, University of Toronto Press, 1975, I got the book for its info on birchbark scrolls. In the 1970's I'd been working with Earl DeLaittre, a wealthy Minneapolis collector whose Kenwood house was crammed with Native artifacts bought over many years -- including a large number of birchbark scrolls. DeLaittre had been persuaded to "do something" with this collection, including perhaps to return various items to Indian people to whom they really belonged. He had hired some girls from the Minnesota Art Institute to catalog the crammed-full mansion, when he died suddenly in the fall of 1977; I was out of the country at the time. DeLaittre, who was divorced with no living relatives, died without a will. His ex-wife descended and quickly took away to Albuquerque much of the collection including items which definitely belonged to people or religious groups, and all the scrolls.

The shaking-tent drawing is from a birchbark-biting (i.e made by folding bark and biting a pattern), an old Ojibwe art. It's in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution; it was not further identified by Dudeny. The British lion drawing (from England's great seal) is drawn by Dewdeny. The rock painting of Missipeshu from Myeenguns (Wolf) rock, near Agawa Bay, Lake Superior, is from Dewdney's book (he recopied it from the German scholar H.G. Kohl's 1860 book, Kitchi Gami). The Menominee river map, with hazards shown by a variety of underwater panthers was traced in ink for an article in Awkesasne Notes, following the 1975 takover of the Abbey (on Menominee lands) by the Menominee Warrior Society and American Indian Movment.


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Last Updated: Saturday, August 03, 1996 - 5:01:26 AM