Sacred Stories

Morrisseau re-invented many of the sacred stories told to him in his original and revolutionary visual language.

After leaving residential school, Morrisseau returned to Beardmore, near Bingwi Neyaashi First Nation, to continue learning from knowledge keepers, including his grandfather.

I went home and lived with my family again, relearning things, reinforcing things I didn't want to give up. I continued to speak Indian. It took my brother eight months to regain his Ojibway.

Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1979, p. 42.

Handed down to Norval Morrisseau from his Grandfather, Moses Potan Nanakonagos, medicine stories find their way into his art as a form of visual storytelling and into the book he wrote that was published in 1965 called Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway.

Medicine Stories range widely in different areas of Anishinaabeg Aki. It is best to consult a traditional knowledge keeper, Elder, or Medicine Person for more information.


In 1958 Morrisseau drew this group of beings dressed in red robes with pointed hoods with the badge made out of tin in the shape of a crescent moon. Morrisseau labeled this drawing Wugeesh – Gukawiininwuk. On the back of this drawing he wrote “the heaven people.The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary uses the term "giizhigé" for Heaven.

The Ojibway believed that there were six layers of heaven…Ojibway or Indian guardians, who wore scarlet clothing with pointed hoods like caps, Heaven People, to guard these heavens.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 119.

Norval Morrisseau, Wugeesh – Gukawiininwuk

Norval Morrisseau, Ancestors Performing the Ritual of the Shaking Tent, 1958-61.

The image in this work is not a shaking tent but a madoodiswan or sweat lodge. Morrisseau describes the sweat lodge as a “steam house that looked like an upside-down bowl, made out of saplings and covered with hide or canvas, with a floor cover of cedar branches…it cleans a man’s body and soul…used by certain medicinemen to talk to the water god, thunderbird or medicine snakes.”

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 52.

In this work the Wugeesh – Gukawiininwuk similarly wear red robes and beat a sacred drum.

This sketch and description was created by Morrisseau and shared with Selwyn Dewdney. Selwyn Dewdney recorded Norval Morrisseau’s description of a sweat lodge or madoodiswan.

A Medicine Man in a steam Bath
Ritual to Purify himself
Of body and Dream Shadow or (Soul)
According to Ojibwes a person has a shadow
Like himself that Travels in Dreams
The Tree or plant is the Cedar. Tree
Purists of threes worthy Because of its Healing power and Purify Power a Tree
Branch’s that are placed inside of the Bath as mats to sit on A Powdered Cedar
That is burned on a rock in order to
Smoke like incense in Church Rituals a smoke that
Reaches the Supernatural World to Appease to seek favour
To be purified, etc,

Written by Norval Morrisseau to Selwyn Dewdney

Norval Morrisseau, Medicine Man in a Steambath, n.d.

    Morrisseau painted the image of the shaking tent often in his art. He explains:

    The Ojibway believe a medicine wind blows from heaven in the tent and that is how it shakes.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 70.

    Morrisseau explains that Mikkinnuk is an interpreter.

    Norval Morrisseau, Birchbark Painting, 1973.

    This painting, done on a sheet of birchbark in 1973, depicts a jiisaakan ceremony painted in red outlines and has the tchissakiwinini (shaking tent practitioner) inside during the ceremony. Morrisseau uses lines to show the vibration. On the left is Mikkinuk, the Great Turtle, who is represented with lines of power emanating out, and two divided circles connecting it to the jiisaakan showing balance in both nature and the spirit world.

    In this painting, Morrisseau shows jiisaakan as part of Mikkinuk’s body or shell. He paints the doorway as the turtle’s heart. The work is encircled by energy bundles and a spirit figure enters through Mikkinuk’s open mouth.

    Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Turtle Shaking Tent, 1969.

    Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Giants Travelling), 1989.

    This drawing, completed late in his life, expresses many of the storytelling elements Morrisseau used early in his career. At this point in his career, the artist includes more detailed visual descriptions of place, including mountains and trees and using a greater depth of field.

    Drawn in registers, at the bottom of the drawing he includes sacred fish below and shaking tents and ancestor figures on the land. Above, giant figures with shaminc hair adornments tower over the mountains and connect to the sky.

    Morrisseau’s retrospective exhibition installation at the National Gallery of Canada in 2006, included three of Morrisseau’s works about sacred stories. Left to right: Untitled (Horned Snake Ojibway Medicine Society) c. 1958-61; Untitled (Serpent) c. 1962; Ancestors Performing the Ritual of the Shaking Tent, c. 1958-61. Courtesy of National Gallery of Canada.

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