What is Spirituality according to Morrisseau?

My art reflects my own spiritual personality.

Norval Morrisseau, The Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1979, p. 7.

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.

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 was very important…from the [nebi] water as well as the [aki] land.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p 47.

Medicine Snakes

This sketch by Morrisseau in late 1961 was included in a letter to Selwyn Dewdney on January 12, 1962 and shows his interest in beading as well as painting prior to his entry into the mainstream art world. Because beading was considered to be "craft" rather than "art" during this period, the artist did not pursue this form of art making for the art market.

Norval Morrisseau, Medicine Snake, 1961.

Norval Morrisseau, Large Serpent, 1967.

This stylized medicine snake from 1967 demonstrates Morrisseau’s evolving visual storytelling style. The artist uses sacred colours of red, blue, white and yellow. He includes five divided circles and the sun, interconnected with the undulating body of the horned being with use of an assured black line.

Morrisseau’s use of energy lines, colours, and interior segmentation is unique to him and part of a unique artistic language he invented.

The emblem for medicine … was a horned snake.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 47.
This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023. 


Norval Morrisseau, Drawing, 1960.

Morrisseau created this sketch and notes in about 1960 for a “Dream” painting he was planning to paint on hide.

The sketch includes two serpents representing the forces of good and evil. Between the two serpents is the sacred Mikkinuk or turtle.

Norval Morrisseau, Ojibwa Medicine Society, 1960.

This early painting of a medicine snake includes mikkinuk in the right top of the work. The serpent has a medicine bag hanging from its neck. Morrisseau signed this work in both the right and left bottom corners of this painting using his initials N.M.

This painting was created as a gift to Dr. David Parliament, the doctor in Balmertown, near Cochenour and Red Lake, who delivered Norval and Harriet’s baby, Victoria.

Sacred Snake of Good and Evil

This painting was sold by the Pollock Gallery in 1962.

Morrisseau painted the two-headed horned sacred snake from the water realm in white to convey the powerful spirit of this being. The snake, or serpent, is also surrounded by five split circle energy bundles that express the balance of good and evil, one offset in blue while the others are red and yellow. Line and interior segmentations are also used to convey the spiritual nature of this being.

Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Snake of Good and Evil, 1962.

Norval Morrisseau, Shaman Fighting Water Snake, 1964.

A man who dreamed of a horned snake, or serpent, was considered to be a medicine man and to have knowledge of medicine.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 47.

Painted late in his career, this horned serpent displays many of the attributes found in the horned serpents that Morrisseau created as many as forty years earlier.

In this later version, Morrisseau creates a waterscape with islands and ancestors in canoes. In the far left of the painting, the artist includes a tent and a Grandfather-shaman and youngster communicating with the medicine snake.

Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Grandfather Snake Water), 1990.

BACK OF Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Grandfather Snake Water), 1990.

Inscription by Norval Morrisseau on the back of this canvas:

Mother and Child motif:
In Honor to all Native Motherhood
and Grandson.
To all First Nations People’s
is a gift of spirit.
Teach these Little One’s,
Elders. For we as Elders must learn there Childlike

    Animikiig, or Binesi, are Thunderbirds and are among the most powerful spiritual beings in Anishinaabe cosmology. Animikiig maintain a protective relationship to Anishinaabeg and reveal themselves through story. Morrisseau paints thunderbirds throughout his life and his spirit name is Copper Thunderbird.

    Thunder is a great massive bird called thunderbird, whose eyes shoot lightning and thunder. [...] It is known that the Thunderbirds had a huge nest on the mountains of the earth and large blankets of clouds are always seen to cover the nest.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p.4.

    Anishinaabe-kwe artist and curator Bonnie Devine points to how "Morrisseau situates the Thunderbird in this painting by surrounding it with water on one side and land on the other ... so that it is centred within a womb of symbolic colours enclosed by aki and nebi. “There’s a struggle going on here, but you can see that despite the battle, there are communication lines connecting the combatants. There is a balance always,” explains Devine.

    This work expresses the notion that everything is in constant adjustment, exchange, and flow.

    Bonnie Devine, Interview, 2020. McMichael Gallery, Kleinberg, ON.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird with Inner Spirit, 1978.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird, 1960.

    The Thunderbird was to the Ojibwa Indian a great protector. The teeth represents his supernatural powers. This thunder is one of the most feared for he lives in the ends of the Earth, he had no body but wings, a beak set full of teeth and a huge eye–it was a male. It was sitting upon a nest made of Bones and Cedar branches seated upon a huge Egg it began to hatch and his offspring comes into the world reincarnated before it materializes he devours his own offspring in order no other Thunderbird might exist like himself but being fierce the Thunderbird gave to the Indian his Protection.

    Morrisseau describes the Thunderbird in a letter to Jim Stevens.

    Medicine Snake and Thunderbird

    From 1958 through the 1980s Morrisseau painted several versions of the Thunderbird and the Medicine Snake.

    The great thunderbird in a medicine dream gives power to the dreamer to prepare medicine. For those who learn from the thunderbirds, medicines are not made out of roots, barks, and so on but are in the form of an egg of a light-blue colour.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 47.

    Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Medicine Snake and Thunderbird), 1958.

    In a story that Morrisseau says is based upon the Ojibwe and “a tribe of Long House People knows as the Noduweck,” Morrisseau explains a contest of strength.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 91-101.

    Look over there. You will see a big snake with horns, the protector of my people, the Noduweck.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 92.

    Look over there, Noduweck. See the Thunderbirds in the sky. They are after your protector.

    Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 92.

      In this CBC television interview conducted during his 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery, Morrisseau offers a description of his painting of a Thunderbird holding a snake. Medicine symbols using an image that is similar to many paintings he did on this topic.

      This drawing was done while Morrisseau was incarcerated in a Kenora jail.

      Although he was provided with studio space and art supplies during his six-month stay, he also drew numerous works on paper towel.

      Here Morrisseau further explores the theme of Thunderbird and the medicine snake, including a spirit figure within the Thunderbird.

      Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Thunderbird with Inner Spirit and Snake), 1972-3.

      Norval Morrisseau, Shaman Rider, 1972.

      In 1972, Morrisseau painted this evocative work of a shaman riding the sacred god, Thunderbird.

      The work, done in earthtones, offers viewers an understanding of an interconnected and relational way of knowing the world with birds, a knowledge keeper and a powerful god soaring through the sky realm. Lines and divided circles help express the spiritual energy present in this work.

      Norval Morrisseau, Legendary Misshipishoo and the Thunder Bird, c. 1960-1961.

      This early drawing by Morrisseau illustrates the close relationship between these two powerful gods of the sky world and the water world.

      Use of Sacred Colours

      Morrisseau uses white sparingly in his art but when he does so, it evokes a deep connection to spiritual matters.

      In his paintings in earthtones, he often pairs green and red to show sacredness.

      The artist also uses both light and dark blues to signal spiritual significance.

      Onaman Medicine Legend and Spirituality

      In this early work, the artist uses white to show the sacred importance of beaver.

      The red onaman sand, which is the colour of darkish blood found in iron rust, has a legend that tells who at one time when the world was young there lived a huge beaver in a great pond. Maybe the pond was Lake Superior. One day when the great beaver came to the top of the water the thunderbirds were up above. A thunderbird, known as the hunger bird, saw this beaver and came swooping down and seized it and flew up into the air to feast on its flesh. The claws of the thunderbird went deep into the beaver’s hide and flesh. From the beaver’s wounds sprang blood that fell all over the earth. From that blood was formed the sacred medicine sand called onaman.

      Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p.19.

      Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (Thunderbird with Beaver), c. 1958.

      Norval Morrisseau, Onaman Legend, 1989.

      While Morrisseau uses only red and black inks in this drawing of the onaman legend, completed late in his career, he conveys the spiritual significance of the significance of onaman and the coloured sands conveyed in the story he shared in his 1965 book Legends of My People.

      Thunderbird transports the beaver, puncturing its body so that its blood is spilled on the sand below. Morrisseau includes energy lines between the wings of Thunderbird and the mountains below.

      In all the lakes where rock paintings are found, the Ojibway put sacred signs on the face of the cliffs.

      Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p.21.

      Norval Morrisseau, Onaman Legend-Origin of Sacred Sands, 1962. Photo credit: D. Gordon E.Robertson

        Sacred onaman image, pictographs at Agawa Rock. 

        These powerful drawings were painted by ancestors on the rock cliffs along Lake Superior. The site’s name in Ojibwe is Mazinaubikinguning which means the “adorned rock on Agawa Lake”. The sacred drawings, created using onaman, are now protected as a Lake Superior Provincial Park site.

        Morrisseau painted this work for Indian Art '72. He creates a work filled with movement and spiritual force–painting the sacred water god Michupichu.

        The use of white signals a sacredness.

        This painting is considered to be one of Morrisseau's masterworks and demonstrates, through line and colour, the artist's fully formed visual language.

        Norval Morrisseau, Water Spirit, 1972.

        Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Medicine Bear, 1974.

        Centuries ago, when the Midewiwin sacred bear appeared to the early Ojibway and gave them the sacred knowledge of several hundred kinds of medicine through a horned serpent, the medicines were represented by a cup.

        Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 55.

        My grandfather on my father’s side was Little Grouse and at the time of his fasting year had a great medicine dream, ‘My son, I will be a guardian to you and give you some special power. Although you may not be a conjurer or a medicine man, still you shall have power to do good. I will give you good luck, but you must respect me in my earthly form and never kill me. Now I will go into your body.’ According to that medicine dream my grandfather believed there was a bear inside his body. He felt its presence at his back, or hip.

        Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p.45.
        This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by  Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

        Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Animal with Medicine Bag (Buffalo), 1960.

        Morrisseau painted many sacred beings, including the sacred buffalo from the territories of the Oceti Sakowin (People of the seven council fires-Lakota, Dakota and Nakota). Morrisseau paints the buffalo white and uses white in the divided circles to express its sacredness.

        Morrisseau describes a dream that inspired him to paint the sacred buffalo:

        On the plains I heard a huge sacred white buffalo running. I yelled to the shadow and said, Wanka Wanka! Why was I saying these words? Had they a meaning? Then I recognized it. It meant Manitou in the Great Indian tongue, Wankatonka. Then I said, “Great Father Manitou, help me.

        Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People, 1965, p. 69.

        Man Changing Into Thunderbird

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

        Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird, 1977.

          The concept of transformation from human to animal form is one that Morrisseau explores in his art throughout his career. When he painted his six-panel masterpiece in 1977 that shows his own transformation from a shaman apprentice to Copper Thunderbird, Morrisseau called it his best work yet. The six panels pulsate with energy and offer a visual narrative that is both personal and sacred, using both colour and form to communicate his own story of transformation into a shaman artist.

          Norval Morrisseau, Man Changing into Thunderbird (Two Birds) | Untitled (Man Transforming into Thunderbird), 1958.

          This work done on birchbark also explores the transformation of man into Thunderbird twenty years before Morrisseau painted Man Changing into Thunderbird.

          Morrisseau created this work while living in Cochenour, where he worked for a gold mine operation. He sold this work to Dr. and Mrs. Joseph Weinstein, artists and early supporters of his art.

          Morrisseau painted this version of a man changing into Thunderbird in 1962 for Selwyn Dewdney. In this work, painted on a tar paper backing, Morrisseau is using an expanded colour palette and additional interior segmentations to help convey the power of this conversion.

          Norval Morrisseau, Untitled, 1962.

            In this sketch, done while in a Kenora, Ontario, jail in 1973, Morrisseau creates a work that conveys the story of the significance of the sacred trout that carries the human soul to a “new existence.” Morrisseau often painted sacred fish but this drawing allows the artist to detail the teachings behind the paintings, using line rather than colour to express his intentions.

            Norval Morrisseau, Transmigration of the Human Soul To Another Existence, 1972-73.

            Norval Morrisseau, Androgyny, 1983.

            Androgyny (1983) is Morrisseau’s visual teaching about the sacredness of all living beings. This work interconnects all living and spiritual beings in the water, on land, and in the sky.

            The Thunderbird’s outstretched wings are framed by a dome or sweatlodge form that also encompasses spirit beings.

            This work expresses Morrisseau’s spiritual teachings from both Anishinaabeg ways of knowing and Eckankar teachings.

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