Visual Stories

How Morrisseau gets his name

Morrisseau is famous for signing his art as Copper Thunderbird (Osawah bego Binesi or Miskwaabik Animiiki) in Cree syllabics but he didn’t start signing his art this way.

Morrisseau’s signature on the front of his exhibition invitation at Pollock Gallery, September 1962.

Over the years, Morrisseau experimented with his signature. He started off using his initials NM but then adopted the use of Copper Thunderbird in Cree Syllabics. He added his signature in a number of ways: vertically, horizontally, following the shape of a form in the painting, and—as depicted here—within a circle.

In this clip, Morrisseau tells interviewer June Caldwood about the healing ceremony where he received his spirit name Copper Thunderbird.

In 1950, Norval Morrisseau became seriously ill and a medicine woman named Mary Boucher (Morrisseau provides her name as Neekanip Binasi-go-way, or Leader of All Birds Woman) was summoned to conduct a healing ceremony. (Stevens Archive).

During the ceremony, Morrisseau was gifted a new name, Osawah Bego Binesa or Miskwaabik Animikii (Morrisseau also spelled out his name: Oh-sah-wah-be-go binesi) or Copper Thunderbird.

While scholarship translates his name as Miskwaabik Animiiki (Copper Thunderbird), in his Anishinaabemowin dialect, Morrisseau pronounced his name as Osawah Bego Binesa (Yellow Thunderbird).

Anishinaabe knowledge keeper Saul Williams confirmed Morrisseau’s name as Osawah Bego Binesa.

Morrisseau shares his naming story, 1950-1962.

1962 Exhibition Invitation to Pollock Gallery, Toronto, ON.

This invitation was signed by Morrisseau for Jack Pollock. Note that in this early version of Morrisseau’s signature, the artist’s last name is written with a single “s” in line with the original spelling of his birth name. The family adopted a second “s” to Morrisseau soon after the exhibition opening.

Osawah Bego Binesa
Miskwaabik Animiiki

I am Norval Morrisseau and my Indian name is Copper Thunderbird. I am a born artist.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 3.

My art reflects my own spiritual personality

Norval Morrisseau, The Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1965, p. 7.

Eugene Morriseau explains his father's name.

Creating a Signature: From initials to Syllabics


When most people think of Morrisseau's artistic signature, they think of the syllabics that form his spirit name, Copper Thunderbird. However, early on, Norval Morrisseau experimented with different ways to sign his art, including simply by including NM.

Norval Morrisseau, Ojibwa Medicine Society, 1960.

In 1956, Norval Morrisseau met his future wife, Harriet Kakegamic, a Cree woman from Sandy Lake, while she was visiting her father, David Kakegamic, at the sanatorium in Fort William, where both men were convalescing. They fell in love and subsequently married on April 18, 1959 in Cochenour, ON. Their relationship prompted Morrisseau to rethink how he signed his paintings. Early on, Morrisseau signed his works NM, or included no signature at all.

Norval Morrisseau, Mishipeshoo, 1961.

Harriet Kakegamic taught Norval how to write his name in Cree syllabics and by 1962 he consistently signed his name as Copper Thunderbird using syllabics.

Early on he wrote his name in a circle and later wrote it vertically, horizontally, or along the shape of an image.

As you look at Morrisseau's art, notice the variety of ways he incorporates his signature.

Norval Morrisseau, Figures in a Garden, c. 1988.

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