The process of making required a sharing of knowledge. Morrisseau’s use of wiigwaas in his artmaking is reliant of deep relational connections.

Birchbark peeling, photograph, DHatier Public Domain.

Wiigwaas harvesting and preparation is necessary before it is used as baskets, canoes, and for other purposes. Narratives shared by Morrisseau and other knowledge keepers draw attention to relational ways of knowing land.

Birchbark is collected at certain times of the year in May/June related to reciprocity, respect and knowledge of place.

In this letter, written by Morrisseau to Selwyn Dewdney in 1961, the artist talks about using birchbark for a potential exhibition at the Hughes Gallery in London, ON. Morrisseau explains that it is “Hard to get the scrap bark as the sap starts to Run Leaving that Part on the tree itself instead of the Bark but will do whatever I can OK.”

Norval Morrisseau, Dewdney Archival Letter, April 25, 1961.

Birchbark basket made by Mrs. Annie Kakegamic and painted by Norval Morrisseau

At the lake called Mesinama Sahegun, the Ojibway Indians used to go to feast on the sturgeons. Everyone was happy. The old women and the young prepared smoked sturgeon and put it away in birchbark containers for the long winter months ahead.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, 1965, p. 34. This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023. 

This basket was made by Morrisseau’s mother-in-law, Annie Kakegamic and painted with one of the artist’s significant emblematic signs, a split circle with rays of sun surrounding it. Morrisseau uses this sign to convey balance and it is also linked to migiis, a sacred story.

Morrisseau painted several baskets made by family members early on in his career but was encouraged by other artists and supporters to move away from this form of painting because of its associations with craft.

Annie Kakegamic making birchbark vessels. Basketmaker is one of the few paintings Morrisseau did that shows someone making art.

Norval Morrisseau, The Basket Maker Making the Basket, 1970.

Saul Williams discusses The Basket Maker Making the Basket, 1970.

Saul Williams explains how the making of birchbark baskets became commodity items, sold by basketmakers in Sandy Lake, ON to support their families.

    Norval Morrisseau, Untitled (The Horned Snake), 1958.

    Morrisseau painted this early representation of a sacred horned snake in the late 1950s. It is part of the collection of Joseph and Esther Weinstein, who supported and mentored Morrisseau during their stay in Cochenour, ON. The white coiled snake wears a medicine bundle and has decorative elements in and around its looping body.

    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 Ancestors are taking part in a ceremony.

    During this early phase of his career, Morrisseau often created his works on wiigwaas as it was a ready medium in the early summer and reinforces interconnection between all living beings.

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

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird with Ancestral Motifs, c. 1961.

    One key to understanding Morrisseau’s relationship with wiigwaas is the sharing of sacred knowledge(s) by his grandfather Moses Potan Nanakonagos, a shaman in the Medewiwin or Great Medicine Lodge of the Anishinaabeg.

    Birchbark scrolls traditionally held sacred narratives and consisted of sheets of birchbark seamed together into long incised scrolls with the ends fixed to endsticks bound to the bark with strips of tree cord–the same material used to stitch the sections of birchbark together.

    Morrisseau’s 1961 “Thunderbird with Ancestral Motifs” in the Westerkirk collection uses similar methods of construction that the artist used to transmit his own storied knowledge into this work of art.

    Although Morrisseau was familiar with the sacred use of birchbark scrolls and used traditional techniques for this work, he used this process for artistic expression, not ceremonial purpose.

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