Young Norval Morrisseau

Morrisseau, Artist as Child: Self representation of Morrisseau as a fetus in Womb (Mother Earth), 1976.



On March 14,1932, Jean Baptiste Norman Morriseau [second s added later] was born in Fort William, ON to parents Abel Morriseau and Grace Theresa Potan Nanakonagos, the eldest of five sons and was baptized about two weeks after in the Catholic Church in Fort William. Following tradition, Norval, as he was known, was raised by his maternal grandparents, Moses Potan Nanakonagos and Vernique Nanakonagos.

Transcript of the note Morrisseau wrote on the back of Artist as Child: Self representation of Morrisseau as a fetus in Womb (Mother Earth) written in graphite:


Artist-Inner Vishion of himself
Where He Project[s] himself 
As a spiritual Child or Spiritual Son.
Of the Great Powerful Cosmic Womb.
March 20, 1976
Study of self
In reality.  You say
I have indeed 
Advance in thought 
High on spiritual 
Level than you [were] 3 years ago—
Thank you my Higher Power

"Indian Residential School," 1940.


In September 1939, Abel Morriseau applied to register his son, Norval at the St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Fort William, ON. Norval’s entrance examination noted that he was 59 inches tall and weighed 53 lbs.

Norval’s brother Ron joined him at St. Joseph’s the following year.


In 1940, Morrisseau was run over by a tandem wheeled vehicle. He explained: “at the age of nine years old at a boarding school run by the sister of the Order of St Joseph's I was runned over by 2 Double Tires four in All upon a solid Hard ground and slowly Run over my Stomach and Abdomen Pelvis and leg I was taken into the plyroom a Priest was called father Galager now a bishop for me to received last rites of the Catholic Church.... I seen a Vishion of my Grand Mother 150 Miles away walking Toward me and She Said my Grand Son Don't be afraid get up... One hour later I was running around". (Okanski archive at Red Lake Cultural Centre).

This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023. 


In 1941, the family moved to Beardmore and Morrisseau completed two more grades at the local school there. (Some confusion regarding his schooling exists as there is also a document that says Norval was discharged from St. Joseph’s in 1946).

    St. Joseph's Indian Residential School attended by Norval Morrisseau, 1928

    This school started as a Roman Catholic orphanage and school on the Mission Indian Reserve near Fort William.

    In the 1880s, it started to receive funding from the federal government.

    Destroyed by fire in 1895, it was rebuilt that same year.

    It was relocated to Fort William in 1907 and became known as the St. Joseph’s Indian Industrial School. The school policy of not turning children away resulted in constant overcrowding problems.

    From the mid-1960s until its closure the school operated solely as a residence for students who were attending local day schools. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

    Morrisseau’s Vision Quest



    In 1945 Norval Morrisseau undertook a vision quest, assisted by his Grandfather. He explains in the NFB film Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1974) that he was visited by a sacred bear during the ceremony that took place on an island in Lake Nipigon. Morrisseau painted several sacred bears throughout his life.

    Norval Morrisseau, Totem Bear, 1968.

    Morrisseau’s Thunderbird

    Morrisseau shares his naming story, 1950-1962.



    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 do a healing ceremony.

    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.



    Morrisseau met his future wife Harriet Kakegamic while recovering from tuberculosis at the sanatorium in Fort William, ON.

    Norval Morrisseau, Artist's Wife and Daughter, 1975.

    As newly weds Harriet and Norval move to McKenzie Island, near Cochenour, ON, to live in a small cabin. Morrisseau sold baskets and paintings on plywood and birchbark wherever he could, included at Fergus McDougall’s store on McKenzie Island.




    Norval worked at various jobs, including highway and pipeline construction, cutting pulpwood, and some trapping.

    Christine Penner-Polle, Norval Morrisseau and the Woodland Artists: The Red Lake Years 1959-1980, Red Lake Cultural Centre, Red Lake, ON, 2008, p. 23.

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

    From his earliest years as an artist, Norval Morrisseau experimented with spiritual concepts of transformation.

    In this work, he includes both Thunderbird and a Shaman in the process of transfiguration, with one wing and one arm, one talon and one leg. This early work on birchbark shows the beginnings of his artistic vocabulary beginning to take form and also shows the type of work Morrisseau began selling in the Red Lake area.

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