Last Revised: May 21, 2022
Related Posts: See Anishinaabe Rock Art
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It started off with Anishinaabe (that is, Ojibwe or Chippewa) pictographs and ended up with coffee-table-sized art books dedicated to the work of Norval Morrisseau. Last year in preparation for a canoe trip that took us down Wabakimi’s Cliff Lake, I found Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes. Not only was I introduced to a wealth of Ojibwe pictograph sites in the Canadian Shield, but I found an unknown, at least to me, a new trail to ramble down.
My grandfather told me once that nobody, no matter how hard they tried, could remember all the legends; otherwise, the whole of northwestern Ontario would be covered in pictographs.
(Norval Morrisseau, Return To The House Of Invention. p.13)
I learned of Dewdney’s meeting with a young Norval Morrisseau in Red Lake in 1960, a meeting that led to a decade-plus friendship based on their common passion for preserving Anishinaabe culture. For Dewdney, an artist by training, it was the fading rock paintings or pictographs of the Canadian Shield. Dr. K.E. Kidd, a professor of anthropology at the U of Toronto, had personally seen some of the pictographs in Quetico in the mid-1950s and was keen on further study. He writes:
In 1957 the project got started. In that year, the Quetico Foundation kindly provided necessary funds to carry through the work for one summer, if a suitable recorder could be found and if the Royal Ontario Museum were agreeable to supervising it. This the Museum was happy to do, and chose Mr. Selwyn Dewdney to carry out the field work. He was an excellent choice, both because of his training in art and because of his experience in and knowledge of the woodland country where he would have to work. He had canoed extensively through it in his youth, knew and understood how to face its problems, and had a sympathetic attitude towards the native inhabitants. Thus the project was launched.
Kenneth E. Kidd. p. 162 of Indian Rock Paintings of The Great Lakes.
For Morrisseau, the very survival of the traditional Anishinaabe worldview was at stake – the legends and myths that fewer and fewer of his people remembered. He was about 28 when he met Dewdney. He had just started painting seriously a couple of years before and had sold his first few paintings to people in the Red Lake area in northwestern Ontario. He would live there with his wife Harriet and their growing family from 1958 to 1963, first on Mckenzie Island and then in Cochenour.
I am Norval Morrisseau and my Indian name is Copper Thunderbird. I am a born artist. A few people are born artists, but most others are not, and it is the same with the Indians…
Over the years I became an avid student of my people, the great Ojibway. I have as much interest in their history and lore as any anthropologist.
p.1-2 of Legends of My People The Great Ojibway
This was Morrisseau’s impetus for first putting paintbrush to birchbark and animal hide and cardboard and kraft paper – whatever medium he could find.
Norval had been born on the Sand Point Reserve near Beardmore in 1932 but had spent the formative years of his youth with his maternal grandparents, Grace and Moses Potan Nanakonagos, in the Gull Bay area on the west side of Lake Nipigon. (Check out the Google map view here.)
His grandmother was a devout Roman Catholic, and from her he learned the basics of the Christian narrative of salvation. It was Potan, his mishomis, who taught him about the worldview of the great Anishinaabe, of their myths and legends, and of the Midewiwin and the birchbark scrolls.
Later, when asked by Dewdney about his family background while they were working on a book together, Morrisseau would say this:
It is only his name I want to mention, so that in one way or the other his good heart, his good teachings shall be repayed. Of my actual father I saw little… I knew he was not my father but I began to love and respect him more and more as I advanced in years, as this was all a part of me and I must carry on his wisdom.
Norval would face some opposition as he first brought Anishinaabeg stories to life in paint. Some elders felt he was breaking ancient taboos. It may have been that the missionaries had done such a good job making them feel ashamed of their culture that they thought it would be better left hidden and unknown.
I started to do some painting. I guess I saw some art literature from Arizona or the Southwest somewhere, but I was hungry to learn more. I wanted to paint my house and paint the walls in traditional pictographs like the ones saw from rock paintings and birchbark scrolls our people used to make. I was told by some relatives not to do this – that I should not be tampering with these forms “because the Indians will ostracize you.” Or the elders would not care for it, just like the Jesuits. Nevertheless, I was determined to do it for it is my destiny.
Norval received encouragement and advice from Dr. Joseph Weinstein, the doctor in Cochenour who had received art training in Paris and knew Picasso. His wife Esther was one of Norval’s first customers). The mine managers at the mill where Morrisseau worked supported Norval’s painting, and he was able to spend more time on his passion – painting the truth and knowledge he had been given by his grandfather. Bob Shepard, an OPP constable stationed on Mckenzie Island, was also impressed with Morrisseau’s talent. He would get his friend Selwyn Dewdney to meet with Norval in 1960 when he heard that Dewdney would be in the area on his pictograph site quest.
Morrisseau’s circle of patrons would get bigger in 1962 when a CPR train conductor – and a solid Conservative Party supporter – from the Kenora area met Senator Allister Grosart while he on the campaign trail. The conductor mentioned that a talented and deserving local native artist could use some help. Grosart suggested that he tell Morrisseau to write him a letter. A letter and some artwork soon followed, and by the end of the year, Grosart had sent Norval $900. so that he could devote himself more fully to his painting. (That is $7000. in 2014 dollars.)
The Dewdney-Morrisseau relationship led to a broader audience for Morrisseau’s art. Another chance encounter – this time with the young Toronto art gallery owner Jack Pollock – would also provide a major boost. Pollack had been hired by the Ontario Government to conduct a series of art seminars in northern Ontario in the summer of 1962. The last stop of his six-week tour was the mining community of Beardmore. He describes the moment he first met Morrisseau:
My class had just begun when the door opened and a tall Indian with a roll of pictures under his arm walked in. My first impression was here was a man of power, and I felt that this lean and handsome warrior of another time had the quiet majesty of someone special. Absent was the devious, the manipulative, the fractured duality of Morrisseau’s personality, all of which I was to be confronted with much later. There were, however, in those moments of our first encounter, vibrations of inbred strength which gave me a sense of shaman awe.
He would experience instant stardom and the exhilarating “up” of a sold-out exhibit of his paintings at Pollock’s gallery in Toronto in 1962 – and the “down” of all but being ignored the following year when the same gallery hosted an even better collection of paintings.
In a magazine article written for the Jan-Feb 1963 issue of Canadian Art, Dewdney provided an eloquent introduction for those curious about this Indian painter who had seemingly come out of nowhere. He concluded with this prescient assessment–
This is no ordinary man. And I predict, whatever label we may finally bestow on his work, he will continue to produce extraordinary paintings.
[See here for the entire article, definitely worth the read.]
Legends of My People The Great Ojibway:1965
The deepening relationship between Dewdney and Morrisseau also led to a written work – Legends of My People The Great Ojibway. It was written and illustrated by Morrisseau and edited by Dewdney from two manuscripts Norval had sent him – the first in late 1960, some three months after their first meeting, and a supplemental manuscript two years later. It was published by The Ryerson Press in 1965.
The ups and downs of the early 1960s would only become more dramatic as Morrisseau grappled with personal demons related to his childhood – a father who abandoned the family, two years spent at a residential school in Fort William, and the inner tension between his traditional beliefs and the Christianity which was also an essential part of his upbringing.
These demons resulted in a growing problem with the alcohol he turned to as a solution. The details of Morrisseau’s personal life make for some depressing reading.
So too does the ongoing controversy about his artistic legacy, specifically the issue of real versus fake Morrisseau’s. Pollock had already alluded to this issue in his autobiography published in the late 1980s. The Canadian Encyclopedia has a good summary here and a recent (2014) CBC story here brings it up to date.
This post will mainly focus on the early Norval Morrisseau from the late 1950s to about 1970. What I wanted to highlight was his depiction of various figures from traditional Ojibwe myth and legend that can also be seen in pictograph form by paddlers in the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield.
Until 1962 he had never been outside of the Lake Nipigon area. Fort William/Port Arthur (now known as Thunder Bay) was the biggest town he had been to. He had not been to Agawa Rock; it seems unlikely that he had been to Quetico. His grandfather may have taken him to pictograph sites in Lake Nipigon’s Beardmore or Gull Bay areas. During his Red Lake years, it seems unlikely that he visited the Larus or Artery Lake pictograph sites on the Bloodvein River system.
More important than the question of how many actual pictographs he saw or which ones is this point – the simple fact of seeing them was both an act of confirmation and inspiration for him in his desire to turn Anishinaabe words and legends into images.
While Morrisseau may have derived inspiration from those pictographs, a couple of things should be remembered: 1. he didn’t see that many actual pictographs; and 2. most of the still-discernible ones were quite basic and rudimentary.
Along with the rock paintings he would have seen on the vertical rock faces in the boreal forest, he would also have seen the sketches and photographs that Selwyn Dewdney was collecting for what would be published in 1962 with the title Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes. [Click on the title to access a downloadable copy.] It would contain descriptions of 103 sites he had visited from 1957 to 1961.
Like Morrisseau, Dewdney was primarily an artist; he also had a passionate interest in Ojibwe culture. He most likely shared the sketches and photos with Morrisseau during their time in Red Lake and later in London, where the Morrisseau family lived for a while with the Dewdneys. In 1967 the U of Toronto Press would release the second edition of Dewdney’s book, which contained details and images of another 160 or so pictograph sites.
While Dewdney never misses a chance to thank the person who informed him about or took him to a particular site, Morrisseau’s name never comes up in this context. One thing they clearly did not do together was sit in a canoe on some lake in northwestern Ontario and look for or examine pictographs. However, the following quote from Indian Rock Paintings of The Great Lakes (both editions) clarifies what led Dewdney to work with Morrisseau on the collection of myths and legends of the Ojibwe.
In addition to the general and special acknowledgements made herein Mr. Dewdney is anxious to record the following:
“Above all I should like to record the invaluable aid in tracking down ethnological clues furnished by the late Chief James Horton of Manitou Rapids. A gentle man of unfailing courtesy and unpretentious dignity, greatly gifted as a teller of Ojibwa tales, his death was an incalculable loss. Of other Ojibwa who generously shared with me the lore of their forefathers, I should particularly like to mention Messrs. Norval Morriseau and Thomas Paishk of Red Lake, Mr. Jack Bushy of Ignace, and Mr. Charles Friday of Seine River…”
For Morrisseau, another source of Anishinaabe inspiration would have been the birch bark scrolls that his grandfather and Dewdney had access to. Add to this Morrisseau’s passionate interest in the legends of his people and his ability to take in and make his own ideas from other sources – he spent hours in the Weinsteins’ library at Cochenour looking through their art books and their collection of cultural artifacts – and you have to appreciate his genius in coming up with a strikingly personal artistic vision. In doing so, he created a style of painting known as Woodlands. It is almost as if to be an Anishinaabe artist now is to draw, like Morrisseau did, from the wellspring of indigenous myth and legend.
Mishipeshu – The Underwater Lynx
One of Morrisseau’s most painted images is that of Mishipeshu (just one of a dozen possible spellings!) Here is one Morrisseau painting from the late 1950s when he was living in Red Lake but before he had met Dewdney –
and here is a drawing from the early 1960s that he created for the Legends of My People The Great Ojibway book –
At the other end of Lake Superior from where Morrisseau grew up is perhaps the most famous pictograph panel in the Canadian Shield – that of Mishipeshu and the serpent at Agawa Rock.
Mishi-ginebig (The Horned Serpent)
Another familiar Morrisseau image is that of the snake, seen underneath the Mishipeshu figure in the Agawa Rock pictograph panel. Sometimes, the snake is depicted with two horns.
A drawing for the book Legends of My People shares some of the look of the 1961 painting on kraft paper.
Animikii – The Thunderbird
If Mishipeshu rules the underworld (the world of water), then Thunderbird rules the sky. Morrisseau would return to Animikii repeatedly over his forty-year painting career. It had a particular resonance for him, and from 1960 onwards, he would sign his works with the Ojibwe syllabic letters for Copper Thunderbird. Here is a painting from 1965 which combines the Thunderbird with the serpent –
Apparently, Morrisseau painted about ten thousand works in his lifetime; it is a good bet that a thousand of them are thunderbirds! On a recent visit to The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to see some Native Canadian artwork, I found out that the gallery doesn’t really exhibit work produced by Canadian First Nations People! The only thing I found was a series of six Morrisseau panels entitled Man Changing into Thunderbird from 1977.
And here is the sixth and last panel from an artist at the height of his creative power:
While his use of colour became much more pronounced as he developed, certain elements can be found in his paintings across the decades.
- The lines of power and communication and inter-relatedness,
- the x-ray view of animals and people,
- the sun and life circle…
these elements are there in the sixties too. Note the claws of the Thunderbird from 1977 and compare them to those on the Thunderbird from the early 1960s.
Here is an even earlier work from the late 1950s that Morrisseau did on birchbark while he lived in the Red Lake area:
And below is a pictograph of undetermined age (maybe 100 years old, maybe 200) from the south end of Cliff Lake on the Pikitigushi River system with an elementary but still effective take on the Thunderbird done in ochre.
When I first paddled by the image, I thought someone had put it there recently, given the strength of the colour. However, Dewdney had made a drawing of it in the early 60s, and it probably goes back to the early 1800s. The formulation of the “paint” – the onaman – must have been just right for its enduring vibrancy.
Here is one last Thunderbird image – it is entitled Shaman Rider and dates from 1972. Like much of Morrisseau’s early work, it was done on kraft paper.
Mikinak (The Turtle) and Amik (the Beaver)
Some other drawings found in Legends of My People The Great Ojibway can be seen below –
In Anishinaabe mythology, The Turtle is the interpreter of the manitous (the spirits of all beings and things); the shaman would enter the specially-constructed tent and commune with the spirits. Mikinak and the tent would also be recurring themes in Morrisseau’s work over the years. Here is an example from the end of the 1960s –
The word “totem” is of Ojibwe origin (see “dodaem” and many other spellings!) and refers to the animal associated with each of the various clans that make up the community. Above we see the beaver, one such totem, and the wigwams representing those who belong to the Beaver Clan.
In Legends of My People, Morrisseau recounts the story of Nanabush killing the Giant Beaver and releasing the dam it had constructed at the outlet of Lake Superior. Amik’s blood – see below – became the onaman to create the pictographs of the Ojibwe world.
More On Morrisseau’s Life and Art
Of the books which examine and show examples of Morrisseau’s work, I found the 1979 The Art of Norval Morrisseau to be the best introduction to his life and work. it has an introduction by Lister Sinclair, a long “personal note” by Jack Pollock, an informative personal essay by Morrisseau himself, and some excellent background on Morrisseau’s “image bank” and style that help to draw more meaning out of the many works included.
Looking for information on Morrisseau’s life and times led me to a couple of very readable and informative books, one an e-book available at the Amazon website and the other a Toronto Public Library holding. The e-book, whose front cover is to the right, is an adaptation of a print book written by Christine Penner Polle and published in 2008, draws on many sources – print material and personal reminiscences – to flesh out the story of Morrisseau from birth to the 1970s. It is a $10. instant Kindle download and is available here. I found it an informative read.
The other book (front cover to the left) is a darker examination of Norval’s life and work; it focuses especially on the period up to the mid-1970s. The writer James Stevens, who had actually contracted with Morrisseau to write his biography, uncovers it all – the drunkenness, the family abandonment, the sexual escapades – I’ve already used the word “depressing” to describe how it reads.
Morrisseau Embraces Eckankar
It should be noted that in the mid-1970s Morrisseau embraced the teachings of the new (created in 1965) movement of Eckankar and subsequently seems to have reinterpreted his life and Anishinaabe/Christian background using this new religious paradigm.
It is visible in the very first Morrisseau painting used in this post – The Storyteller: The Artist and His Grandfather. In this painting from the late 1970s, Potan is depicted in the left panel and Norval in the right one. Above the young Morrisseau in the circle of life are the letters “HU”, a sacred sound in Eckankar much like AUM in Hinduism.
In early July of 2014, I googled my way to a perceptive and well-written piece that makes extensive use of the Morrisseau-Dewdney letter correspondence from the early 1960s to flesh out the relationship between the two. It may be the most insightful piece on Morrisseau that I’ve read. Perhaps reading all the other stuff first gave me the background to understand the argument it presents. Entitled Norval Morrisseau: Artist As Shaman, it is by Barry Ace, who is Chief Curator in the Indian Arts Center at the Department of Indian and Northern Development. He also met Morrisseau on several occasions, the first being in 1995 in Ottawa. [Note: link to the article is dead as of 2022.]
Morrisseau died in Toronto in December of 2007 after a decade’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
- This summary of his life from the Ottawa Citizen seems to be a fair look at the man.
- This CBC news item from 2006 on the occasion of the opening of a major retrospective of his work at the National Gallery in Ottawa shows some of his later work from his prime.
He is buried next to his wife at the Sandy Lake First Nations Reserve to the north of Red Lake, Ontario. (See here for the Google map.)
Selwyn Dewdney died in 1979 in London, Ontario after having spent more time recording and documenting pictograph sites across Canada. In the 1970’s he also did major work on the birchbark scrolls associated with the Midewiwin, the Anishinaabe society of shamans. His book The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway was published in 1975. After his death, his son Keewatin edited what was essentially Dewdney’s memoirs and the result was the very readable Daylight in the Swamp (1997). Since Dewdney’s own father had been the Anglican Bishop of Keewatin District from the 1920s, Selwyn had accompanied his father throughout the north as a young man.
He did, however, embrace a teaching career focusing on the visual arts as opposed to following his father Alfred’s religious calling. It was this background that helped make him the ideal person not only to work on the “rock paintings” but also to bring Norval Morrisseau to our attention.
Dewdney certainly provided me with the motivation not only to spend more time delving into the incredible artistic legacy of Copper Thunderbird but also to paddle the rivers and lakes of the Canadian Shield to visit the sites he had recorded from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Our visits to the Pikitigushi River system’s Cliff Lake and to Mazinaw Lake in Bon Echo Provincial Park were just two of the many on which he served as our guide.
What Prompted Me To Write This Post
Something not disclosed to the reader has meant that parts of my post may seem a bit picky and obtuse. This is especially true of the section about how many pictograph sites Morrisseau actually visited.
See here for the link to an online article on Norval Morrisseau. It deals briefly with his relationship with Dewdney. Supposedly written by an Ojibwe elder, it shows none of the wisdom and concern for truth one might associate with such a person. My emails to the site went unanswered. It annoyed me enough that I just had to refute some of its many false statements and twisted views.
Update: March 2022. I revisited the site today and noticed that that the false portrayal of the Dewdney-Morrisseau relationship is still there. The entire piece is a rather twisted account which presents Morrisseau as some sort of Anishinaabe saint and shaman. It manages to say nothing positive about any of the non-indigenous people who helped Morrisseau in his quest to put Ojibwe on canvas.
- By either not mentioning them at all or
- by misrepresenting the actual facts of their relationship with him.
While this may suit the author’s purpose, this is surely not what the phrase “truth and reconciliation” refers to.
Where In The World Is Norval Morrisseau?
An upcoming post will focus on the question of where in Ontario one can go to see Norval Morrisseau’s work. Already mentioned was my disappointing visit to The Art Gallery of Ontario. I left there thinking – “They’ve got room in the basement for a collection of model ships, but they can’t find any space for Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray and other more contemporary First Nations artists? Yes, I know – they’ve got some Inuit stuff and that is as it should be but there’s way more to show!” Read this if you want more background on the AGO and its treatment of indigenous art over the years.
Maybe you can find Morrisseau here in Kent Monkman’s massive and stunning 2007 work titled The Academy which I’ll admit I found in a room at the AGO –
Update – July 28, 2014. Well, who would have guessed! Just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario a few days ago is the Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes exhibit. Its previous stop was the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC where it had a ten-month run from August of 2013 to June of this year. It will be at the AGO until November 25 and there is a free showing on July 30 from 6:30 to 8:30.