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The 'Shaman' Theme Expresses the Old Power

Click on the images below to see a larger copy

Shaman's Ride Large acrylic on canvas. Used on web page advertising Morrisseau show at Maslak-McLeod Santa Fe gallery. The small figure of the shaman -- or anyway some person who is being given a spirit-ride -- sits at ease on the back of a large, powerful, strange bird, with a rear head that looks like a hippo. A happy, smiling fish, inhabits the gut of the 2-ended bird-beast. Stars sprinkle the dusty rose sky of a glowing special evening, or a very special dawn. The rider and his mount are surrounded by a closed circular line of power, with 3 of the mysterious external spirit-circles -- these are almost certainly Miigiis shells -- holding it together or generating it. That there are only 3 and one of them is outlined brightly may indicate the rider is being initiated to the third degree of Midewewin with this spirit ride. The x-ray anatomy of the powerful bird-beast is meaningful. Surely those organs shown in both their throats are how they sing and speak. The eyed bird-wings show that Morrisseau has been influenced by the art style of the Northwest Coast (he has been living in British Columbia for more thant a decade), but he has not copied their formal style, it has become his own unique expression. A powerful and happy picture. Perhaps there might be danger in such a ride, but it seems so peaceful and beautiful no one would hesitate to mount the strange creature and travel that soft pink starry sky.

Under the Shaman's Drum Large acrylic on canvas. Used as a menu logo by access provider for Lattimer Gallery, Vancouver, not found in the gallery itself, accidentally discovered again -- I saw it a year and a half ago, but could not find it again (nor forget it) -- when I exited her gallery after bookmarking the three posters, shown on previous pages here. This is not really anything to do with a "shaman's drum" whatever that is (something Nuagers buy).

This is mitigwakik, a Midèwinini's water drum, sometimes called the Little Boy Water Drum. It is made from a hollowed log, and what is "under" it is first, a few inches of water, then wood that was not cleared out at the bottom of the drum, then the earth it rests on as it is played in a Midè ceremony. The sound of this drum is a very soft thunder -- nothing like the large dance drum or the small hoop drum. Yet that soft sound carries for miles, even on a windy night. That soft, powerful sound carries our songs and prayers up from under the drum -- from the earth, from the water inside it, through the air, and through the sky-above-the-sky.

You can see that happening. A big bird -- maybe even an animikii, a thunderbird, is rising. His wing and tail feathers are gaily dotted with innocent prayers for good, for healing. Inside, x-ray anatomy shows us the people at the Midè ceremony -- two of them in profile in his right shoulder (at the left of the painting), and a Midè person in profile in his left shoulder, at the right of the painting, perhaps the Midèwinini whose drum it is. Near the bottom of his body is an animal -- perhaps a beaver, by a little rectangle of water (which was inside the drum from which the Bird rises) -- a bird's head, and several circles of power (perhaps Miigiis the sacred white cowrie shells of Midèwiwin seen from above) -- and maybe a rattle. These all form the spirit-guts of the drum-sound rising bird's body. Behind this powerful messenger, we see he is rising from the water through the air and into the sky-above-sky. Three layers are clearly shown. Again -- as in the picture called "Shaman's Ride" above, and on the previousoly-shown poster of Turtle and the water animals -- there is the suggestion of only the third degree, not the fourth, of Midèwiwin.

In the 40 years since Morrisseau began to paint his visions, educated by the traditional teachings of his grandfather, who was both a high-degree Midèwinini and a shaking-tent Jissaakaan, despite opposition from some tribespeople to his visionary renderings, he has received fame and fortune for his paintings. He has played to this international gallery-going, buying public, sometimes, with paintings like the decorative, romantic, powerless ones on Gallery Pages 2 and Page 3 here. Most of the fortune is given away or lost. In his early years, at least, Morriseau gave or gave-to-be-sold paintings to raise money for people on the reserve, school, food distributions in the great poverty which prevailed. I have seen early ones in northern Minnesota reservation houses, in the poor areas where there was no electricity, out in the woods. He had given it to the people living there. Despite the wealth and fame his art has brought, he has lived a life of going on the road, on the streets, and has suffered greatly from the poison of the jamokomaan's most effective anti-Indian weapon: alcohol.

It is interesting that thebiography from the McMichael Gallery when it was running on thir backup server, during a long period when their service was down said (apparently in an earlier version) that Morrisseau is "notorious for his legendary excesses". That has become a more sedate, and less honest, description, in the newer version linked-to here. [Apparently no longer online.]

I've heard he has been quite ill in Vancouver. I have no drum, but I will smoke and pray for him tomorrow. These two paintings here show that he can still touch the old powers with his paints, and the resulting paintings can still touch us with awe, reverence, delight, and a wordless understanding of important things that cannot be well expressed in our present-day words -- perhaps not in any words.


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Last Updated: Wednesday, August 21, 1996 - 6:11:06 AM