Mishi-bizhiw, the water panther, pictograph from Agawa Bay, Ontario.Creation of the Universe

Before the Creator, Gichi Manido, there was a great void in the Universe with nothing to fill the emptiness but a sound like that of a shaker. Gichi Manido was the first thought and his thoughts were sent out in every direction and went on forever, as there was nothing to bounce them back.  Gichi Manido first created Giizis, the sun, so that he could see. Then he tried other objects such as the Morning Star which tells us each day of the approach of the sun. Gichi Manido then tried creating a place for life. Earth was arranged so that the Sun and Moon would alternate in the sky to keep watch over all of creation.



First Man

Naanaboozhoo pictograph from Mazinaw Rock, Ontario

In Ojibwe tradition the Earth is a woman named Aki and she has a Grandmother Dibiki-giizis, the moon, and Grandfather Giizis, the sun. Since the Earth is a woman, the Anishinaabe believe that woman preceded man. Gichi Manido first sent birds to the Earth carrying seeds in all four directions, spreading life across Earth. Then the Creator placed the swimming creatures in the water and gave life to the plants and animals. All of life lived in harmony. Finally Gichi Manido took all four parts of Earth and blew into them using a sacred shell, uniting the Four Sacred Elements and creating man. From this original man came the Anishinaabe people and all tribes.


Moose pictograph from Agawa Bay in Ontario

Migration East

One day after Man gave name to all of life, the waters, and the hills, he began to ask questions of the Creator as he didn’t understand the miracles he saw in the world. Gichi Manido then told Man of his Nookomis (grandmother) who lived in the East. Man began to search for Nookomis and eventually came across a large body of water that he could not cross. The animals instructed him on various ways to cross including flying and swimming, but Man was not made to do this. Eventually he saw beavers working on a dam and came up with the idea of floating across the water on a log...Remembering the beaver Man created a paddle shaped like the foot and tail of a beaver...Man rested and soon set out again, this time arriving across the water and at Nookomis’s lodge.


The Fire Keeper

One day Nookomis told Man about fire and sent him on a journey to find the man who guarded it and obtain some from him so that they could live a better life. Man set out on his journey and again came to an expanse of water. Knowing how to make a canoe he did so and paddled across the water. Next, he came to a rocky barren place which he carefully crossed. Man then came to a land of flat plains where the wind never stopped blowing; after crossing which he came to a place where there once was a lake but all that was left was a sticky black substance that looked like pitch...At last he came to the Firekeepers lodge, where the Firekeeper and his daughter lived. The Firekeeper explained that while fire was a special gift from the Creator which would care for you and give one warmth, it also had evil which could destroy all of creation if neglected or misused. Man put the fire in a small hollowed-out stone and carefully carried it back to Nokomis so he would not drop the fire and start the world ablaze or put the fire out.


Male figure pictograph North Hegman Lake, Minnesota

Snake pictograph,  Agawa Bay, Ontario

First People

Man was given the name Anishinaabe from Nookomis before he left in search of his other family members: his mother, father, and twin brother. His descendants today still carry his name. Anishinaabe, the original man, sensed his father lived in the west and began to travel in this direction using the Sun to guide him. One night, Anishinaabe woke up to a song from the East, and was called to search for the origin of the song. Man made a canoe out of the bark of a birch tree and began to travel East. Anishinaabe arrived at the eastern shore of a lake where he saw a wigwam made of saplings. Here he saw the Firekeepers daughter again. Anishinaabe and the Firekeepers daughter formed a union between man and woman. From this union came four sons. When they grew up they were sent to out to one of the Four directions. They explored these directions and from them came the first four tribes.

The Doorkeepers

  • The first son, Giwaydin, went north and met the Doorkeeper of the North and his daughter. The Doorkeeper told Giwaydin, "You are entering a land where Mother Earth is purified every year by deep snows. Even the big lakes and rivers in this land become frozen in Mother Earth's cycle. This is the home of the Bear Power. The Power is the guardian of man secrets of how man diseases can be cured. There will be times when colored lights will come to the Northern sky. They are called Wawasayg. They come out to dance when the Bear Power is in its highest strength." The Doorkeeper then told Giwaydin about Sweetgrass which was the first plant to grow on Earth and that the smoke of Sweetgrass will keep evil away. Giwaydin continued North.
  • The second son named Wabun went eastward and came across the Doorkeeper of the East and his daughter. The Doorkeeper or the East said that he was the source or all knowledge and taught Wabun about Tobacco. Tobacco in Anishinaabe tradition carries one's thoughts into the Spirit World. Tobacco is used to speak to Gitchie Manito. Wabun continued East and came across a large body of salt water, the ocean. There he would greet the sun every morning as it rose above the water and told wabun of the harmony of creation and taught him that the knowledge and wisdom of Earth is endless.
  • The third son, Zhawan, traveled South and came to a warm land with mild winds. The forests in the South were thick with trees and vines and the rivers were crooked and wound in loops. He eventually met the Doorkeeper of the South and his daughter. The doorkeeper of the South explained the South is the land of birth and growth. Birds from the North go to the South in the winter and when the winter is over they return home and carry with them seeds of life and replenish life in each of the four directions. The Doorkeeper then told Zhawan of cedar which is used to purify the body from disease and protect from evil. Zhawan then continued his journey southward.
  • The last son, Ningabeun, went west. After traveling a ways he found his path was blocked by large mountains. He crossed the mountains and came upon a land with no water where the days were hot and the nights were cold. Ningabeun was amazed the animals and plants were able to live here. He left this land to find more forests and mountains. Here he came to a place where the Doorkeeper of the West and his daughter waited. The Doorkeeper told Ningabeun about sage which is used to purify the body and its surroundings as well as keep a person in good health. He also explained that the West is the place of the setting sun and beyond here is the place where spirits live. The Doorkeeper advised Ningabeun not to fear the spirits nor cross their path, but rather to appreciate life. Ningabeun continued west and also came to an ocean.


Stalks of sweetgrass


Bundle of sageBundles of cedarTobacco leaves


The World on a Turtle's Back

Harmony on Earth did not last forever, families began to quarrel and villages to argue. People began to fight over hunting grounds and brother turned against brother. This greatly saddened Gitchie Manito as it seemed all of creation was in harmony except for the people. The Creator decided to purify the Earth with water. The flood came so fast that all life was caught off guard and most living things drowned, but some animals were able to keep swimming and the birds caught in the air had to continue to fly to stay on Earth. All the evil that had built up had been washed away. Nanabozaho, possibly the original Man or his spirit, survived the flood by floating along on a log. Many animals joined him by coming to rest on the log before returning to swimming. letting yet another animal rest. Nanabozaho then came up with an idea to grab a handful of Earth to create a new land, but the water was too deep for Nanabozaho to reach the bottom. Many animals tried and failed until lastly the muskrat offered to help. The muskrat dove down and grabbed some Earth, but died on his way back up as he went too long without air. sacrificing his life. Nanabozaho then placed the Earth on the back of a turtle and with the help of winds from all four directions the Earth grew until it formed an island in the water sitting upon the Turtle's back.

The Seven Grandfathers

The second people of the Earth grew and their villages began to spread across the land. But diseases took many of their lives, and while Nanaboozhoo tried to help, more was needed. The Seven Grandfathers were given the responsibility to watch over the Earth's people, and recognized that life was not good. So they sent a helper to walk among the people and bring back to the Grandfathers a person who could be taught how to live in harmony. This was done seven times and the helper failed each time until his seventh journey when he took a young baby boy as he was innocent and untouched by corruption and pain. Since the baby was so young. the helper was instructed to show him all of Creation. When the boy was seven they returned to the Seven Grandfathers. The First Grandfather pointed to an awkik covered with a cloth made of four colors standing for the Four Directions. He explained that Red stood for the South, Black the West, White the North, and Yellow the East. The boy was then instructed to look inside the awkik. In the vessel the boy saw peace, and all of the past and future. Each Grandfather then gave a gift to the boy from the awkik. Then the boy was sent with an otter to return to his people. Seven times they stopped on this journey. each time the boy was visited by a spirit who told the boy the meaning of the gifts.

Today, the gifts given to the boy are known as the Seven Grandfather Teachings.

These are:

  1. To cherish knowledge is to know wisdom.

  2. To know love is to know peace.

  3. To honor all of the Creation is to have respect.

  4. Bravery is to face the foe with integrity.

  5. Honesty in facing a situation is to be brave.

  6. Humility is to know yourself as a sacred part of the Creation

  7. Truth is to know all of these things.

For each of these gifts there was an opposite and the boy needed to be careful to instruct the people in the right way to use the gift.

Round "Circle of Life" painting

The Clan System

Gitchie Manito, remembering how Earth's people had suffered in the past, decided that the Earth's second people needed a system to give them strength and order. This is the Odoidaymiwan or Clan System. Today there are many clans, but traditionally there were seven original clans. They were Ahjijawk or Crane, Mahng or Loon, Gigoon or Fish, Mukwa or Bear. Wawasheshshe or Deer, Benays or Bird, and Waabizheshi or Martin. There was no intermarriage between each clan so that the second people would be kept pure and strong.

Painting of three people sitting in a circle wearing blankets
Painting by Gordon Coons (Ojibwe/Odawa/Minnesota)

The Council of the Three Fires

The three groups that began to emerge from the Anishinaabeg during the Great Migration each took on necessary tasks for the survival of the people. The Ishkodaywatomi, today known as the Potawatomi, were in charge of safekeeping the sacred fire. In the council they are the youngest of the three brothers and are known as the keepers of the fire. The Odawwahg, or Odawa, were responsible for providing food and supplies. They are the middle brother and known as the keepers of the trade. The Ojibwe are the eldest brother and are known as the keepers of faith. During the migration they were entrusted with keeping safe the sacred scrolls and the Water drum.. It is estimated that the Council of the Three Fires formed in approximately 796 AD. This date was figured out by Potawatomi elder Shup-Shewana using Midewiwin scrolls.

The Great Migration

After the Seven Prophets told of the Seven Fires, the Anishinaabe met to discuss migration. Many people wanted to stay in the East while others were ready to migrate westward. One group pledged to remain at the eastern doorway to care for the eastern fire of the people. These people were known as the Wabunukeeg and it is speculated that these were the people who today live on the east coast of Canada and are known as the Abnaki. The migration of the Anishinaabe was not simply one trip that encompassed a few years. It was a multi-generational journey which took an estimated 500 years to complete (ca. 900AD–1400 AD). Where one tradition states a definite route, there were probably several different routes across the Great Lakes.

Map of the Northeastern U.S. with arrows showing the path of migration.

The first of the turtle islands discussed in the First Fire was found in the St. Lawrence River, possibly northeast of Montreal where the St. Francis runs into the St. Lawrence. Others have pointed to an island where the Ottawa River joins the St. Lawrence at Montreal, but this river flows to the East. At this point, there are different beliefs as to how the migration took place. The second major stopping place was Animikee wabu or the place of the Thunder Water, today it is known as the Niagara Falls. Next they traveled to a river that was a "deep and fast ribbon of water that slices through the land like a knife" this is believed to be the shores of the Detroit River which connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron. At this time three groups emerged. They continued until they reached a large body of fresh water believed to be on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. From here, many other groups broke off to look for a place to cross the Water. Some traveled South in an attempt to go around the lake, others stayed and eventually retraced back to the Detroit River. Here they came to the northern sea of freshwater where they came across a series of islands which lead across the water, eventually leading to Manitoulin Island. From Manitoulin, they went to Sault Ste. Marie and split into two groups. One group followed the shore on the south side westward while the others followed the shore on the north side. Eventually both groups came to Spirit Island where they found wild rice. The final stop was in Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

Diagram of Medewin scroll
  1. Sacred Portage (Jay Cooke State Park)
  2. Onigamiinsing (Duluth)
  3. Anishinaabewi-gichigami (Lake Superior)
  4. Miinoong (Isle Royale)
  5. Baawiting (Sault Ste. Marie)
  6. Odaawaa-minis (Manitoulin Island)
  7. Mooniyaang (Lachine/Montreal)
  8. Eastern Seabord
  9. Zhiiwitaagani-gichigami (Atlantic Ocean)
  10. Gichigami-ziimi (Saint Lawrence River)
  11. Gichi-nibiinsing-zaaga'igan (Lake Nippising)
  12. Waaseyaagami-wiikwed (Georgian Bay)
  13. Ne-namegosikaaning (Whitefish Point)
  14. Gakiwe-onigamiing (Keweenaw Peninsula)
  15. Mooningwanekaaning-minis (Madeline Island)
  16. Gegaawekamigaang (Bayfield Peninsula)
  17. Gete-oodenaang (Fond Du Lac)
  18. Misi-ziibi (Mississippi River)
  19. Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag-zaaga'igan (Big Sandy Lake)
  20. Ozagaskwaajimekaag-zaaga'igan (Leech Lake)

In 1966, Eshkwaykeeshik (James Red Sky, Sr.) sold seven Medewin scrolls to the Glenbow/Alberta Institute. He was the last in a long line of Orthodox Mide shamans in Shoal Lake, Ontario (along the border with Manitoba). His interpretations and drawings of these scrolls were later published in the book. "The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway." b Selwyn Dewdney. This is a redrawing of one of the scrolls that shows the migration of the Anishinaabe from the eastern seaboard to the Lake Superior region.


Text on this page taken from “The Mishomis Book,” Edward Benton-Banai