Tribute and Photos by Danny Beaton
He painted human beings in their journey as a colourful family united with creation and the Spirit World with all the powers of the life forces. Morrisseau brought Native American culture, our way of life back in all its purity, onto paper and canvas in a way sacred art could be given life with Mother Earth and her children with the hands of it’s Ojibwa son, a Shaman, Copper Thunderbird.
Canada has lost its own son of Woodland native art, the chief and spirit of North American Native art is Norval Morrisseau. Master, legend and voice of colour, shape, image, even sound came from Norval Morrisseau’s work of cultural respect for the natural world and spirit world. An Ojibway from Ontario’s own Woodland, Norval experienced the devastation of his culture first hand, the dominating forces that had eradicated a big part of Ojibway ceremonial life. This generation of native peoples have experienced the culture shock especially for the past fifty years, because of this scenario, spirit brought an intense struggle back to the people in order to survive the phenomena of culture shock and environmental degradation. No one knew better of resources being extracted from Northern Ontario’s forests, hills, rivers, streams, even animals, fish, birds and human beings. Norval was a communicator for the natural world and spirit world, he was a messenger for Native ancestors, he carried his peoples intense pain and intense joy in a way that was unique. Norval painted our culture and world with awe, splendor, grace, power and beauty. He put the mystery of creation on canvass for the world to experience with their own eyes, he brought us the spirit of the bear in ways only a child, boy, man and elder sees with their inner world and maturity. That inner world of creativity, vision, hope, reality, wisdom, compassion, respect and understanding which only great leaders, teachers, healers and shamans possess.
Over the years, legends have developed around Mr. Morrisseau. According to one story, he became perilously ill at the age of 19. A visit to the doctor did nothing and a Medicine woman was summoned. A renaming ceremony was performed (Anishanaabe tradition holds that a giving powerful name to someone near death can rally strength and save a life). He was renamed Copper Thunderbird, and recovered. Later, he would use it to sign his paintings.
Master of Woodland Native American art has died leaving a legacy no other artist has left since Pablo Picasso. His ability to bring spirit to canvass obliterated art dealers around the world. His way of orchestrating flowers, birds, animals, fish, insects and reptiles with thin and thick black lines was pioneered by Norval and his Ancestors. His style is unsurpassed and his life if studied was a journey through colonization in which he witnessed corruption, intense pain, sorrow, loss, greed, lies and the degradation of our Sacred Mother Earth. Norval countered the obvious of his people and home land with a pencil and paintbrush. His art reflected his country and people in their magnificence, he demonstrated a world of healing with nature, and healing with the spirit world, and life of his people, his people being the Ojibway, Algonquin, Huron, Cree, even Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga and Hopi. Norvals work captured the life not only his own tribe but native American spirituality with the natural world. He brought life to the spirit world which Picasso could not match.
The genius of Morrisseau was displayed in the stories told by his paintings of Thunder Birds, the Sacred leader of the Winged ones, the Eagle, the Protector of the Ojibway Nation, the Bear, etc. etc., Morrisseau used colour in a way that brought life, awe, mystery and majesticity to our eyes and mind. Norval painted beauty and harmony within the one-ness of Native Culture and Mother Earth.
Norval witnessed the rivers, lakes and bush of Thunder Bay Ontario Canada long enough to be influenced for life to move through his veins, psyche, spirit, mind and completeness. He maintained his duty as a messenger, runner and worker for Native America for seventy years. Because Native American culture is based on ceremony Norval was also a historian in the way he captured our world, he also inspired a world of Native artists now many who are successful thanks to the work he layed down for others to learn from. One of Norval’s greatest achievements was to quit alcohol for many years. He had suffered alcoholism for many years as many of our people had. He was an example of purification and change. He struggled to be clean which we should honour him for.
America has a legend, Native people have a true artist, a Human Being, an artist of the Ojibwa Nation who will never and should never be forgotten, we should burn tobacco for his spirit as his love for his people and culture has influenced non-native people for ever of Native Spirituality and power with creation. Norval has helped bring respect to Indian people. Norval painted unity with the environment, Mother Earth, Human Beings and all the Earths creatures. He painted honour, strength and respect to Mother Earth, with all her creation.
On behalf of all Native Peoples, Elders, Chiefs, Clan Mothers, Medicine people, singers, healers and artists we say, “See you in the spirit world brother”. We ask the spirit helpers to take away your pain, we ask the four protectors to protect you on your Sacred Journey, we ask our great Creator to have pity on us.
Norval Morrisseau Speaks Out
I’ve been looking for books all my life – books about American Indians. Anything that I could find that was civil and worthwhile besides what my Grandfather was telling me about the Iroquois and others. There isn’t very much written about Natives in the art and history books we read today. The only thing that was written was about the Iroquois slaughtering the Jesuits somewhere and Sitting Bull and his followers being chased out of Canada. I guess I was increasingly seeking the art form and culture I was being taught, but there was none out there. My Grandfather told me once that nobody, no matter how hard they tried, could remember all of the legends, otherwise, the whole of North Western Ontario would be covered in Pictographs.
I started to do some painting. I guess I saw some art literature from Arizona or the South West somewhere, but I was hungry to learn more. I wanted to paint my house and paint the walls in traditional pictographs like the ones I saw from the rock paintings and birch bark 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 was my destiny. I would like to say that I am an artist so that I can beautify the world and battle the conditioned consciousness with the same tools used to condition it. My culture is my world.
Thank you for listening.
All my relations.