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The Iconology, Manitou(s) and Metaphors of Josh Kakegamic

By Leah Fontaine

The following is inspired by an art collection of 169 art pieces by Josh and Goyce Kakegamic that was donated to the School of Art, located at the University of Manitoba, by Dr. Jerry Litman. The focus of these interpretations is First Nations metaphorical meanings in artistic visual representations. My own First Nation heritage and perspective is valuable. I looked upon these canvases with an understanding most would not have, that is, cultural familiarity enables me to gain further invaluable insight about First Nations people, our ontology, and world view. It also enables Indigenous peoples to exercise and transmit our own knowledge and heritage as we see fit, as a result providing Euro-Canadians further insights about Indigenous cultures.

Josh Kakegamic

Josh Kakegamic, deceased, resided in Sandy Lake that is located in Northwestern, Ontario. Here the blending of Ojibwa and Cree heritage took place to create a unique community. Sandy Lake is recognized as the birthplace of the ‘School of Woodland Art’. The culture of Sandy Lake provided many artists the subject matter needed for their artistic executions. Many cultural identifiers embodied by the Litman collection have symbolism and metaphors that are similar to other Indigenous nations, meaning that cultural symbols and icons alter nation to nation. Images, symbols and stories are often used in ceremonies to dramatize a specific point of view, based upon layers of symbolic metaphorical meaning, visually and spiritually.


Sacred writings from the past have evolved due to the threat of cultural disintegration under the weight of Euro-Canadians' encroachment of civilization. In present day components of the Iconology have been stylized to fit the need of contemporary Indigenous art practices. For example, basic ovals can be seen on a Turtle’s back while radiating wavy lines are considered energy. A line with dots in combination with wavy lines represents a Medicine Lodge, and a dot with a surrounding circle signifies a spirit. Anatomically artists choose to represent bones, tendons and nerves as stylized or decorative markings. Narratives provided the subject matter by conveying an important moral of the overall story. It should be noted that colours could change from First Nation to First Nation. For example, the four direction colours of some Indigenous cultures consider the east red, south black, west red, and north white, while in some geographical areas of the Ojibwa people, the south direction colour is blue. Colours are very personal and not every individual or nation has set standards. Colours were usually extracted from the element of nature, be it animal, vegetation or its geology. For example, Ochre was often used and depending upon the environmental conditions colours varied. Dyes were often grown from vegetation, and in the case of the colour yellow, it was developed from a bison’s bladder.

The Midewiwin Society

Throughout the past, many artists of the Plains have used stories, history and symbolic images from the Ojibwa spirituality and world view. The major contributor to the ontology of the Ojibwa was a spiritualism known as the Midewiwin Society, also recognized as either the Mide or the Grand Medicine Society. Sacred writings were etched upon other sacred items such as copper, slate and birch bark. Birch bark scrolls, used in the past, taught Ojibwa traditional teachings such as the origins of the Midewiwin, the Eight Degrees of the Mide Society representing the Four Degrees of Earth and the Four Degrees of Sky. The most popular birch bark sacred writings are called the Order of Songs. Secretly, these sacred writings were usually translated and discussed among the shamans and the medicine people in the Midewiwin Lodge. Sacred icons were also conceptualized in pictographs or petroforms founded in locations where the sky, earth, water, the underground and the underwater meet. This is where the Manitou(s) reside. In Whiteshell, Manitoba, there is a location known as Manitou-abi that translates to ‘where the Creator sits’.

Seashells: Migis Shells

The Migis Shells are small tokens of white seashells that are located on the southeast coast of the United States. The Anicinaabe and the Odawa travelled great distances to obtain these sacred items. The back of the Migis Shell was highly revered because of the quality of a glossy back that it attains. The posterior shell omits the reflections of the rays of the sun that provides warmth and light. The line radiating from the sun to the subject matter in visual representation is the connection of energy that is taking place with either a Manitou and the cosmos.

Visual Organization

The following pieces of artwork by Josh Kakegamic will be categorized and arranged in the order of seven. The seven orders consist of seven points of location of the Axis Mundi. As mentioned, the following analysis of colours, narratives, animals and Manitou(s) will vary. For the purposes of this collection and due to some limitation founded in the visual representations, the cultural metaphors will be altered into the visual world view of Josh Kakegamic.

The East Direction: The Rising of the Sun
Colour: Yellow
Animal: Turtle

The Turtle, Mikinauk, Giver of Life

Turtle’s name in the language of the Ojibwa is Mikinauk and Mikinauk holds a very respected position in the spiritualism of the Anicinaabe. The colour green represents the connection to the earth mother. Mikinauk is the spirit helper, the communicator between two worlds, that is, the natural and the supernatural: Mikinauk is the spirit helper and Manitou, in the Shaking Tent ceremony. In narrative, Mikinauk lends his back to assist in the Ojibwa recreation of the world. Also, Mikinauk has 13 ovals upon his shell back which represent the 13 lunar moon cycles that occur in each year.

The South Direction: The Coming of Warm Weather
Colour: Black/Blue
Animal: Eagle

Kineau (Black Headed Eagle)
Migizi (White Headed Eagle)
Kineau is recognized as having noble attributes of courage and foresight. Kineau position in a Medicine Wheel is in the North Direction. A Medicine Wheel is a mirror on which everything is reflected. In the Ojibwa belief system nature plays an integral role. Animals and birds in the Medicine Wheel reflect human attributes. To be given an Eagle feather is one of the greatest honours to receive, because it recognizes achievement and great acts or deeds.

The West Direction: The Coming of Heavy Winds and Setting of The Sun
Colour: Red
Animal: Bear, Mukkwa

The Bear, Mukkwa

In the Midewiwin Society, Mukkwa guards the third door of the Midewiwin Lodge. In the Midewiwin origins, Mukkwa offers his back to unload the Midewiwin to the Anicinaabe through the four walls of earth. Mukkwa is considered to have powerful characteristics that represent strength and courage.

The North Direction: The Cold Wind that turns everything white with Snow and Ice.
Colour: White
Animal: Myeegun

Myeegun, Wolf

Nanbouzhou, a trickster, who is two spirited -- half human and half spirit -- is known for his antics and mischievous deeds in the narratives of Ojibwa ontology. One such narrative involves Nanabouzhou adopting Myeegun, a wolf brother, due to lack of companionship. Both, Myeegun and Nanabouzhou have many adventures together tricking one another. Both have the power of transformation and can transform into any animal or human form, although with limitations; and they can only be what they transform into, nothing more. Wolves are also recognized for their perseverance, guardianship, and strength. Wolves are renowned in their devotion to only one mate, representing high reverence for fidelity.

Those Above
Animal: Thunderbird, Pinisiwuk

Thunderbird (Pinisiwuk)

Thunderbird is considered the most powerful Manitou. They migrate with the birds that appear in spring and disappear in the fall. They are in charge of the second Degree of the Midewiwin Lodge, as well as the Shaking Tent ceremony. They assist the Anicinaabe by driving away the ominous earth and water Manitou(s). Thunderbirds and the Sea Serpents of the lake are adversaries. In fact, Thunderbirds feed upon the great Sea Serpent of the lakes. Visually, connecting lines from Thunderbird feathers usually run from the wings, illustrating the knowledge and power given from above, to those below representing the connection from sky to earth.

Those Below
Fish Spirits/Merman/Mermaid

In the Ojibwa narrative, there exist a variety of fish spirits of only two types, the first being Mishibizhii, the Underwater Panthers, and the other being Missipkinepi, the Sea Serpent who provides Knowledge of Medicinal herbs. Underwater Manitou(s) were not always considered dangerous. They have powers that assist other water beings as well. Other metaphorical interpretations of fish include the Merman/Mermaid which symbolizes temptation. As well, there is Whitefish that represents abundance, fertility, and beauty, and Catfish, that involves breath and scope.

The Centre, Josh Kakegamic

The artwork of Josh Kakegamic has significantly contributed to the preservation and recovery of Indigenous heritage. Josh Kakegamic has exhibited a sense of ownership and self-respect for the Indigenous community with his unique art oeuvre. Analyzing or interpreting Indigenous art with no knowledge about the Indigenous culture creates historical distortion. When cultural content is obscured it also affects the visual metaphors behind the Indigenous artistic expressions. Indigenous people have struggled to preserve the cultural integrity. Indigenous knowledge provides the strength needed towards the long journey in life. Through art, Josh Kakegamic, has contributed to the preservation of cultural and spiritual recovery. Kakegamic has created Indigenous images that serve as the magical lens of which Indigenous people are. Both Goyce and Josh Kakegamic have visually contributed concrete forms of our belief systems that link the ancients of the past into the contemporary world view of Indigenous people.

The Goyce and Joshim Kakegamic CD-ROM includes an essay and images: $20.00 plus shipping = $25.00 payable to Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp