Connectivity, Art History

Gagizhibaajiwan, or Living With Paradox

Lois Taylor Biggs

Apr 30, 2024

Whenever I cross a body of water, I stand by its shore and put down tobacco; the figure in One Who Lives under the Water warns what may happen if I don’t. The 1978 painting by late M’Chigeeng First Nation artist Blake Debassige features two massive horned feline figures pulling canoes full of rowers down to a watery death. In Anishinaabemowin, these beings are known as Mishipeshu, Mishibizhiw, or Misshepezhieu (underwater panthers, great lynxes, or lions). They tend to the realms beneath the Great Lakes, portending storms and capable of great destruction.

A paiting of two underwater panthers in brown tones with a boat on a lake in the background.

Blake Debassige (Ojibwa), b. 1956, One Who Lives Under the Water, ca. 1978, acrylic on canvas, collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. Courtesy of ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), Toronto, Canada. ©ROM. With the permission of the estate of Blake Debassige.

Missehepezhieu exists in cosmological opposition to Animikii, the thunderbird, who dwells in the sky and serves the Anishinaabe as a protector and messenger. The tension between Misshepezhieu and Animikii offers Anishinaabe a way of making sense of life’s paradoxes: earth and sky, fear and honor, creation and destruction. Artmaking is one way Anishinaabe people learn to live with paradox and all of its destructive and creative potential, carrying story, knowledge, and memory through the layers of world spanned by Misshepezhieu and Animikii. 

It is said that when the spirit Nanabozho sought revenge on the panther for killing his nephew, he disguised himself as a stump along the Lake Superior shoreline. As he waited for the underwater beings to sunbathe on the beach, “owaabandaan gagizhibaajiwaninig i’iw zaaga’igan—he beheld moving circles upon the water of the lake. Anishinaabe art historians Alan Corbière and Mikinaak Migwans retell this story in their essay “Animikii miinwaa Mishibizhiw: Narrative Images of the Thunderbird and the Underwater Panther,” drawing attention to the key Anishinaabemowin verb: gagizhibaajiwan, the continuous swirling motion of water. Gagizhibaajiwan is a sign of Misshepezhieu just below the surface of the water and carries the potential to sweep the ground from beneath us, demanding our deepest respect and our most measured cunning. 

In Anishinaabe fiber art, weavers evoke gagizhibaajiwan through spirals and sets of rippling circular lines, signaling a cosmological paradox and offering a lesson in living with uncertainty. Anishinaabe imagery often links Misshepezhieu with the spiral and its counterpart, Animikii, with cross and hourglass forms. These beings often appear together in the same artworks, balancing water, earth, and sky through their opposing energies. Corbière and Migwans discuss one Ottawa bag, created in the late 19th century, which features Misshepezhieu on one side and Animikii on the other. The underwater panthers each contain a cross within their bellies; there is a small but unmistakable spiral in the thunderbird’s heart.

Corbière and Migwans write that this formal fusion of the two beings “may represent the Anishinaabe adage that everyone must bear within them something unbearable. The panther bears a mark of the thunderbird’s presence; the thunderbird bears a mark of the panther’s presence. They exist, as the adage suggests, in a state of paradox—a state we all must occupy. 

When we make art that makes room for paradox, we begin to do the work of bearing the unbearable. My Auntie Zoey Wood-Salomon, an Ojibwe-Odawa artist, has painted Misshepezhieu since 1985. My father crossed paths with Zoey before I met her: He set up across from her at the 2009 Critical Issues Conference in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and watched people flock around her booth the whole weekend. On the last day, as vendors packed up, she stopped by to purchase one of his etched and painted bneshiinygamikwag. “I’m going to call you papasan,” she said, “because you chip away at those birdhouses like a woodpecker.” 

It wasn’t long before she started calling him her brother, too. My mother and I met Zoey a few markets later. I spent hours at her booth—leafing through her prints, reading her poems, and watching her create flecked night skies by layering paint onto canvases with plastic wrap. Her painting The Dance of Misshepezhieu was my earliest and most memorable impression of the underwater panther: a print of two Misshepezhieu, a silver male and a copper female, turning toward one another across a vast lake.

A painting of an underwater panther.

Zoey Wood-Salomon (Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory), The Dance of Misshepezhieu, collection of artist.

To Zoey, the story of the panthers is a love story. The male panther adorns himself in silver to capture the attention of the female, who protects Great Lakes copper deposits and loves shiny objects. She comes out after dusk to join her lover and, after a night of dancing, returns home before dawn. “You are my sunset / I am your sunrise / There is no good-bye,” Zoey writes in the male’s voice.

For years I understood the underwater panther as a romantic figure, almost a patron for separated lovers, rather than a being to fear. Zoey painted the male and female Misshepezhieu again and again—dancing in the water, holding each other at a marriage ceremony, swimming on two sides of a stone she found by Lake Superior.

The silver and copper panthers’ dance follows the rhythm of day and night—the swirling motion of day into night and back again, across the water and back again. Today I sense their destructive power, but I do not believe it undermines their affection. Misshepezhieu’s swirling motion, gagizhibaajiwan, is just as much a love song as it is a warning. This is a paradox, not a contradiction—a way to hold a piece of what is unbearable within us. It is not without risk. 

Corbière and Migwans share another story, M’Chigeeng First Nation elder Elizabeth Panamick’s recollection of playing by a creek as a child. The youth and her friends notice the water swirling beneath them, and one of their mothers runs over in fright.  


“Gjib’oweg!” kida. “Wiya Zhiwi yaa,” kiida sa. 

“Run away!” she says. “There’s somebody there,” she says.


The swirling water, Corbière and Migwans write, “is a door to the underworld but also a warning, a symbol” suggesting the panther’s arrival. It suggests depth, but swirling water is not only the space of depth but the churn within it.

Gagizhibaajiwan evokes a presence, a motion, a life that has always existed within our art. What does it mean to be present when we don’t feel the crashing, swirling lake beneath us (or the rumbling sky above us)? Without an elder to warn us, without a lover to swim to, ripples in water hold neither the possibility of destruction or the possibility of creation.

Turning toward gagizhibaajiwan, I can recognize it as a marker of presence with the power to pull me into its depths as it opens me to love, creation, and resurgence. I see this movement in Debassige’s One Who Lives under the Water and in Zoey’s paintings of Misshepezhieu, which evoke the underwater panther’s paradoxical wisdom in all its destructive and creative potential. 

How do we ensure safe passage as we navigate gagizhibaajiwan, as we learn to bear what is unbearable? How do we honor paradox?

We put down tobacco before crossing the water. 

1

Alan Corbière and Mikinaak Migwans, “Animikii miinwaa Mishibizhiw: Narrative Images of the Thunderbird and the Underwater Panther,” Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, ed. David W. Penney and Gerald McMaster (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013), 41.

2

Ibid.

3

Ibid, 42.

4

Ibid, 44.

5

Zoey Wood-Salomon, “The Dance of Missehezphieu.”

6

Ibid, 42.

7

Ibid.

Lois Taylor Biggs (Cherokee Nation/White Earth Ojibwe) is a Chicago-based writer, curator, and art historian. Biggs is interested in Indigenous abstraction, art historical practice, and frameworks for memory, desire, and fragmentation. She is currently the Rice Curatorial Fellow in Native American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the curator-in-residence at Center for Native Futures. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University, an MA in Social History of Art from the University of Leeds, and won C Magazine's 2022 Indigenous Art Writing Award for her essay "Archives, Bones, and Polaroids."

Biggs compiled a first draft of this essay for Momus’s 2022 Global Indigenous Art Criticism Residency, and is developing the final essay into an exhibition, titled Gagizhibaajiwan, opening June 15 at Center for Native Futures in Chicago.

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