Armand Garnet Ruffo
"Man Changing into Thunderbird"

Editor’s Note:
“Man Changing into Thunderbird” is an extract from a work-in-progress of the same name about the late Ojibway artist, Norval Morrisseau (1932 – 2007). Invited by the National Gallery of Canada to contribute to the catalogue accompanying its 2006 retrospective,
Norval Morrisseau: Shaman-Artist, Armand Garnet Ruffo quickly evolved his haunting narrative into a book-length project through extensive research into Morrisseau’s life and work, including interviews with the artist.

The Shaking Tent

The room is cramped with people. An assortment of bundles and boxes stacked along the walls, packsacks hanging from hooks. The smell of tobacco, sweetgrass, damp canvas. To perform the Ritual of the Shaking Tent is illegal. The Government of Canada has banned it along with other ceremonies and everyone in the room is afraid of going to jail. Indian Affairs officials have posted signs warning of the consequences. The rcmp have already made arrests. They announce they are doing it for their own good. Like the Church, the government is determined to rid the people of superstition.

The talk in the room is about the war. It is finally over. The radio and newspapers announce that freedom has been won in Germany. This means that their sons will soon be returning home. Maybe now they too will be free. Maybe they will get the right to vote. The right to have schools in their own communities. Maybe now they will be allowed to practise their traditions. Get the right to live the way they want. The conversation fills the room. Some old men nod in agreement, surely the sacrifice of their sons will make the white man take notice. Others hold little hope for change as long as the treaties are disrespected.

When the Conjurer tells them he is about to begin the room goes silent. Though some are skeptical, all are respectful, if not fearful. The ceremony is supposed to take place outdoors with the shaking tent staked to the ground and open to the sky so that the spirits might enter, but the law has forced the ceremony into hiding and into this room. Old Potan has taken his grandson, Norval, with him to witness it. Seeing holes drilled into the floor for the tent poles, Potan wrinkles his brow indicating that he too does not expect much to happen. The boy Norval remains quiet. He is curious but frightened, even though he has absolute faith in his grandfather. He also believes his totem, Mukwa, watches over him. Bear power protects him, he repeats to himself, trying to swell his confidence. He tries not to think of his grandmother’s warning that the spirit interpreter Turtle, Mikkinnuk— who will sing or talk for the spirits coming into the tent, be it bear, bird, fish, thunderbird, star, whatever—is really The Devil.

The ceremony begins quietly with the Conjurer praying to the spirits for intervention, and by the time it concludes, Norval’s little hand pressed tightly into his grandfather’s, a cacophony of voices has filled the room. At its conclusion Potan admits to his grandson that he’s impressed. “A powerful conjurer that one,” he says. For sure he never thought the spirits would come and talk inside a house. Saucer-eyed, the boy is overwhelmed. “I thought the tent was gonna blow away,” he says, thinking about how it was all puffed up, straining in every direction as though an invisible hand were yanking on it. Like his grandfather, Norval shakes his head at what they have just witnessed. For him it is new. For his grandfather it is also new. This way of doing the ceremony. Together they learn that although times have changed, the people can adapt to these changes. To use the old ways in new ways.

This thought Morrisseau takes with him, bundles and wears it like a string of colourful beads as he takes the Ritual of the Shaking Tent and makes it his own, as he thinks about what he has just witnessed and latches onto the idea of becoming a shaman-artist. His mission becomes to learn as much as he can about his people: stories of the Midewewin Grand Medicine Society, the ancestral stories, stories of shaman conjurers, creation stories, stories of Manitous, Nanaboozho, Misshipeshu, Maymaygwaysiwuk, Mikkinnuk, Mukwa, Paakuk, Windigo, Nimkey Banasik, and the Thunderbird People, the stories he will one day interpret through what he will call his “uncorrupted visions.” He will go on to say that because the shamans of the tribe were the artists, all his paintings and drawings are really a continuation of the Shamans’ scrolls.

Wonder Boy

I still believe in the ways of my people. The great spirit told me, ‘I will guide you
and keep you every day.

At age nine Morrisseau is run over by a one-ton truck in the yard of St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Fort William. The double wheels come down on his skinny body and the huge tires drive him into the earth as lightning shoots through his legs, pelvis, and abdomen. The vehicle sputters to a halt. A metal door slams. The driver scrambles out and grabs Norval’s legs and pulls him from under the truck. He places the boy on a sheet of plywood and carries his limp body into the Church rectory. (Morrisseau will think of Michangelo’s La Pietà when he remembers this.) The priests and nuns scurry to help. They call the children to assemble and, at the sound of the bell, the boys and girls come running in from across the schoolyard.

As Father Gallagher performs the last rites, he gazes down at the boy with divine compassion because to him death can be far more rewarding than life. His words are like sacramental wine poured over little Norval to relieve his suffering and carry him heavenward: “Oh God, welcome him in your presence, that he may rejoice in you with your saints forever. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” He recites the Mass with conviction dripping from his lips like divine unction. By now though Norval is so far away he cannot hear a drop of Father Gallagher’s words as they spread over the congregation. The murmur of prayer for a blessed journey into the embrace of Christ beyond his hearing.

He finds himself standing in a forest of brilliant green, light dappling through the leaves and crowning his head. Before him, down a long narrow path is his grandmother Veronique making her way towards him. Her black skirt sways from side to side with each stride; her silver crucifix dangles on her bosom. She speaks, and he can now hear. She tells him not to be afraid. “Get up,” she says, gesturing upward with a wave of her hand. And he does. His eyes open to the shock and puzzlement of everyone circled around him. He lets out a moan, as though shaking off whatever has occurred, and slides off the plywood and onto his feet.

For a second, silence. Then the children cheer and giggle and lead Norval out into the playground, where he slumps down against the heavy wire fence that circumscribes the school. Within an hour he is up and running. The priests and nuns note this act of grace as Godly intercession and keep a watch on the boy who wants nothing more than to go home to his grandparents. Norval’s reputation as the Wonder Boy spreads throughout the parish and general district, the priests making sure to point him out to visiting clergy. While some speak of God’s calling, skepticism abounds among the less devout and various theories are concocted to explain what happened. First, they question the driver’s memory, wondering if he only thought he had run over the boy. Another explanation relies on the dampness of the ground. Is it not soft and yielding? Did the weight of the truck simply push the boy down into the earth? Wasn’t he caked in mud? Finally they conclude that boys at that age have pliable bones that mend easily so even if he had gotten run over it couldn’t have been too serious.

The incident works away at Norval like one of his grandfather’s dream serpents. He is puzzled by it. And he returns to the spot where it happened, running his hand over the ground as though feeling for some trace of the event, scraping to understand. Eventually the memory will be soaked in alcohol like a pale specimen, a limb floating in a jar, and he will associate what happened at St. Joseph’s with the dogma and language of the Church. His explanation of it will shapeshift with the years. In 1966 he will paint Christ Head, a portrait of a distinctly brown-faced Jesus, and the provocative Portrait of the Artist as Jesus Christ, presenting Jesus as a Shaman-Artist in a red cloak, with a medicine pouch and crucifix around his neck. Portraits of Morrisseau himself. In the voice of a prophet, he will refer to himself as “The Vessel of the Future,” “The Preserver of the Ojibways,” “The Leader of the Prophecies.” The earliest myth of himself rising from muck of the schoolyard and realized in his earliest paintings.


By the time Morrisseau meets Dr. Joseph Weinstein and his wife Esther, they have been living in the tiny village of Cochenour for four years. From bustling Montreal to Paris to remote northern Ontario to cover for another doctor, Weinstein, artist and humanitarian, seizes the opportunity to go north and takes over the position of head doctor at the local hospital. His duties include doctoring for the four gold mines in the area, for the town folk, the local lumberjacks, and for the Indians on reserves from Red Lake to Hudson’s Bay. His plan was to practise there for maybe a year, make a contribution, gain some experience, save some money, and then move on. Away from black flies and mosquitoes big enough to drag you away. Three years later he and his wife are still there.

The day Esther sets out to buy groceries at Fergus McDougall’s General Store on Mackenzie Island is much like any other summer day. A warm breeze is blowing off Lake Nipigon under an azure sky. She hires the local boat taxi to take her across Bruce Channel, a short pleasant ride from Cochenour, just enough time to soak in the scenery. Harold, the boat operator, is an arthritic old man with a grey unshaven face who complains constantly about the immoral behaviour of the other locals, especially the Indians. When they arrive he waits for her at the dock.

As Esther maneuvers her way through the narrow aisles laden with everything from wool socks to toilet paper to canned goods, on the floor next to a box of wilted vegetables, she spots what appear to be rolls of painted birch bark. Like her husband who has studied art at the School of the Art Association of Montreal and later at the Académie de Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse and the École des beaux-arts, Esther too is committed to the principals of modernism with its appreciation of world-art traditions. She has studied the archaeology and languages of ancient cultures at the Sorbonne and so her curiosity is piqued the moment she sees the paintings. Taking her time to examine the bold images, she decides to buy all three paintings. McDougall charges her five dollars a piece and waits for her reaction. She pays without attempting to barter and even goes so far as to ask him to tell the artist that she and her husband, the doctor, would like to meet him.

Even though McDougall is getting a commission on the sale, he nevertheless shakes his head and hints that she is wasting her money. Harold too dismisses the strange pictures. His negative response to what she greets with excitement and admiration does not surprise her. On the boat ride home he questions why she would pay good money for a bunch of worthless scribbling. She knows there is no use in trying to convince him otherwise. Instead, she smiles and holds the rolled paintings to her chest, fearful they might blow out of her hand and into the water.

Walking into the Weinstein house, Morrisseau notices that the wooden floors shine golden in the afternoon light. He cannot remember ever having seen floors like this before. He kicks off his black rubber boots and stands in the entrance. Esther stares at his dirty feet. In her various trips to the store, she has heard stories about him from the locals. Mostly they mention Morrisseau’s drinking and only incidentally his art. Today he looks sober.

Seeing Morrisseau standing in the entrance, Esther thinks back to the day she first laid eyes on his paintings, trying now to make the connection between the man and his art. She remembers thinking the images were crude, primitive, what modern painters like Picasso were using as inspiration for their own work. The perspective flat. The colours natural. Earth tones. Red. Green. Brown. Yellow. Yet the
themes of Morrisseau’s work were unlike anything she had ever seen before. She had picked up the first one, unfurled the curled sheet of bark, and held it up toward the window and just stared at it. A twoheaded snake with horns and a small sack hanging from a cord around its neck. Done in what looked like wax crayon, the kind children use. The second one intrigued her even more. A man in the midst of transformation, his body half changed into a huge bird. (A thunderbird, she would later learn.) This one done in cheap watercolour. And on birchbark! Of all things.

She remembers thinking she had never seen anything remotely like it, although in hindsight Paul Klee’s experiments on burlap came to mind. There she was—Esther Weinstein, an educated, cultured woman, who has lived in Paris, who has dined with the Picasso family, who has collected art and artifacts from all over the world, Europe, Africa, Australia, Tibet—in a country store of all places, at the end of the earth, confronted by the shock of discovery, the shock of genius.

With a wave of his hand, Joseph Weinstein beckons Morrisseau to follow them in. They enter a large sunny room with a carpet on the floor, dominated by art and shelves of art books. Morrisseau stands for a moment in awe, his head shifting from side to side, taking it all in. Stunned by the display, by the welcome, he looks to his hosts, a stocky man in a tweed jacket and a lovely, well-dressed woman beside him. He has entered the inner sanctum of the white man, a place he has never been invited into before, and he sees that these white people are unlike any other he knows. He sees they understand and appreciate culture, his culture.

After that first encounter Morrisseau returns often to sell his paintings and to sit and read from the Weinstein’s extensive library, the beloved books they have lugged with them deep into the bush. With the turn of each page, the world opens for him, and he finds himself basking in the desert light of Egyptian bas-relief, the windswept tundra of Inuit sculpture, in the rainforest of Haida Gwai totems, the sights of Picasso’s modern Paris. And it comes to him that what his grandfather has taught him rings truer than the toll of any church bell, the truth of it sinking to the bottom of his soul like a plumb line dropping to the source, as his spirit rises like his namesake, Copper Thunderbird, and he reaffirms to himself that he too belongs to a great culture. And it is at this moment that his mission becomes clearer than ever: he will bring the great Ojibway back into the light. This he confirms to himself with a nod of his head as he looks up from the book he is reading and straight into Esther Weinstein’s beaming face.

Although he has exhibited his own paintings in Paris, Joseph Weinstein never once tells Morrisseau what or how to paint. As far as he is concerned Morrisseau is already a talented and creative artist in the process of developing a unique style. Only once when Morrisseau shows up unexpectedly with a few drawings that he has obviously whipped up to sell for a bottle does he reprimand him. (Quickies that will make Morrisseau infamous years later for hawking them on the streets of Vancouver.) Shame. Traditionally one of the most severe sanctions of Ojibway culture. Morrisseau responds by standing quietly with his head bowed while Weinstein assures him that he is prepared to help him and his family. Then, the moment Weinstein finishes, as though woken from a trance, he reaches with both hands and grasps the few dollars Weinstein holds out for him. After a moment of hesitation, as though he might acknowledge the gift, he instead turns and leaves without looking back. From these first visits Weinstein becomes aware that the expected rules of behaviour, the normal protocols, the social graces one would expect, do not apply to Morrisseau. He also becomes aware that they can never be intimate friends, though friends they will remain.

Weinstein like his wife recognizes what Morrisseau has to offer is unique, a one-of-a-kind talent. But Weinstein brings another perspective to their encounter. That of doctor. Having now worked in the north for years, he has come to witness what he calls a people in the midst of self-destruction. He has seen firsthand the swarm of missionaries descend upon the first inhabitants and strip them of their traditions. He cannot help but notice the supreme irony of it all: the inhospitable land of spruce and swamp fertile ground for missionaries of every conceivable denomination. The result, a people who lived for centuries by the four cardinal directions now without direction, floundering like a moose caught in a bog, sinking hopelessly in a mire of confusion and chaos. But Weinstein also sees that a few have held on to whatever remains. To whatever they have managed to salvage and conceal of their oral culture, their religious customs. Although not totally unscathed and more often than not at odds with himself, balancing precariously on a high wire between ancestral and Christian beliefs, Morrisseau is one such example. At least this is how Weinstein sees it.

One might say that despite a childhood of poverty and four years spent at the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Residential School in Fort William, Morrisseau has good fortune on his side. Though if asked he would say that he does not believe in luck. It is not part of the Ojibway belief system. Whatever good fortune he has he credits to his Grandfather Potan Nanakonagos, the man who raised him in a world of Manitous and Demi-Gods. Old Potan will simply shrug when his grandson points to him. Give a toothless grin when he offers to share his bottle. Potan has done his best to ignore the influx of Christian missionaries and all that has come with them since the area first opened to the fur trade a century ago and later to mineral exploration. By raising Morrisseau in isolation out on the lake, by living off the land and following the olds ways, Potan has managed to avoid the drunken brawls, the knife and gunshot wounds that the doctor is called on to mend at all hours of the day and night. Has managed to give his grandson the tools he needs to become a human being.

Above and beyond all the mayhem, the Weinsteins firmly believe that primitivism has its own intrinsic value as the great Picasso himself discovered. It is this belief that is the foundation of their relationship to Morrisseau. Likewise they both believe that Morrisseau’s day will come, and for the next three years since meeting him, they become his patrons. Weinstein pays five dollars a piece for whatever painting catches his or Esther’s fancy while continuing to give him art supplies and access to their library. In return Morrisseau will continue to show up at all hours to sell or just sit and read from one of Weinstein’s numerous books. Weinstein is from a tradition of merchants, businessmen, and he can see this is good business. He also likes the young man and considering what he has witnessed in the community, he feels it is the least he can do.

Footnote: by the time Joseph Weinstein resigns his post as head doctor at the hospital and leaves Cochenour, he has some fifty paintings in his possession, with no idea what he will do with them all. Then one day at a newsstand on the French Rivera he spots a copy of Time with a photo of Morrisseau on the cover and, nodding to himself, he turns to his wife in belief.