Blood Memory

The Ziibiwing Center recounts a people's history with the subtle force of a ceremonial encounter.

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“Blood memory is described as our ancestral (genetic) connection to our language, songs, spirituality, and teachings. It is the good feeling that we experience when we are near these things.”

So the Ziibiwing Center, on the Saginaw Chippewa Reservation in central Michigan, interprets the 7th Prophecy or Fire of the Anishinabek nation. The prophecy predicts that the Anishinabek people will rekindle their old ways and be reborn.

And for the present… “Blood memory has been crucial to the survival of our culture.”
The Ziibiwing “Place by the River” Center stirred my ‘Shinnob’ blood big time. Although my Anishinabemowin language skills are pretty limited (in my family, we kids all thought, “Gaween” meant, “Behave!” It actually means “no.”), I continue to marvel at the effect the language has upon me. It gives form to something I know yet don’t fully understand.  This knowledge or memory from the blood is the elemental aspect of being Anishinabe. In hearing it, I am pleased and fed in a way that goes deep into my bones.

Mary Annette Pember
Outside the Ziibiwing Center, “a place by the river” in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, home of the Saginaw Chippewa.

Shaped like a crescent moon, the 32, 000 square foot building houses an array of exhibits showcasing the history and culture of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe and other Great Lakes Anishinabek tribes. Built in 2004, the $10 million museum includes permanent and changing exhibits, a research center, meeting and conference facilities, a gift shop, administrative offices and the tribe’s center for historic preservation. This last office maintains the Saginaw Chippewa’s historic and cultural resources and handles all issues that bear on the Native American Graves and Protection Act (NAGPRA), including disposition and reburial.  Ziibiwing Center serves as the cultural hub of the community, offering classes in traditional Ojibwe crafts and language as well as a place for folks to come together for ceremony and gatherings.

Immersive and experiential, Ziibiwing presents Anishinabek history and culture in a uniquely Anishinabek format. I enter the permanent Diba Jimooyung “Telling Our Story” exhibit, walking into what appears to be one of our traditional teaching lodges. Beautiful images modeled after our sacred “spirit writings” are projected on the walls of the darkened lodge as I make my way through the exhibit. Our spiritual leaders recorded ceremonies and important events on birch bark scrolls centuries ago in a mnenonic script called “spirit writing.” 

The story of the Anishanabek people is told through our 7 prophecies or fires and illustrated with these spirit writings. The prophecies recount essential spiritual and life lessons as well as the history of our people.

In brief, according to Diba Jimooyung the prophecies tell us that more than 10,000 years ago, the Anishinabek people lived on the East coast of North America. At this time they were instructed to move west for their survival. They were told by a prophet to embark on a Great Walk, following the setting sun to a new home where the food grows on the water (manomin or wild rice). The megis (cowrie) shell appeared at seven places on the Walk showing the Anishinabek where to live. The Anishinabe or Chippewa or Ojibwe/Ojibway of the Great Lakes region are descended from these people.

Mary Annette Pember
Detail from a display of “spirit writing” used to tell the Ojibwe migration story.


The prophecies tell of the coming of light skinned people who bring promises of joy and salvation, many of which are false. Some Anishinabek accept the promises and abandon the old ways, discouraging their children from listening to their elders, speaking the language or learning traditions. Finally the 7th prophecy describes a new people who rise up and rekindle the old ways. Anishinabek must then choose between two paths: desecration or compassion.

Walking through the exhibit, I experience something akin to participating in our ceremonies; I allow the language to wash over me, surrendering to its power. I marvel, as I often do, at the sophistication and nuance of our traditional life lessons that still resonate today in their understanding of the capricious nature of human beings. Our traditional teaching methods that integrate writing, visuals and demonstration, could be a contemporary model for engaging all types of learners.

Finally, I wonder why non-Indians think they have to go all the way out to the western U. S. to experience real Indians. We’re right here in your own backyard.

 

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