If you’re involved in the climate and Indigenous rights movements in Canada, you’ve probably seen this beautiful bird design a lot.
Maybe in Madrid at the COP25 climate negotiations …
Or at Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays in California?
Or in Montréal today at Cabinet minister Steven Guilbeault’s office …
Or Vancouver …
Or Toronto …
On the silkscreen you’re holding right now?
But you might not know the artist, people, story and meaning behind it.
That artist is Isaac Murdoch, whose Ojibway name is Manzinapkinegego’anaabe / Bombgiizhik. He’s from the fish clan and Serpent River First Nation. We spoke to him to learn more about the bird, and were moved to hear about its origins. While Isaac created the design before last year’s Madrid climate summit, when he learned about Teck Resources massive new tar sands mine proposal, he knew the design fit.
Well, we’ll let Isaac do the storytelling.
It begins with the serpents underground
The story is rooted in First Nations spirituality. As a child, I grew up listening to stories about how there were Serpents deep inside the ground. They lived in dens, connected by a vast tunnel system.
When British First came here, they were told not to dig deeper than the width of a shovel — that was to protect us from the Serpents that live under the ground and are too powerful for human beings to handle. But the two-legged dug this power up for themselves, even though they were warned that it could destroy everything.
A long time ago, the old people of this land, they always talked about this. They used to say, “in the future, things from the bottom of the earth are going to come up” … but in my language, it’s so much richer and more descriptive than that!
For protection, look to the Thunderbird and honour the women
The design is a Thunderbird disguised as a regular bird to protect its eggs from the power in the ground.
I was removed from the land at the age of five, apprehended by Indian agents. But I remembered the stories about Thunderbirds trying to protect future generations. They have a special relationship with future generations, and there’s a balance between the Thunderbird and the Serpent, who is always trying to get the eggs of the Thunderbird.
For me, the Thunderbird is like a superhero. It can restore life and it can help protect us from the powers that weren’t meant to be brought up from the ground.
And that bird is a mom. It represents women, who protect life. Down at Standing Rock, they kept talking about the black snake and that’s when I made the Thunderbird woman. She’s another superhero, half-Thunderbird and half woman, who came down to fight the black snake.
Women have a higher rate of being murdered, displaced or missing than anyone else on this Earth when it comes to protecting the planet. My heart is with the people in South America and women all over the world sacrificing themselves for future generations all over the world. So, it’s also a commemoration.
We’re in a sacred story right now, together
A thousand years from now, people are going to be telling the sacred story of the battle between the Thunderbird and the Serpents. We’re in that story now and it’s a sacred story.
My parents and my grandparents were warriors. I come from a long line of warriors. They fought colonialism and the U.S. government. They fought the British and they fought for their lands.
When I came along, they always said this power we have cannot be killed by the bow and arrow, it’s in the hands of the Thunderbird. If we want to survive, we have to make our offerings. We have to start telling the story. That’s what they told me: not to physically fight but to make our offerings.
So, I’ve always used art as peaceful action, but also as a way to create these symbols as medicine for whoever is using them. That’s how my mind is. And I’ve always felt that it’s highly important to let these birds do the work. So, when I see people carrying the reject Teck signs, I see that these birds are helpers. They just go all over the place.
The imagery pulls people together. If I see someone with my images tattooed on them, I know that we are all on the same team. I think about people and their relationship with the land and waters. I think about the solidarity we have with land and trees. I also think about how art brings diversity together and how we are able to celebrate each other’s diversity.
I’m so blessed to be a part of this and to see humanity come together.
Follow Isaac on Twitter at @IsaacMurdoch1
As told to us, earlier this month.