Norval Morrisseau’s The Gift : Where Two Worlds Collide


When the Europeans came to North America they brought with them two great and often catastrophic things which would have their mark, literally and figuratively, upon the Native populations of the continent: Christianity and Disease. Equally as powerful as they were punitive, these legacies of the Old World were to impact Native North Americans so forcefully that centuries later they continue to surface within their oral and visual discourses. This is most certainly the case in Norval Morrisseau’s The Gift of 1975. A cynical and scathing work, it outlines the devastating encounter between Native and Christian, an encounter that introduced the lethal smallpox virus into an indigenous people who held no immunity toward the illness. An Ojibwa Native himself, educated in the traditions of his community, Morrisseau details the event in his famous pictographic style, using both the modes of representation of his forebears as well as a typically Western format of painting. In this sense, the artist incorporates two often-conflicting spheres; his Ojibwa heritage and his contemporary Euro-American influences. It therefore becomes evident that The Gift is not merely an indictment of the horrors of European colonization and the smallpox virus, but also a site in which the artist’s struggle to consolidate the two realms of his existence – his Ojibwa upbringing and the Western, European world in which he works – take place, appropriately manifested through ancient iconographical power relationships layered upon the traditionally Western backdrop of painting.

Norval Morrisseau was born in 1932 in Beardmore, Ontario (once the Sand Point Reserve) and was raised by his grandparents, as is the custom in traditional Ojibwa families. Though he attended residential school for a very short period, he opted for a Native education instead, and he soon realized that he had special gifts when it came to representing the world around him. “It was through his [maternal] grandfather that he received a mission to transmit, through his art, the legacy of Ojibwa values and beliefs to Indians and non-Indians.”[1] Having been granted this privilege, Morrisseau set about studying the ways of his ancestors through oral narratives and through the time-honored visual devices of the most revered Ojibwa medicine men. Perhaps the most important of these were the birch bark scrolls, onto which central lessons, rituals, and events were etched in great detail and with great care. It was said, “The Shaman within him dared him to copy the birch bark scrolls which intrigued him so, but he resisted until he had been formally initiated into the full rites of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society.”[2] During this period Morrisseau also took inspiration from the many rock paintings which existed in the Lake Nipigon region of Ontario. As Mary Southcott explains, “Rock paintings are found throughout America but are especially numerous on smooth vertical surfaces of the Great Canadian Shield. Traced by unknown fingers, ancient symbols and animal designs occur in a reddish colour.”[3] Morrisseau therefore received his education in an environment rich with the visual art and lessons of his ancestors, and he would later translate many of these into paintings such as The Gift.

Morrisseau took his Ojibwa teachings very seriously. The oral history of his people is extensive and takes many years of study to begin to understand. The mythology that exists within this narrative is equally as complicated, and it is worth noting that the Ojibwa religion is at times strictly opposed, while at others very sympathetic, to Christian ideologies. The word Anishinabe (the collective term for Ojibwa and other Algonquin peoples) can be translated into “from where we came down.” The root “Anish” denoting a primary male being, the concept refers to the origin myth of the first people coming from the heavens.[4] Thus the origin motifs of the Anishinabe are very similar to Christian beliefs in that each describes a male origin as well as a descent from the cosmos. In the case of Christianity, man descended from God himself, who has always been understood as existing in the heavens. Another contact point between the two is the fact that each has a Great Deity and the attached concepts of an afterlife. As Morrisseau himself states,

The Great Ojibway people of North America believed there was one God, Gitchi Manitou, who was their only God and whom they worshipped. The Ojibway believed that there were six layers of heaven…Each Indian went to one of these layers according to the way he behaved himself on earth. Everyone went to heaven no matter what he did; after all there was lots of room…[5]

The two belief systems are therefore congruous in their monotheism and concepts of heaven, but the Ojibwa notions are not as final as Christian ones. For instance, the Ojibwa language is divided between animate and inanimate objects, yet almost everything holds some level of power; as an example, a certain type of rock or tree can be animate to an Ojibwa, as can be seen in the offering of tobacco to a variety of beings both human and non-human.[6] This anthropomorphism holds for animals as well. And while there is one almighty deity, there are other spirits which are considered to hold great powers, the lesser Manitou’s, such as mythical underwater animals or the venerated thunderbird. To illustrate, Copper Thunderbird was the spiritual name given by an elder to Morrisseau from which he could derive his medicine power, and the name with which he signs his works.[7] From this perspective, Ojibwa mythology is far more flexible and varied than the dogmatic nature of the Christian religion. Michael D. McNally explains that “traditional Ojibewe religion is less concerned with the precise nature of the divine than with how to access the divine powers that animate life.”[8] This suggests that power relationships and the role they play in everyday interactions are of more importance than the exact definition of what a power is. It is for this reason that the Ojibwa were able to incorporate certain aspects of Christianity into their belief systems but not vice versa, which lead to the conflict between the two that arose, for Christian missionaries could not allow any other being but God to have any type of spiritual power.
Aside from spiritual contradictions, another great conflict, which is the main subject matter of The Gift, is the introduction of foreign diseases like smallpox into indigenous populations upon the arrival of the Europeans. The effect of the epidemic on Native North Americans was disastrous. Transmitted through direct contact, through the inhalation of an infected person’s expectorant or by contact with articles containing fluids/skin particles of an infected party, smallpox was extremely infectious. At first the disease presented as a rash, that if showed signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin would prove to be deadly. The characteristic pustules appeared on the skin mostly around the face and extremities, and in the most horrific cases the pustules would form a single oozing mass.[9] It is no wonder, then, that the disease was to have such a terrible impact on those without immunity. While the earliest known occurrence of smallpox in North America arose in Mexico in the sixteenth century, it was decidedly present in more northern regions by the eighteenth century, and most likely appeared even earlier. In Plagues and Peoples William H. McNeill suggests that the settlement of the frontier was actually assisted by the destruction of indigenous populations by such devastating disease, particularly when assisted by deliberate efforts to contaminate communities. For example, in 1736, “Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered that blankets infected with smallpox be distributed among enemy tribes…”[10] The infamous Jeffrey Amherst incident provides a documented occurrence of biological warfare in the more eastern Massachusetts area, but there were many tales of such cruel activities among the Anishinabe as well. Elizabeth Fenn provides one account:

Around 1770, according to an Ojibwa account…traders at Mackinac infected visiting Indians with a contaminated flag presented to the Indians “as a token of friendship.” After the homeward-bound Ojibwas unfurled the flag among friends at Fond du Lac on Lake Superior, smallpox broke out.11
This notion of a cursed smallpox exchange between Whites and Natives resonates deeply within The Gift. Whether intentional or not, smallpox was a terrifying force of death and despair among native peoples, including the Ojibwa, making its mark both on their bodies and in their collective consciousness as well.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Norval Morrisseau would feel the urge to paint such a traumatic period in the history of his people. The Gift proves to be a very poignant comment on the issue, deriving its subdued intensity from the pictographic treatment of its figures and the traditional Ojibwa iconography, which so inspired the artist. On the left stands the Christian, identifiable as such by a medicine bag hanging from his hip, which in turn is marked with a cross. He shakes hands with the Native man on the right, and at his side is a Native child who seems mesmerized by the medicine bag as he reaches out for it. The colours are muted earth tones – soft browns, reds, blacks, and the light brown of the paper – providing a clear reference to the natural colours available to the anonymous artists who produced the many rock paintings which Morrisseau saw during his education. There are several visual motifs which initially strike the viewer; foremost are the highly stylized forms, each outlined with a thick black line. We next notice the spots on all the figures, and as our eyes begin to pick up more detail we realize that certain internal body parts or organs are shown, such as the trachea, or in the case of the Christian, the heart. Upon even further inspection we see strange wavy lines emanating from the medicine bag. Though simplified in form, we soon realize that the figures in the painting tell much more than the fateful encounter of European and Native, for each motif, drawn from a long tradition of Ojibwa symbolism, has a place and a purpose within the narrative of The Gift.

Each of the elements which as a whole, form the pictographic style employed by Morrisseau, serves the purpose of displaying relationships of power exerted internally, externally and between the figures. As previously stated, Morrisseau gleaned much of his visual inspiration from the rock paintings and the birch bark scrolls of his community’s heritage. The very fact that the figures in The Gift float quite flatly on a blank field alludes directly to the frameless, groundless rock paintings of the Canadian Shield.[12] This inspiration can also be seen in the “x-ray” views of the figure as well as the very significant use of line. In Midewewin pictography sacred power relationships and sensory links were usually indicated by straight or wavy lines emanating from a figure.[13] This use of line as a tool to represent power is clearly visible in The Gift. The thick black form lines, which surround each, designate the figure as an entity in itself. The form lines of the Christian and Native merge as they shake hands, indicating both contact and transfer of power. The wavy lines extending from the Christian’s medicine bag indicate a sacred power, with which the child is transfixed. However, it is not simply black lines which indicate power. The spots covering the figures play an important dual role: they not only signify the prevalence of smallpox, as we have already noted, but they represent a certain type of power as well. An ovoid shape filled with dots on a Midewiwin scroll connotes a sacred area, and in more secular works such as The Gift, they can designate the importance of inner being.[14] It’s therefore evident that in this work the spots signify the sacred and important power of the body and its spirit, the power of the illness, and the more easily interpreted physical sign of smallpox. Morrisseau cleverly combines the richly symbolic iconography of the Ojibwa, displaying the animate qualities inherent in every figure included in the painting. We know that the Christian, the Natives, and the disease are all beings imbued with power, but what is the nature of this power relationship?

The answer can be found by delving deeper into the artist’s worldview and situation at the time the painting was produced. As we already know Morrisseau had spent his life being educated in the ways of the Ojibwa Midewiwin, and he obviously cherished these lessons. But in 1972 he converted to Apostolic faith, a strange shift. Selwyn Dewdney suggests that it is “possible to trace Morrisseau’s increasing cultural schizophrenia through his work. During these years his painting expressed a concern with reconciling Native and Christian imagery…”[15] How could Morrisseau, an artist who built his life upon the ways of his people, be dealing with such a dilemma? It is not hard to comprehend if one looks at the enormous impact that Christianity and Europeans have had on Native Americans. The effects were more obvious in the severely colonial beginnings of contact, but in Morrisseau’s time they were just as powerful, still lingering in political and cultural subjugation. Though Morrisseau chose to live a very Ojibwa life, he nonetheless was surrounded by white Canadian culture. He gained recognition as an artist and was straddling two worlds at once – a difficult feat for anyone. As Selwyn Dewdney remarks, “This is a sensitive, unusually intelligent human being faced with the agonizing problem of integrating within his own person the conflicting elements of two deeply dissimilar cultures.”[16] No matter that he had fame; Morrisseau was having a hard time performing the balancing act required of an aboriginal working in a white world. What is more is that this was a spiritualstruggle within the artist. Elizabeth McLuhan rightfully remarks that in terms of Morrisseau’s body of work, the “inherent conflict between Native religion and Christianity grew, as did the angry images. The Gift of 1975…directly confronts the anger and the white audience.”[17] The tone of the painting is angry, however the anger is not simply directed at the white audience. It is also directed at the conflicting worldviews with which Morrisseau was faced. As he himself states,

I am intelligent, I understand how the Christian religion came to be…on the other hand I know about my ancestral beliefs, their rights and wrongs, and I respect both teachings as sacred. I understand the loss I would have if I forsook my Indian religion for another and I serve both.[18]

It is an almost superhuman feat to belong to two religions – especially if one religion is “pagan” and the other Christian and perhaps it is for this reason that Morrisseau converted to the Apostolic faith; he simply could not consolidate his previous worldviews any longer. His anger was therefore directed not at white colonialism per se, rather it stemmed from his continued efforts to consolidate the cultural traditions that were denigrated by a colonizing Eurocentric society.

Morrisseau’s struggle to exist in two realms is what gives the power relationships of The Gift their true nature. We are not looking at a mere raging response against the ravages of colonization, but at a very complex dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue taking place in the exterior world and within Morrisseau himself. It is for this reason that the iconography does not show one party as being more powerful than the other – the Christian and Native are simply at a meeting point, albeit a very fateful one. It is also for this reason that the combination of ancient Ojibwa symbols and conventions of Western painting which make up The Gift speak directly of the inner battle Morrisseau faced – one between his ancestral traditions and the white society in which he worked. By 1963:

The rudiments of pictographic painting – the expressive formline, the system of transparency, of interconnecting lines that determine relationships in terms of spiritual power – were in place in Morrisseau’s work… The Ojibwa cosmology emerged in all its complexity. At the centre was always the image of the artist changing, vacillating between two worlds, caught between two cultures.[19]

This is most certainly the case in The Gift. The power symbols contained within the painting, from the heavy form lines which join the two adults, to the wavy lines emanating from the medicine bag, and the dual-natured spots, all work to show a struggle between the equally strong forces of two worlds and religions. The power relationships are therefore employed to show the unending cultural conflict which ensued from two very different, yet equally potent, worlds colliding, something which tormented the artist throughout his life and especially at the moment of The Gift’s conception.

The Gift is therefore a work rife with hardship: displaying the disastrous meeting of the European colonizers and Native man, it details the devastating emergence of smallpox into the Ojibwa population. The painting is made all the more poignant due to the handshake between the two cultures, for this gesture of equality and friendship would lead not only to the epidemic, but also to the devastation of generations of Native peoples’ lives. The conflict, one which Morisseau himself faced, is skillfully and subtly portrayed in The Gift through an innovative and symbolic mixture of ancient Ojibwa visual systems and the comparatively revered tradition of painting held so highly in the West. In his pictographic style, Morrisseau dexterously uses the ancient iconography of his forebears to detail the struggle between two worlds of equal power, a battle which would take hold in the consciousness of indigenous peoples and very much so in the artist himself. It is the story of this everlasting burden which is carried on in The Gift; it is a psychological mark which, like the scars of the smallpox victim, may never fade away.

Conway, Thor. “The Conjurer’s Lodge: Celestial Narratives from Algonkian Shamans,” Earth and Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore, ed. Ray A.Williamson and Claire R. Farrer, 236-259. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Dewdney, Selwyn. “The World of Norval Morrisseau.” In Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway. ed. Selwyn Dewdney. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965.
Fenn, Elizabeth A. “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst.” The Journal of American History 86, no.4 (March 2000): 1552 -1580.
Kugel, Rebecca. “Of Missionaries and their Cattle: Ojibwa Perceptions of a Missionary as Evil Shaman,” Ethnohistory 41, no.2 (Spring 1994): 227-244.
Lanoue, Guy, Images in Stone: A Theory on Interpreting Rock Art. Rome: Art Center, 1989.
McNally, Michael D. “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” Church History 69, no.4 (December 2000): 834-859.
McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1976.
Morrisseau, Norval, Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965.
McLuhan, Elizabeth. “The Emergence of the Image Makers,” Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and Methuen, 1984. 28-108.
Southcott, Mary E. (Beth), The Sound of the Drum: The Sacred Art of the Anishinabec. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1984.

1 Elizabeth McLuhan, “The Emergence of the Image Makers.” Elizabeth McLuhan and Tom Hill, Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of the Image Makers (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and Methuen, 1984): 30.
2 Mary E. (Beth) Southcott, The Sound of the Drum: The Sacred Art of the Anishnabec (Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1984): 13.
3 Ibid. 31.
4 Thor Conway, “The Conjurer’s Lodge: Celestial Narratives from Algonkian Shamans,” in Earth and Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore, ed. Ray A. Williamson and Claire R. Farrer (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992): 241.
5 Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965): 119-120.
6 Conway, 248
7 Southcott, 14
8 Michael D. McNally “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” Church History 69, no.4 (December 2000): 847.
9 Elizabeth A. Fenn, “Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffery Amherst,” The Journal of American History 86, no.4 (March 2000): 1559.
10 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1976): 257
11 Fenn, 1567
12 Southcott, 37
13 McLuhan, 53
14 Southcott, 38
15 McLuhan, 65
16 Selwyn Dewdney, “The World of Norval Morrisseau,” in Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway, ed. Selwyn Dewdney (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965): viii-xxii.
17 McLuhan, 68
18 Morrisseau, 106
19 McLuhan, 28