Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mishi Peshu (Underwater Panther)

Title: Mishi Peshu
Materials: Black Ash Burl,Copper,Bison Horn,Deer Antler,Quahog Clam Shell,Pigment.
Size: 17"tall, 20.5"long,5.5" wide.
Date of Completion: May 2011

Mishi Peshu (Underwater Panther)

It was my sincere effort to render this cultural effigy in a way that not only possesses artistry and craftsmanship but also a sensitivity and respect to those who hold this design as sacred.

Mishi Peshu is only one of the many names in the Algonquin language for the entity known in English as the Underwater Panther. For some of the tribes near the Great Lakes and surrounding regions, Mishi Peshu represents the physical manifestation of and the ultimate metaphor for the mystery of the Great Lakes and a symbol of the power and danger of nature.

The Underwater Panther is a deity that has been honored for many centuries through offerings of tobacco into the waters in hopes of safe passage and as a sign of respect. By what I have read and understand, the Water Panther is not a malevolent entity, no more so than nature is malevolent. Indeed, some days the weather and the waves are violent, but never to be considered evil.

I drew my inspiration for this sculpture from a variety of early Woodland Indian sources. I have always loved the Underwater Panthers depicted in quillwork, beadwork and twine-weaving on early Indian pouches. There are also a number of 18th century effigy pipes and ball-headed clubs that depict what may have been intended to represent Underwater Panthers. The universal features that I understand to depict an Underwater Panther are: a cat-like torso, buffalo horns or deer antlers, and an unusually long tail. These features are commonalities shared among many different tribes. There are also charactoristics that are unique to various depictions, such as a "human-like" face and a tail terminating in a fish fin. This effigy is so ancient and shared among so many different tribal groups that many variants are to be expected. This deity is also known as having portions of its body composed of copper. It was thought that the chunks of copper ore found along the shores of the Great Lakes were parts of the Underwater Panther, being pieces of its hair or scales broken off during a battle with a Thunderbird.

My favorite pre-historic image of Mishi Peshu is painted upon the rock cliff along Lake Superior at a place known as Agawa Rock. There are more than a hundred effigies preserved upon this cliff face and they are estimated to be 500 to 3000 years old. Alongside the Underwater Panther painted on the rock are horned snakes. Snakes are often associated with this deity; some of the depictions appear to be a hybrid of the classic Water Panther design combined with the body of a snake. I do not pretend to understand all or even most of the significance of the spirituality of this iconography. What I have learned in this study is but a starting point.

The shape of the tail was suggested to me by the illustration (see top image) rendered by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, the first official cartographer in Canada and it dates to the 1670's. Franquelin drew this image based upon the description by the missionary Father Marquette:
"As we were moving along the side of these dreadful rocks - for their height and length - we saw on one of these rocks two monsters painted which at first scared us and on which the bravest sauvage dared not set eyes on for too long. They are as big as a calf, they have horns like deers, a dreadful stare, red eyes, a beard like that of a tiger, the face as something of that of a man, the body covered in scales and a tail so long as to go all around the body going over the head and coming back between the legs ending as a fishtail. The green, the red and the “blackish” are the three colors which make it. These two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe them to be authored by a sauvage because the best French painters would have a hard time to make them so well and that they are so high on the rock that it is difficult for the painter to reach them. This is roughly the shape of these monsters as we have traced them."

I forged the tail, spine, necklace and claws from solid copper. I find the marriage of copper and burl visually harmonious. Historically, black ash was the species of burl often used by the Great Lakes tribes for making both domestic and spiritual artifacts.

I am not certain that the scalloped design along the back represented spines; it may have been an abstract way to depict the power or energy radiating from the deity. I like to think of this pattern as a representation of water. Many of the tribes surrounding the Great Lakes incorporate this same wave pattern into pipe stems, pipes, pottery, birchbark and engravings.

The silhouette image I included above illustrates the negative space, one of my favorite aspects of this sculpture is the harmonious play of geometry, being almost entirely composed of repeated elliptic curves, spheres and cusps.

My sincere appreciation and thanks to Scott Meachum for his insight and guidance throughout this project as well as his help in drafting this body of text.
I would also like to thank Steve Delisle for his exact French translation of Father Marquette's historic description.


  1. Unbelievably great work Steven.
    Your work is excellent.

  2. HI,
    Congratulations on creating a noteworthy piece of art with historical significance. I have long researched prehistoric American Indian use of copper and Mishi Peshu (Mishipizheu or underwater Panther) is one aspect of Prehistoric American Indians' perception of copper. I have a nice sized copper effigy of the underwater panther. Unfortunately, it looks more like a panther than a a Mish Peshu god.
    Don Spohn Ph. D 616-837-8468
    Great Lakes Copper Research

  3. Steve,

    Amerind oral traditions describe Mishipishu as having red fur, a saw-blade back (dorsal spikes), a cat-like face, and a "great spiked tail" which he used as a weapon, i.e. a stegosaur. Vine Deloria's "Red Earth, White Lies mentions this. Louis and Clark noted that their native guides were in mortal terror of Mishipishu glyphs around the Mississippi since the obvious meaning of them was "Caution, one of these things LIVES here". Indians were always in the habit of touching such glyphs up every few decades; the horns on the glyph at Agawa Rock were added by an artist who figured a creature that large needed them, long after the creature itself was extinct.

    Three are other glyphs of known dinosaur types on cave and canyon walls in North America,