Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites Of The Canadian Shield

Table of Contents:

Essential Reading On Algonkian Rock Images

Posts On Specific Areas

Links To More Information


The Canadian Shield Defined

The Canadian Shield (the Pre-Cambrian or Laurentian Shield) makes up more than half of Canada’s landmass. It includes Greenland, the Adirondacks of New York State, and the northern parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It can be thought of as the rock (igneous and metamorphic) foundation or the very bedrock of the plate, which is the continent of North America. With the retreat of the last ice sheet, which covered most of the northern part of the continent until about 10,000 years ago, the scratches and deep gouges left by the shrinking glacier became the countless rivers and lakes which characterize this vast region.

The Canadian Shield - encircling Hudson Bay

The Canadian Shield – encircling Hudson Bay


The Algonkian Homeland

In time a boreal forest established itself on the thin topsoil covering. The nomadic Algonkian-speaking peoples fashioned a foraging culture based on hunting, fishing, and gathering in this unforgiving land. Initially referred to as Indians by the European newcomers, and more recently by a parade of names considered more politically correct such as Aboriginals, Indigenous People, and First Nations People,  they know themselves as Anishinaabeg.

Anishinaabe and Anishinini distribution around 1800: Darren Baker

Darren Baker – see here for the Wikipedia article, which is the source of the map.

One of their essential inventions, the birch bark canoe, allowed them to deal with this challenging terrain. After the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1600s, their millennia-old way of life was overturned by the opportunities and demands of the fur trade. By the 1840s, the newcomers’ attention had turned from the fur trade to harvesting the forests (spruce and pine) and eventually to the Shield’s mineral wealth (gold, copper, silver, nickel and, more recently, diamonds). The map (credit to Darren Baker) above shows the approximate location of the Anishinaabe and Anishinini peoples around 1800.

Ojibway-style birchbark canoes from the mid to late 1800's

Ojibway-style birchbark canoes from the mid to late 1800s (Peterborough’s Canoe Museum)


The Shield As Canoe Country

the white birch zone

the white birch zone

It is this “canoe country” where my brother and I have done almost all our paddling over the past thirty years. A scene like the one below is the reward for negotiating the occasionally fast-moving rapids of its rivers or spending an afternoon paddling into a headwind on a long narrow lake. There are also other rewards  – the solitude of a world off the grid, the sights and sounds of nature (a bear scampering off the portage trail or a loon calling out at dusk), and the occasional reminders that we are not the first to travel through this space that others still call their home and “native” land.

class Canadian Shield scene -exposed bedrock and black spruce

classic Canadian Shield boreal forest landscape – exposed bedrock and black spruce

The reminders come in many forms – ancient portage trails, a collection of four-meter spruce poles leaning upright in the woods, ready to be used again. And at least until now, on that rare occasion,  seeing fading ochre-coloured pictographs on granite rock faces a couple of meters above the waterline.

this rock face looked promising- but, alas, no pictographs to be seen

This rock face on the Allanwater River looked promising – but, alas, no pictographs to be seen.


The Shield As Pictograph Country

Just two months ago (i.e. March 2013), I had no idea there were so many pictograph sites in Anishinaabe country waiting to be paddled by and appreciated! Since there are relatively few pictographs and petroglyphs in northeastern Ontario, my brother and I have managed to make almost all of our canoe trips without seeing more than a couple of examples of what Grace Rajnovich calls “Indian Rock Paintings.” The two sites that stand out from our canoe trips are

Lake Missinaibi_Pictographs -

What Dewdney labelled Face IX at Lake Missinaibi – see here for the image source in a Wikipedia article – thanks to Lester Kovac, a fellow canoe tripper, for the shot!

In planning an upcoming canoe trip in the Wabakimi region of NW Ontario, (see here for the related post),  I soon discovered that we would be canoeing through a major pictograph site, Cliff Lake, just north of Lake Nipigon. Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the chance to paddle down this treasure trove of a lake. The fact that I had not even heard about the Cliff Lake pictographs despite having already made three two-week canoe trips in the Wabakimi area motivated me to find out more. Update: the following post on Cliff Lake looks at what we found!

The Pictographs of Wabakimi’s Cliff lake – Selwyn Dewdney Takes Us On A Tour

a few of the Diamond Lake pictographs

a few of the Diamond Lake pictographs


Essential Reading On Algonkian Rock Images

I first turned to the Toronto Public Library system to find out more:

1. Selwyn Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings Of The Great Lakes (online copy) or library link here  and

2. Grace Rajnovich’s Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings of The Canadian Shield.

Artery Lake Face III - shaman panel with buffalo panel

Artery Lake Face III – shaman panel with buffalo panel


Selwyn Dewdney:

the front cover of a classic Selwyn Dewdney’s book was first published in 1962; the second edition in 1967 included another 160 sites that Dewdney and his sons had visited in the interim. (See here for a pdf file with coverage of the additional sites visited from 1961 to 1966.)  A reprint of the 1967 book came out in 1973. Rajnovich’s book was published in 1994.

Dewdney spent his teen years in Kenora after his father was appointed  Anglican Bishop of Keewatin District. It was here he developed his canoeing skills, came to love the boreal forest and its rivers, and saw his first pictographs. He is considered the father of the comprehensive study of Indian pictographs in Canada. Some 103 sites are listed and discussed in the book’s first edition; by 1967 and the second edition, he had recorded and analyzed another 160.


Grace Rajnovich

essential readingRajnovich also worked in Kenora for fourteen years as a field archaeologist for the Ontario government and, clearly inspired by Dewdney’s example,  writes in the foreword to Reading Rock Art that her study was meant as “a complement to that classic work.”

She provides a thematic organization to the subject matter and deepens the discussion by using the birchbark scrolls and their imagery to interpret the pictographs. (Dewdney’s work on the scrolls only happened in the late ’60s and early 1970s after his pictograph study was published.)

Rajnovich’s book also has ink illustrations of the pictographs by Ojibway artist Wayne Yerxa. In contrast to Rajnovich’s thematic arrangement, Dewdney’s discussion of the various sites is based on their geographical location. Given that he was primarily an artist, he also provided many sketches made from the side of his canoe and some photographs.

These two books are among the best (and also the few!) sources of published information about the native rock paintings of the Canadian Shield. They deal with all the basic questions: who, how, why, and where. And thanks to Dewdney’s effort to incorporate the knowledge of the passing generation of elders that he actively sought out in his travels – the few who knew of the rock paintings and their meaning – these works also preserve at least some of the traditional Anishinaabe worldview.

Ontario – Bon Echo Park – Mazinaw Rock  Face II

Dewdney’s book is out-of-print and is difficult to find. The Toronto Public Library system has copies of both editions. Recently the University of Toronto allowed the first edition to be included in the Internet Archive. See here to access it – you can read it online or download it in various file formats. (Note: I’ve scanned the material from the second edition and created a pdf file – see here for the 7 Mb download!) Rajnovich’s book is still available on Amazon in print and even as a digital download.


Thor Conway

Thor Conway Spirits on Stone 2010 front cover

In the 1970’s Thor and Julie Conway began their study of traditional Ojibwa culture, specifically the rock paintings found in the Ontario part of the boreal Shield country. Over the years, they have published several articles and books on their archeological work.

An excellent book I’ve discovered more recently is the second edition of Thor Conway’s Spirits On Stone: Lake Superior Ojibwa History, Legends & the Agawa Pictographs, first published in 1990. The 2010 second edition has about forty pages of additional material and provides a comprehensive analysis.  

The book is not readily available, but I was able to order a copy directly from Conway with info from his website (here). Also listed on the website are several other books that fit in perfectly with the theme of pictographs. One title is Painted Dreams, which is the most popular explanation for why the paintings were done in the first place. The only Conway title in the Toronto Public Library system is the edition of Spirits On Stone pictured above.

Discovering Rock Art.2016.


Another insightful introduction to Ojibwa pictographs in Ontario is the updated edition of Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders.

It details a dozen sites across Ontario – from Mazinaw Rock in Bon Echo Provincial Park in eastern Ontario to Artery Lake in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park not far from the Manitoba border. His approach is explained in the preface –

The voices of the Ojibwa elders islluminate these rock sites. By recalling oral history and legends, their knowledge helps us to understand the meanings behind the ancient carvings and paintings.

You can get a copy directly from Thor Conway or from Amazon. This Table of Contents lists the specific sites dealt with.


Posts On Specific Areas:

Mishupeshu and other pictographs at Agawa Bay

Mishipeshu and other pictographs at Agawa Bay – said by Thor Conway to be “the most famous image of aboriginal art in Canada” (Spirits In Stone, 23)

There are over 700 pictograph sites scattered across the Canadian Shield. This post is the gateway to a list of the sites mentioned in the works above and any other sources I’ve stumbled upon in my research. The list falls way short of complete – but it is a start! I was just going to focus on my home province of Ontario but having collected the names of sites elsewhere, it seemed a waste not to put the information out there.

I have set up separate pages for the following provinces or states to speed up access to specific site information. Click on the title of the area you are interested in –

the northernmost grouping of Temagami’s Diamond Lake pictographs

Fellow paddlers may find this information helpful in planning their next canoe trip; it may even prompt some to visit areas not yet explored  to see these pictographs “up close and personal.”

North Hegman Lake Pictographs

Minnesota’s North Hegman Lake Pictographs


Here is the map – in two parts – from Dewdney’s book, which pushed me to identify more precisely the sites he had indicated. Given that his work dates back to the 1960s – a half-century ago – there are now quite a few more dots that could be put on the maps!


dewdney's map of pictogrpah sites - western section

Dewdney’s map of pictograph sites – western section

The map below shows the distribution of pictograph and petroglyph sites in Canada and puts the Canadian Shield pictograph sites in context. Perhaps someone will create another post detailing the many locations in British Columbia.

Overview Map of Pictograph Sites In Canada

Overview Map of Pictograph Sites In Canada


Some Useful Links For More Information:

Online Material:

Check out the “Rock Art” Wikipedia article for an overview and global perspective. It clarifies the difference between pictographs and petroglyphs and provides a helpful list of external links to other sources.


Pictographs and Petroglyphs,” an entry written by Joan Vastokas (then of Trent University in Peterborough and the co-writer of a study of the Peterborough Petroglyphs) in the online version of The Canadian Encyclopedia. She provides an excellent overview and concludes with a brief summary of the research history and links to other useful sites.


Visions On Rock,” a web page about the pictographs of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park in Saskatchewan (part of the Churchill River System). Tim Jones, the author of the  1981 book on the pictographs of the Churchill River system,  provides many interesting quotes.


Google Books has almost an entire chapter from Bob Henderson’s Every Trail has A Story: Heritage Travel in Canada. Chapter 10 (Rock Art: A Lifelong Quest and Mystery). Scroll back to p.149 for the beginning of the chapter. Henderson details three particular sites – the two Ontario sites of McCarthy Bay and Cliff Lake and the Hickson-Maribelli Lakes site in Saskatchewan.


A 2008 article entitled Des peintures et des offrandes: Recherches récentes en art rupestre de l’Ontario by Serge Lemaitre and Valerie Decart is available on the érudit web site.  Click here to read their study of pictographs based on the following Ontario sites stretching from Lake Nipigon to the Quebec/Ontario border – the Nipigon River; Worthington Bay; Devil’s Warehouse Island; Upper Grassy Lake; Gros Cap; Chiblow Lake; Lake Temagami; and Matachewan Lake. Click here for a Google map of the various locations. The article concludes with a helpful bibliography which could serve as a checklist of some of the best material in print. You will either read the article in French and/or use Google’s translate feature! After working my way through, one new word in my vocabulary is the word rupestre, which is the word used in French instead of the English “pictograph” or “rock painting.” The Google translator confusingly translates it as “cave.”


The first forty-five pages of Edward J. Lenik’s 2009 work Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast are accessible at Google Books. Chapter 1 – “Algonquian People in the Northeast” (pages 1-8).


Michael Furtman’s Magic On The Rocks

Magic On the Rocks - Michael Furtman

Michael Furtman’s Magic On The Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (2000)  is available on the Amazon site, where you can read the following description of the book’s focus-

Scattered across the Boundary waters and Quetico, left by its native people on canvases of stone, are hundreds of enigmatic paintings.  Generations of canoe country travelers have wondered what these mysterious drawings might mean. Now, in this book, award-winning author Michael Furtman presents a comprehensive guide to the canoe country’s known pictographs and provides insight into the artists’ visions and the traditions that spawned them.  Complete with maps and directions to dozens of sites, and the most accurate reproductions of pictographs to date, Magic on the Rocks is an indispensable tool for those who would respectfully visit the sacred sites of a wise and ancient culture.

Furtman does an excellent job of the Quetico pictograph sites; my copy will be in one of the packs when we get there.

Kennedy Island – the most impressive of the French River sites


My Response To Those Who Argue It is Wrong To Make Picto Sites Known:

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19 Responses to Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites Of The Canadian Shield

  1. Pingback: Bon Echo Review | woodsywisdom

  2. Kate says:

    Wow, very thorough! Thanks for sharing…just came back from Bloodvein River and enjoyed seeing the pictos there. Happy paddles, kate

    • true_north says:

      Kate, the Bloodvein is definitely on the list of rivers I’ve got to paddle! Let me know if you upload some pix of the pictographs and I will put the link in my post.

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  5. Bruce Parker says:

    I am a big fan of Selwyn Dewdney’s research. Thanks for posting.

    • true_north says:

      Bruce, ten months ago I had no idea who Selwyn Dewdney was! Since then I have gone through his Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes more than once, picked up his autobiographical Daylight In the Swamp, and read through his early 70’s book on the birchbark scrolls. He also got me to look at Norval Morrisseau again in a different light. It really has been the year of Selwyn Dewdney for me. Nice to hear that there are others who know of his work.

      Next summer he is coming along as my bro and I paddle down the Bloodvein River and check out the dozen pictograph sites along the way. BTW, did you take a look at my two posts on the Cliff Lake pictographs? – they are definitely inspired by Dewdney. I hope to do the same with the Bloodvein and the Missinaibi area as I did with Cliff Lake – i.e. incorporate bits of Dewdney’s text and graphics into my presentation of the pictographs as they are now.

  6. I am a northern Ontario landscape artist. Would it be possible to use two of your images as reference photos for my paintings. 1. Classic Canadian Shield boreal forest landscape. 2. Rock face Allanwater River. Thanking you. Shirley Rose Cockburn

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  9. Eric E. Lund says:

    I’ve just learned of pictographs on Black Birch Lake, about 300 km north of Kenora. I didn’t see reference to them at this website and wonder if you know of them? There is a nice moose, a human figure similar to the one you show from Hegman Lake, and other familiar images, but then there is one scene that seems quite unusual, showing images unlike any i’ve seen in other references.

    • true_north says:

      Eric, thanks for getting in touch.

      No, I’ve never seen mention of Black Birch Lake as a pictograph site. I did go through the Dewdney book to see if he had been anywhere near there in his travels. He has drawings he made in 1959 at a Cochrane River site just down from Black Birch Lake.

      If you have any pix you took and would be okay sharing them then send me the link where people could access them – or send the jpg files to me and I will upload them.

      In the meanwhile, take a look at Dewdney’s book – pp.56 and 57 – to see if there are any similarities to the figures you saw. His book is available for download or on-line viewing here –

  10. I’m wondering if there was any way to get permission to use one of your images for a project my students are working on. THey’re building an interactive rock climbing wall that will be presented at an event next week, and we thought a background image of an iconic aboriginal rock image would be appropriate. Please contact me if you’re interested and I can provide some more information. It may be too short a turn around time, and you may be away, but Thanks for considering it..

    • true_north says:

      Jason, some of the pictographs are, as you write, truly iconic. The only problem I have with you putting the pictograph image(s) on the rock wall is this – instead of people sitting in front of the image and thinking of it as an important dimension of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality, you’d have people scampering all over the image and scuffing it and unintentionally disrespecting it. I’ve gotten some of that just for posting my pix on the net.

      I have also noticed a few sections of rock face at Bon Echo – also known as Mazinaw Rock for its collection of Algonkian rock paintings – where climbers seem to have scuffed the rock surface very close to the ochre paintings.

      With my comments in mind, feel free to use the images that you want. I’ll leave it to you to use it/them appropriately. It may be a teachable moment!

  11. Mike Carroll says:

    We’re thinking of traveling to the eastern Manitoba and western Ontario area, are there examples of rock art that can be reached by hiking?

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