Table of Contents:
- The Canadian Shield Defined
- The Algonkian Homeland
- The Shield As Canoe Country
- The Shield As Pictograph Country
- Algonkian Pictograph Sites of Quebec
- Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites In Ontario
- Algonkian Pictograph Sites of Manitoba
- Woods Cree Pictograph Sites of Saskatchewan
- Anishinaabe Pictograph Sites of the Border States (Mich.; Wisc.; Minn.)
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 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.
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.
The Shield As Canoe Country
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.
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.
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
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!
Essential Reading On Algonkian Rock Images
I first turned to the Toronto Public Library system to find out more:
2. Grace Rajnovich’s Reading Rock Art: Interpreting The Indian Rock Paintings of The Canadian Shield.
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.
Rajnovich 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.
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.
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.
Posts On Specific Areas:
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 –
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.”
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!
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.
Some Useful Links For More Information:
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
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.
My Response To Those Who Argue It is Wrong To Make Picto Sites Known: