Related Posts: The Pictographs of Little Missinaibi Lake
On a recent canoe trip, we spent a couple of days checking out the pictograph sites on Little Missinaibi Lake on the Little Missinaibi River system. Then we paddled down the river to its dramatic merging with Missinaibi Lake at Whitefish Falls and tented at the fantastic site not far from the bottom of the falls.
For the Ojibwe of old, the shelter of Whitefish Bay made for an excellent summertime gathering spot. The west side of the bay would have been where they put up their wigwams. These days there is a “Sensitive Area” sign there to discourage artifact hunters from messing with the site, though you’d think that an archaeological survey team has already cleared the site of any and all noteworthy artifacts.
Across the bay on the shoreline to the right of Whitefish Falls is another reminder of those who once lived here on a seasonal basis. “Painted” on vertical rock surfaces with hematite powder mixed with fish oil are pictographs derived from their culture’s mythological image bank. It makes sense of the very name of the Lake. Like the Mahzenahzing River by Collins Inlet or Mazinaw Rock in eastern Ontario’s Bon Echo Provincial Park, the name Missinaibi comes from the Ojibwa word muzzinaw meaning “painted image”.
Whitefish Bay is one of three pictograph sites at the west end of the lake that we would visit over the course of three hours. Along with another minor site at Reva Point and perhaps north-eastern Ontario’s most dramatic site at Fairy Point, it makes for a great introduction to Anishinaabe pictographs. They are an expression of the Woodlands culture of the past two thousand years that the Anishinaabe – the Ojibwe, the Algonquin, and Cree among them – were a part of.
The Missinaibi Lake pictographs have obviously been the subject of study by archaeologists keen on a better understanding of traditional Ojibwe culture and beliefs.
Selwyn Dewdney initiated the scientific recording and analysis of pictograph sites in Canada in the late 1950s and devoted the rest of his life to aspects of this study. His book, Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (first edition – 1962) has a few pages dedicated to the muzzinaw of the lake. (Click here to access an online copy of this edition.) By 1967 and the book’s second edition he had added another 160 sites! (Click here for a 7Mb pdf file of the additional material in the second edition.)
Thor Conway worked as an archaeologist for the Ontario government in the 1970’s and 80’s and, along with his wife Julie, recorded and analyzed dozens of pictograph sites in northern Ontario. His recent book, Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders has a chapter on the Missinaibi Lake site at Fairy Point; another chapter deals with the Pothole site on nearby Little Missinaibi Lake. Both he and Dewdney made a point of seeking out Ojibwe elders for their understanding of the pictographs and the stories behind them. See here for a link to the book at Amazon. You can also order the book directly from Conway – see here.
Whitefish Bay Pictograph Site:
We paddled along the east shore to the first pictograph site. Had we been using the Ontario Parks map above we would never have found it! It has the site on the other side of the bay – i.e. where the traditional Ojibwe seasonal camp would have been! Amazingly it also has the next pictograph site – the one on Reva Point – incorrectly located. The site is definitely not south of Reva Island!
The photo shows the Whitefish Bay site near the end of the bay as we paddled towards it. The site is a minor one and sometimes had us wondering if we were looking at ochre images or natural reddish veins in the rock. We had to make sure we did not succumb to “picto fever”, that urge to see pictographs where none actually existed!
The image below is an overview of the rock face and locates various images and natural rock veins that caught our attention. Some paddlers may well be disappointed with what is on view – i.e. small, finger-wide images from five to ten centimeters in length, often done very crudely by “painters” whose careers may have involved only the creation of the one or two images you are looking at. This is far from the artistry of the Lascaux Caves – or of the pictograph-inspired work of the great Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau. (See here for more on his work.)
We could not decide whether 1. was just some underlying red granite exposed through the white calcite covering. It could be a series of vertical slash marks – often referred to as tally marks and implying that something is being counted. What do you see?
2. is another “difficult to say” bit of red peeking out of/painted on top of the whitish rock. Is it a bird figure with a V figure underneath? Or is that a head I see inside the V which could turn it into a human figure with outstretched arms?
We agreed that 3. is an actual pictograph or two. On the left an animal or fish figure and to the right three tally marks or – if that is an arc that the three tally marks are on top of – a canoe with three people in it.
4. has slash marks – or are they just rock veins of a reddish colour?
5. has what looks to be an animal figure with a horn protruding from its head. Behind it are a couple of oblique slash marks. Are we looking at a crude drawing of Mishipeshu, a lynx-like reptilian creature and the snakes, the same combination of pictographs as that famous panel more skillfully drawn at Agawa Rock? It is easy to see how you can get into trouble trying to make sense of what you are seeing!
Our slow paddle along the east shore of Whitefish Bay done, we headed up Missinaibi Lake in a south-westerly direction. While it was gently raining, we were still lucky this day – no SW wind! We have been on the big lake a few times and have seen the winds blow up some serious waves. Luckily, on those occasions, we were heading down the lake to the start of our trips down the river and were able to make use of the wind with the impromptu sails we set up.
The Reva Point Pictograph Site:
A little under seven kilometers from Whitefish Bay is the next pictograph location, like the Whitefish Bay one a very minor one compared to the Fairy Point site.
As we paddled closer we noticed a Canadian flag on a stick to the left of the site. You can actually get out of the canoe here and step on the rocks as you view the pictograph panel. It is made up of seven or eight ochre images – most more clear than any on the Whitefish Bay site. Slash marks predominate but there are other more representational images as well.
A figure with six “arms” and a “tail” on the top left, a simple Thunderbird image, and some other difficult to interpret markings. Underneath the Thunderbird (if that is what it is!) is the largest single splash of colour on the panel. I started to verbalize a feline Mishipeshu-like figure on the left with a canoe with six paddlers on the right and snakes underneath – just like at Agawa Rock – but Max remarked that I was maybe getting a bit overly enthusiastic!
We paddled over to Reva Island and the second “Sensitive Area” sign. We had considered beaching the canoe and spending some time with the old grown white pines still found on the island – some apparently as old as 350 years – but the “you are not welcome” sign and the lack of any clear path had us looking towards Fairy Point instead.
Reva Island Archaeological Site (DbHw-1)
A possible explanation for the “No Access” sign may be the fact that archaeological work on the island in the 1960s and 70s uncovered evidence of a Terminal Woodland /early post-contact site with a date of about 1590 A.D. Along with the usual stone artifacts – mostly scrapers and projectile points – were gun parts and a possible gunflint. A ceramic fragment found at the site is seen as evidence of contact with groups in Wisconsin or Michigan. See here for a summary of the site’s significance by the archaeologist John Pollack. As with the seasonal traditional pre-European- contact campsite on the west side of Whitefish Bay with the “Sensitive Area” sign, park visitors are discouraged.
Reva Island as an Indigenous site is also mentioned in Hap Wilson’s Missinaibi: From Lake Superior To James Bay By Canoe (2004 reprint of 1994 first ed.) guidebook. We read:
…the island may have served the Anishinabeg as an ancient burial site where corpses were perched in prominent trees in order to watch family members passing by….Occupation and activities of the island date back as far back as 5000 years. (p.50)
The details don’t agree at all with the archaeological record. Instead of 500 years, Wilson has it as far back as 5000! Instead of a seasonal habitation site, it is (maybe) a site where tree burial was practised with the added modern reinterpretation of the traditional ritual as one that has the corpses placed there to watch the living! Bone fragments – human or other – were not mentioned by those who examined the site. Given the nature of the soil, this is not a surprise.
Click on the image below to see the locations of both Reva Point and Fairy Point pictograph sites from the north end of Reva Island.
Fairy Point Pictograph Site:
Along with the Diamond Lake pictograph site in Temagami, the Fairy Point site must be one of the most visited in northern Ontario. The annual influx of canoe trippers coming in from the Crooked Lake portage on the start of their journey to Mattice or Moosonee, pass right by the pictographs. That is if they know they are there and have lucked into some calm water as they make their way south to the point. Given its location, even moderate winds from the SW can have some nifty waves crashing into the point, making the thought of sitting there with a camera and contemplating Ojibwe rock paintings less important than just getting down the lake!
If they do stop they will be looking at the most impressive stretch of rock face on the entire lake, a point not lost on the Anishinaabe shamans and vision questers who came here two and three hundred years ago – and maybe longer ago than that. The rock face was to them the home of the maymaygweshiwuk, the “little men” who served as go-betweens to the manitous, the spirits who could grant the visitors the medicines and favours they sought. From this traditional Ojibwe understanding of the Point comes the English name “Fairy” -“small imaginary being of human form that has magical powers”.
In our visit to the pictographs of Fairy Point, we came at it from the south and paddled north for 900 meters before heading over to Red Granite Point and a campsite.
- In Selwyn Dewdney’s 1958 visit, he recorded his impressions in a north-to-south order in terms of various “faces” (his term for what others refer to as panels) with the most northerly one being Face I and the most southerly one being Face IX.
- According to Conway’s count, there are 236 paintings on thirty panels. Unclear is exactly what makes up a painting. Does each line in a row of 11 tally marks, for example, make up one or 11 paintings?
We would not see IX faces or 30 panels in our slow paddle along Fairy Point. What we did see, however, far surpassed the one and only panel we had been familiar with in our four previous fly-by’s of the site!
Our visit began with the following stretch of rock at the south end. The image below shows the first two ochre paintings we saw – two slash marks, with the one on the right having “arms” or fins. It reminded us of a similar fish image at Agawa Rock.
On we went until we came to the bit of vertical rock surface in the photo below. “Move along. Nuthin’ to see!” Well, there were a few splashes of hematite including a J figure and a series of vertical lines. We had been to Fairy Point before so we knew there was more in store for us, although to be honest the only panel of images we could remember was the most obvious one, the one with the animals and the circle with a smile in it.
The Mishipeshu and Caribou Panel:
And there it was! In the early 1980s heading down the Missinaibi had been an annual thing and each time we passed this rock face. Once Max even took out his Nikon EM and snapped a photo; the other times we were just keen to get down to the river itself for the thrills and spills of the rapids. Now we had lots of time and thanks to the light wind the water was relatively calm.
Dewdney labelled this pictograph panel Face IX; his book includes a sketch – see below – of most of the images.
Not included in the Dewdney sketch is the row of nine tally marks on the right side of the panel next to the caribou; also missing is the small bear image located below the inverted Y (or whatever it is). Given the rudimentary skills of the “painter(s)” and the assumed presence of Mishipeshu, the inverted Y as the horned serpent would seem not be totally far-fetched!
And what to make of the circle that emoji culture will have us see it as a smile? And what is with the seven “legs” or “rays” attached to the bottom of the circle? A common explanation is that it is a sun symbol with the lines represent rays or spiritual power being transmitted by the manitous to those who have come to this site.
On Little Missinaibi Lake (Site #2) there is a similar pictograph. It too has lines below the circle – at least four and maybe more. Inside the circle are what look like eyes and a mouth! The best explanation? It once had the same semi-circular arc seen on the Fairy Point pictograph but bits of it have eroded over time to create what some will see as facial features.
A Possible Explanation of the “Circle” or the “Face”:
It may be that what the circle actually represents is the Megis shell, the cowrie that held a special place in Ojibwe religion and the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, the secret society of “medicine men”. According to one of the central myths of the Midewiwin, it was the Megis that led the Anishinaabeg from their homeland on the Atlantic coast to the Lake Superior region. William Warren in his History of The Ojibway People, published in 1885, recounts a speech he heard delivered in a Midewiwin lodge which began like this –
While our forefathers were living on the great salt water toward the rising sun, the great Megis (sea-shell) showed itself above the surface of the great water, and the rays of the sun for a long period were reflected from its glossy back. It gave warmth and light to the An-ish-in-aub-ag (red race)…
The cowrie with the inner line to indicate the opening and the lines on the bottom as rays of light – as an explanation, it sure beats the happy face emoji I first saw! Chapter IV of Warren’s book has the best account of the Anishinaabeg migration that I have found. You can download a copy of Warren’s essential study of the Ojibway here and read the entire account of the Great Migration. (Note: it is an 8 Mb download and is in pdf format.)
Given all the animal imagery – moose, caribou, and bear – you would have to wonder if the paintings are related to hunting trips. Could the images serve as petitions to the Manitous for success or as thanks for having made the animals available? Conway considers this possible purpose of the pictographs and concludes –
The elders who had inherited family traditions about pictographs insisted that this permanent sacred imagery was not related to hunting magic. While Ojibwa and Cree hunters performed many rituals to honour the eternal spirits of animals taken for food or fur, no accounts have been collected about rock art used for this purpose. Indeed, animals, whether fish, birds or mammals, were harvested so often that not enough rock art could exist to equal these rituals. (Conway 217)
Continuing North At Fairy Point:
Just north of Dewdney’s Face IX, we paddled by the four slash marks seen in the image below. That brought us to Face VIII, another of the panels that Dewdney made a drawing of and which appears in Indian Rock Paintings Of The Great Lakes.
Dewdney’s Face VIII:
In the sixty years between Dewdney’s visit and ours, lichen growth has obscured much of what is there. If not for his drawing we would not have even seen over half of the pictographs! Other than the cross and the animal with the two prominent ears or horns, little could be made out. Click on the images to enlarge and see if you have better luck!
Continuing Further North At Fairy Point:
The vibrant colour of the “stick man” makes him jump out as you paddle by. Next to him are some faded ochre markings, an upside-down Y and the remains of an arc.
Dewdney’s Face VI:
This may be the panel that Conway refers to as The Nanabush and the Black Wolf (i.e.Myeengun) Panel. It includes a human figure and a canine animal. Of the human figure he writes –
The human figure comes across as quite large by Ojibwa pictograph standards. But Nanabush the cultural hero, trickster, and first ancestor to the Ojibwa, often stood larger than life. (Conway 222)
The spindly elongated figure may be what he is referring to though we did not recognize it as such at the time. The clearest image was the moose figure at the top of the panel.
The Moose and Stars Panel (Dewdney’s Face IV):
Along with the Mishipeshu and the Caribou Panel (Face IX) this panel had the greatest number of “readable” images – i.e. ones which have strong colours and clear shapes. Of course, what they all mean and how – if at all – they relate to each other are other issues that won’t be resolved soon!
The white crosses were certainly a novelty. In fact, they were the first pictographs we have seen painted in white. Dewdney writes: “The white crosses… display the only white outside of the Namakan site.”
I am left wondering about the formulation of this white “paint”. The other question, of course, is “Why crosses?” or more to the point “Whose cross?” Is it a reference to the symbol that seemed to the natives to be one of immense power to the Jesuits. Is a reference to a possible Midewiwin (exclusive Ojibwe medicine society) cross that predated the arrival of the Europeans and their mythology?
The first image below is an overview of the panel; it is followed by others that focus more closely on various sections of the overall rock face. For some reason, Dewdney does not include the bottom half of the panel in his sketch. This includes the distinct white crosses that he makes reference to.
We are now about 400 meters from where we started our Fairy Point scan. Coming up are a few more humble rock paintings – animal figures, geometric forms, vertical slash marks, and others probably hidden under that black lichen cover.
A small bear figure can be seen on the right of the rock face e below; the other red “markings” may just be exposed red granite. We couldn’t decide.
We noticed a small German flag placed below the moose pictograph in the photos above and below. Perhaps German paddlers at the start of their epic Canadian adventure had left something for the manitous?
Our GPS track tells us that we only spent 35 minutes paddling Fairy Point from south to north! Strange because it felt much longer and more like we had stepped out of time completely!
As we came to the end our thoughts turned to a campsite for the night. Our initial trajectory to an island campsite 1.5 kilometers to the north was changed when we saw the closer – and inviting – Red Granite Point site, complete with some horizontal rock frontage.
And an added bonus – as the afternoon turned into the evening we were treated to the view of Fairy Point glowing as the setting sun lit it up. Had we been more on the ball we would have paddled back over there for some “Golden Hour” shots of the pictographs. It would have given us a chance to see some of the many panels and rock images that escaped our view. Instead, Helinox chairs in service, we sat on that rock patio of ours and sipped on our maple whisky. We had paddled less than ten kilometers and visited three pictograph sites and the wind and rain never dialled it up beyond “gentle” – what a great day it had turned out to be!
More Info On Fairy Point:
Bill Steer (aka Backroads Bill) has an excellent article on the Fairy Point site. Click above on the header to Steer’s website to access the article – or click on the title – The Rock Fairies – Spiritual Pictograph Site.
My post relied heavily on Dewdney’s research and drawings. To provide easy access to the pages of Dewdney’s Indian Rock Paintings Of The Great Lakes that deal with Fairy Point, I created a pdf file of the relevant pages. You can download the 1.6 Mb pdf document here.
Where To Next?
130 kilometers south-west of Fairy Point is another major Anishinaabe pictograph site, and one of the most accessible. It sits on the shore of Lake Superior between Wawa and Sault Sainte Marie:
After Fairy Point, Selwyn Dewdney was off to Agawa Rock on the eastern end of Lake Superior. He was overwhelmed by what he found. Click here to read his account!
Twenty-five years later Thor Conway and his wife Julie would do major work on the pictographs of Agawa Rock, combining the then-novel use of acetate sheets (instead of the rice paper previously used) to copy the images underneath.
As well, they spent hundreds of hours interviewing local elders about traditional Ojibwe culture. His book Spirits On Stone (the 2010 edition of a book first published in 1991) presents the pictographs in the voice of the descendants of the Ojibwe who painted them. If you’re interested in the topic, it is a book worth getting.