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Picture This: Storytelling through Pictographs

Aanii! Hello! Niibin (summer) is all around us now and it is a beautiful season to be out paddling, hiking, or just generally exploring! There are many amazing things to see while out paddling, but if you’re very lucky you might see something very special: Anishinaabe pictographs. Indigenous peoples across the world have different methods of storytelling and record keeping, but there are some examples of records and physical pictographs left in certain places. 

Anishinaabek are story-telling people. They have been telling stories since time immemorial. One of the most interesting ways to tell stories is through pictographs. A pictograph is a symbol or drawing painted onto rocks and can represent many different things. Some pictographs are memories while others could be teachings or messages. Another form of storytelling without words by the Anishinaabek is petroglyphs, which are symbols carved into the rock or symbols carved into birch bark and trees. All of these stories, in their different forms, teach us about Anishinaabe life, culture, knowledge, and worldview. It also gives us a look into what Anishinaabek encountered, what they saw, and their lives. 

Pictographs can be drawn with many different substances, but there is one in Parry Sound drawn with a material called onaman, red ochre. If you read the Oshkinigig blog, you’ll remember that in October 2019 there was a jiimaanke, a canoe build. To celebrate this historic and beautiful event, one of the canoe builders painted a pictograph at the launch site. 

The Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth has a pictograph styled logo. The pictograph painted at the launch site is the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth’s logo. This logo was picked because it connects Anishinaabek to our ancestors, while also creating the story of a family and community of canoe builders, and now caretakers of Oshkinigig. When you see Oshkinigig or pictures of her, you will notice she has beautiful artwork carved onto her hull. This is a winterbark etching and is a form of storytelling that is similar to pictographs. Her story speaks to the builders that were there, but also to the season she was built in. 

Pictographs can be found in different places and regions across the globe but they can fade with time, people mistake them for graffiti, or the knowledge of their locations is lost. For these reasons, known pictograph sites are sacred, protected, or gate kept. Pictographs are a connection to ancestors, but also to traditional knowledge. It is a way of passing stories and knowledge down for generations. As such, you will not find many modern pictures of pictographs nor should you take any pictures if you see them without talking to a local Knowledge holder(s) or Elder(s) – or a staff member if the site is within a Provincial/National Park. 

Pictographs are a unique and special way to look into the past but also to record future history. Oshkinigig’s winterbark etching is a record of history and her pictograph creation is a credit to the revitalization of Anishinaabe aadziwin and ininemowin (way of being, thought, and knowledge). 

If you had the opportunity to make a pictograph, an image that captured something from your past or shared a message about something important, what would you depict?

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