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Algonquian Pictography

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Pictorial inscriptions of the character of the Muzzinabiks of the Western Indians, particularly of those of the Algonquin type of languages, are to be traced eastward from Lake Superior and the sources of the Mississippi, on the back line of their migration, through Lake Huron, by its northern communications, to the shores of the Northern Atlantic. One of these has been previously alluded to as existing on the Straits of St. Mary’s, and it is believed that the art will be found to have been in use, and freely employed at all periods of their history, embracing the residence of then ancestors on the shores of the Atlantic. The ancient inscription existing at the mouth of the Assonet or Taunton River (Dighton Rock), between the States of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, is believed to be a record, essentially, of this symbolic character, inscribed around an old Scandinavian inscription.

It is found that very few essential changes in their forest arts or character have taken place among the North American tribes for several centuries. There is scarcely anything more worthy of remark than this general fixity of character, and indisposition to change, or adopt any new traits, or abandon any old ones. The state of a society, simple and erratic, and molded together on the basis of petty predatory wars and hunting, did not demand extraordinary efforts. The arts that sufficed one gene ration sufficed the next. There was always a sanctity, in their localities, and a strong appeal to prejudice in a reference to ancestral customs, and to places of actual residence and achievements. There was never a more powerful appeal to be made by their speakers than is contained in the epithets, the” land of my fathers, and, the graves of my ancestors. The opinion that prior times had attained all that was worth attainment, one of the dogmas of Pontiac, has had the most paralyzing effect upon the progress of the hunter tribes. Elksquatowa, the Shawnee Prophet, had a powerful effect in confirming them in the miraculous power of his Jeesukáwin. It also had this further effect, that if they learned nothing new they forgot nothing old. The old religion and old notions of barbarism had charms for them. How far into remote antiquity this remark should be carried may, perhaps, admit of question, but its truth is vindicated by the three centuries which have elapsed since the discovery; for, with the exception of mere changes of articles of dress and arms, and partial modes of subsistence, the wild-wood tribes of A. D. 1850 are, mentally, physically, and characteristically, identical with those of A. D. 1500.

One of the great causes of this fixity and identity we may add, the great cause of both, is to be found in their system of religious belief and worship.

The religion and the mythology of the North American Indians, are the two prolific sources of their opinions. Their belief on these heads may be confidently asserted to have been the cause of action in many of the most important events which mark the history of the race, ancient and modern. And the topic is one which demands a careful investigation in the examination of questions of this nature. The idea and the picture representing the idea, are too intimately connected to allow the one to be well understood without a knowledge of the other. Great diversity has prevailed, as prior data demonstrate, in the number and character of the symbols which have served to conduct their worship; but there are certain leading principles to be traced through these diversities of types and signs. Wherever examined, whether in the ancient seats of their power in New England, or on the plains of the Mississippi, or the borders of the Lakes, their religion is found to be based on the belief in the existence of a Great Spirit, or universal Power, who is regarded as the Wazhetoad, or if the object made be animate, Wazheaud, or maker. Practically, and as denoted by the animate roots of active verbs implying life, or being, he is recognized as the Original Animating Principle. As such, he is believed to be invariably Good, and inseparable from the Principle of Good. But, evidently to account for evil influences in the world, the Indian theology provides an antagonistical power which is represented as the impersonation of the Principle of Evil. Both these powers are called Monedo, and admit the prefix Great, but the latter is never denominated Wazheaud or Maker. This is a very ancient oriental belief, as ancient, certainly, as the age of Zoroaster, by whom it appears to have been originally constructed to account for all conflicting moral phenomena in the government of the world. Our tribes are certainly innocent of any refined theory or reflection of this kind; but they adhere, with rigid pertinacity, to the doctrine of the two antagonistical powers of Good and Evil. And this tells the history of their origin and descent, with more plainness than their mounds, their anomalous style of architecture, or their unread signs and hieroglyphics. These two principles are, however, found to be so attenuated and infinitely diffused, and in this diffusion they have become so materialized and localized, and so prone to manifest themselves in the shape of created matter, animate, and inanimate, that every class of creation, and every species of every class, is seized upon by their forest worshipers, as an individual god. The whole earth is thus peopled with imaginary deities of benign or malignant power. The two classes are perpetually antagonistical to each other, and their votaries are thus kept in a perpetual state of fear and distrust.

No example of the Indian picture writing has been consulted, in which this system of belief is not strongly brought out. Whoever has attentively examined the preceding pages must have been impressed with the multiplicity of these minor deities, and with the complex character of the Indian polytheism. Upon a system of spirit-worship thus diffuse, is engrafted the idea of medical magic, called Meda, and the oriental notion of Oracles, or Prophets, called Jossakeeds. These constitute the elements in their belief. The preceding details demonstrate that there is no department of Indian life which they do not invade with an absorbing interest. They are the leading influences in war and hunting. They have converted the medical art, in a great degree, into necromantic rites. They furnish objects of remembrance upon graves, they animate the arcana of the mystical societies, and they constitute no small part of the pictorial matter recorded on trees, on rolls of bark and skins, and even on the hard surface of rocks. Whenever a sheet of Indian figures, or a piece of their symbolic writings, is presented for examination, it is important to decide, as a primary point, upon its theological or mythological characteristics; for these are generally the key to its interpretation. It affords another coincidence to that above named, between the religious belief of the early nations of the eastern and the western hemisphere, that the Creator, the Great Spirit, and the Wazheaud, was symbolized under the figure of the sun. Life, and the power of Evil, are personified, generally, under the form of a serpent; and this accounts, not only for the great respect and reverence they have for serpents, but for the pervading influence the symbol has in their meda ceremonies, and in their traditions.

It is historically known that these religious institutions existed among the tribes who formerly occupied New England, the same in principle as they are now found at the West. The powwow, and the sagamore of the waters of Long Island, Narragansett, and Massachusetts, exercised the same office, and were governed by the same principles, as the meda and the wabeno of the Illinois and the Mississippi, and the jossakeed and juggler of the banks of the Huron and the Lake of the Woods. This was in the general direction that the migration of the race from the North Atlantic ran, and there was and still exists a more intimate affiliation in rites and customs, as well as in language, between these extremes, than between them and the trans-Mississippian tribes.

Transcript from the River Irtish Tartary - Plate 65
Transcript from the River Irtish Tartary – Plate 65

It has been shown that the office of a meda, or a prophet, is not only sometimes united in that of a war-chief, or captain, but it is often the best and surest avenue to popularity. When success had crowned the efforts of the Chippewa chief Myeengun, he inscribed its results by figurative signs on the faces of two separate and distinct rocks. The Delaware war-chief, Wingenund, described the part he bore in the great Indian partisan war of the West, in 1762, by symbolic figures on the banks of the Muskingum. The Algonquian tribes who joined the French in the expulsion of the Sacs and Foxes from the eastern part of Wisconsin, in 1754, made a similar record of their success on the cliffs of Green Bay. There are still existing symbolical figures, preserved by the exuded gum on the sides of trees of the species pinus resinosa, on the portage west from Leech Lake to the shores of Pike’s Bay on Cass Lake, which were made, the chiefs informed me, by the Indians who inhabited the country at the head of the Mississippi, before its conquest by the Pillagers. And if so, they are equally remarkable for the duration of their drawings with those of the pines, mentioned by La Croix, as existing on the banks of the River Irtish, in Tartary.1 The art of inscription by pictures, and the disposition to employ it, existed early and generally among all our principal tribes; but they contented themselves, in ordinary cases, by committing their records to sheets of bark, painted skins, tabular sticks of wood, or the decorticated sides of trees, where they were read by one or two generations, and then perished.

As a suitable conclusion to this chapter on Indian pictographs, an example of a pictographic petition to the President of the United States will be given. In the month of January 1849, a delegation of eleven Chippewas, from Lake Superior, presented themselves at Washington, who, amid other matters not well digested in their minds, asked the government for a retrocession of some portion of the lands which the nation had formerly ceded to the United States, at a treaty concluded at Lapointe, in Lake Superior, in 1842. They were headed by Oshcabawiss, a chief from a part of the forest-country, called by them Monomonecau, on the headwaters of the River Wisconsin. Some minor chiefs accompanied them, together with a Sioux and two boisbrules, or half-breeds, from the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The principal of the latter was a person called Martell, who appeared to be the master-spirit and prime mover of the visit, and of the motions of the entire party. His motives in originating and conducting the party, were questioned in letters and verbal representations from persons on the frontiers. He was freely pronounced an adventurer, and a person who had other objects to fulfill, of higher interest to himself than the advancement of the civilization and industry of the Indians. Yet these were the ostensible objects put forward, though it was known that he had exhibited the Indians in various parts of the Union for gain, and had set out with the purpose of carrying them, for the same object, to England. However this may be, much interest in, and sympathy for them, was excited. Officially, indeed, their object was blocked up. The party were not accredited by their local agent. They brought no letter from the acting Superintendent of Indian Affairs on that frontier. The journey had not been authorized in any manner by the department. It was, in fine, wholly voluntary, and the expenses of it had been defrayed, as already indicated, chiefly from contributions made by citizens on the way, and from the avails of their exhibitions in the towns through which they passed; in which, arrayed in their national costume, they exhibited their peculiar dances, and native implements of war and music. What was wanting, in addition to these sources, had been supplied by borrowing from individuals.

Martell, who acted as their conductor and interpreter, brought private letters from several persons to members of Congress and others, which procured respect. After a visit, protracted through seven or eight weeks, an act was passed by Congress to defray the expenses of the party, including the repayment of the sums borrowed of citizens, and sufficient to carry them back, with every requisite comfort, to their homes in the north-west. While in Washington, the presence of the party at private houses, at levees, and places of public resort, and at the halls of Congress, attracted much interest; and this was not a little heightened by their aptness in the native ceremonies, dancing, and their orderly conduct and easy manners, united to the attraction of their neat and well-preserved costume, which helped forward the object of their mission.

The visit, although it has been stated, from respectable sources, to have had its origin wholly in private motives, in the carrying out of which the natives were made to play the part of mere subordinates, was concluded in a manner which reflects the highest credit on the liberal feelings and sentiments of Congress. The plan of a retrocession of territory, on which some of the natives expressed a wish to settle and adopt the modes of civilized life, appeared to want the sanction of the several states in which the lands asked for lie. No action upon it could therefore be well had, until the legislatures of these states could be consulted.

But if there were doubts as to the authority or approval of the visit on the part of either the Chippewas or frontier officers of the government, these very doubts led the party, under the promptings of their leader, to resort to the native pictorial art, which furnishes the subject of this notice. Picture writing, in some of its shades, has long been noticed as existing among the western Indians. By it not only exploits in war and hunting are known to be recorded, but such devices are not unfrequently seen drawn on the smooth and often inaccessible faces of rocks, on which they are frequently observed to be painted, and sometimes fretted in. A still more common exhibition of the mode is observed in the Indian adjedatig, or grave-post; and it constitutes a species of notation for their meda and hunting songs.

In the instance now before us, it is resorted to, to give authority to delegates visiting the seat of government. These primitive letters of credence were designed to supply an obvious want on the presentation of the delegation at Washington. Their leader was too shrewd not to know that letters of this kind would be required in order to enable him to stand, with authority, before the chief of the Indian Bureau, the Secretary of War, and the President.

The following are exact transcripts of the rolls on a reduced scale. There are five separate sheets, four of which are illustrative of the principal one, which expresses in symbols the object of the memorial. The material is the smooth inner coats of the bark of the betula papyracea, or white birch of northern latitudes. To facilitate description, each of the pictographs, or traced-sheets, and each of the figures of the several inscriptions, has been numbered. The names of the persons whose totemic bearings are alone introduced into these transcripts, have been written down from the lips of the interpreter. In this way, and from a comparison of the scrolls with other data possessed on the same branch, the whole story has been secured. The chiefs and warriors of the five several villages who united in the objects of the visit for there were some temporary and other objects, besides the one above named, which are not necessary to be mentioned, were represented alone by the symbols, or figures of animals which typify their clans, or totems. Their names were written down from the lips of their interpreter.

It will be seen, that by far the greatest number of the totems or clans here named, are represented by well-known species of quadrupeds, birds, or fishes, of the latitudes in which the Chippewas now live. The totemic devices would, therefore, appear to be indigenous and local, and to have little claim to antiquity. A few of them are mythological, which will be pointed out as we proceed.

Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs - Plate 60
Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs – Plate 60

The description of Pictograph A, Plate 60, is as follows: This is the leading inscription, and symbolizes the petition to the President. No. 1.

It commences with the totem of the chief, called Oshcabawis, who headed the party, who is seen to be of the Ad-ji-jauk, or Crane clan. To the eye of the bird standing for this chief, the eyes of each of the other totemic animals are directed as denoted by lines, to symbolize union of views. The heart of each animal is also connected by lines with the heart of the Crane chief, to denote unity of feeling and purpose. If these symbols are successful, they denote that the whole forty-four persons both see and feel alike THAT THEY ARE ONE.

No. 2, is a warrior, called Wai-mit-tig-oazh, of the totem of the Marten. The name signifies literally, He of the Wooden Vessel, which is the common designation of a Frenchman, and is supposed to have reference to the first appearance of a ship in the waters of the St. Lawrence.

No. 3. O-ge-ma-gee-zhig, is also a warrior of the Marten clan. The name means literally, Sky-Chief.

No. 4, represents a third warrior of the Marten clan. The name of Muk-o-mis-ud-ains, is a species of small land tortoise.

No. 5. O-mush-kose, or the Little Elk, of the Bear totem.

No. 6. Penai-see, or the Little Bird of the totem of the Ne-ban-a-baig, or Man-fish. This clan represents a myth of the Chippewas, who believe in the existence of a class of animals in the Upper Lakes, called Ne-ban-a-baig, partaking of the double natures of a man and a fish a notion which, except as to the sex, has its analogies in the superstitions of the nations of western Europe, respecting a mermaid.

No. 7. Narwa-je-wun, or the Strong Stream, is a warrior of the 0-was-se-wug. or Catfish totem.

Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs - Plate 61
Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs – Plate 61

Beside the union of eye to eye, and heart to heart, above depicted, Osh-ca-ba-wis, as represented by his totem of the Crane, has a line drawn from his eye forward, to denote the course of his journey, and another line drawn backward to the series of small rice lakes, No. 8, the grant of which constitutes the object of the journey. The long parallel lines, No. 10, represent Lake Superior, and the small parallel lines, No. 9, a path leading from some central point on its southern shores to the villages and interior lakes, No. 8, at which place the Indians propose, if this plan be sanctioned, to commence cultivation and the arts of civilized life. The entire object is thus symbolized in a manner which is very clear to the tribes, and to all who have studied the simple elements of this mode of communicating ideas.

The four accompanying pictographs are adjuncts of the principal inscription, and the object prayed for, and are designed to strengthen and enforce it, by displaying in detail the villages and persons who concur in the measure. Pictograph B, Plate 61, is interpreted thus: This is a symbolic representation of the concurrence of certain of the Chippewas of Trout Lake, on the sources of Chippewa River, Wisconsin, in the object.2

Number 1 represents the Chief Kenisteno, or the Cree, of the totem of the brant. O-tuk-um-i-pe-nai-see,

Number 2 is his son. Pa-na-shee,

Number 3 is a warrior of the totem or clan of the Long-tailed Bear. This is a mythological creation of the Chippewas, by whom it is believed that such an animal has a subterranean existence; that he is sometimes seen above ground; and that his tail, the peculiar feature in which he differs from the northern black bear, is formed of copper, or some bright metal.

Number 4. This is a warrior of the Catfish totem, of the particular species denoted Ma-no-maig. The name is Wa-gi-má-we-gwun, meaning, He of the chief-feather.

Number 5. Ok-wa-gon, or the neck, a warrior of the Sturgeon totem.

Number 6. O-je-tshaug, a warrior of the totem of the species of spring duck called Ah-ah-wai by the natives which is believed to be identical with the garrulous coast duck called Oldwives by sailors. 1

Numbers 7, 8, 9. Warriors of the clan of the fabulous Long-tailed Bear, who are named, in their order, “Wa-gi-ma-wash, or would-be-chief, Ka-be-tau-wash, or Mover-in-a-circle, and Sha-tai-mo, or Pelican s excrement.

Number 10. Ka-we-tau-be-tung, of the totem of the Awasees, or Catfish.

Number 11. 0-ta-gau-me, or the Fox Indian, of the Bear totem; and Ah-ah-wai, or the first spring duck of the Loon totem, all warriors.

Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs - Plate 62
Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs – Plate 62

Pictograph C, Plate 62. By this scroll the chief Kun-de-kund of the Eagle totem of the river Ontonagon, of Lake Superior, and certain individuals of his band, are represented as uniting in the object of the visit of Oshcabawis. He is depicted by the figure of an eagle, Number 1. The two small lines ascending from the head of the bird denote authority or power generally. The human arm extended from the breast of the bird, with the open hand, are symbolic of friendship. By the light lines connecting the eye of each person with the chief, and that of the chief with the President, (Number 8,) unity of views or purpose, the same as in pictograph Number 1, is symbolized.

Numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5, are warriors of his own totem and kindred. Their names, in their order, are On-gwai-sug, Was-sa-ge-zhig, or The Sky that lightens, Kwe-we-ziash-ish, or the Bad-boy, and Gitch-ee-ma-tau-gum-ee, or the great sounding water.
Number 6. Na-boab-ains, or Little Soup, is a warrior of his band of the Catfish totem. Figure
Number 7, repeated, represents dwelling-houses, and this device is employed to denote that the persons, beneath whose symbolic totem it is respectively drawn, are inclined to live in houses and become civilized, in other words, to abandon the chase.
Number 8 depicts the President of the United States standing in his official residence at Washington. The open hand extended is employed as a symbol of friendship, cor responding exactly, in this respect, with the same feature in Number3.

The chief whose name is withheld at the left hand of the inferior figures of the scroll, is represented, by the rays on his head, (Figure 9,) as, apparently, possessing a higher power than Number 1, but is still concurring, by the eye-line, with Kundekund in the purport of pictograph Number 1.

Pictograph D, Plate 62. In this scroll figure Number 1 represents the chief Ka-kaik-o-gwun-na-osh, or a pigeon-haw-in-flight, of the river Wisconsin, of the totem of the Long-tailed Bear. The other figures of the scroll stand for nine of his followers, who are each represented by his appropriate totem.

Number 2 is the symbol of Na-wa-kum-ig, or He-that-can-mystically-pass-down-in-the-earth. Number 6, Men-on-ik-wud-oans,
Number 7, Sha-won-e-pe-nai-see, the southern bird, and
Number 8, Mich-e-mok-in-ug-o, Going tortoise, are all warriors of the totem of the mystical Long-tailed Bear. Number 3 and 9 denote Chi-a-ge-bo and Ka-gá-ge-sheeb, a cormorant, two warriors of the bear totem.
No. 4, Muk-kud-dai-o-kun-zhe, or black hoof, is a warrior of the brant clan.
No. 5, Mikinok, a turtle, and No. 10, Na-tou-we-ge-zhig, the Ear of Day, are warriors of the marten clan.

Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs - Plate 63
Symbolic Petition of Chippewa Chiefs – Plate 63

Pictograph E, Plate 63. By this scroll, nine persons of the village of Lac Vieu Desert, at the source of the River Wisconsin, including its chief, are represented as concurring in the petition, as depicted in scroll A.

No. 1 is the device of the chief Kai-zhe-osh, of the eagle totem.
No. 2, Ush-kwai-gon, instrument or drawer of blood, and
No. 3, Mush-koas-o-no, Elk s tail, are represented as belonging to the same totem with himself.
No. 4, Pe-kin-a-ga, the winner, is of the ah-ah-wa totem. Of the other persons of this village, who have yielded their assent,
No. 5, Ka-ga-no-ga-da,
No. 8, Wa-gi-win-a, and
No. 9, Pe-midj-wa-gau-kwut, the hoe, (literally, cross-axe,) are of the bear totem.
No. 6, Na-bun-e-gee-zhig, bright sky, is of the awassees or fish totem.
No. 7, O-zhin-in-nie, the well-made man, is of the elk totem a much-respected totem in that section of country.

It is drawn with high horns, and a tuft from the breast, two very characteristic features of this animal, but, as is usual in the native devices, very much out of drawing. It has an eye-line, thrown widely forward, to denote its fixity on the seat of central power at Washington.

It will be perceived that the several members of the eagle totem, 1, 2, 3, and also the duck totem, No. 4, are denoted by the eye-lines as hailing from, or having their residences at, Lac Vieu Desert, No. 10, while the persons of the bear, elk, and cat-fish totems respectively have no such local sign. It is to be inferred, therefore, that these individuals live at other and distinct points, in that part of the country, but are not of the Lake of Vieu Desert.

The whole number of totems in the Chippewa nation is undetermined. Twelve are indicated in these devices. Of the forty-four persons who are represented, one i of the crane, four of the marten, seven of the black bear, one of the nebanabe, or nanfish, six of the cat-fish, three of the brant, eight of the long-tailed subterranean bear, one of the sturgeon, two of the ahahway, or spring duck, eight of the eagle, two of the loon, and one of the elk totem.

It will be seen, in a view of the several devices, that the greatest stress appears to be laid throughout upon the totem of the individuals, while there is no device or sign to denote their personal names. The totem is employed as the evidence of the identity of the family and of the clan. This disclosure is in accordance with all that has been observed of the history, organization, and polity of the Chippewa, and of the Algonquin tribes generally. The-totem is in fact a device, corresponding to the heraldic bearings of civilized nations, which each person is authorized to bear, as the evidence of his family identity. The very etymology of the word, which is a derivative from Do daim, a town or village, or original family residence, denotes this. It is remarkable, also, that while the Indians of this large group of North America, withhold their true personal names, on inquiry, preferring to be called by various sobriquets, which are often the familiar lodge-terms of infancy, and never introduce them into their drawings and picture-writing, they are prompt to give their totems to all inquirers, and never seem to be at a moment s loss in remembering them. It is equally noticeable, that they trace blood-kindred and consanguinity to the remotest ties; often using the nearer for the remoter affinities, as brother and sister for brother-in-law and sister-in-law, &c.; and that where there is a lapse of memory or tradition, the totem is confidently appealed to, as the test of blood affinity, however remote. It is a consequence of the importance attached to this ancient family tie, that no person is permitted to change or alter his totem, and that such change is absolutely unknown among them.

These scrolls were handed in, and deposited among the statistical and historical archives and collections of the bureau. By closely inspecting them, they are seen to denote the concurrence of but thirty-three Chippewa warriors, out of the entire Chippewa nation, besides the eleven persons present. Each family and its location, is accurately depicted by symbols. Unity is shown by eye-lines, and by heart-lines. Friendship by an open hand. Civilization by a dwelling-house. Each person bears his peculiar totemic mark. The devices are drawn, or cut, on the smooth inner surface of the sheets of bark. It will thus have been observed, that the Indian pictorial system is susceptible of considerable certainty of information. By a mixture of the pure representative and symbolical mode, these scrolls are made to denote accurately the number of the villages uniting in the object of Martell’s party, together with the number of persons of each totemic class, who gave in their assent to the plan. They also designate, by geographical delineations, the position of each village, and the general position of the country which they ask to be retroceded. It is this trait of the existence among the Chippewas and Algonquins generally, of a pictorial art, or rude method of bark, tree, or rock-writing, which commends the circumstances of the visit to a degree of notice beyond any that it might, perhaps, otherwise merit. It recalls strongly to mind the early attainments of eastern nations in a similar rude mode of expressing ideas by symbolic marks and symbols, prior to the remote eras of the introduction of the cuneiform, and long prior to the true hieroglyphic system of the Euphrates and the Nile. In fact, every trait of this kind may be considered as furnishing additional lights to aid us in considering the question of the origin, condition, capacities and character of hunter nations, of whose ancient history we are still quite in the dark.


  1. Vide Strahlenberg, seq. 

  2. It is believed to be doubtful whether the Ah-ah-wai should not be classified with the totem of the Loon. 

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