Elements of Picture Writing

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There has been no explanation of the Mexican system of Picture Writing, by which it can be understood as a system, if we except the mode of distinguishing the day, the division of the cycle called Tlalpilli, and the cycle itself. By the devices for what may be designated the surnames of families or clans, which our United States tribes call TOTEMS, the names of reigning caciques and dynasties were also preserved. Figurative or representative signs described events. The drowning of distinguished men was represented by a boat upsetting on the water. Maces, arrows, flowers, quadrupeds, birds, and other animate and inanimate objects, were employed as symbols. Compartments and colors gave uniformity and attraction to the series of signs, many of which were derived from their fine tropical vegetation and phenomena. In this respect, and in the mode of denoting chronology, the Mexican picture writing was in advance of the ruder form of our pictography. The latter is exclusively ideographic consisting of a series of signs for whole ideas and sentences the chief or turning words of which are typified, as affording aid to the memory. The signs are drawn from every department of nature from the earth, the waters, and the atmosphere. With a spiritual agency a subtle polytheism pervading all space, these signs are supposed to effect and maintain relations to these objects of a mysterious and miraculous character. A hunter has selected his personal spirit or manito from the animal creation, and whenever he encounters that object, be it bird or beast, in the forest, he regards it in the light of a protector, or harbinger of luck. Even its tracks, if it be a quadruped, or its flight, if it be a bird, are sufficient to animate his highest hopes or fears. A Meta or priest, and a jossakeed, or a medical man, believes himself to have triumphed by his skill, and is desirous, by his figurative or representative signs, to perpetuate the knowledge of his success among his countrymen. Fame is as powerful a motive to him as to the man of science, letters, or religion, in civil life. He believes in the truth and efficacy of his system of polytheism, of spirit-power, of incantations, of medical magic, of mythology, of his wild forest religion. And that the observance of these rites, offerings, and ceremonies, in each department, is indissolubly connected with the issues of life and death. Stronger motives civilization and Christian hope could not supply. This will denote the faith with which he practices his pictography. For their pictographic devices the North American Indians have two terms, namely, Kekeewin, or such things as are generally understood by the tribe; and Kelceenowin, or teachings of the medas or priests, and jossakeeds or prophets. The knowledge of the latter is chiefly confined to persons who are versed in their system of magic medicine, or their religion, and may be deemed hieratic. The former consists of the common figurative signs, such as are employed at places of sepulture, or by hunting or travelling parties. It is also employed in the muzzinábiks, or rock-writings. Many of the figures are common to both, and are seen in the drawings generally; but it is to be understood that this results from the figure-alphabet being precisely the same in both, while the devices of the nugamoons, or medicine, wabino, hunting, and war songs, are known solely to the initiates who have learned them, and who always pay high to the native professors for this knowledge. Shawunipenais, or the South-bird, a member of the Chippewa tribe, told me, (after he had become a member of the Baptist Church,) that he had paid exorbitant prices, such as a gun for a song, in learning the magical hunting songs. They were taught to him from the devices on scrolls of bark. He added, that he had been a long time in learning them; that the information was communicated secretly; and that, whenever he had mastered the songs, which contained mysterious allusions, he fully understood, and could draw the devices.

The subjects to which the North American Indian applies his pictographic skill, may be regarded as follows, namely:

1.  Kekeewin
A. Common signs Travelling
B. Adjidatigwun Sepulture
2. Kekeenowin
C. Medawin Medicine
D. Minor Jeesukáwin Necromancy
E. Wabeno Revelry
F. Keossáwin Hunting
G. Higher Jeesukáwin Prophecy
H. Nundobewunewun War
I. Sageawin Love
K. Muzzinabikon History

Some observations on each of these topics may be made.

Common Kekeewin

Mode Of Writing By Representative And Symbolical Pictures.

Elements of Picture Writing - Plate 49
Elements of Picture Writing – Plate 49

A. The following pictograph is transcribed from the sides of a blazed tree, of the species Pinus resinosa, found on the banks of the Namakagun, a tributary of the River St. Croix, of the Upper Mississippi, at a spot where I landed in the month of August 1831. (See A, Plate 49.)

The purport, as explained by an interpreter well versed in both this art and the language and customs of the Chippewas, may be given in few words. Figure 3, on the right, is the totem of a hunter, who had encamped at that spot. It represents a fabulous animal, called the copper-tailed bear. The two parallel lines beneath it, (figure 4,) curved at each end, represent the hunter s canoe. The next sign, (figure 1,) on the same side, below, is the totem of his companion, the mizi, or cat-fish, the parallel lines beneath (figure 2) also representing his canoe. The upper figure, 5, on the left, represents the common black bear; the six lower devices, figures 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11, denote six fish of the cat-fish species. The interpretation is this: The two hunters, whose totems were cat-fish and copper-tailed bear, while encamped at the spot, killed a bear, and captured the expressed number of cat-fish in the river. The record was designed to convey this piece of information to their people and kinsfolk who should pass the locality. The state of society among them rendered such information interesting; it was as much so to them, perhaps, as the generality of the information of a personal character which is circulated by our diurnal press; and the fact of the record itself may be regarded as a proof that the system of the Kekeewin was generally understood.

Elements of Picture Writing - Plate 48
Elements of Picture Writing – Plate 48

The scroll containing this inscription (See A, Plate 48,) was obtained above St. Anthony s Falls, on a public expedition in 1820, which has been alluded to in a prior place. It consisted of white birch bark, and the figures had been carefully drawn. Number 1, denotes the flag of the Union; Number 2, the cantonment, then recently established at Cold Spring, on the western side of the cliffs, above the influx of the St. Peters. Number 4 is the symbol of the commanding officer, (Colonel H. Leaven-worth,) under whose authority a mission of peace had been sent into the Chippewa country. Number 11 is the symbol of Chakope, or the Six, the leading Sioux chief, under whose orders the party moved. Number 8 is the second chief, called Wamade’unka, or the Black Eagle. The symbol of his name is Number 10. He has 14 lodges.

Captain Douglas, who had begun the study of this “bark-letter,” as it was called, thought this symbol denoted his descent from Chakope. Number 7 is a chief, subordinate to Chakope, with 13 lodges, and a bale of goods (Number 9), which was devoted, by the public, to the objects of the peace. The name of Number 6, whose wigwam is Number 5, with 13 subordinate lodges, was not given. The frame, or crossed poles of the entire 50 lodges composing this party, had been left standing on the high, open prairie on the west bank of the Mississippi, above Sauk River, and immediately opposite the point of Hornblende Rocks, which the French call the Two Rocks. A high pole, split so as to receive the scroll, was placed at the head of the camp, conspicuous to all who should pass; and its sight actually produced a shout from Babesacundabe and a delegation of Chippewas, who accompanied him on an errand of peace from the sources of the Mississippi.

Elements of Picture Writing - Plate 47
Elements of Picture Writing – Plate 47

To these examples of the use of pictographic writing to subserve the purpose of information, in traveling and in hunting, I add the following pictograph respecting known historical events. It was transcribed from a tree on the banks of the Muskingum River, Ohio, about 1780.1 The bark of the tree had been removed about twelve inches square, to admit the inscription. The characters were drawn with charcoal and bear s oil. (See B, Plate 47.)

It is known, historically, that, after the conquest of Canada, 1758-59, the western Indians, who adhered to the French interest, formed an extensive confederacy for retaking, simultaneously, all the military posts west of the Alleghanies, This con federacy, which was headed by the celebrated chief Pontiac, was so well ordered and planned that nine out of the twelve small stockaded garrisons, held by the English troops, were actually surprised and taken; and they were only resisted by the superior works of Pittsburg and Detroit. It was not till the year 1763-64 that these formidable disturbances were quelled, and the authority of the British crown finally established among the dissatisfied tribes.

The inscription relates to these events. It depicts the part borne in this confederate war by the Delawares of the Muskingum, under the conduct of the noted chief Wingenund.

Number 1 represents the eldest and main branch of the Delaware tribe, by its ancient symbol, the tortoise.
Number 2 is the totem, or armorial badge of Wingenund, denoting him to be the actor.
Number 3 is the sun. The ten horizontal strokes beneath it denote the number of war-parties in which this chief had participated.
Number 4 are men’s scalps.
Number 5, women s scalps.
Number 6, male prisoners.
Number 7, female prisoners.
Number 8, a small fort situated on the banks of Lake Erie, which was taken by the Indians in 1762, by a surprise.
Number 9 represents the fort at Detroit, which, in 1763, resisted a siege of three months, under the command of Major Gladwyn.
Number 10 is Fort Pitt, denoted by its striking position on the extreme point of land at the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela rivers.
Number 11 denotes the incipient town near it.

The eleven crosses or figures, arranged below the tortoise, denote the number of persons who were either killed or taken prisoners by this chief. The prisoners are distinguished from the slain by the figure of a ball or circle above the cross-figure denoting a head. Those devices with out this circle are symbols of the slain. But four, out of the eleven, appear to have been women, and of these, two were retained as prisoners. It appears that but two of the six men were led into captivity. The twenty-three nearly vertical strokes, at the foot of the inscription, indicate the strength of the chieftain s party. The inclination denotes the course they marched to reach the scene of conflict. This course, in the actual position of the tribe, and of the side of the tree chosen to depict it, was northward. As one of the evidences which show the order and exactitude of these rude memorials in recording facts, it is to be observed that the number of persons captured or killed, in each expedition of the chief, is set on the left of the picture, exactly opposite the symbolical mark of the expedition. Thus, in his first war-party, he took nothing; in the second, he killed one man, and took his scalp the sign is ideographic of one; in the third, he killed a male and female, and took a female prisoner; in the fourth, he took a male prisoner; the fifth, he accomplished nothing; the sixth, he took a male prisoner. Between this and his next expedition some years elapsed, as denoted by the space. In the seventh, he took a female prisoner; the eighth, he killed a man; the ninth, a woman; the tenth, a man.

Here is a large amount of information conveyed by 51 symbolic or representative characters. Its interpretation is due to a fellow-tribesman of the successful warrior; the noted Delaware chief, Captain White Eyes, who was acquainted with the circum stances, knew Wingenund, had participated in the incidents of the war, and was well versed in this mode of pictorial writing.

These facts have been brought forward, as denoting a starting point in the inquiry.

Adjedatigwun.2

The veneration of the Indian tribes for their dead, is well known. Piety and affection, respect and remembrance, may have more costly and splendid modes of obituary exhibition in civilized life; but it is questionable if there be more sincerity, more true regret, more unaffected sorrow, than there is often found among esteemed individuals of these simple bands. And if there be anything sacred, in a life of so much change, vicissitude, and temptation to degradation, as they have suffered, it is a sentiment of veneration for their dead. This is a public sentiment, which has often been evinced, and is known to have had force when they have parted with every species of landed possession, and even territory containing the last cherished spot of their simple sepulture. In such circumstances they have uniformly solicited much regard, and an undisturbed repose, for the bones of their dead. One of the great merits ascribed by the modern Indians to the era of the French supremacy in the land is, that Frenchmen never disturbed the places of their dead.3 The cemeteries of the Indian dead were always placed in the choicest scenic situations their vicinage afforded; on some crowning hill, or gentle eminence in a secluded valley. Airy or sylvan sites were always selected. Their taste in this respect has often been noticed and admired. They were deficient in mechanical skill, in wood and stone, but they have rarely been exceeded, perhaps never, by erratic tribes, in the kind care and decent enwrapment and interment of their deceased. Nothing that the dead possessed has ever been deemed too valuable to be interred with the body. The most costly dress, arms, ornaments, and implements, are deposited in the grave. Where the low state of these arts permitted no architectural display in their simple tombs and bark-cenotaphs, nothing was more natural than that they should heap piles of earth over the remains. In this manner, the spot could be marked and kept in remembrance long after their frail memorials of wood and bark, with their pictorial devices, had perished. This, it is thought, was the origin and cause of by far the largest number of the mounds and barrows which extend over so large an area of the western country, and which have been, from time to time, the subject of much, and (may we not add?) some very fanciful observation. That religious rites should connect themselves with these rude mausoleii, and be offered on their summits, was a not less natural than simple process, among such a people. It cannot be a subject of wonder, that, without a revelation of the “more perfect way” spoken of by the Apostle, these tribes should convert the altars of remembrance of their dead into altars of propitiation for the prosperity of the living. The most pertinent point of the inquiry here is, whether, in their efforts to perpetuate the memory of the name and acts of the dead, they may not in some cases have inscribed their “hieroglyphics” (as they are improperly called) and figures upon them.

Grave Posts of Chippewa and Dacota -  Plate 50
Grave Posts of Chippewa and Dacota – Plate 50

The most common and simple mode of the disposition of a dead body among these tribes, was, after wrapping it in the best garments, to enclose it, with every adjunct memorial, in outer wrappers of skins and bark and, if possible, a wooden shell, variously made, and thus to inter it. Among the Sioux and western Chippewas, after the body has been wrapped in its best clothes and ornaments, it is then placed on a scaffold, or in a tree, where it remains until the flesh is entirely decayed; after which the bones are buried, and the grave-posts fixed. At the head of the grave a tabular piece of cedar, or other wood, called the adjedatig, is set. This grave-board contains the symbolic or representative figures which record, if it be a warrior, his totem; that is to say, the symbol of his family, or surname, and such arithmetical or, other devices as serve to denote how many times the deceased has been in war parties, and how many scalps he has taken from the enemy; two facts, from which his reputation is to be essentially derived. It is seldom that more is attempted in the way of inscription. Often, how ever, distinguished chiefs have, their war-flag, or, in modern days, a small ensign of American fabric, displayed on a standard at the head of, their graves, which is left to fly over the deceased till it is wasted by the elements. Scalps of their enemies, feathers of the bald or black eagle, the swallow-tailed falcon, or some carnivorous bird, are: also placed, in such instances, on the adjedatig, or suspended, with offerings of various kinds, on a separate staff. But the latter are super-additions of a religious character, and belong to the class of the ke-ke-wa-o-win-au-tig, (ante, Number 4.) The building of a funeral fire on recent graves, is also a rite which belongs to the consideration of their religious faith.”

The following figures (Plate 50) will convey a just idea of this kind of pictographic record.

Number 1 is the adjedatig of Wabojeeg, a celebrated war-chief and ruler of his tribe, who died on Lake Superior, about 1793. He was of the family or clan of the addik, or American reindeer. This fact is symbolized by the figure of the deer. The reverse position denotes death. His own personal name, which was the White Fisher, is not noticed. The seven transverse marks on the left denote that he had led seven war parties. The -three perpendicular lines below the totem, represent three wounds received in battle. The figure of a moose s head, relates to a desperate conflict with an enraged animal of this kind. The symbols of the arrow and pipe, are drawn to indicate his influence in war and peace.

Number 2 is the record of a hunter of the Mukwau or bear clan, who had been a member of three separate war parties.

Number 3 represents a chief who was of the tortoise totem, and has three marks of honor. The closed cross is here an emblem of death; the totem being drawn upright.

Number 4 is the record of a noted chief of the St. Mary s band, called Shin-ga-ba-was-sin, or the Image-stone, who died on Lake Superior, in 1828. He was of the totem of the crane, which is alone figured. Six marks of honor are awarded to him on the right, and three on the left. The latter represent three important general treaties of peace which he had attended at various times.4 Among the former marks are included his presence under Tecumseh, at the battle of Moraviantown, where he lost a brother.

A few years ago, Ba-be-sa-kun-dib-a (man with curled hair), the ruling chief of Sandy Lake band, on the Upper Mississippi, died and was committed to his grave, after a long life of usefulness and honor. He was buried on a conspicuous elevation, on the east bank of the river, where his grave, and the ensign which waved over it, were conspicuous to all who navigated the stream. The following inscriptions, (Figure 5) and decorations, were set up. They are thus explained:

The reversed bird denotes his family name, or clan, the crane. Four transverse lines above it, signify that he had killed four of his enemies in battle. This fact was declared, I was informed, by the funeral orator, at the time of his interment. At the same moment, the orator dedicated the ghosts of these four men, who had been killed by him in battle, and presented them to the deceased chief, to accompany him to the land of spirits. The four lines to the right, and four corresponding lines on the left of these central marks, represent eight eagles feathers, and are commemorative of his bravery. Eight marks, made across the edge of the inscription-board, signify that he had been a member of eight war parties. The nine transverse marks below the totem, signify that the orator who officiated at the funeral, and drew the inscription, had participated himself in nine war parties.

Figure 6 is a grave-post of a Dacota. It was taken in a grove near Fort Snelling, about seven miles above the mouth of the St. Peters. The inscription denotes, that the deceased had killed, during his life, seven men, five women, and four children. The figures being represented without heads, signify that they were slain.

Footnotes

  1. Archaeologia, or Miscellaneous Tracts relating to Antiquity; published by the Society of Antiquarians of London, Vol. vi., 1782, page 159. 

  2. The import of the thought of this term is given by the expression, death-stick. It is derived from the verb adjidj, to reverse, meaning that the totem of the person interred is reversed. As this totem is the symbol of the person, the ideographic import is, that the deceased has been returned to the earth. Atig is the noun in this compound, denoting a tree, stick, board, or post. The termination in wun, is the plural. 

  3. Historical and Scientific Sketches of Michigan. Detroit, 1834. 1 vol. pp. 65. 

  4. These treaties, and his attendance at them, are facts within my personal knowledge. They were held at Prairie du Chien in 1825, at Fond du Lao in 1826, and at Buttes des Morts, on Fox River, in 1827, all convened under the auspices of the American Government. 



MLA Source Citation:

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 14 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/elements-of-picture-writing.htm - Last updated on Nov 13th, 2014


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