Tuesday, 23 September 2014


In memory of Selwyn Dewdney (1909 – 1979), artist, teacher, novelist, psychiatric therapist, and Canada’s foremost researcher of Indian Rock Art. He grew up in Northwestern Ontario where he saw his first pictograph and over his lifetime he recorded hundreds more for the National Museums of Canada, Glenbow Foundation, Royal Ontario Museum, and the Quetico Foundation.

Selwyn wrote more than 20 books and articles on Indian art including Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes with Kenneth Kidd and Sacred Scroll of the Southern Ojibway in collaboration with James Red Sky of Shoal Lake. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he was Research Associate in the office of the Chief Archaeologist, Royal Ontario Museum.

His brilliant achievements made him Canada’s “father of rock art research”.


The following words go with the rock paintings of the previous Posts. Archaeology of Northwestern Ontario  2 Indian Rock Paintings and Carvings.

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The hundreds of Indian rock art sites adorning our cliffs and rock slopes supply elements of reverence and mystery to the Northwestern Region’s beautiful lakes.

The paintings, or “pictographs”, are figures in bright red pigment made from mineral haematite 9red ochre) and possibly a grease and glue from sturgeon fish.  They are nearly always found on spectacular, vertical, cliff faces at the water’s edge.

The carvings, or “petroglyphs”, are figures much like the painted ones but incised with a sharp tool or pecked with a blunt object onto smooth rock slopes along the shoreline.  In our region they have been found only on Lake of the Woods and may be related to the petroglyph sites in northern Minnesota.


The Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan was populated as early as A.D. 1000 by the Algonkian-speaking ancestors of the modern Cree and Ojibway people. Many of the figures on the rock paintings and carvings are similar to those on nineteenth and twentieth century Ojibway birch bark scrolls.


We have not discovered techniques to date the sites. We can only guess at their age from the objects depicted. Petroglyph sites in northern Minnesota have been dated to as early as 3,000 B.C. because they depict atlatls, or spear throwers, which were used during the Archaic period (about 3,000 B.C. to 200 B. C. ). Some of the Lake of the Woods petroglyphs may date to that period, although others have been incised with modern metal instruments. The rock paintings may date to as early as A.D. 1000 – that is, the beginning of the period recognizably ancestral to the modern Cree and Ojibway – but we know that some are historic because they depict European-introduced items such as the horse and rifle.

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A Manitoba researcher was told the following story by Crees at Oxford House, a tale that gives us some notion as to why the paintings were done:

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A woman of Oxford House Band was very sick.  The woman’s family asked an old man named Mistoos Muskego to come and cure her of her illness.  The old man tried again and again to cure the woman but nothing seemed to work.  Finally the old man said that there was only one hope left and that was to go and ask the men who lived in the rock if they could give him the powerful medicine needed to cure the woman.  The old man left in his canoe and paddled to where he knew they dwelt.  (This spot is today a granite rock face rising sharply upwards from the Semple River even as it was in Mistoos’ day.)  The old man was very powerful and used his power to enter the rock, into the home of the men who lived there.  The old man talked for a long time with the men who lived in the rock and asked for the medicine that would cure the woman, and in the end he was given the medicine that he requested.  The old man then left the rock and paddled back to the home of the woman who was ill.  The medicine of the men who lived in the rock was given to the woman who was ill.   This medicine cured the woman.  The old man said that all should remember it was the men who lived in the rocks who were powerful and could give medicine to a powerful old man.  The old man then made a paint and asked all the people to come with him to the mome of the men who lived in the rocks.  The old man and the people then paddled  their canoes up to the rock ledge by the water.  He told the assembled people how he had  received the medicine.  He then said that no one should forget the men who lived in the rock and that he would draw a painting of them. (He then drew a painting about two feet high, stick-figured with lines running from the head giving a “rabbit-eared” look.)  The people now would remember where the men who lived in the rock lived and what they looked  like, and all returned home.

Clint Wheeler, CRARA Newsletter (Manitoba Chapter) 1:4

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The man who told the researcher the story had heard it from his grandmother, and her grandmother had been present, as a little girl, at the painting.

The above story links the painting to Cree Medicine and similar paintings may be an element also of Ojibway Medicine. Researchers have noted distinct similarities between the painted figures and the forms on birch bark scrolls of the Ojibway Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society.


Many of the figures are executed in such an abstract fashion that it is difficult to recognize them.  Some are distinguishable as bear, moose, bison, etc., but some are simply generalized animal or human figures.  The abstract and symbolic figures makes interpretation difficult without access to the original artists. Indeed, the artists may have preferred abstractions so that only they knew what the paintings meant.

We can see that on many paintings there are groups of figures probably telling a story.  The Algonkian concept of spatial organization is not a left-to-right progression as in writing but a generalized grouping of forms as in a picture.  The figures, if they were meant to be used in the same manner as those on the birch bark scrolls, were meant simply as memory aids for the shaman-artist to recall a story – historical or mythological or both – related to the area where the painting was done.  The above recollection from Oxford House describes such a situation.

It is likely that each site has not one but several meanings depending on the audience.  Ojibway writer Basil Johnston has pointed out that Ojibway stories are not to be interpreted literally but have four depths of meaning: enjoyment, moral teaching, philosophic, and metaphysical.  Readers draw their own  inferences according to their knowledge and abilities.  The same is likely true of the rock art sites.

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Some figures may be spirits – the upraised arms of the human figures denote the spiritual quality perhaps of Maymaygwayshi, or Rock Medicine Men, who live in the cliffs and are known to steal fish from nets and bother Indians canoeing by the site, but they also have positive qualities as the Oxford House story relates.

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The animal figures are probably not only the ephemeral catch of the hunt but also the ethereal spirits of the Species – the Spirit Bear, the Spirit Wolf, etc. , who allow the Indians to kill animals for food and who have prominent roles in the Midewiwin both as spirit guardians and guides but sometimes as threats, depending on their positive or negative roles.


The Indian rock art sites are considered by many Cree and Ojibway to be sacred and offerings are still left for the spirits at many sites in the Northwestern Region. The pictographs and petroglyphs are also valuable archaeological records of past Indian Cultures and therefore, under The Ontario Heritage Act, 1974, it is illegal to deface a rock art site, under penalty of up to $5,000 and/or up to two years in jail.

The sites should be treated with care and respect. DO NOT TOUCH THE ROCK PAINTINGS. Human perspiration can break down the bond between rock and paint. Do not use an abrasive such as sand, in the rock carvings to get a clear outline. The sand will eventually wear away the rock and destroy the carving.


1)      Use ASA 64 film for colour slides or prints.

2)      For pictographs, try for a slightly overcast day: one that is bright, but not sunny. Sun tends to produce a glare on the rock face and too much shade produces pictures that are too dark with unnatural purplish tints in the pigment.

3)      “Bracket” the f-stop setting on the camera. If your light metre calls for an f-stop of 8, take shots also at 5.6 and at 11 to make sure you get a good picture.

4)      For petroglyphs, visit the sites either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to get slanted sunlight on the rock slope that creates deep shadows in the figures and makes them visible.  Overhead sun blots out the figures. Page 11


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The Canadian Rock Art Research Associates (CRARA), founded by the late Selwyn Dewdney, is a group of amateur researchers and professional archaeologists dedicated to the preservation of Canada’s Indian rock paintings and carvings and to the dissemination of information on the subject.

Department of Anthropology and Archaeology

University of Saskatchewan,

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

S7N 0W0


The Regional Archaeologist’s Office, Northwestern Region, Historical  Planning and Research Branch, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, has recorded many of the rock art sites of the region

207 First Street South

Box 2880

Kenora, Ontario

P9N 3K8



Dewdney, Selwyn, Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes.  University of Toronto Press

Dewdney, Selwyn. Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway.  University of Toronto Press.

Studies in West Patricia Archaeology Nos. 1 and 2.  Edited by C.S. Paddy Reid. Toronto: Historical Planning and Research Branch, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation. (Archaeology Research Report series.)


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Archaeological sites are fragile heritage resources containing society’s only source of information about most of its past.  Broken bits of pottery and arrowheads are more than interesting curios – they are important fragments  of scientific evidence.  Urban development, highway construction, and thoughtless artifact collectors are destroying this evidence at an alarming rate.


It is the responsibility of the Historical Planning and Research Branch, Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation, to identify and preserve archaeological and historical resources.  This aim can be achieved only with the help and support of all citizens of the Province. For further information please contact the Regional Archaeologist in your area.

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