Ojibwe Pictographs


We had already been introduced to Native American pictographs by L12 when she researched communication between the different tribes and during her presentation on the same subject:


This lesson would dig a bit deeper and require the children to think a bit harder.

The difference between petroglyphs, petroforms and pictographs

It is terrible to admit but I have been using these terms interchangeably for years.  It was only when I started to plan this lesson and I found examples of each of them in Ojibwe land that I finally realised there was a difference! I gave one term to each child and asked them to write a quick paragraph on them including some Ojibwe examples.  They each presented their findings.


Petroglyphs are basically carving sites.  This means an instrument was used to create a simple picture in the rock.  An example of this is



Petroforms are boulder outlines, whereby stones or rocks have been formed into a picture or form of some sort.  An example of this is

ojibwe petriform2ojibwe petriform


Pictographs are the more common (at least to me) and are the painting sites.  At these sites rocks have been painted usually in red (using red ocre) but sometimes in black.  An example of this is:

ojibwe pictograph4Petroglyphs at Agawa Rock

The common thread linking these are that they all form a picture of some sort, and attempt to communicate an idea.  We had a very interesting conversation about whether the three forms of pictures are art, a means of communication or early writing.   We decided that these categories were not mutually exclusive and that they could be all three, and to some extent probably were.  Before we tried to create some of our own I wanted the children to become as familiar with the symbols as possible:

ojibwe pictographsWe discussed whether any of these forms (petroglyphs, petroforms and pictographs) were used today.  We were able to come up with some pictographs easily enough:

Ribbet collagepictographs

as well as looking at graffiti:

graffiti-street Source

We talked about graffiti (as seen in rock as below or in wood or tree trunks) as a form of petroglyph and I showed them the carving of the presidents at Mount Rushmore and asked whether they thought that was a type of modern petroglyph:

Modern Petroglyphmount-rushmore


And with some thought we came up with a few ideas for petroforms such as modern-day rock sculptures and basic garden decor such as toad-stools made from shaped rock or sun dials:

modern petroformmodern petroform2

Writing in pictographs

Firstly they did a simple exercise which showed them how picture stories worked.  They just needed to use the pictures shown and write the sentence given:

Ribbet collagepicto1

Designing their own pictographs

I then asked them to choose a few objects and to try to work out how their symbols are created from a photographic representation of their meaning.  T12 asked if they could all have the same objects to see if they turned out the same symbols.  They chose one object each – a rose, a gymnast and a fencer.  I had photocopied a grid to help them to see how the drawings gradually change into their symbol representation.  They filled out their three objects.  It was quite interesting to see just how similar the final pictographs for the three things were:


Making a pictograph dictionary

I read the children some information which I got from this website.  It was here I also printed a comprehensive list of Ojibwe and Sioux pictographs.  I gave a set to each child which they made into a reference book, decorating the outer cover as they saw fit:


Translating an Ojibwe/Sioux Native American story

Using these booklets and the same website, I photocopied a story written in pictographs, a different one for each child.  I kept the ‘translation’ and asked them to have a go decoding each story, writing it underneath.  I turned this activity into a challenge for whoever translated the quickest and gave the most accurate story won a french fancy (cake).  They were peculiarly excited about this and I didn’t hear a peep out of them for a whole 30 minutes!  It proved to be much harder than it looked at first glance, but they did a fabulous job!  Each child got the gist of their story, although L12 had her wife Indian giving birth which never happened in the original pictographic story!


Writing their own Ojibwe Story in pictographs

Afterwards the children wrote a short story themselves using pictures from their Ojibwe dictionary, which, much to their delight, I would attempt to decode.  They wrote them in rough first and then transferred them onto a long piece of brown paper:


Ribbet collagepicto2

We then crumpled the card to make it look aged and ‘cave wall’ like:

Ribbet collagepicto3

and stuck it up:


Making a talking stick and holding a council

We’d spent the majority of the day on this lesson and I still had a few more activities planned.  Earlier on I had called for a council to be held early next morning to allow each person to tell their story (and see how accurately I had decoded them!).  In order for the meeting to go well and to ensure each person attending had a chance to tell their story with everybody listening I made a Talking Stick.  We had Gary’s brother staying with us and friends coming round that night.  My very long-suffering friend, Lorna, sat patiently whilst I made one for the purpose.  She willingly held down ribbon and feathers and leather laces whilst I tied and attached and played about with methods until I finally got it right!  (Thank you Lorna!)  I used a birch stick (symbolising truth), decorating it with brightly coloured beads (red, yellow, black and white which are sacred colours to the Ojibwe people representing North, south, east and west on the medicine wheel as well as being the four colours of the different races) and feathers:


I wrapped some t-shirt rags left over from our native American beaded dress-up, attaching the end with double-sided tape.  Using some leather laces which I had ripped off a shammy leather earlier on, I tied feathers to each end of the stick, and beaded 8 beads on each end of the tie along with some red feathers.  I was really happy with how it turned out and the girls loved it:

Ribbet collagetalkingstick


Next morning, after I had made a fool of myself trying to ‘read’ their stories,  the children all sat down for their council and to read their stories.  They were all very well-behaved and enjoyed telling their pictographic stories, some of which bore a poor resemblance to my own, sometimes inaccurate, decoding.  Each story-teller held the talking stick whilst the others sat listening quietly until it was their turn (I am planning on making further use of the talking stick which seems a very wise thing to have on hand in a family with (many) more talkers than listeners!):



Ribbet collagemeeting

Even the little ones had a turn!

Ribbet collagemeeting2

And finally…..

The children had already played around with pictographs so their last activity was to make their own petroform and carve their own petroglyph.  We had run out of time during the day and the girls had a friend round whilst T12 was fencing.  The girls were happy to do a bit of extra work in the evening, alongside their friend (K11):


First we divided out the clay and the girls made lots of small balls to represent a collection of boulders, which they then fashioned into a turtle:


Next they rolled out a slab of clay each and etched a mini story of pictographs into their slab:


It had taken us most of a day and a little bit of the next morning but we had finished all the activities I had planned.  It was gratifying to see the girls make their petroglyphs without looking at their dictionary – they had begun to memorise the language, which of course made telling a story much easier.

Learning about the mechanics of the pictographs also made us all have a much greater appreciation of how specific our spoken and written language is.  A Native American story-teller was able to embellish a story, which is harder to do when one is reading specific words rather than more general pictographs.  It had been an interesting, albeit hard-working, day and well worth the effort required to delve in deep!

Weekly Wrap-Up


  1. Your final paragraph reminded me of the storytellers I listened to as a child at folk festivals. Have you ever been to one? It’s a great traditional art of this country which would link nicely into your Ojibwe studies!

  2. Wow Claire, really interesting and creative study again! Pssst, you are our “secret history teacher”, if I don´t use your ideas, we read through your posts together. Thank you for making my life that easy!

  3. So interesting – I had never heard of the term petroform before – but I suppose inukshuks created by the Inuits would be an example. What a fun, busy lesson – I smiled at the kids storytelling posture, and your talking stick turn out great!

  4. I really enjoy how you’ve been emerging your kids into this culture. They will retain this for years to come. Visiting from Weekly Wrapup.

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