Back to the Blanket - Related Topics


Chippewa Customs, Frances Densmore


Birch Bark Scrolls


     Throughout the past, the Ojibweg and other closely related tribes have recorded their creation stories, songs, history, symbolic images and world view on scrolls, etched on the soft surface of birch bark. It was an ingenious record keeping and mnemonic system. Though most scrolls found were connected with the Grand Medicine Society, some scrolls were created by the general population who had knowledge of the process.

     The sacred Grand Medicine Society was called the Midewiwin. It was a highly structured society, open to both men and women. Its members performed elaborate healing ceremonies to deal with sickness, long term health, and matters of a Spiritual nature. The Midewiwin records on birch bark scrolls were an actual written account unique among the Great Lakes tribes. Beyond its healing and “religious” functions, Midewiwin membership crossed band lines and provided an additional element of political leadership binding the different Ojibwe groups to each other. At times during the year, large numbers of Mide members would gather in a selected location.

     The oldest known birch bark scroll is estimated to be 1,000 years old. Birch bark scrolls, used in the past, taught Ojibwe traditional teachings such as the origins of the Midewiwin, the Eight Degrees of the Mide Society representing the Four Degrees of Earth and the Four Degrees of Sky. The most popular birch bark sacred writings are called the Order of Songs. Secretly, these sacred writings were usually translated and discussed among the Mide Practitioners and the Medicine Healers in the Midewiwin Lodge. Sacred icons were also conceptualized in pictographs found in locations where the sky, earth, water, the underground and the underwater met.

     The records and teachings of the Midewiwin are inscribed on birch bark rolls made of heavy bark and either rounded at the ends or strengthened by horizontal strips of wood, one being placed on either side of the bark and securely fastened in place. The characters on the rolls are engraved with a bone stylus and the lines filled with charcoal or vermilion when available. The inner side of the roll contains the records or teachings, and the outer side usually shows a number of large circles corresponding to the number of "lodges" or degree of the society represented in the teachings. Thus, the circles are in the nature of an index to the roll. The average length of a roll is about 30 inches and the width about 12 inches. The characters inscribed on the roll are crude delineations of animals and human beings together with certain symbols. The significance of these characters lies in their combination, which produces a sequence of ideas. The devices on Mide rolls are evolved from the teachings of the society, and their significance singly and in combination is taught to initiates.

     A Midewiwin birch bark scroll dated to 1560 A.D. was found in a cave at Burntside Lake in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario near the Minnesota border. This finding suggests a strong case for a pre-White-contact Midewiwin, which is contrary to some scholars beliefs that the Ojibweg “borrowed” the tenets of their society from the Whites sometime after their initial contact. The organized Midewiwin may have developed later as a specialized development from a much older, more individualistic shamanic tradition. The birch bark scrolls, most of which are from Minnesota, should not be viewed as providing an exact narrative translation of the petroglyphs that have also been found in various places, but rather are invaluable in providing data for an understanding of the iconographic significance of images that appear repeatedly and have their origin in the same concepts of Manidoog, Guardian Spirits, and other Spiritual practices. Birch bark scrolls are mnemonic and ideographic, not phonemic, but the recurring motifs have components that were sufficiently understood to become common figurative signs among Ojibwe Spiritual practitioners. The figures with upraised arms and bent legs, the medicine bags, the half emerged figures, the zigzag power lines, the horned serpents and many other symbols found in the birch bark scrolls can be found carved into the bedrock of Spirit Island near Duluth, Minnesota.