Example of a Birch bark scroll piece

Wiigwaasabak (Ojibwe language, plural: wiigwaasabakoon) are birch bark scrolls, on which the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) people of North America wrote complex geometrical patterns and shapes, also known as a "written language." When used specifically for Midewiwin ceremonial use, these scrolls are called mide-wiigwaas. These enabled the memorization of complex ideas, and passing along history and stories to succeeding generations. Several such scrolls are in museums, including one on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.[1] In addition to birchbark, copper, and slate may have also been used, along with hides, pottery, and other artifacts. Some archaeologists are presently trying to determine the exact origins, dates, and locations of their use. Many scrolls were hidden away in caves and man-made pits.


The bark of the paper birch tree provides an excellent writing material. Usually, a stylus of either bone, metal or wood is used to inscribe these ideographs on the soft inner bark. Black charcoal is often used to fill the scratches to make them easier to see. To form a scroll, pieces of inscribed bark are stitched together using wadab (cedar or spruce roots). To prevent unrolling, the scroll is lashed, then placed in a cylindrically-shaped wiigwaasi-makak (birch bark box) for safe-keeping. Scrolls were recopied after so many years, and stored in dry locations, often underground in special containers, or in caves. Elders recopied the scrolls over time, and some were hidden away in remote areas for safekeeping. Scrolls were often kept hidden to avoid improper interpretations and to avoid ridicule or disrespect of the teachings.


Some scrolls are songs and details of Midewiwin rituals and medicine lodges.[2] Some of the oldest maps of North America were made by natives, who wrote on birch bark for explorers and traders to follow.

Some scrolls give the history of the Ojibway migration from Eastern North America to further west. They indicate the discovery of miigis (white cowrie) shells along their migration through the Great Lakes region. These shells are used in Midewiwin ceremonies, and Whiteshell Provincial Park is named after these kinds of shells that grow in salt water oceans, and not in fresh water, which indicates a large trading and traveling network.

The Ojibwa peoples of the Great Lakes region historically used birch bark to keep records for instructional and guidance purposes.[3] Songs and healing recipes were readable by members of the tribe. Either through engraving or with the use of red and blue pigment, scrolls could contain any number of pictorial representations. Birch bark scrolls could measure anywhere from centimeters to several meters.[4]

The scrolls and traditions are still alive today, and passed along from generation to generation. The Midewiwin are a traditional group that still keeps the scrolls and their teachings alive. There is some secrecy involved to keep the scrolls safe, to interpret them correctly, and to wait until there is more respect for this ancient language system. Scrolls are passed along and the oral teachings that go with them. Complex stories are represented and memorized with the use of the pictures on the scrolls.

There are many claims made by elders and indigenous teachers that humans have existed in North America before the last ice age, and ancient ways of writing and other ancient skills and artifacts may provide some clues to the migration patterns and history of North American and South American peoples.

Archaeological knowledge

Twentieth century archaeology has confirmed that Native Americans have been using birch bark scrolls for over 400 years. In 1965 the archaeologist Kenneth Kidd reported on two finds of "trimmed and fashioned pieces of birch bark on which have been scratched figures of animals, birds, men, legendary creatures, and esoteric symbols" in the Head-of-the-Lakes region of Ontario. Some of these resembled scrolls used by the Mide Society of the Ojibwa. Kidd concluded "These two finds of 'birch bark scrolls' and associated artifacts indicates that Indians of this region occasionally deposited such artifacts in out-of-the-way places in the woods, either by burying them or by secreting them in caves. The period or periods at which this was done is far from clear. But in any event, archaeologists should be aware of the custom and not overlook the possibility of their discovery."[5] Another scroll from a different collection was later dated to about 1560, +/-70 years.[6]

See also


  1. ^ "Record Birch-Bark Scroll, Writing | Collections Search Center, Smithsonian Institution". collections.si.edu. Retrieved 2021-03-17.
  2. ^ http://collections.si.edu/search/detail/edanmdm:nmnhanthropology_8385791?date.slider=&q=Birch+bark+scrolls&dsort=title&record=38&hlterm=Birch%2Bbark%2Bscrolls
  3. ^ http://www.ontarioarchaeology.on.ca/Resources/Publications/oa35-4-kidd.pdf
  4. ^ Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. (2005). Paper Talk: A history of libraries, print culture, and Aboriginal peoples in Canada before 1960. Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  5. ^ Kidd, Kenneth E. 1965. Birch-bark Scrolls in Archaeological Contexts. American Antiquity. Vol 30. No 4. page 480.
  6. ^ Rajnovich, Grace Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Paintings of the Canadian Shield. Dundurn Press Ltd., 1994,ISBN 0-920474-72-1


  • Benton-Banai, Edward. The Mishomis Book - The Voice of the Ojibway. (St. Paul: Red School House publishers, 1988).
  • Copway, George. "The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation." (1850).
  • Deleary, Nicholas. "The Midewiwin, an aboriginal spiritual institution. Symbols of continuity: a native studies culture-based perspective." Carleton University MA Thesis, M.A. 1990.
  • Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Customs. (Reprint: Minnesota Historical Press, 1979).
  • Dewdney, Selwyn Hanington. The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975).
  • Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. Paper Talk: A history of libraries, print culture, and Aboriginal peoples in Canada before 1960. (Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2005).
  • Hoffman, Walter James. "The Midewiwin, or 'Grand Medicine Society', of the Ojibwa" in Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Bureau of Ethnology Report, v. 7, pp. 149-299. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891).
  • Landes, Ruth. Ojibwa Religion and the Midewiwin. (Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968).
  • Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and its Historical Changes. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983).

Media files used on this page

Vector drawing of Mayan glyph.
Maple Leaf (from roundel).svg
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roundel adopted by Royal Canadian Air Force, from 1946 to 1965.
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