Wiigwaasabak (Ojibwe language, plural: wiigwaasabakoon) are birch bark scrolls, on which the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) people of North America wrote complex geometrical patterns and shapes. When used for ritual purposes, these scrolls are called mide-wiigwaas. These writings 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. One recent study of a few scrolls details the complex math and memorizing scheme associated with the symbols that were used long ago. The complex writings also include astronomy, rituals, mapping, family lineage, songs, and migration routes. In addition to birchbark, copper and slate may have also been used, along with hides, pottery, and other artifacts.
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. There are different interpretations for each scroll, which may indicate that there are some incorrect teachings that may have been purposely passed along for a sacred scroll. 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. 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 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.
There are many claims made by elders and aboriginal 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.
Twentieth century archeology 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, mythological 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. A scroll from one of these finds was later dated to about 1560+/-70..
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