Ojibwe Pictographs Homeschool Lesson

Ojibwe Pictographs

Have you ever wanted to learn more about ancient writings? This is your opportunity to immerse yourself in the beautiful Ojibwe pictographs in this comprehensive homeschool lesson.

We had already been introduced to Native American pictographs by Lillie. She had previously 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.

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 that I finally realised there was a difference! I gave one term to each child and they wrote 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, in situ.  An example of this is


Petroforms are boulder outlines, whereby stones or rocks have been formed into a picture or form of some sort:


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:

The common thread linking these are that they all form a picture of some sort. And they also attempt to communicate an idea.  We had a very interesting conversation about whether these pictures are art, a means of communication or early writing.   We decided that these categories were not mutually exclusive. Therefore they could be all three, and to some extent probably were.  

Ojibwe Symbols

Before we tried to create some of our own I wanted the children to become as familiar with the symbols as possible:

Ojibwe Pictographs

We discussed whether any of these forms (petroglyphs, petroforms and pictographs) were used today.  Pictographs were easily enough come by:

I asked whether graffiti (as seen in rock as below or carved into tree trunks) was a form of petroglyphs. I showed them the carving of the presidents at Mount Rushmore. We discussed whether they thought that was a type of modern petroglyph:

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

Writing in Ojibwe Pictographs

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

Ribbet collagepicto1

Designing Our Own Pictographs and Making an Ojibwe Dictionary

They chose a few objects, attempting to work out how symbols are created from a photographic representation of their meaning.  Thomas 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 (first photo below). We also made an Ojibwe 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 (second photo):

Translating an Ojibwe 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 Lillie had her wife Indian giving birth which never happened in the original pictographic story!

Ojibwe Story

Writing their own Ojibwe Story in pictographs

Afterwards the children wrote a short story themselves using pictures from their Ojibwe dictionary. These, 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:

Ojibwe Pictographs
Ojibwe Pictographs

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

Ojibwe Pictographs

and stuck it up:

Ojibwe Pictographs

Making a Talking Stick

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. This was 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 held down ribbon, feathers and leather laces whilst I tied, attached and played until I finally got it right!  (Thank you Lorna!)  

I used a birch stick (symbolising truth), decorating it with brightly coloured beads and feathers. Red, yellow, black and white are sacred colours to the Ojibwe people. They represent North, south, east and west on the medicine wheel. They are also the four colours of the different races):

I wrapped some t-shirt rags left over from our native American beaded dress-up, attaching the end with double-sided tape.  Using leather laces ripped off a shammy leather, I tied feathers to each end of the stick. I then 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

Holding a Council

Next morning, after I had made a fool of myself ‘reading’ their stories,  the children sat down for their council.  They were all very well-behaved and enjoyed telling their pictographic stories. Some of which even bore a resemblance to my own, sometimes often inaccurate, decoding.  Each story-teller held the talking stick whilst the others sat listening quietly until it was their turn. This was seriously effective. I shall definitely make further use of the talking stick. It seems an eminently wise thing to have on hand in a family with more talkers than listeners!:

Ojibwe Council Meeting
Ojibwe Council Meeting
Ojibwe Council Meeting using the Talking Stick

Even the little ones had a turn!

Ribbet collagemeeting2

Making Petroforms

The children had already played around with pictographs with their cave painting activity. 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 Thomas was fencing.  The girls were happy to do a bit of extra work in the evening, alongside their friend.

First we divided out the clay and the girls made lots of small balls to represent a collection of boulders. They then fashioned them into a turtle:

Making Petroglyphs

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.

Ojibwe Pictographs Conclusion

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!

I have written so many other Ojibwe posts, each of which is full to the brim with hands on activities and ideas to make your learning even more exciting:

Native Americans Unit Study

The First Native Americans

Tribal Differences

Native Americans Presentation

Native American Unit: The Birchbark House: Summer

Native American Unit: The Birchbark House: Fall

Native American Unit: The Birchbark House: Spring

Native American Unit: The Birchbark House: Winter

Introducing the Ojibwe People

Ojibwe Oral Tradition

Ojibwe Nation Picture Books

Ojibwe Calendar

Ojibwe Clans: Law Study

Ojibwe Gathering of the Clans Picture Study

Ojibwe Birch Bark Biting Art Study

Ojibwe Floral Designs Art Study

Ojibwe Fried Bread Recipe

How to Make Native American Dress Up

How to Make Native American Beaded Bracelets

How to Make Native American Dolls Dress 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!

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