Picture Study: Ojibwe Gathering of the Clans


I was very excited about doing a study of Ojibwe art because I adore it!  I had pinned an inordinate amount of pins with references to this art form.  There is something powerful within its simplicity.  There is much more to it than first meets the eye, and yet even if one did not dig any deeper to find the spiritual references, just the art is enough.  It is beautiful, striking and strong:

Ribbet collageojibweclanart4

This type of art is called Anishinabe iconography  Whilst many of the examples we see today are modern, post 1960, these type of images were traditionally incised on rocks and Midewiwin birchbark scrolls.  We have already touched upon Ojibwe pictographs as a form of ancient communication.  And in deed these paintings, known as woodland art, are created to communicate a powerful, deeper spiritual meaning.

Most pictograph artists were thought to be shamans or medicine men. To the Ojibwe people the dream world was closely related to the spiritual world.  Dreams were therefore interpreted as signs from the Great Spirit. If the dreams showed a place or animal, a pictograph would be used to symbolize or remember the dream.

The pictographs were also, to some extent, a reflection of the cultural character of the tribes in relation to where they lived, how they lived, what their values were, what their spiritual beliefs were, their system of government and how they viewed themselves in relationship to the rest of the universe.

The woodland style specific to the Anishinabe nation developed as a direct result of the imagery of Norval Morrisseau.  Morrisseau sought to share the spiritual concepts inherent within the woodland art form, in the 1960’s.  In ancient times three main categories of representational imagery (other than human) outweighed all the rest:

  • The first category included large carnivores – especially bears and large cats.
  • The second categories focused on snakes.
  • The third category was full of birds – most often raptors, especially eagles and hawks.

There were often representations of transformations (known as simultaneity).  Transformations were pictures of a man or animal being two life forms at the same time.  For example, both Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjig did paintings they entitled Thunderbird Man:

Ribbet collageojibweclanart2

This type of human/bird imagery can also be seen carved into both copper and shell from pre-historic sites that date from 1000AD and 1400AD.

The pictures often showed humans communicating and struggling for supremacy with animals as in this painting by Morrisseau depicting man in communication with a serpent:

Ribbet collageojibweclanart3

I knew whenever we did carry out a picture study on some Ojibwe art we would need to look past the surface detail at the meaning behind the art.  It was a prospect which delighted me and I hoped the children would catch my enthusiasm.

We chose to study two paintings which depicted ‘The Gathering of the Clans’, a topic which fitted in nicely with this weeks history focus – Ojibwe Clans:


meeting of the clans

I blew each picture up larger so they could really see what they were looking at, and we simply chatted about each painting.  The first thing they noticed was the solid colours with a black outline.  They commented that the paintings looked like pictures inside pictures.  We all struggled to find meaning for the patterns inside the first picture but there was much discussion over the placement of each animal and the clan they represented.  They had learnt enough to postulate why the turtle had pride of place at the front of the picture (Ojibwe creation story making Turtle Island), they found it hard to say which animal represented the deer clan and someone made the comment that the deer clan had been disassembled due to intermarriage and the failure to keep other rules.  A6 was the most observant, although she was not able to follow through to suggest what her observations meant.  She pointed out the two sun-like pictures with a thread which seems to connect all the animals together.  T, I think, suggested it was to represent the coming together of the clans to become a whole people, intrinsically linked by a common thread of working for the Ojibwe nations.  Someone, possibly me, mentioned the yin and yang like symbols found in one of the suns which, again, suggested that when the clans met together there was a sense of the whole nation being represented, all of whom complemented each other so that the interests of everyone were served.

The second picture created the most discussion.  The children found it fascinating to peel off the layers of the painting.  The first thing they noticed was that each clan was represented by the animal and a person.  We discussed whether this was the transformation or simultaneity of man and beast.  To be honest we weren’t sure.  The children did notice that the characteristics which each clan animal was supposed to have were depicted in each pair of animal and man.  For example the man associated with the crane contained a couple of fancy headdresses traditionally worn by leaders.  The crane clan was in deed a leadership clan.  Likewise the marten picture contained weapons which were perfect for displaying his role as a warrior clan. It was all fascinating and as always I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the children’s thoughts on everything.

I wanted each of the children to replicate a part or all of one of the pictures.  I was getting ready for the twins’ birthday and really didn’t want to have to clear up the mess of acrylic paint so we opted for twistable crayons!  Paint would have been a far superior medium to use in order to get the clarity of colour the originals had but I was still pleased with the results.  The purpose of picture replication isn’t only an artistic one.  One must carefully study a picture in order to become familiar enough to be able to replicate it faithfully.  Careful study means that the picture’s nuances, so easily missed on brief acquaintance, jump out to commune with the observer.

The children chose one of the clans they had written their fiction stories about and went to work redrawing and colouring in:

Ribbet collagepicture studyclans2

Ribbet collagepicture studyclans

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And the resultant pictures:



And a replication of the whole picture ‘Gathering of the Clans:

DSC_0855picture studyclans

Copied from this:aaaaclans

This was a good study and one I would have liked to have taken further.  However, I was unable to do this because there was so much about the paintings I didn’t understand or I had questions about.  I had attempted to find more out on the internet to pass on to my children but there wasn’t anything out there written specifically about these pictures, so we had to make do with only our own thoughts.  Nevertheless there was a definite sense we had come away from the study understanding something more about the Ojibwe people and their clan system of government.


  1. What an excellent study, and post! I learned so much, thank you 🙂 The kids artwork turned out great, and how fun that it was the perfect jumping off from learning about the clans.

  2. Very interesting post, Claire. The children’s projects turned out just lovely. They really have an eye for detail. I do love the bright colors in the artwork. You do so many creative projects for your children. They must love having you for a teacher.:)

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