Artwork of the Shamans
A True Tale
Mikel B. Classen
The war was on and it was time to make a stand. The tribes of the Iroquois had expanded too far. They had all of the lands towards the rising sun, now their greed seemed to drive them towards the Great Lakes, particularly Gitchee Gummee. No more. As Myeengun stood at the sacred rock, he knew his power was great enough to stop the intruders. The tribes of the Ojibwa would win. He had foreseen the battle. He called upon the power of the Michepezhoo, the beast of copper that lived below the surface of Gitchee Gumee. Myeengun caused the lake to rise against the Iroquois. The Michipezhoo rose up and consumed the Iroquois. They all drowned. Myeengun went to the sacred rock and alongside the pictures of his ancestors, he painted his own. He told of the battle and their victory. He left it there on the sacred rock for all generations to know; this was the land of the Ojibwa, respect it or die.
This is one of the tales that the dozens of paintings on the Agawa Rock in Agawa Bay, Ontario, depict. These “pictographs” have been left at Agawa Rock over a period of centuries by Ojibwa shamans when the entire Lake Superior basin was looked at as one territory.
They were first described to Henry Rowe Schoolcraft by a local Ojibwa shaman named Shingwauk (Little Pine) when he worked as an Indian Agent in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. He recorded them in his book Intellectual Capacity and Character of the Indian Race. Though he never saw them, their locations were described and they were located 100 miles north of the Soo along the Lake Superior lakeshore in 1958 by Selwyn Dewdney on the side of a cliff.
The area is now known as Lake Superior Provincial Park in Canada, between the Montreal River and the town of Wawa, approx. 100 miles north of the Soo. Agawa Rock is one of the attractions of the park, drawing thousands annually.
Though archaeologists are unable to identify the artists of most of the drawings, two names have been attached to some of the drawings, Myeengun and Shingwaukonce. Both are shamans from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Their drawings, as well as those unidentified, have become images known all around the Lake Superior basin and are frequently being used as icons of the area.
Agawa Rock’s importance culturally, spiritually and archaeologically can’t be overemphasized. Ojibwa pictographs are found all around the Lake Superior Basin, but nowhere are there so many of them in one place. Nor, are any so artistically developed and give so many glimpses into native beliefs and legends. They also describe events of historical record in a culture that passed history orally.
Shingwauk told Schoolcraft about a chief named Myeengun (Wolf of the Mermaid) who lived on the banks of the Carp River in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Their territory was the Straits of Mackinac, part of Lake Huron, north to the Soo. He was considered the Chief of the Ojibwa throughout the area, his name appears on a treaty in Ottawa, Canada. Myeengun was skilled in the rituals of the Meda, or Grand Medicine Lodge, the society of Ojibwa shamans. Myeengun’s influence was great and he led a war party in canoes up the Carp River, through Trout Lake, down the Tahquamenon and into Whitefish Bay. Then they paddled across Lake Superior, where they joined forces with the Agawa band of Ojibwa to do battle with the Iroquois. Through magic, the Iroquois were drowned. To commemorate the event, Myeengun left pictograph paintings at Agawa and somewhere along the Carp River which have never been found.
Some of the pictographs represent this event with canoe figures that have animal images alongside depicting their clans: thunderbird, beaver, and crane. These were left as a warning to others who would invade the land of the Ojibwa.
Symbols of magical protectors such as the Michipezhoo, and Mikinok, the land tortoise, have become well known images from around the Lake Superior area. The most often seen grouping of pictographs is that of the Michepezhoo cluster (Seen above in the top picture). There may have been more to this group, but a large chip of rock shaved off above the Michipezhoo and fell into Lake Superior.
The author of these drawings has been known right along. Shingwaukonce (Little White Pine) was from the Grand Island tribe, in Munising Bay, also on Lake Superior. He became Grand Shaman of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. According to oral histories, he went to Agawa to gather fresh power on a vision quest. He called forth Michipezhoo, the guardian spirit of the underworld and minerals, especially copper. Shingwaukonce completed his fast, finished rituals which included drawing the rock art, and then led his warriors in a revolt against copper miners.
There are many small individual rock art drawings. Some are very clear and easy to identify, while others are identifiable by slight ochre color changes in the rocks. Many of the pictographs have faded and worn. Nonetheless they are breathtaking to look at. It’s like looking back through time and each drawing being different stops on a time travel. The artists of these are unknown and probably always will be.
All of the pictographs are painted in a red ochre which was mined from an island a few miles north of Agawa called Devil’s Warehouse Island, a name bestowed upon it by Europeans. The ochre was mixed with fish oil and animal grease, then dabbed on the cliffs. They are remarkably durable and have withstood the vicious elements of Lake Superior. The reason that they have lasted this long is because the rock secretes a clear mineral fluid that acts as a natural varnish. There are reports from Ojibwa natives that a huge slab of some of the best paintings fell into the water several years ago.
Another of the other major clusters of pictographs is called the horse and rider group. This is another that was painted by Shingwaukonce after a ten day fast associated with a ritual duel between Shingwaukonce and a rival shaman over the spiritual leadership of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. The drawings represent Shingwaukonce’s power, like a primitive resume’, they describe his shamanic abilities.
A cross appears in the group. This represents a fourth degree shaman and is a symbol that predates Christianity. The four spheres depicts prayer circles. There is a faint louse in front of the horse which according to legend represents a time when Shingwaukonce turned himself into a louse so that he could ride a raven into the spirit world. The horse and rider is Shingwaukonce himself.
The pictographs are extremely delicate and should never be touched. They are looked on as religious objects by the Ojibwa, and it is not unusual to find offerings of tobacco and sweetgrass left at Agawa Rock.
Throughout the Lake Superior basin Ojibwa shamans have left pictographs. Besides Agawa Rock, there are several other sites in Lake Superior Provincial Park. There are some that have been located in the Pukaskwa (Puckasaw) area of Ontario; also at Schreiber, Ontario, this site has been kept undisclosed to protect the pictographs; Nipigon Bay, Ontario has many similar to Agawa Rock. There is also a small rock art site on a small island near Marquette, Michigan.
The rock art is a prehistoric heritage left behind for all who live around the Lake Superior basin. They represent a time that is shrouded in mystery and a culture that was nearly lost. They were created as a way of communicating across time and into the spirit worlds. In a book called Spirits On Stone the pictographs are summed up best this way: “The pictograph site location can energize or calm us. The setting certainly leads us away from the 20th century into a more natural world. In some ways, a poet can get closer to the site than a scientist.”
For more information on the Agawa Pictographs go here:
Author’s note: Information for this article came from a book called Spirits on Stone by Thor and Julie Conway, published by Heritage Discoveries Publications, San Luis Obispo, California. Other information came from Agawa Rock Indian Pictographs by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.