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Largest Art Gallery in Manitoba

by Frank Hall

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1965, Volume 10, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Reprinted from The Bison magazine with the kind permission of the Manitoba Government Employees' Association. Copyright 1965, The Bison.

Several hundred years ago scores of aboriginal artists bequeathed their paintings to the largest art gallery in the province. Many people have visited this gallery, but few have seen its paintings. The gallery in the normal sense of the word, is not a gallery at all. Its paintings are on view, not in one place under one roof, but in many different places beneath the open sky.

In central and northern Manitoba, where sheer rock walls rise from the water's edge to meet overhanging cliffs, there, if you search, you may find these paintings - just where the artists left them. Many have been discovered at a number of different sites. Many have been passed unnoticed.

Among the many fur traders and explorers who traversed the in-land water of Manitoba, not one, to our knowledge, saw the paintings, or, if he did, he left no record of it. Twentieth century travellers - surveyors, prospectors, trappers - even anglers, hunters, and family vacationists, seem to have been equally non-observant or equally non-committal. No one should be censored, how-ever, for failing to see the paintings.

During the long summer days when the sun is bright, under conditions which seem most favorable, they recede paradoxically from view. They are also difficult to see when cloud-drenched skies cast their shadows upon them. In these extremes of light and shade, their colors and outlines merge so completely in the camouflage of the rocks, that one suspects the artists chose the sites with this phenomenon uppermost in mind. The best times to look for them are early in the morning and late in the evening. When the sun comes up and when it goes down, its long lateral rays, sweeping across the water, pick out the paintings and hold them in relief. Once we have seen them, the questions arise: Who painted them? Why were they painted? What do they mean?

There are few credible sources to which one can turn to satisfy these queries. The two essential components which would lead to a solution - written records and contemporary evidence - are far beyond recovery. No living person knows who made the paintings, when they were made, what message or meaning they were intended to convey, or what binding agent was mixed with the pigment to make them last so long. A few clues, gathered from the paintings themselves and from correlative designs, together with a few cautious guesses, are all we have to offer.

As we set out to explore the mystery of Manitoba's rock paintings, there is no reason to doubt that the aboriginal artists knew what they were doing. Their stylized forms and figures must have had a meaning. Perhaps they were painted on the spur of the moment. Perhaps they were carefully wrought to appease some evil spirit or to exorcise some devil. Some of them may have been raised in tribute to supernatural benefactors. Others may have been drawn simply to record some ordinary event or everyday occurrence. Any interpretation we might place on these rudimentary art forms would be largely guess work. So, for the present, let us leave them and turn to the question: Who made the paintings?

The assumption that they were painted by Ojibwa (Saulteaux), Swampy Cree, or Wood Cree, seems to be a reasonable one. In historic times these three tribes lived in the Manitoban woodlands. The Chipewyan who lived in the tundra, north of Cree-Ojibwa territory, seldom ventured south of a line from Churchill in the east to Brochet in the west. Therefore we may be sure that they were not the artists.

The Ojibwa, Swampy Cree, and Wood Cree were contemporary in-habitants of the Precambrian Shield. The two branches of the Cree may have been there from 400 to 500 years ago. The Ojibwa, later arrivals than the others, may have infiltrated to the area about 250 to 350 years ago. Thus the residence of these three tribes in Manitoba corresponds to the estimated age of the paintings - 300 to 500 years.

There are other factors besides age and residence which seem to link the Ojibwa, Swampy Cree, and Wood Cree with the rock paintings. Each tribe was of Algonkian stock; each was closely related to the other. Their language and customs; clothing and dwellings; beliefs and ceremonies; though having superficial variations, were all basically similar in character. Some of their art forms, used extensively in decorating their clothing and ceremonial objects, were also similar in design. Some of the legends, common to the three tribes, though containing minor variations, struck an invariable theme. Both the decorative designs on their clothing, and the animalspirit-figures in their legends - deer, moose, caribou, rabbits, fish, wolves, snakes, hawks, turtles and waterfowl, are the same as many of the rock paintings. The turtles, snakes, birds, and fish are the very same nature-forms as are traced by the Ojibwa boulder mosaics on the base rock of the Whiteshell Provincial Park near Betula Lake.

This evidence, while offering no conclusive proof, suggests relationships between the three tribes and the rock paintings. Similar paintings in another province have been credited to the Ojibwa. But in Manitoba they are distributed over such a wide area, from the eastern to western border, and from the 50th parallel to the 56th parallel, that it is reasonable to assume they may be the work of both Ojibwa and Cree. The southern half of this area was occupied by the Wood Cree and the Ojibwa, and the northern half by the Swampy Cree. Thus all three tribes could have had a hand in the paintings.

All of the paintings are located well above current water levels. The variation in height, 4 ft. to 8 ft., corresponds, no doubt, to the fall of the lakes and rivers over long periods of time. Well defined water lines, still visible on the rocks, give graphic evidence of higher levels in times past. Could the paintings have been brushed on the rocks by Indians, sitting or standing in canoes? That is the prevailing theory. Other paintings, high on the rocks, midway between the water and the top of the cliffs, leave one in wonderment as to how they get there. Close examination of the rock structure provides the answer. There you will find clefts or ledges by which an ascent could have been made.

The sites were chosen with great care. The elements of light, shade, and camouflage have already been mentioned. In addition, vertical faces, free of lichens, were invariably selected. Here the paintings would not be eaten away by the chemical action inherent in the growth and decay of inorganic matter. Overhanging ledges protected them from seepage. The sites faced the sun. Therefore, deterioration of the pigment, caused by long exposure to moisture after storms, was forestalled.

The paints and brushes used by these aboriginal artists were simple. It has been suggested that the paint was applied with the fingers. In proof of this, the uniform width of the strokes has been cited. Still, a substantial doubt lingers. How could the toughest human finger tips withstand the abrasive action of stroking paint on rough granite? Some groups of paintings cover 12 to 20 square feet. Individual designs have a variety of dimensions - 18" to 30" in width; 6" to 48" in length. Designs of these sizes, patiently worked into the coarse rock, would surely have posed a long and painful task. If, however, they were not painted with the fingers, how were they done?

They could have been brushed on with porcupine quills, or with the fine shredded fibres of willow branches or cedar roots. They could have been applied with tufts of fur or feathers, cut to a standard width. If they were done with the fingers, then protective cots, made from the intestines of large quadrupeds, might have been used.

All the rock paintings we have seen in Manitoba are red. This color could have been obtained from iron oxide, from the brownish-red bark of cedar, or from the bark and berries of both the pin cherry and the choke cherry. Whatever agent was used, it was probably mixed with powdered clay or limestone to give it body. But what ingredient was added to this mixture to give it such a strong adhesive quality?

There are many glutinous substances close at hand in the world of nature. Glue could have been secured from pike or pickerel by boiling the whole fish - scales, entrails and all. Oil could have been drawn from lake trout or sturgeon by searing them in the round. Sticky albumen could have been extracted from the eggs of ducks, geese, or other waterfowl. Marrow could have been rendered from the shin bones of elk, deer, moose, or woodland caribou. The artists could have gone to the great grease-barrel of the forest - the black bear, and reduced with ease his lard-encumbered flanks. No one knows which one of these binding agents was used. The archaeologists and anthropologists would like to know. So would the paint manufacturers.

A wide variety of designs are found among the rock painting of Manitoba. A few examples, reproduced on these pages, will serve as an introduction to the largest (and queerest) art gallery in Manitoba.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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