The ‘talking paper’: Interpreting the birch-bark scrolls of the Ojibwa Midéwiwin
The birch-bark scroll pictography of the Ojibwa Midéwiwin was one of the most widely used Indigenous visual systems north of Mexico. It has been studied extensively by scholars for a century and a half. As a visual system it does not stand alone, rather it is part of a continuum of visual expression that includes petroglyphs, totemic signs, dream symbols, personal identification marks and pictographic "letter writing." In the following pages, I propose that we develop a semiotic framework or possibly multiple frameworks for interpreting the pictography of the Ojibwa Midéwiwin . These frameworks would be semiotic in the sense that they deal with the sign at all its levels. This includes all the aspects of "forming" and "processing" of visual signs and the macrosocial factors that influence their use and interpretation.
The issue of using the term writing seems to haunt the work of authors in this field. For nearly every author, when the topic comes up, there is a knee-jerk reaction against the idea of pictography being included with other systems as writing. This paper is by no means an attempt to legislate the use of the term writing. We will be looking critically however at typologies such as mnemonic and proto-writing which have tended to limit or obscure the interpretational coherence of previous works. Also, by showing the difficulties of applying Western categorizations onto Indigenous concepts and modes of signification, I want to point out the necessity of reevaluating presently available materials in terms of Indigenous systems of categorization and usage practices wherever possible.