Ojibwe Symbols: From Rock to Canvas

Students will explore the significance of symbols in the Ojibwe culture through the formal representations of flags, the artistic form in art and the natural creation in our environment.

Materials Needed


Art Materials

Activity Process


As a class we talk about where and when we see and use symbols in life and art. We begin by identifying the tribal flags and crests that exist on local and federal reservations around us. An increasing number of tribes and nations have started using flags as a form of identification and symbolism. Along with the formalized symbols in flags, there are many examples of organic and creative symbol-making through art and environment. We talk about how the symbols used in tribe and nation identification (animals, plants, shapes) are evident in various forms. We look at visual artists William Wilson and Norval Morrisseau and discuss their examples of symbolism through creative expression, using many of the same symbols (animals, plants and shapes). Lastly, we look at Carl Gawboy's book Talking Rocks as yet another way to think about symbols in Native history and expression. Talking Rocks covers the rock petroglyphs of Minnesota and the symbolic meanings the ancient rock carved pictures represent.


As a class we compare and contrast using a Venn diagram these three ways of symbol making in Ojibwe art and culture (flags, visual art, rock). We list the ways the symbols are visually similar, symbolically similar, and historically informed (what stories are they telling us?). The multiple ways that symbols represent and express meanings are evident through these different formats.


  1. Students will create a symbol that translates into one of the categories discussed above (flag, visual art, environmental) along with a narrative describing the meaning of the symbol and the reasons for choosing it.
  2. Symbols and narratives may include inspiration from:

- A personal history - A family tree - A time line that goes into their future or comes from the past - Influences from an influential person - Personal likes and dislikes in stories through history - Poetry or creative writing- As well as other prompts decided by class.

  1. Students will use the provided examples as inspiration. The three forms are stylistically very different: the flag symbols are very crisp and stencil-like, with meanings that are often very clear and decisive. The visual art examples were discussed as holding many personal and subjective interpretations, and the environmental petroglyphs were interpreted as telling important stories of our past and future through simple shapes ...again, however, all using similar symbols to tell these different truths.
  2. Students were shown how to design and cut using an exacto knife for symbols that resembled those on flags. Other materials were provided such as paint or marker for creating symbols in various styles through various mediums.


Students were encouraged to questions ideas of multiple meanings, varied histories, and the diversity of traditional symbols through time; from ancient petroglyphs to contemporary artists and graphic design. From rock to canvas.


Each step in this process takes full participation from the student for the conversation, artwork and narrative to have sincere meaning.

Vocabulary Words

Grade Levels

Primary Content Area

American Indian Learner Outcomes

Content Standards


Language Arts

Social Studies