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Harvesting Red Earth

Observing ancient protocols

Paula obtains red earth from a variety of sources and harvests it following methods taught to her by Ojibwe elders.

These observances vary somewhat depending on a persons tribe and its traditions, and the details may differ however protocols usually include the use of Native American botanicals or what is sometimes referred to as ‘medicines.’

After harvesting red earth, depending on the raw materials, the pigment may have to be dried, sifted, heated, crushed, or ground. It is then stored in tightly sealed containers to keep it dry. Pictograph paint (pigment with added binder), is usually made fresh, in small batches.

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The artist gathering red earth with a traditional digging stick.

Paint tools

Primitive pictograph painting tools

In prehistoric times paint tools were made out of anything at hand; sticks, bones, hair, plant fibers, and feathers. Later, tools became a bit more practical and paint bags were embellished with quillwork, beads, or decoration.

Paula uses a variety of tools including modern brushes and more primitive ones which are made like the originals.

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The Artists paint bag & tools

Raw Materials

Pigments and binders for pictographs

Some small bags, found in pre-contact Native medicine bundles have contained powders believed to have been used for painting. These include dust from red pipestone (Catlinite), dried Cochineal bugs, different colors of ochre, and charcoal powder.

​Interestingly, Cochineal bugs, used to dye fabrics and hides, were often found on Prickly Pear cactus, and the use of cactus sap as a binder may have been a natural progression in pictograph painting.

Other binders, used to affix pigments to stone or hides were made from animal fats, marrow, yucca plants, and hide glue.

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Red Earth and native botanicals

Basic colors

Natural colors for Native American pictographs

Research shows that pictographs were first painted with vegetable and animal materials and over time, primitive artists discovered more permanence for their depictions through the use of naturally occurring minerals obtained locally.

Monochromatic pictographs, often painted in black or varying shades of red ochre can be found all over the world. Red, is a vibrant color, and was widely used. Some pictographs are hundreds and others thousands of years old, and many have survived by being shielded from the elements in caves or because the materials used were resilient.

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Crushing red earth for pictograph paint

Ojibwe cultural info

A big Native American family

The word Anishinaabe, is a name the Ojibwe and Algonquin people use to refer to themselves. There are alternate spellings of the word.  The plural form; Anishnaabeg, roughly translates to; “original people.”

​The Ojibwe language is called: Anishinaabemowin.

Ojibwe, is also anglicized as Ojibway or Ojibwa, and all three words may be considered correct. The spelling most commonly encountered in Canada is Ojibway. The alternate anglicization: Chippewa, is more common in the U.S. than Canada, especially around the Great Lakes.

While Chippewa and Ojibwe refer to the same people, it is believed that these words were derived from different pronunciations. The term Chippewa comes from the Algonquin word; ‘otchipwa’ which translated means; ‘to pucker.’  Early trappers and sign talkers, when describing these people, supposedly would refer to the uniquely gathered seams found on Ojibwe moccasins.

  

​These same early traders, many of whom were French, when looking at the ledgers of trading posts or forts would pronounce the word otchipwa as ‘chipway,’ or ‘ohchipway,’ which is believed to have eventually been corrupted to Chippewa or Ojibway.

​The Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people comprise the second largest tribe in North America. Their reservations and communities span 5 American States and 3 Canadian Provinces. This is a land mass larger than any other federally recognized tribe; a Big Native American family!

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Artist painting pictographs

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A prehistoric pictograph mural

Bear Gulch Montana

The Fraternity of War pictographs

This information is provided as a source and link to our good friends at Bear Gulch Pictographs, in Grass Range, near Lewistown, Montana.

The Bear Gulch pictograph site was painted on the Bear Gulch Limestone formation, from the (Mississippian of Montana) period. There are just under 3,000 pictographs on the cliff walls at Bear Gulch. Of these, there are over 1000 images of shield-bearing warriors.

 

Macie Ahlgren, site-manager and matriarch of the family owning the site, has worked closely with anthropologists and academics over the years.

 

In 1999, Casper, Wyoming, based archaeologists John and Mavis Greer came for a visit and ended up working closely with Macie through the years.

In the early 2000s they teamed with James D. Keyser, who was able to secure funding and personnel for a comprehensive recording and analysis of the images, the results of which were reported in the book Fraternity of War: Plains Indian Rock Art at Bear Gulch and Atherton Canyon, Montana.

 

The oldest paintings at Bear Gulch predate the introduction of the bow and arrow to the region at about A.D. 500, and are believed to have been painted more than 1,500 years ago. However, most of the pictograph’s date between A.D. 1000-1850.

 

The site was likely visited by several different tribes through the years with the Crow and Blackfeet leaving many of the latest images.

​Although shield-bearing warrior depictions were common in the rock art throughout the Northwest Plains, there are more recorded at Bear Gulch than at all other rock art sites in the region combined. The many shield designs there help identify the tribal affiliation of some of their painters and most of the power sources brought to the warriors who owned them.

​The Bear Gulch Pictograph site was opened to the public by the Ahlgren family in 2000. Tours originate from their ranch headquarters south of Forest Grove, easily accessed from Lewistown, a charming community located in the geographic center of the state and one of Montana’s best kept secrets.

Our special thanks to Dr. Mavis Greer, of Greer Services in Wyoming, for her technical assistance with information for this page.

Click the button to visit the Bear Gulch website
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The Bear Gulch road sign

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Paula with Bear Gulch owner Macie Ahlgren

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You might see a Grizzly in Montana