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Funding for this project generously provided by Overdeck Family Foundation

around 1800

Midewiwin Birchbark Scroll

Sequential counting on a birchbark scroll

The birchbark (wiigwaasabak) master scroll De-1 depicts the four lodges of the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine Society) in which the Ojibwe Native Americans conducted curing ceremonies. Sequences of dots appearing in the upper-left-hand corner of each lodge give the counting numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, which correspond to the principal shaman and his assistants. Various other sequences of dots, tally marks and diagonal T-shaped extensions depicted in the scroll represent other numerical aspects of Midewiwin ceremonies.

Midewiwin Birchbark Scroll

In addition to the sequences of 1, 2, 3, 4 dots in the upper-left corner of each lodge corresponding to the principal shaman and his assistants, the sequence 4, 9, 12, 21 of tally marks along the lower half of the processional path represents the Mide officials. Additionally, the sequence 2, 3, 4, 5 of dots in the central portion symbolized sacred fire and 1, 2, 3 or 4 sacred posts. Finally, the outer edges of the lodges contain T-shaped extensions that give the series 4, 6, 8, 10, representing the numbers of evil spirits trying to influence the candidate taking part in the curing ceremony.

Artifact origin

Northern Midwestern United States

Catalog number

Master scroll De-1


Counting timeline Sumerian Earliest Known Math Table Sumerian 7 Quotient and 10 Product Tablet Babylonian School Multiplication Tablet Babylonian Reciprocals Tablet Rhind Papyrus Roman Stylus Tablet Bamboo-Strip Multiplication Table Venerable Bede's De temporum ratione South American Quipu Aztec Dates from Codex Mendoza Midewiwin Birchbark Scroll

Interactive Content

Computational Explanation

Additional Reading

  • Closs, M. P. "Tallies and the Ritual Use of Number in Ojibwe Pictography." Ch. 7 in Native American Mathematics (Ed. M. P. Closs). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 203–205, 1996.
  • Copway, G. The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation. Boston, MA: B. F. Mussey & Co., 1851.
  • Densmore, F. Fig. 12 in Chippewa Customs. Bulletin 86 of the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, pp. 90–92 and pl. 34, 1929. Reprinted by Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979.
  • Dewdney, S. The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1975.
  • Nelson, R. E. "Inscribed Birch Bark Scrolls and Other Objects of the Midewiwin." Algonquin Papers/Les Actes du Congres des Algonquinistes, Vol. 14, pp. 219–238, 1983.