About Symbolic Learning

Within Indigenous cultures symbolic learning is a methodology used to impart our teachings, worldview, values, and beliefs to ourselves and others.  I firmly believe our people have a sophisticated system of “symbolic literacy” it is a powerful and moving form of literacy especially when symbolic and metaphorical learning methods are combined within a holistic approach.  Symbolic literacy can have a spectacular and profound psychological effect on both our conscious and unconscious levels of being.  Our ancient symbol systems have spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects to their use and the modern educational system is finally exploring these impacts upon human development and learning.

-Leah Marie Dorion (2014)

Selected Art Symbols

Turtle Turtle: Turtle is a First Nation symbol that is associated with the earth. In many Cree and Anishinabe Creation stories, North America was created on the back of a giant turtle. Turtle teaches us about patience, stability, grounding, and earth connection.
Dragonfly Dragonfly: According to my teachings, the Dragonfly reminds us of our ancestors who have lived before us. Every time a Dragonfly goes by I say, "Hello, my relative." The Dragonfly represents ancient wisdom, how loved we are by the spirits of our ancestors. 
Butterfly Butterfly: Butterfly is a youthful spirit who symbolizes transformation from youth to adulthood. Butterfly is associated with the innocence and playfulness of childhood, and we are taught that even as adults, we need to nurture our inner child.
Ants Ants: Ants symbolize industriousness and work ethic. The Ant nation teaches humanity that we need to work together in a good way to build our families, communities, and nations. The Elders teach that we naturally have a desire to work and we must engage in daily work and chores in a positive manner because it helps build our character, and allows us to contribute to the greater good.
Deer Deer: In many traditional teachings, Deer is a symbol of gentleness. Mother Deer teaches us to walk gently on our earth path. Deer reminds both men and women that within themselves they have the capacity to nurture others by accessing the gifts from their feminine side.
Geese Geese: Geese symbolize the importance of respectful communication, and respectful team work between community members. When Geese fly in formation they take turns with breaking the wind, no one goose harbours this responsibility alone, they work as a coordinated team.
Moose Moose: Moose is a symbol of abundance which is manifested through the practice of patience and careful deliberation. Moose teaches us that when we take the time to really "chew on our decisions" before we make them, that we will receive all that we need to live a good life.
Robin Robins: The Robin Nation teach humans about the joy of using your voice. Robin reminds us that, "Our voice is a medicine." Robin encourages humanity to sing out their good thoughts into the universe every day as the morning sun rises. Robin teach us that it is natural law to use our voices every day to welcome the morning sun back into our lives. They teach us to do all our greetings with gratefulness and respect.
Sunflower Sunflowers: Sunflower reminds humans that we are deeply connected to the healing power of the sun. This nation teaches us to be aware of the natural cycles of our day. Sunflower teaches us that if we follow the natural cycles present within our life we will be healthy and balanced.
Snakes Snakes:  Snakes are representative of our need to regularly dance to the music of Mother Earth. 
Thunderbird Thunderbird: The Thunderbird is an ancient spiritual being that brings the spring water back to the land. The Thunderbird helps recharge the Earth and humanity with her powerful energy of recreation. Thunderbird is a symbol of power. She teaches us to be mindful of how we use our personal power; do we use it for the greater good?
Medicine Wheel Medicine Wheel: The Medicine Wheel is an ancient symbol of an entire holistic knowledge system. The wheel represents many teachings regarding our Indigenous way of viewing the world and its cycles.

Visual Art Response

Responding and reacting to visual art work is a common practice in the field of the visual arts.  Arts organizations, curators, and art critics often share their written responses to various artworks in diverse mediums. They publish their thoughts about art works in newspapers, journals, and magazines.  Pretend you are hired to write a visual art response to the following artwork made by artist Leah Marie Dorion.

Passing Water Forward

Title: Passing Water Forward, 2013
Medium: Acrylic, glass bead gel, on canvas

Five Questions to help you get started:
What is your response to title of this art work? Is the title appropriate, why or why not?
Describe your emotional reaction to this art work?
What First Nations or Metis symbols/items/worldviews are featured in this art work?
How do you react to the color choices and techniques selected by the artist?
If you could ask the person in the painting a question what would you ask?

Creative Writing Response

It can be fun to compose a short story based on a specific image.  Try composing a short story based on the painting featured below which is titled “Thought Woman.”  Read the artist statement provided to inspire the development of your story.  Make sure you have a basic structure in your story such as an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Thought Woman 2012

Title: Thought Woman, 2012
Medium: Acrylic, mica flakes, on canvas
Size: W 24” by H 24”

This woman is weaving her basket of positive thoughts while sitting on her meditation carpet.  As she gathers her thoughts she radiates positive energy outward into the universe. In First Nations teachings the hair is ever growing just like our spirit is ever present within each one of us.  Thought woman’s hair expands to connect with her conscious and unconscious thoughts which form stars and circles of energy around her meditative body. The medicine wheel symbol reminds us we have to be self-disciplined to retain our personal balance emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.  Sometimes taking moments to clarify our thoughts is very important for personal growth and development.   The infinity symbol over her head is used to represent the flow of thinking which needs to be observed in order to strive for a balanced state of being.   It is taught by our Elders that our thought energy impacts ourselves, others, and all of Creation as such we need be aware of his great form of thought energy and its possible effects and consequences.