The windows of the school are boarded up for the summer and the supermarket’s windows are also barred. Signs outside the village speak of zero tolerance for drugs. For some reason, I had expected that Wikwemikong, as Canada’s only unceded Indian Reserve, would be among those First Nations Communities that seem to be embracing contemporary life most positively . The reality did not, at first glance, live up to the optimism of the Band website.
Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve is the largest Anishnaabek community on Manitoulin Island. Located on the eastern peninsula, Wikwemikong is home to the people of Three Fires Confederacy: an alliance of the Ojibwa, Odawa and Pottawatomi nations. (from Wikwemikong’s website)
Later in our stay, talking to some Manitoulin locals, they seemed almost surprised we had ventured into the village – “we only go there for special events, like the Pow Wows“. I’m glad we did, though, and although we did feel like outsiders, we did not feel in any way threatened. What saddened me, beyond the shadow of boards and bars, was the poor choice of food available.
The Reserve still includes a great deal of semi-wilderness land. With limited economic opportunity and the legacy of the most shameful period of Canadian history, the evidence of a continuing struggle with drugs, alcohol and criminality is perhaps not surprising. It is patently clear, though, that there is much good work taking place and plenty of people with the will to shape a better tomorrow.
Holy Cross Church, WikwemikongIt was interesting, at Holy Cross Church, part of the now ruined Jesuit Mission in Wikwemikong, to observe the intertwining of indigenous spirituality and Christianity. The Seven Grandfathers’ Teachings, the First Nations images,seem very appropriate and comfortable in the Church context. It gave me hope that the institutions that have so much to answer for in their past treatment of native peoples may have a genuinely important role to play in creating a shared future.
Our host at the cabins where we stayed is the Band’s Renewable Energy Planner. She and her Mexican husband have created a lovely, small resort on Manitowaning Bay. Although she left the island to go to university half a continent away, she has brought her skills back to her home community, is part of shaping that tomorrow.
One recent initiative was the creation of the Bebamikawe Memorial Trail. We thoroughly enjoyed our hike there. Accompanied by two dogs, who acted as guardians from the moment we arrived until we drove away, we walked the wooded paths to stand on stony shores, looking out on the vast horizons of Georgian Bay. I don’t get the impression, though, that the trails are well used – we generally did not find it that easy to get at clear information. We would love to have experienced aboriginal theatre as presented by De-ba-jeh-mu-jig theatre group, but in the end could not pin down what was happening and when.
Set against the awareness of still untamed demons, Wikwemikong’s Cultural Pow Wow brought a wonderful sense of the renewal of connections to the traditional ways and of community. I found it fascinating, moving and full of hope. It was a revelation to begin to understand how many things we now tend to think of as created for tourism fit into traditional culture; to see beads and beautiful, soft, animal skins and furs being traded, as well as finished moccasins (I’m wearing a pair as I write), jewellery and more.
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow - Drummers & Singers
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow - Drummers & Singers Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow
Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow - Lisa Odjig, a famous hoop dancer Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow Wikwemikong Cultural Pow-Wow
Pow Wow costumes range from very traditional, sometimes ancient and laden with cultural significance, to much more modern, using an intriguing range of contemporary materials. Most are truly awesome creations, made lovingly and worn with pride. Cultural Pow Wow’s involve ceremony, a range of dancing competitions, as well as times when everyone can join in and dance. They are, as they have always been, a time of gathering, when tribes come together from far and wide, to celebrate, to trade, to renew connections and make new ones. Outsiders are welcomed; but it is not always easy to understand when it is appropriate to take photos and when not, so we can only hope that we stayed respectfully within the boundaries.
Sadness mixed with hope – I guess, in truth, that is about the best I could have expected at this moment in time. It seems to me that we are reaching a tipping point in Canadian history. There is a deep need for modern Canada to acknowledge and own the shame of the near eradication of indigenous culture, the human impact of this and the immense loss it represents. The stories must be told and heard. But beyond the speaking and the listening, this is a time to begin to build new relationships, based on respect, that value the differences in cultural tradition and wisdom. It is time for Canada to begin the shift to a coherent, adult identity that marks its coming of age.
(You can click on any image to see larger versions of all the images on the page and there are more photos from our time in Manitoulin in our gallery – Summer Trip 2013)