When thinking of the land where my Ancestors have walked, I am always wondering what life was like for them: What did the forest look like prior to settlers coming to this part of Anishinaabe Akiing (Anishinaabe territory)? What relationships did they have with the water and land to sustain their natural way of living through their seasonal habits? As an Anishinaabe nini (man), descending from the Potawatomi from the Wisconsin area, I have always been told by my parents, grandparents, and community members that you must only take what you need when harvesting, and to give thanks and respect to those who have sacrificed their life for you, so you can replenish your earthly vessel. They have also taught me that if you take something from the land, you must always give something back. These natural laws have always been understood, and Anishinaabek continue to live this way of life. As I continue my Ancestral practices through harvesting practices and time on the land, I have often wondered: Was this spot used by those old ones who have passed on? And if so, what did they do here?
I grew up away from my First Nation. My grandparents on my father’s side had decided to leave Beausoleil First Nation (Christian Island/Chimnissing) around the spring of 1950. Two years prior to this move, my grandmother had just left an abusive relationship with her ex-husband with whom she had six children. Like his father, uncles, and extended family before him, my grandfather would travel to Clarkson (now Oakville, Ontario) every spring to work on the farms there. Unlike his relatives at the time, my grandfather and grandmother made this move a permanent one, as it was said they left their First Nation because they were starving. They lived in Clarkson for a little bit and then continued to move and find work on farms around the Golden Horseshoe of Lake Ontario until they settled in the village of Jordan, Ontario. After some years in Jordan, my grandparents moved their children to St. Catharines, where they purchased a home in the neighborhood of Port Weller. This is the town of my birth, and this is where I was raised.
When my younger brother and I were very young, we were taken out of my parents’ arms and put in custody as wards of the Province of Ontario. We were soon adopted by my father’s sister. My aunt and her husband already had six children of their own when they took in my brother and me. They also lived in Port Weller, only two blocks away from my grandparents.
Growing up along the shore of Lake Ontario as a young child offered many adventures as Municipal Beach was only a block away from our house. Lock One of the Welland Canal wasn’t too far away, either; all you had to do was walk a little bit down the path through the woods and you would see large transport vessels from other countries making their way through the Great Lakes. Along the canal were two large sand piles that never seemed to disappear. My brothers and I would often climb these sand piles throughout our youth.
The woods gave a wonderful escape as a youth, for my brothers and I would often play in them. We would build forts, play manhunt, build jumps for our bikes, and swing on rope that was tied off to a large tree overlooking a gully. Though I may not have been conscious of it at the time, one of the most important things that happened to me at this point in my life was that I began to understand nature a little bit more.
As a young artist, I would often draw the different types of trees and plants. I would learn about them through observation. I would learn which trees would bud first in the springtime. I would see the differences in leaf structure of the various species of plants. I would catch tadpoles from a small pond in the spring, and often go back to see the progression from tadpole to frog. One of my favourite times of the year was when the raspberries were ripe, and I would eat them for a good while on my way home from school. All of my experiences as a child had a profound impact on who I am as an artist and an Anishinaabe nini. Now, as a father, I continue to walk through the bush and paddle on the rivers with my two young boys to share with them the stories that the land has to offer.
Growing up off of my reserve always had me wondering who I was and where my family came from. As a young boy, I had accompanied my grandparents back to Christian Island for the first time to attend the funeral of my grandfather’s brother-in-law. Although I was very young, I still remember the visit. I remember being scared travelling on the boat to get to the Island as I had never been on a boat before. I remember holding my grandparents’ hands as we walked up the steps of the church to attend the funeral. And I also remember meeting the many relatives that were excited to see us during such a tragic time.
Later in my teens, I had wondered about Christian Island: where it was, how big it was, and how my life had been created through the many generations of family that had lived there and made a life for themselves. It was when I was eighteen years old that I made the choice to move there and live with my grandfather, aunt, and uncle.
When I first moved there, it was in the fall time and I still remember my surprise at how clear and clean the water of Georgian Bay was. I also remember the barren, leafless trees that seemed to carry off in the distance for miles. And I also remember it being colder than I have ever experienced during that time of year. It was during the wintertime of the same year that I first travelled across the frozen bay in the back of a pick-up truck. All these experiences were new to me. To the people of Chimnissing, these experiences were regular and normal, going back several generations.
After the snow melted and spring had arrived, I would wake up early to walk half an hour to the boat to prepare for my day at school on the mainland. As I was leaving, I would often see my grandfather coming down the driveway from his early walk in the bush. When I asked him where he went, he would always say, “Up the hill, in the bush.” He would often tell me that our family had lived on this portion of land on Christian Island for many generations. He said that his home was on the land that his grandfather owned where there was a little farm with pigs, chickens, and a garden, as well as an orchard that yielded apple trees and grape vines. I would later find out from some of my father’s cousins that they had called this place Nazhooshnabuns—the Anishinaabek name of my great, great grandfather.
Being a descendent of the Potawatomi from the Wisconsin area, I would find out from my grandfather that our ancestors were the first to reside on Christian Island since the time of the Hurons in 1650, when they were being hunted down by the Mohawk people. My grandfather told me about a stretch of land in the bush where his father and grandfather planted potatoes. He told me about several different areas in which they collected maple sap for sugar making. He told me about the other places near his home where his relatives lived in wigwams and where they are buried as well. He told me about all the fun he had as a child when he and his siblings would chase the carp along the shore in the springtime. And in the winter, they would walk all the way around Christian Island when the bay froze, usually taking one whole day from sunup to sundown.
The area where my grandfather grew up on Christian Island was a piece of land that his other grandfather had lived on, as well as his grandfather’s two brothers. Today, part of this land is the traditional cemetery of Chimnissing, where many of my family and other members of the community are resting.
When my grandfather passed away in 2007, there was so much more that I had wished I could have learned from him. Being intemperate and adventurous in my twenties, I spent much time away from home and my family, travelling to many places. After he passed, I knew I wanted to learn more about who I was as an Anishinaabe nini. I wanted to learn our stories, family histories, and culture. I have been fortunate enough to have been taught some of these things from my parents, aunts, uncles, extended family, and community members throughout the years.
I learned about our Ancestral connection to land beyond Christian Island, extending into what is now known as the Georgian Bay region. I learned that my Ancestors had lived off the land for many years when they first came to this part of the Great Lakes in 1835. They were known to be a semi-nomadic band and had lived in several locations along the southern Georgian Bay coastline. They utilized the many rivers emptying into Georgian Bay. They had hunted along the Nottawasaga River and the branches that led off this river into the interior of what is now known as Pre-Confederate Treaty #18.
One place that seemed to be like a home base for my Potawatomi Ancestors was Opiniikaaning, otherwise known in English as Potato Island, located in Matchedash Bay in Simcoe County, Ontario. Through my extensive research in years past, I found out that many of my Ancestors and those Ancestors who married into this Potawatomi Band from the Assance Band were born on Opiniikaaning. This island proved to be a great fishing station as it was very close to the mouth of the Severn River where many species of fish have been found for generations. My Ancestors also raised crops on this island to help sustain themselves in the fall and wintertime.
I have visited Opiniikaaning a few times to offer semaa (tobacco) to those ones who lived their lives with care for their next seven generations, who made sure that I am able to live a happy life. Although this island now has many homes built up around its shoreline, the interior is still undeveloped. It isn’t a large island, but one that could yield more stories in the future through ceremony and archeology.
My Potawatomi Ancestors had also lived on Beausoleil Island in Georgian Bay, now a National Park. Every year, the park holds a memorial feast for those ones resting at the Cemetery of the Oak. This ceremony is conducted by the Midewewin people of Chimnissing. In the past, many of the descendants of those in that cemetery have taken part in this memorial.
Many other relatives of Potawatomi and Odawa people have moved and settled at different parts along the Georgian Bay coast. Some settled with the Ojibway at Shawanaga and Wasauksing, otherwise known as Parry Island, while some relocated to Mitabik or Moose/Deer Point First Nation, creating their own reserve there.
Having lived in the traditional territory of my First Nation, I have done my best to visit the many different places that I found my Ancestors utilized and travelled through, either by land or canoe. As I take my children on these adventures, I share with them the importance of the place as it relates not only to our family history but to the Anishinaabe as a whole.
This land has been very sacred to the people of the Great Lakes for many thousands of years. As we continue to retrace our steps to find what has been lost through forced assimilation, colonization, and development, we are able to become one again with that which provides so much for our people, both physically and spiritually. The future of our waters and land will only depend on how well we all can take care of them, though, as we are a people of many different backgrounds and diverse ethnic origin who must act collectively for the health of our next seven generations. It’s up to all of us to secure a healthy relationship to the land and waters that has offered so much for our wellbeing. We are the land, and we are the water.
Published on 28 June 2021
Special thanks to Samantha Butwell for her work on this series.