Before the settlers came: Learning the Indigenous history of Kawartha Lakes

By Sylvia Keesmaat

Before the settlers: Learning the Indigenous history of Kawartha Lakes

How do we tell the history of a people and a place when we have tried to erase that people from that place? The people I am referring to are the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, the original, Indigenous people of what is most recently called Kawartha Lakes. How do we recount their history when most people don’t even know their name?

Do we begin with the treaties, the official documents of 1818 and 1923 that the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg were forced to sign, ceding control of their land and later their hunting, fishing and gathering rights to the colonizers?

Do we discuss how a people who did not consider the land something that could be “owned” or “sold” thought these were agreements to share the land peacefully, not agreements that relinquished their rights completely?

Sylvia Keesmaat.

Do we talk about how the agreements were written in a language the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg did not fully understand, and how the government stopped paying the meagre annuity it had promised as soon as possible? Do we talk about how without access to hunting and fishing these Indigenous people began to starve?

Or do we describe how we tried to erase the land from the memory of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg by taking their children to residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking their language or telling the stories of their elders? Should we disclose the abuse the children suffered and the stories of trauma that replaced the stories of the land? Should we recount the sad tale of the Sixties Scoop, which took children from their parents and placed them in settler families where most never heard the stories of the land again?

Birch trees provided bark for canoes and containers.

Or should we tell of wave after wave of settlers moving into Kawartha Lakes, cutting down the maple, nut and fruit trees, the birch and the basswood, to make way for farmland? Should we describe how the pastures and meadows tended by the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg were ploughed under by the settlers, and how the deer, rabbit, coyote and fox declined, while the elk disappeared altogether? Should we recount how the mills polluted the waters? How the dams drove out the salmon? Should we reveal how the dams and the locks constructed for settler pleasure boats, drowned the wild rice beds, their staple food? Should we tell how the cottagers colonized the shores of the lakes, preventing access for fishing and harvesting?

Or should we listen to the knowledge keepers of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, to hear the history that we have tried to erase? Should we listen to and read the stories of Gidigaa Migizi (Doug Williams) of Curve Lake, recounted in his book Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg: This is Our Territory, or Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a knowledge keeper of Alderville First Nation and author of As We Have Always Done, that tell of the living relationship between land, people, animals, and plants?

Should we open ourselves to the stories of how the trees and the waters provided food for the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, food that they followed each season? How the maple bush provided sap in the spring; how the three sisters (maize, beans and squash) were planted in well-tended clearings; how the forests and fields provided berries and nuts, along with medicines from flower and bark. How all of this was tended and gathered in the summer. How in the fall the deer and the elk provided meat for food, fur and hides for clothing and shelter, bone and sinew for tools and thread. How in the fall the Indigenous people gathered at the shallow lakes in the Kawarthas to harvest the manoomin, the good seed, growing on the waters of the lakes, feeding not only the people but all the creatures that lived in the rice beds and browsed among its foliage.

Should we learn about how the birch trees provided bark for canoes and containers, the spruce and pine provided pitch for sealing, how the Mother Basswood provided not only food and wood, but inner bark that was made into twine and thread or woven into baskets?

Should we listen to how the land held the stories of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, how the land held their sacred spaces, the places where their ancestors lived and are buried, how the land gave them their rituals, provided lessons for their children? Should we learn how the land held them in love?

Should we perhaps listen to the stories of how all the creatures, plants and animals were considered to be the relations of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg; how thanksgiving was offered to Creator and tobacco was given in thanks to those creatures who sustained these Indigenous people? How this way of life endured for thousands of years because it was deeply rooted in respect for all the living things that shared this land; how this people could be sustained for thousands of years in this place because traditional Indigenous knowledge has passed on from generation to generation the skills and love necessary to ensure that this land can provide all that is needed for the plants, the animals, the forests and the lakes, and the Michi Saagiig themselves to flourish.

Should we learn how this culture, in the words of Gidigaa Migizi, “was designed to be sustainable and to protect our children yet to be born”?

Should we listen to how the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg were willing to share the land? How they shared this land with the Odawa and the Huron (also known as the Wendat) over the centuries? And how they shared their knowledge with the first settlers in this place?

Perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to tell the history of an Indigenous people who were here for thousands of years before settlers like ourselves arrived. Perhaps instead we should admit, as we go about our daily lives, farming the fields that we think are “ours,” paddling on lakes and sitting on waterfront that we think are “ours,” that we are unaware of the history of the people that were here for thousands of years, unaware of their history with this land, unaware of their sacred relationship with the animals, the rocks and the waters. Perhaps we should confess how little we know.

And then, perhaps we will be able to commit to listening to the knowledge keepers like Gidigaa Migizi and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Perhaps we will read their work, listen to them speak, rejoice that the language and traditions are once again being passed on to the younger generation. Perhaps as settlers, it is time to learn the history of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg and this land that we now call Kawartha Lakes. Perhaps it is time to begin the hard work of learning how to truly share this land so that all can flourish, rather than continuing to erase the history of those who were here before us.

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