I’m barefoot, carefully feeling with my toes as I move along a sharply sloping rock face, because if I slip, it’s quick slide and a short drop into ccccold Lake Superior.
My cautious progress is taking me out to Agawa Rock in Lake Superior Provincial Park, a sacred site. Here, past generations of Ojibwe have come to record visions and events.
These pictographs – rock drawings – dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, have withstood wind, rain, waves and sun. Some are fading, but many remain remarkably vivid.
What do they mean? On the wall are moose, deer, bear, caribou, and canoes. The most recognizable painting is a spikey-horned animal, said to be “Misshepezhieu”, or the Great Lynx.
Misshepezhieu is the spirit of the water; he could calm the waters, or create wind and storms over the lake just by thrashing his tail.
These drawings of things once familiar leave me wondering about the Ojibwe who came precariously along the rock to draw them, during a time when their homeland was slowly being overtaken by Europeans.
Could they have been a plea to Misshepezhieu for help? The First Nations called the world Turtle Island and knew they were a small part of it. After centuries of living in harmony with nature, their traditions and culture were being swept away.
In the 19th century, their children would be removed to residential schools to ensure that the last vestiges of their aboriginal culture might be wiped out.
A sad legacy of two doors
One of the earliest residential schools is in nearby Sault Ste Marie. The original buildings were lost to fire, then replaced in 1935. Today, that building – Shingwauk Hall – is part of Algoma University.
I can’t imagine the fear and apprehension of children as young as three years of age, taken away from their families in a small village and brought to this imposing edifice.
A second door also struck fear into the children. This tiny door at the bottom of a stairwell was a punishment space. Children could be put her for transgressions such as talking to their sibling, or speaking their own Ojibwe language.For a child shut into a small dark space, it must have been both bewildering and terrifying.
When the building was being renovated, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association – a group of residential school survivors – were consulted about changes to the building. The huge entry doors are not insulated and the university thought to replace them with smaller, more energy-efficient ones. But the group asked that they be kept. They were the first thing they saw when they arrived and through them, they left their own familiar world behind.
A Lost Vision
Chief Shingwauk, for whom the building is named, was in favour of the first school, but his vision encompassed collaboration based on mutual respect and goals. “He saw the process as a teaching wigwam,” explains Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad, director of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. “He thought we would learn from each other. But the vision was lost in translation.”
Lost, too, was the idea of learning from the First Nations. What a pity. We might have learned to respect the land, to listen to nature, and to live in harmony with the animals and plants sharing this planet with us. It’s a particularly poignant message in the face of climate change
More significantly, aboriginal peoples lost their sense of belonging. “Children in residential schools didn’t develop the bond with siblings and later with their own children. They didn’t learn to foster closeness,” Jaden, the child of a residential school survivor, explains. “They lost the love and trust the parental bond created so they don’t know how to do it with their own kids. Often, the pain continues into future generations.”
Rhythm – Where’s my third ear?
On my last day in Sault Ste Marie, I attend a Pow Wow and here I learn just how complete that break with their history can be. The Pow Wow is a colourful gathering filled with music and dance and delicious food. There I see Justin Perrault, a drummer. I watch him drumming with the group, and his delight and commitment is evident. This is a patently a calling for Justin.
“I started singing when I was 15,” he tells me later, then adds sadly, “But I was discouraged by my dad. Even my grandmother asked me why I was doing this.” He understands that their own experiences in residential schools left them doubting the value of their own history and culture. But, it saddened him, he said, that they put so little value on their – and his – cultural history. “But,” he adds proudly, pointing to the rest of the drummers, “we’re all dads now and we try to bring it into our homes and teach our children.”
The drums and the bells of the dancers create an irresistible rhythm. I don’t think I had ever realized that these rhythms were not random but carefully coordinated and compelling. I think I begin to understand its significance to Justin.
Why didn’t I hear these rhythms before?
The answer comes from Marie, a beautifully decorated dancer. Pointing to my heart, she says, Perhaps you haven’t been listening with your third ear.”
It seems to me much of First Nations culture involves a third ear – to hear the music of nature as well as drums. And just maybe, as with many cultures, one also needs a third eye – to see beauty in the natural world and a heart open to embrace these.
I’m working on it.
Note: Some residential school survivors have struggled with healing, then taken that healing to others. Here’s the story of my visit to one such place – Kanatha-Aki.