Ojibwe Musings – Finding my Third Ear in Algoma

rock face with drawing of canoe and horned animal

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. 

Steep rock leading down to the water with people creeping walking along Algoma Rock
We move carefully along the slippery rock to see the pictographs

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, canoes… The most recognizable painting is a spikey-horned animal, said to be “Misshepezhieu”, or the Great Lynx. He is the spirit of the water; he could calm the waters, or create wind and storms over the lake just by thrashing his tail.

Drawing on the rock face of a spined back creature with a single horn coming from his head
Misshepezhieu – the Great Lynx with his single horn and spiny back.

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 they understood they were a small part of it. After centuries of living in harmony with nature, their traditions and culture were being swept away. The newcomers had little respect for nature, or for the people they encountered here. So little in fact, that they would seek to utterly destroy the indigenous culture.

In the 19th century, indigenous children would be removed to residential schools to ensure that the last vestiges of their aboriginal society and religion might be wiped out.

A sad legacy of two doors

Large brick building with steeple over the front entrance and imposing entrance.
Shingwauk Hall, one of the early residential schools, is today part of Algoma University.

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.

It’s hard to comprehend 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.

Front entrance of a building with large glass doors
The imposing entrance of the school with its large doors.

Inside the building, 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 native language. For a child shut into a small dark space, it must have been both bewildering and terrifying.

A very small white door at the bottom of a staircase, large enough to crawl into only.
The door at the bottom of the stairs; here children who misbehaved were put.

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.

Memorial plaque outside Shingwauk Hall
Plaque outside Shingwauk Hall.

A Lost Vision

A plaque, erected in 2012 outside Shingwauk Hall reads: In keeping with the spirit and intent embodied within the Shingwauk sire, the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, Shingwauk Education Trust and Algoma University hereby designate these lands and the cemetery as a National Memorial to all those who attended one or more of the many residential schools across Turtle Island.
We hold a special place in our hearts for those children who never returned home. May their memories live on.

The last sentence is particularly significant in the light of the recent finding of 215 bodies of children outside a residential school in Kamloops. According to CBC News, searches of at least nine locations have found over 1,300 potential unmarked burials. Ground-penetrating radar searches are in progress or investigations have been launched at approximately 17 former residential school sites, and discussions or consultations are ongoing at another 21 sites. There is a graveyard behind this school too. But there are only a few grave markers, some quite grand. The names on them are not indigenous.

The plaque above lists the seven sacred teachings: Love, Respect, Wisdom, Honesty, Courage, Humility, and Truth. 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.”

Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad with beautiful native art on the walls behind her
Elizabeth Edgar-Webkamigad, director of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre shares some of the historic documents from the residential school.

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.

Sadly, and more significantly, aboriginal peoples lost their sense of belonging – to the earth, to their own history, and to one another . “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 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.

The dancers swirl their beaded and fringed capes and the drummers – under the shelter of the tent – beat their compelling rhythms

“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 his family doubting the value of their own history and culture. But, it saddens him, he says, 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 fully realized that these rhythms were not random but carefully coordinated and compelling. They seem to move inside my body. I think I begin to understand the significance of sacred drumming to young men like 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.”

I haven’t. 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 it.

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.

4 thoughts on “Ojibwe Musings – Finding my Third Ear in Algoma

  1. Liz; Thank you for sharing your story with me.
    As a young girl, our Public School (Onondaga) would go to the Residential School in Brantford to play baseball. There was always a lot of tension when we arrived by school bus. The rules were very strict, and we were not allowed to enter the premises, not even to use their washroom. We liked playing against their team, but could never win the game. They were FAST, really FAST, and could hit the ball out of the fenced area of the ball-park behind their school. It was only years later that I understood why the only joy I saw on any of their faces was actually during the games themselves. Then a somberness would overtake them as they lined up and paraded in single file back into the huge brick building where they resided. I always felt a sadness come over me as we left, but I was also glad that our Principal was able to arrange those few games of pleasure for those students.

  2. Liz, This is a delightful and insightful sensitively documented experience in the Sault. Thank you.
    By helenroy.net
    Gizhe Manidoo

    I’iw nama’ewinan, maaba asemaa, miinwaa n’ode’winaanin gda-bagidinimaagom.
    (We offer our prayers, tobacco and our hearts.)

    Miigwech gda-igom n’mishomissinaanig miinwa n’ookomisinaanig jiinaago gaa-iyaajig, noongom e-iyaajig miinwaa waabang ge-iyaajig.
    (Thank you for the Grandfathers and Grandmothers of yesterday, today and tomorrow.)

    Miigwech manidoog iyaajig noodinong, iyaajig nibiing, iyaajig shkodeng miinwa iyaajig akiing.
    (Thank you spirits of the winds, water, fire and earth.)

    Miigwech manidoog iyaajig giiwedinong, waabanong, zhaawanong miinwa epangishimok.
    Thank you spirits of the north, east, south and west.

    Daga bi-wiidokawishinaang wii mino bimaadiziyaang.
    Please help us to live a good life.


    Gii Miigwetch,
    Nicole Pepper

  3. Beautiful, insightful. Miigwech for stopping by. Telling the story,, keeps the legacy of this time in our history, alive. We must speak the truth around the stories, it will help with the work that needs to be done to heal; as individuals, as communities, as a country. Miigwech for sharing.

    • Thank you so much Elizabeth, or should I say, Miigwech. I appreciate your comment. I have to say that my trip to Sault Ste Marie was very significant for me. I learned so much and felt impelled to share the story.

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