Holding on to our identity

Emilie Corbiere

Like most native, or ‘First Nation’, Canadians, the three tribes that live on Walpole Island, Ontario, suffered at the hands of European settlers. But unlike other tribes, they never left their ancestral lands where they still live today. New generations are working hard to protect tradition and the environment 

Welcome to Walpole Island First Nation, also known as Bkejwanong, meaning “where the waters divide” in the Ojibwe language. The island is located in Southern Ontario, Canada, across the St Clair River from Michigan, USA. Three tribes inhabit Walpole Island, they are the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi and the Ottawa and they have occupied this land for the past 8,000 years as hunters and gatherers. With the three tribes having a common heritage, they formed the Council of the Three Fires, a political and cultural compact that has survived the test of time. It is also unceded territory, which means that the land was never surrendered to the government and the population today is numbered at 3,000 residents. 

During the war of 1812, a great Shawnee warrior named Tecumseh crossed the border from America into Canada, hoping that he could rally more First Nations warriors into fighting alongside the British against the Americans. Thousands of warriors joined the war with Tecumseh and held back the Americans many times. One of my ancestors, Chief John Nahdee, fought side by side with Tecumseh and ultimately watched his death at American hands. There is a legend that the native warriors left Tecumseh’s bones on the battlefield, returning at darkness to retrieve them and give them a proper native burial. It is believed that Tecumseh is buried on Walpole Island but the whereabouts are unknown. Tecumseh is revered as the most extraordinary native in history and he supported national unity among tribes. Today this is called ‘self determination’ and is recognised by the United Nations. 

Legendary car manufacturer Henry Ford paid a visit to Walpole Island in the early 1900s, guiding his yacht along the St Clair River to attend a service at the Anglican church and to visit his friend, Minister Simpson Brigham. 

The first car on the island was a gift from Ford, given to Brigham. It must have been very difficult for Brigham to drive his car considering there were no roads on the island. The only forms of transport used by the residents were foot or canoe, so the paths would have been very narrow. These paths are called ‘miikaans’ which in English means ‘little road paths’. These paths still exist today, thousands of years after they were first created, but are no longer shown on any maps. 

In the early 1800s, after the church had arrived and treaties had been written, aboriginal children were forced from their homes and families to attend church-run residential schools. Children as young as three years old were taken to schools often thousands of miles away from their homes, forbidden to speak their language and forced to have their hair cut. Countless horror stories have been told by the people who attended these schools, including daily sexual and physical abuse. The idea was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. After returning home from these schools, the children could no longer speak their language or communicate with their families, leading to a life of isolation, depression and substance abuse – the effects of this have continued on for many generations. The last residential school closed its doors in 1996. On 11 June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the government and all Canadians to aboriginal people for the mistreatment they endured during that time. 

Today, in 2014, recreational tourism is the number one industry on the island. Hunting, fishing and trapping still support many of the residents today, with 8,236 acres of diverse wetlands at their disposal. There is also a unique ecosystem with more than 800 different species of plants and 130 bird species. The island is home to prairie tallgrass, which does not usually grow in the province of Ontario but in the neighbouring provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. 

Unfortunately, pollution plays a major role in the health of the community and its surroundings. The residents are in a constant battle to protect their waters from industrial pollution both from the American and Canadian sides. Upstream is Canada’s petrochemical and refining region, also known as Chemical Valley. Legal actions often take years to process and the outcome is not usually in favour of First Nations people or the protection of the environment. Ocean freighters that travel along the St Clair River are responsible for introducing zebra mussels to the lake and the wetlands. During the summer weeks, the beaches need to be closed periodically due to the level of bacteria in the water, which is harmful for swimmers. 

In 1989 Walpole Island opened its Heritage Centre, which aims to preserve, interpret and promote the natural and cultural heritage of the island. The centre offers environmental audits and protection, traditional ecological knowledge and wildlife management. The workers’ dedication to blending scientific data with aboriginal knowledge is renowned and many other First Nation communities are looking at their own environments and how they can be preserved for future generations. 

Walpole Island is a thriving community with Chief Joseph Gilbert and the band council making new and welcome changes, including introducing a water treatment plant, library, elementary school, community centre and ice rink, bank, petrol station, fire department and much more. 

Every summer the residents of the island hold their annual powwow, which is a two or three day celebration with drumming, singing, dancing and feasting. Many native craftspeople and artisans come to the festival to sell their wares and to trade. Native people have been trading with other tribes for thousands of years, so it’s a long tradition among our people. The first day of the powwow sees a greeting by an elder who will give thanks to the Creator for the blessed day. In honour of the Creator, a sacred fire is lit and remains lit throughout the of powwow, thanks to the firekeeper, whose main job is to keep the fire lit, rain or shine. 

When it’s time for the dancers to enter the sacred circle, the elders always enter first, followed by the veterans and then the dignitaries – this proceeding is called Grand Entry. It takes a great deal of people to put together a powwow and at the end of the celebrations, a giveaway is thrown to thank them. 

As history has shown, First Nations people are a resilient bunch. Cultural identity is of the utmost importance to aboriginal people, along with preserving our knowledge. We will always be keepers of the land and defend Mother Earth. 

About the author:

Emilie Corbiere is an aboriginal craftswoman, journalist, author and storyteller. She is best known for her children's books series Porcupine and Friends, which introduces the Ojibwe language to English speakers


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