Category Archives: Metis

pow wow @ toronto’s aboriginal festival


Hundreds of dancers from native bands stretching from British Columbia to Maine tapped out to the beat of drum today at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival.

watching the pow wow dancers

The Grand Entry for was led by her highness, Buffy Ste. Marie, (CBC archives just posted some retro clips of Ste. Marie from as early as 1966, including a live recording of Little Wheel Spin and Spin – the only old track she re-recorded for her new album).  Ste. Marie won a lifetime achievement award at the Aboriginal Music Awards last night and happily signed autographs for fans at the festival today.


But it was the joyous shaking of the younger dancers, hundreds of whom rounded out the grand entry, that grabbed the crowds.


In its fifteenth year, organizers claim it’s the biggest in North America.  “I’ve never seen so many Indians in Toronto,” said the woman behind me in the ticket line.  She and her friends came from Thunder Bay. 

the millers and the luxmore

I tagged along with the Millers who’ve been attending for years, watching Alice work the floor to promote the very exciting pow wow for climate change she’s organizing next summer, and eating moose burgers and white corn soup.  Ahh, the ancestors would be proud.


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The Adventure diaries part 3: skywater

“Try a different angle, it’s hard to see,” Alice directed from her tent as I snapped away.  I was trying to capture the glistening spiders’ webs in the morning mist.  Alice had noticed them as she soon she stepped out of her tent.  It’d been an eventful night.  A bear tore into her tent, marking her with his claws on her leg and chest.  When she woke she scribbled the dream in her notebook for later analysis.  The silky webs outside her tent were another sign.
spiders web, grassy lake, northern ontario
Alice’s teacher, Uncle, had named her spiderwoman.  She weaves webs to bring her what she desires and to connect people, he said.  She was still settling into this new name – maybe the webs were a sign she was on the right track.
misty morning on Grassy river
As for me, I was just trying to clear the mist from my own head after a few too many celebratory red wines the night before.  Maybe next year I’d follow her lead – staying away from the wine and closer to my dreams. 
Devil’s lake, pictogram rock
After a steaming pot of coffee we were revved up for our last day: first pictograms and then lunch with the ancestors.  We boated to Devil’s lake, cutting the engines to get a close look at the pictograms.  Leonard told us our Ojibway ancestors had painted these bright red stories to attract the Mohawk, after they got wind the Mohwak were coming to attack.  Having rarely seen such paintings, the Mohawk drew in to the cliff for a closer look.  Rocks and arrows flew down on them and that’s when “we kicked ass,” said Sue proudly, as if she herself had shot the arrow. 
pictogram Devils lake
We splashed the faint markings for a clearer picture.
pictogram Devil’s lake, animal
People and animals, arrowheads and strong lines – but weaving together a story from these fading images proved beyond my capacity.  I reached out, running my fingers along the smooth surface.
three pines grassy river
Then we made our way back down the river in search of the three red pines marking an ancient Ojibway burial ground.  Leonard’s father used to take him here on their hunting and trapping trips to pay respects to the ancestors.  

While the others lit a fire Alice and I decided to brave the freezing waters for a quick wash.  I went first, tiptoeing along a thick log.  I dropped Alice’s soap immediately and jumped out of the icy water in under a minute – so much for the clean part.
 Slight indentations along the forest floor, thickly carpeted with red, white and jack pine needles, marked old graves. 
red pine tree northern ontario
We picnicked, sharing the now requisite pot of campfire tea.  We offered tobacco and food to our ancestors.  Laurie, Alice and Sue took out their drums and began to sing.  Alice and Sue moved together around each of us.  They beat the drums harder, singing louder and with a final bang drew the drum base close to my body – I could feel the vibrations from the taught skin of the drum in my own – an unexpectedly powerful force. 
We left full and contented.  I finally managed to snag the coveted seat at the front of Leonard’s canoe.  I looked out at the winding river before me – and it was the sky.  Nearing the end of our trip, things couldn’t be more whole. 
Heading back to Toronto the next morning we passed the Arctic Watershed.  “From here all rivers flow south to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence” the sign read – and my heart sank.  But I knew I’d be back again next summer, driving the opposite direction.  “From here all rivers flow north to Hudson Bay,” the sign would read.  And I’d be crossing back ,to my other half.

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The Adventure diaries: Part 2 – Masawajo

cabin, northern ontario, camp, Shining Tree
We awoke to a cold, misty morning on Mattagami River.  I squeezed some toothpaste onto my brush and took a glass of cold well water outside to brush my teeth.  The others started emerging from their tents and trailers to the cabin after Leonard put on a pot of coffee.  The air was thick with anticipation.

“I’m not sure if I should go,” muttered Gordon, a flicker of self-doubt in his eyes.  He’s 76 and the ‘mountain’ we were about to climb (all 450 metres of it) hadn’t been scaled in the last 50 years.  We would have to boat in and break trail over unknown terrain to get to the top.

But a cuppa boosted Gord’s resilence.   We loaded up our packs with water, sandwiches and granola Alice’s luxurious contribution of smoked salmon, organic crackers, goat’s cheese and pesto.   Leonard threw his machette in the boat, and each Miller girl took their own axe or hatchet to slice through the thick bush. 

Leonard’s partner, Linda, waved us off with a final “You’s are insane,” and “I’ll be waitin’ right here,” and we launched!
river northern ontario
We killed the motor on the boats, paddling along narrow stretches of the river to get as close to the base of the mountain.

“Portage!” hollered Sue with glee when the lead boat hit a beaver dam.  If portage can be defined as lugging a motor boat across a tiny beaver dam – then we completed three – hardcore no?
When we could go no further we hopped out of the boats carefully treading the dank muskeg to solid ground.  Over the next two hours Leonard led us in a slinking line up Masawajo. 
birch forest, northern ontario
We walked on the floor of an ancient birch forest, among jack pines and climbed up steep, craggy bits – those damn axes in hand.
Masawajo, Turkey Hill, Eagle Mountain, northern Ontario
Gord – or Jajo – his Ojibway name – was third to get to the top.  “Imagine Dad, we’ll be telling your great grandchildren tales of how you made climbed this mountain at 76 – wearing old running shoes with no tread!” said Laurie.

We all felt good.  Leonard took a cigarette from his case and lit it, a hint of a smile.  I snapped pictures of the vista.  Alice lay spread eagle, eyes closed – soaking up the journey.
She was the most serious about the spiritual side of our quest.  She’s been studying with Angaangaq or Uncle, a renowned eskimo healer from Greenland. 
Before lunch we lit a fire and Alice led a smudging and tobacco ceremony.  With a long length of smoking dried sage she came to each of us.  I took the smoke in with my hands, moving it over my whole body in a ritual to cleanse out the bad spirits or negativity – and make room for the good stuff. 

The first time I discovered smudging I was in a circle of over 500 teenagers at a youth conference at an Ottawa university.  The healer came round and smudged each one of us.  I thought of my grandmother who passed away the year before, and for who I felt I hadn’t really mourned.  When it was my turn I began to bawl.  I was embarrased and shocked.  But I never forgot the power of that ritual – and have wanted to explore Native spirituality ever since.

Alice lit a tobacco pipe and passed it round.  We gave thanks to the ancestors.  Leonard sprinkled tobacco on the fire and we left scraps of our meal for them. 

Back at the camp we were flushed with our accomplishments.  But part of me was dissapointed.  Where was my moment of Great Spiritual Enlightenment on Masawajo?

Then I looked around at my newfound, long lost relatives.  Leonard was beaming – he was proud to have followed in his grandfather’s footsteps.  Gord was aching but grinned when I handed him a cold beer.  Laurie, Sue and Alice were engaged in various states of yoga posture – willing their muscles to bounce back.   Ian cracked another joke.

And I realized this was the first step – chipping away at my ignorance by listening to Anishinaabe stories, sharing bannock and making new friends.

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The Adventure diaries – Part 1: the road to Gogama

Mattagami Lake, Indian reserve 

‘OK I’m just coming down Bay, I’ll be there in a few minutes!’ Laurie shouted into my cell.  I’d never met her before but already she’d told me she wasn’t good with directions and neither was I.  Boy was our eight hour drive to Northern Ontario going to be fun.

Twenty minutes later she arrived and I said hello to my second cousin for the first time.  As we sloppily manouvered our way out of Toronto, I quickly learned we had a lot in common: she was bright, bubbly and brutally honest.  We chatted non stop for the next eight hours.

I’d invited myself along on The Adventure – an outing with my great uncle and his three daughters to the spiritual haunts of our Ojibway ancestors.  The Millers recruited Leonard Neveau, former chief and all round popular guy at Mattagami Reserve, to take us to a sacred peak – Masawajo (Eagle Mountain ), to view pictograms that saved the Ojibway from a Mohawk invasion and to an ancient burial ground.  I was most excited about Masawajo.  Leonard told us that Ojibway men, including his grandfather, used to go up there with only a partridge to eat and nothing to drink for seven days – seeking visions and spiritual connection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.

But already, on the road to Gogama I learned more about my Ojibway ancestry than in all my thirty years.  James Miller – our great, great grandfather – and factor for the Hudson’s Bay company, founded a fur trade post on Mattagami lake in the mid 19th century.  He married an Ojibway woman named Hannah Neveau and that’s about all I knew. 
Hudson Bay Company Store, Gogama
But my great uncle and cousins had been mining for knowledge about their history for years and Laurie’s stories added personality to the past. 

A local shop owner remembered Ojibway children coming into his store to buy candy.  James would give them pennies to buy treats while he charmed their mothers.  An early widower – Hannah died in her 40s – and the great white man on the reserve, he rarely wanted for female company. 

Laurie stuck a CD in the car stereo.  ‘Oh yes, I remember, at Christmas he (James) used to make a batch of homemade beer,’ a warm, scratchy voice said.  It was a distant cousin and the last of the Millers to be born at the old Mattagami fur trading post.  ‘We had a big party.  First all of the men, then all of the women, and the children even, came into the big house for a glass of beer and a tea biscuit.’ 

Laurie laughed and stopped the CD.  ‘Hear that?  Tea biscuit? More like bannock I think!’

The mixed ancestry of that generation and the next one (that of my grandmother) was often denied. 

But luckily for me I was with the Millers.  Of Cree and Ojibway descent they were just granted their First Nations status and they’ve openly embraced their ‘Nish’ side.

We rolled into my uncle’s cottage as dusk settled over Minisinakwa Lake.  Floating in its cold waters the next morning after a jog through town – I smiled.  I was bathing in the watery highway of my ancestors – their ice rink, laundry mat and watering hole for centuries.
 Minisinakwa Lake, Gogama, Ontario
I’ve looked for adventure in far flung places – in Japan and England, Saigon, Mumbai, Helsinki and Bali…  But little did I know that one of life’s greatest adventures was awaiting me here: in the tall pines, winding rivers and sandy white roads of Mattagami.


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