Hayden King: Lines on the Shore

Book Cover Islands of Decolonial Love

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Hayden King is an Anishinaabe writer and educator from Beausoleil First Nation at Gchi Nme Mnissing. He is the Director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.

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Lines on the Shore: Stories from the Border of an Island Indian Reserve

On the north shore of Gchi Nme Mnissing, "The Great Sturgeon Island" (and otherwise known as Beausoleil First Nation or Christian Island), is the Big Sand Bay. It’s an arcing black and tan beach flanked by cedar trees and Muskoka chairs. From below the sand is consumed by the clear and bright breaking waves of Georgian Bay. It’s a feast overseen by cottagers, visitors, who through a legal and economic deal with the First Nation and federal government occupy this and many of the Island’s sand beaches during the summer months. 

Before the ancestors arrived on the coast another people called it home. To the Huron it was Gahoendoe. They spent their brief time on the shore trying to trade with the Anishinaabeg in the north and building St. Marie II, a Jesuit mission promising shelter from the Nahdoway at the end of the seventeenth-century war. Across the bay to the east those Nahdoway camped on the limestone shelf known as Cedar Ridge, presiding over Huron gloom. Today you can see St. Marie II when arriving at the Island by boat. It’s that pile of rocks beside the school.

The ice comes and goes. For a few years there will be none and then a period of low and cold water that freezes thick enough to walk, snowmobile and eventually drive across. It is a freedom rarely taken for granted. In the old days of the early spring, people used to hop from iceberg to iceberg to work or school. Last winter there were two roads. The first cracked and flooded, the second lasted the duration. Over the years men have set out from one shore but fell short of the other, down through the ice in their Chevy or Ford.

The white stone can be blinding on sunny days. A beacon on the southern peninsula of the Island, the lighthouse stands nearly six stories tall. It is one of the six so-called Imperial Lighthouses built throughout Lake Huron. It was the first constructed, completed in 1857 (the same year the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of Canada Act was passed). This imperial light guided mid-to-late nineteenth century imperial traders and fisherman up and down the coast, past the Island to somewhere else. Do not crash on these dark shores. During the Great War the army came and stripped the lighthouse of its steel.

On the trip west from Coldwater-Narrows, that first failure of a reserve experiment in Canada, the Catholics and Anglicans who joined the Ojibwe (many of them Catholics and Anglicans as well) granted themselves the privilege of naming. They called the three Islands, which now comprise the reserve, Charity, Faith and Hope. My father’s ashes mingle with the dunes of Faith. On Charity, bodies from elsewhere sometimes wash ashore. There were two corpses last spring. The couple that discovered the second thought it was an odd shaped white boulder until they didn’t.

Aside from occasional ice, there are no roads to and from Gchi Nme Mnissing, just The Boat. There have been many boats over the years: The Quinte, The Upper Canada and The R.A. Hoey. Hoey was an Indian Affairs bureaucrat, an enforcer of the residential in residential schools and champion of selective human breeding. Today it’s the MV Sandy Graham trekking across a dozen times a day. Alexander (Sandy) Graham was a North Carolina democrat and public servant. His namesake is 60 years old now and spends at least a few weeks a year getting patched up in one shipyard or another. But it is the lifeline for women who haul food and children between shores.

After being pushed out of their territory in what is now Wisconsin, a group of Bodawatomi came north. They helped defend what was becoming Canada in the War of 1812 and then searched for a new home. They reached the shores of the Island just before the Ojibwe who travelled from Coldwater. But the pious did not like these ones; too heathen, obstinate, and refusing to convert. And so they were banished to the eastern coast, eating raccoons and seagull eggs when they weren’t starving. Their descendants are keepers of ceremony still.

Just south of the dock, on the mainland side, there used to be a clearing in the bush close to the water. It was known as Toby’s Tavern. My grandfather would occasionally be there with friends, off the reserve and away from the restrictions of the Indian Act. Today it’s surrounded by million-dollar vacation homes that face the bay. Cottagers glimpsing the Island, holidays occasionally interrupted when the long dead pass freely through their concrete and siding. Here, lingering ghosts are as dependable as crashing waves and crumbling beach.

This article draws on stories from the Late Leon King, Gloria and Roseanne King, Larry Copegog, Valerie Monague, Roly Monague, Shelby King-Shawongonabe, Marla Monague and the Scott Family. 

Suggestions for further reading: 

Islands of Decolonial Love, by Leanne Simpson

About the book:  In her debut collection of short stories, Islands of Decolonial Love, renowned writer and activist Leanne Simpson vividly explores the lives of contemporary Indigenous Peoples and communities, especially those of her own Nishnaabeg nation. Found on reserves, in cities and small towns, in bars and curling rinks, canoes and community centres, doctors offices and pickup trucks, Simpson’s characters confront the often heartbreaking challenge of pairing the desire to live loving and observant lives with a constant struggle to simply survive the historical and ongoing injustices of racism and colonialism. Told with voices that are rarely recorded but need to be heard, and incorporating the language and history of her people, Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love is a profound, important, and beautiful book of fiction.

The Manitous: The Spirit World of the Objiway, by Basil Johnston

About the book: A collection of legends and spiritual teachings that depict the mysterious manitous, mystical beings who are divine and essential forces in the spiritual life of the Ojibway. From the rich oral culture of his own Ojibway Indian heritage, Basil Johnston presents a collection of legends and tales depicting manitous, mystical beings who are divine and essential forces in the spiritual life of his people. In this collection, the first by a Native American scholar, these lively, sometimes earthy stories teach about manitous who lived in human form among the Ojibway in the early days, after Kitchi-Manitou (the Great Mystery) created all things and Muzzu-Kummik-Quae (Mother Earth) revealed the natural order of the world. With depth and humour, Johnston tells how lasting tradition was brought to the Ojibway by four half-human brothers, including Nana'b'oozoo, the beloved archetypal being who means well but often blunders. He also relates how people are helped and hindered by other entities, such as the manitous of the forests and meadows, personal manitous and totems, mermen and merwomen, Pauguk (the cursed Flying Skeleton), and the Weendigoes, famed and terrifying giant cannibals.

Lament for a First Nation, by Peggy Blair

About the book: In a 1994 decision known as Howard, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the Aboriginal signatories to the 1923 Williams Treaties had knowingly given up not only their title to off-reserve lands but also their treaty rights to hunt and fish for food. No other First Nations in Canada have ever been found to have willingly surrendered similar rights. Blair argues that the Canadian courts caused a serious injustice by applying erroneous cultural assumptions in their interpretation of the evidence. In particular, they confused provincial government policy, which has historically favoured public over special rights, with the understanding of the parties at the time.

October 2, 2015
Books mentioned in this post

The Manitous

The Spiritual World Of The Ojibway
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Lament for a First Nation

Lament for a First Nation

The Williams Treaties of Southern Ontario
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
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