Recently, my fiancée Adam and I visited the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historic Centre in Northwestern Ontario. This National Historic Site encompasses museum galleries and an interpretive tour of seventeen ancient burial mounds along the Rainy River shoreline. Over the last century the Ojibway people have called this land home. Before this, the Laurel and Blackduck traversed this area. Our tour guide specified that the mounds were between 300 and 900 years old, with the largest mound containing at least one hundred people. This impressive mound is the second largest in North America, next to one located in Minnesota.
While on the tour, our guide stopped at a particular mound stating that it was “still in progress.” In the 1960s, archaeologist and curator Walter Andrew Kenyon proceeded with a dig, removing seven bodies from a mound. These bodies were then sent to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for study and display. Over twenty years after their removal, the bodies were repatriated back to the community. Another disruptive incident occurred when a gravel businessman operating on the property drove over one of the smaller mounds with his truck. The Ojibway community decided to incorporate the returned bodies, as well as those disturbed by the truck, into a new mound. Our guide asked us if we wanted to partake in the burial ritual, adding dirt from the old mound into that of the new. We agreed, and walked over to the site of the old mound. She told us to pick up the dirt with our left hand, as this is the hand closest to our heart. Normally in Ojibway tradition ceremonial spaces are approached in a clockwise fashion. However, because this ritual dealt with death and mourning we were asked to approach it in the opposite direction. We were given tobacco, a traditional offering, to mix with the dirt. Adam and I approached the new mound walking counter-clockwise, sprinkling the dirt on the mound.
As non-Aboriginal Canadians it was touching to be offered participation in this traditional, solemn ritual. This action allowed us to form a connection to the nature and land around us, to better understand Ojibway culture, to pay respects to those who came before us and to become involved in the site’s evolving history. Given the troubled history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations this symbolized a reconciliatory bridge between our two cultures and allowed both groups to share in a single Canadian history.
The Round House, a space used for ceremony, has nine walls to signify the nine bands that signed Treaty 3. The four cedar pillars in the centre represent the four directions. The sand on the ground is significant because Ojibway dancers believe that they should be connected to the earth. Thus, there is nothing between the sand and the earth below in this space.
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