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The stories that shaped a timeless land

Photo: Sheri Minardi


Seeing the Sault Ste. Marie area's beautiful sights through its rich Indigenous history

My name is Spencer Rice. I’m Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawá:ke. My people are the People of the Flint, members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Sadly, due to the circumstances of colonization, I never grew up with my own people. Instead, I grew up with the Chippewa, Dené, Anishinaabe, Cree, and settlers. I was told that in order to know where I’m going, I have to know where I came from. This wisdom informs all of my work and research.

Ojibwe fishermen in the St. Marys River, 1901 (US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve had the privilege of living in Sault Ste. Marie for over a decade. The city area is traditionally known as Baawaating (the place of the rapids) and has been the home of the Anishinaabe since time immemorial. As I’ve come to be told, the Anishinaabe of the Algoma region are members of the Three Fires Confederacy. According to Midewiwin scrolls, the Three Fires Confederacy dates as far back as 796 AD at Michilimackinac. However, it is imperative to remember that the Anishinaabe were placed here at the time of Creation and their ancestral homes stretch from Bawaating to Pukaskwa. The Ojibway are the eldest brother and medicine people of the confederacy joined with the Odawa and Potawatomi families. They settled to the north/northwest of Michilimackinac along Lake Superior, the St. Mary’s River, and Lake Huron.

Bathtub Island, north of Sault Ste. Marie. (Photo: Sheri Minardi)

The terrain demands respect, and the land is timeless. Being in this area awakens an understanding of living in harmony.

The Algoma region is breathtaking. My favourite drive is the one from Baawaating to Thunder Bay. Stark cliffsides from hills; remnants of ancient mountains. Shorelines that give way to endless waters. One is more convinced they’re looking into an ocean than a lake. To be fair, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, and our northern shores are home to some of the oldest stones. The opportunities to explore the landscape are almost endless. The Chippewa River is a great place to kayak and feeds into Lake Superior. One can't-miss spot is the Agawa Pictographs, one of the most iconic sites of the region. The Pictographs are from varying points in history and display the lives of the people and the spirits of the water.

Shore of Superior

I’m also constantly reminded of who I share the land with: the rest of Creation. The boundary between human life and all other life is blurred. The blurring makes it clear there are others to consider as we move through our lives. The terrain demands respect, and the land is timeless. To witness pristine landscapes despite the endless roars of colonial states is a gift. Being in this area awakens an understanding of living in harmony.

Gargantua Bay, north of Mica Bay

The Sault Ste. Marie area first saw settlers between 1621 and 1623, when Étienne Brûlé was exploring the Great Lakes at the behest of Samuel de Champlain. The French were attempting to make as many allies as possible to solidify trade and create a monopoly from Montreal to as far west as possible. One of the families the French had difficulties with, as a result of their relationship with the Wendat and Algonquin, was the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (made up of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawks at the time). The Haudenosaunee allied with the Dutch and later the English.

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage, depicting a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Beaver Wars of the 17th century, the Haudenosaunee led successful campaigns against the Wendat, Algonquin, Erie, Tobacco, and Neutral peoples, which brought them to the doorstep of the Anishinaabe at Point Iroquois. There are some oral accounts of conflict as far north as Echo Bay, where some have found Haudenosaunee arrowheads. By this time, the Haudenosaunee had spread themselves thin and the Anishinaabe were quick to push them back into their original territories. The ensuing conflicts sent the Haudenosaunee as far back as the Grand River in southern Ontario, and a new boundary was set as the Mississaugas of New Credit built their community. The end result was a treaty between the two families, known as the Dish with One Spoon wampum. The wampum established peace between the families and an agreement to share resources from overlapping territories.

Dish with One Spoon Wampum at a gathering in Kahnawa:ke

By the 19th century, the geopolitical landscape had changed drastically. The French colonies were relegated to Quebec by the English, and American nationalism had been birthed through revolution against England. The War of 1812 solidified the border between the Americans to the south and British North America to the north. However, the ways settlers were using the land was going against Indigenous world views and directly contradicted their sovereignty as observed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Tensions were rising as Indigenous leaders attempted negotiations to wrest control of resource extraction projects or, at least, receive compensation for projects in their territories.

These tensions erupted with the Mica Bay incident in 1849. The Quebec Mining Company had set up along the shore of Lake Superior, just south of the current Lake Superior Provincial park, to mine copper. Copper plays a significant role in Anishinaabe history, ceremonies, and daily life. The blatant disregard for calls to halt extraction led to a group of Ojibwe and Métis setting out to stop operations.

Chief Shingwauk. Image courtesy of Algoma University/Wikimedia Commons

Leading the group were Chief Nebenagoching, Chief Cassaquadung, and Chief Shingwaukonse. They headed towards the mine armed with rifles, knives, and a cannon. Upon arrival, they fired the cannon over the mine and the fear of attack caused the workers to quickly clear out. The group occupied the mine through the winter until their surrender to the Toronto Rifle Brigade. Those arrested, including the chiefs, were brought to Toronto before being released. I’ve heard the cannon that was used was disposed of in the waters off Mica Bay and is still there. The Robinson-Huron treaty of 1850 is a direct result of the Mica Bay incident.

Algoma University, previously Shingwauk Residential School (Photo: Fungus Guy)

Sault Ste. Marie is home to the former Shingwauk Residential School, opened in 1874. Chief Shingwauk intended it to be a place of learning for his people; to retain traditional sovereignty and engage in settler education. Algoma University currently occupies the space, but works closely with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre to finally see Chief Shingwauk’s vision fulfilled.

Whitefish Island seen from a canoe

Between the border of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan is Whitefish Island. The Island has been a permanent settlement of the Anishinaabe people for over 2,000 years. Whitefish Island was expropriated by Canada from 1899 to 1998 for use by railway companies. During expropriation, the community on the island was moved north to Gros Cap in 1905 and their traditional burial grounds were moved as well. This displacement was never forgotten, and Batchewana First Nation began court proceedings to have the island returned. Negotiations were unsuccessful until hereditary Chief Edward Sayers occupied the island from 1989-1998. The continued legal battle, negotiations, and occupation of the Island for nine years culminated in the land being returned as the jurisdiction of Batchewana in 1998. The island has a dense ecosystem of medicinal flora and many different fauna.

Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre (Photo: Hans-Jürgen Hübner)

Within downtown Sault Ste. Marie is the Indian Friendship Centre, a gathering place for Indigenous families in the city. The Friendship Centre was incorporated in 1972 and remains a staple in the community. Indigenous and Settler community members rely on it for education, cultural resources, and essential services. I’ve worked there on and off since I was 17, and it has always been a home away from home. The atmosphere is always welcoming and happy to see new faces.

While in the area, be sure to check out some Indigenous-owned businesses. Sault Ste. Marie's Stackburger is a classic burger joint where the French fries are cut fresh every morning. The Family Tree, in Garden River First Nation, is a great place to find medicines, hides, and craft supplies.

Suffice to say, Baawaating and the surrounding area is filled with a rich history, welcoming people, and a strong sense of community. I’m proud to call it my home and to raise my family here. Understanding the stories of the land is what made me fall in love with Algoma. This land lifts the spirit, and you’ll be happy you came.

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