Manitoulin Island (also known as Mnidoo Mnis, meaning “Spirit Island” in Odawa) is the largest fresh-water island in the world, located on Turtle Island on the territory known as Canada. It is surrounded by sparkling, clear water and is inhabited by diverse flora and fauna species. It is home to Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe for “good people”) and it is sacred.
The first settlers on Manitoulin were French Jesuits who arrived in 1648. They were soon followed by more settlers, who brought foreign disease and devastation to Indigenous populations. Still, the Anishinaabeg remained on the land. Settlers fought to control the land, with the government of Canada eventually establishing itself in 1867. As the government sought to occupy and settle more land, this meant controlling Indigenous people who were not interested in changing their ways of life or relinquishing their hunting and fishing grounds. The Indian Act of 1876 was therefore involuntarily imposed on all Indigenous people. John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, said of the document in 1887, “the great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”
The Indian Act is still the primary document through which the Canadian government manages reserve land, communal funds, and administers Indian status for over 614 Indigenous communities. The Indian Act: prohibited Indigenous people from forming political organizations; rendered Indigenous women with no status; created reserves; introduced residential schools; renamed Indigenous people with European names; outlawed Indigenous languages; banned Indigenous ceremonies; prohibited public dancing in regalia; denied voting rights; enforced the band council system; restricted exit and entry to the reserve without a valid pass from an Indian agent; etc. This document is still in force today with amendments.
By enforcing policies that reflect the Indian Act, the Canadian government was able to assert ownership over the land by disrupting the fabric of Indigenous culture and Indigenous families. “We will never get those lost years back,” said Wayne Mousseau-Pheasant, choking back tears. Wayne and his sister, Cynthia, are survivors of the Sixties Scoop, a policy of Canada’s government from the 1960s to 1980s that aimed to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes and place most of them with white families in far-off locations, even as far away as New Zealand. According to the CBC, more than 20,000 children were taken by child welfare services during this period, however, Indigenous children are still disproportionately represented in foster care, indicating that this policy's dark legacy lives on today.
Originally from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island, both Wayne and Cynthia grew up in foster care in southern Ontario, disconnected from their cultural practices, teachings, language, and family. “Unceded” means the reserve “has not relinquished title to its land to the government by treaty or otherwise.” Wiikwemkoong's Ogimaa (“Chief ”) Duke Peltier said, “the ancestors of Manitoulin stood firm in the belief that their tie to the land could never be severed by negotiating an agreement with the Crown, and to this day there is no government agreement or talk of signing future treaties.”
The islands surrounding Manitoulin were allegedly ceded in 1862 under the MacDougall Treaty. “To us the 1862 treaty doesn’t exist; it was a ‘so-called’ treaty. Those responsible for preserving and protecting the territory didn’t sign that treaty. We’ve been fighting this battle since the day this treaty was signed,” said Luke Wassegijig. Prior to certain amendments, the Indian Act prohibited Indigenous people from making land claims without the government's consent. At the moment, the people of Wiikwemkoong are leading a strong claim for these ancestral fishing islands. “Our current negotiation process for the 41 islands is in its final stages and will probably go into ratification within the next year,” said Wassegikig. Luke is not only part of facilitating the land claim but also works with the Wiikwemkoong Heritage Organization (WHO), an organization founded in the community that sees tourism as a way of preserving Anishinaabe culture and language. They do this by promoting and hosting culture-based language classes and events. Prior to amendment, the Indian Act prohibited Indigenous people from speaking their language but Ogimaa Peltier stressed, “this is a special place; the language is very strong here still.”
The Indian Act also prohibited Indigenous people from practicing ceremonies and from dancing publicly in regalia until a 1951 amendment lifted these bans. “[Wiikwemkoong Indian Days] was started in 1961 by Rosemary Odjig; she had gone to the west coast and brought some of those songs and dances back…with government policies in the 1920s and also assimilation, those became banished in communities; so basically it was a cultural rejuvenation,” said Wassegikig.
Today the WHO helps facilitate this event, which is now called the annual Wiikwemkoong Cultural Festival (also known as the Wiikwemkoong Pow Wow) and is considered to be one of the oldest and most well- attended pow wows in North America. A rebirthing of cultural revitalization, dancers from near and far come to demonstrate mesmerizing forms of traditional, grass, jingle and fancy dancing around the sacred circle. Talented drum groups and singers can be heard and felt through vibrations in the air and ground. Energies of celebration and healing surround the event, which is a moving time for many.
“We've come a long way…the ceremonies are no longer carried out in hidden places, but out in public. It's overwhelming. I get overwhelmed when I hear the drum. To see the younger ones get filled with passion and start moving to the drum, it really warms your heart,” says Ogimaa Peltier.
Wayne and his sister Cynthia were welcomed back in recent years by the Wiikwemkoong community, describing it as a monumental experience in their healing journeys. It is a place where Wayne and Cynthia have been able to reconnect to the land, their culture and their past; still, some moments simply cannot be reclaimed. “If I could sit on a bench with someone from the past, just any one person…it would be my mother,” said Wayne.