MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 14 - North Bay's Indigenous History

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Randy Sawyer about North Bay's Indigenous history. Handley and Sawyer discuss the Ojibway language, the impact of residential schools and the Jesuit community on the Indigenous Peoples and Sawyer shares some of his favorite Ojibway legends. 

Peter Handley:
Hi there and good day. Welcome to North Bay’s Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you tales of days and times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and talk to Randy Sawyer, teacher at the Canadore College concerning First Nations people, social services, and he's long been a reference for aboriginal matters for folks like me in this particular area. We’ll talk as much as we can about the aboriginal history in North Bay and District and I guess one of the first references that we go to for this is Murray Leatherdale’s book put out by the North Bay Chamber of Commerce - one of a number of projects he did over the years, called ‘Nipissing from Brule to Booth’. Randy your dad was involved with that with the research for this book right?

Randy Sawyer:
Yes, Murray wanted to know I guess more of the customs of the aboriginal people that some my dad was his contact. They flew around Southern Ontario to some of the reserves there. My dad has relatives down there so they’d go and visit them, but they’d ask them to tell stories about the native past down there. So, Murray was getting familiar with customs and traditions and that sort of stuff. So my dad enjoyed that.

Peter Handley:
What do you think of the way he put it together? What do you think of the book?

Randy Sawyer:
Well I like it. I think it's pretty good for someone who doesn’t know too much about this area. I think it’s a pretty good introduction to that sort of stuff.

Peter Handley:
It was reprinted not too many years ago too.

Randy Sawyer:
There’s others in there too. I believe he references Lawrence Commanda who in our community is very good at doing that. I remember accompanying Lawrence – well, we were supposed to be hunting, but we never really got to it. He was the first person I ever saw use a tape recorder. We used to go – there was an old fellow who lived back at Meadowside, way back on that road, and we used to go and visit him. Lawrence would encourage him to tell stories. He’d talk in the language of course.

Peter Handley:
What language?

Randy Sawyer:
Ojibway I guess. Lawrence was a collector. He collected all of that stuff. I remember he taped his dad talking about some of the legends around here and he was probably my biggest influence because I would see that and see what he was doing and of course I’d be listening to what's going on.

Peter Handley:
Whatever happened to all those old tapes?

Randy Sawyer:
That’s the sad part of it. Of course, when Lawrence died, I asked his son ‘I remember your dad had a bunch of these tapes… What ever happened to them?’. He said he’d ask his mom and said she had thrown them out.

Peter Handley:
Is anyone doing something like that today?

Randy Sawyer:
There is a project going on the reserve. They are actually working on a history of Nipissing First Nations. So a Professor from Nipissing University works with one of our coordinators down in Garden Village.

Peter Handley:
But some of the people like that Lawrence Commanda would've talked to are gone. Are there people still with those same stories? Are they carried down – sort of like a verbal transmission?

Randy Sawyer:
That's basically all there is now and the older people on the reserve, well, they used to be the young people. Not everyone is interested in history. But, there are still people who have those stories but that whole practice, I guess, of storytelling is almost gone.
I worked on a project as well. I had heard through the grape vine of history. This person had heard a speaker in Winnepeg I guess talking about Hollowel, Irving Hollowell. Hollowell visited this area in about 1927. He was a great photographer. In fact, I made a book with his photographs called ‘Nipissing, 1927’ – it’s likely in our library here. But anyways, it’s of his photographs and I went around and visited the elders and asked them about what they remember to those people in the photographs. I wrote down what they told me in a little book. But what I was looking for was a story that historian Jennifer Graham gave a talk on out west about Irving Hollowell. One of his informants here was Emma Goulet and Emma Goulet was a storyteller – probably one of the last around here. So, she had died, but Jennifer had said that Hollowell had collected all her stories and where they donated all of his stuff after he died was to the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, so that’s where I went. She had given me some call and box numbers of where she had seen that stuff, but I got there they were renovating so the woman said ‘none of those call numbers are going to be right, but I can show you his collection’. She said ‘there’s something like 28 or 29 boxes’ so I spent about a week there and went through them three times because I was trying to find that story. What I did find was an envelope that said ‘Nipissing 1927’ on it and it was negatives. I started to recognize some of the faces in the pictures, not because I knew them, but because I knew their ancestors. So, I asked and said ‘Can I get copies of these?’ and she said, ‘sure, you just pay this much and we’ll send them to you’. So, I get back here and two weeks later these things show up. Now, at this time, I’m trying to collect the t native language in Nipissing, and what I used to do was bring the elders together once a month, we’d have a theme and I’d record the language. I had a good facilitator, Muriel Sawyer, she used to be my sister-in-law. Anyways, because she was fluent in the language and a teacher, she knew how to bring out that kind of talk. So, anyways, I recorded that that stuff there and, with the pictures, I brought them out there once after I got them developed and laid them out for the elders. I asked them if they knew any of the people in them and one of the women went ‘oh yeah’ and now woman was actually in one – she was about nine or ten I guess. But they almost all had a story and those stories contain a lot of culture.

Peter Handley:
Now, tell me, even as recently as the discovery of the Erebus, they’ve said that they found it because stories the natives would be telling about. And that's happened time and time again in place after place around the world. Anson Guard – Gateway to Silverland 1909 -
He also referred to the natives - now the original population: ‘people of little water’. That's what Nipissing means and it was originally a collection of three tribes: the Pottawatomie, the Ottawa and the Nipissing. Were they subs of the Ojibway?

Randy Sawyer:
Yeah, so those guys were called the ‘Three Fires Confederacy’ – the Pottawatomie, Odawa and Ojibway. Odawa is on Manitoulin Island, so they call themselves Odawa which means ‘trader’ and that’s where the word ‘Ottawa’ comes from because it was a trading point. Now the word Pottawatomie comes from the word ‘Bodéwadmi’ which means fire keeper. The Ojibway they spread from Manitoba all the way here. They come under different names, for example they’re Saulteaux on the plains, then as you come in this way they’re called Ojibway and then if you go down south they’re called the Chippewa which is kind of a short foreign Ojibway I guess. But, it’s just a pronunciation difference.

Peter Handley:
Is that the tribe or the language?

Randy Sawyer:
Well, you see there’s no one tribe there. So, I guess language would be the one that connects them all. They speak the same language, maybe with a different sound to a different dialect, but they could understand each other because they come from the same language family.

Peter Handley:
Is your language – it’s Ojibway right?

Randy Sawyer:
Yes. That’s what we refer to it as.

Peter Handley:
Is it still alive? Is it still taught in your schools?

Randy Sawyer:
Oh it is now. Muriel Sawyer could talk to you about that, but she taught that language for many years and she’s the go-to woman for that. We actually have now produced some speakers, but they grew up from kindergarten to grade twelve with the language all around them. So, now we have some young speakers, at one time, we were down to less than 50. I’m not fluent and a big reason is because, my mother went to Residential School and the result was that she was discouraged from speaking her language and when she came see she was hesitant, but I think she understood that was a mistake because I remember when I was about five. She was trying to teach us but I guess by that time we had missed the window for language learning. My memory and that stuff when people are talking, that stuff pops into my head and I could figure out what they are talking about.

Peter Handley:
Is there any residue of the residential schools in your mother that you could, in hindsight…

Randy Sawyer:
One of the things that she did was to try to stay out of site. It’s like saying don’t get picked on whatever it is, but she didn’t have a measuring stick for school. So, we were the first generation that didn’t go to residential school, we were bussed in – it was a new Indian policy for educational integration. They would bus us in if we were close enough.

Peter Handley:
Where did you go to school?

North Bay.

Peter Handley:
Oh okay.

Randy Sawyer:
So, of course it was Catholic school. It's actually an interesting story. Obviously we hear all kinds of bad things about residential schools and don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that there's anything good with Residential Schools, like my mom went away she couldn’t speak English speaking, she went to the residential schools she couldn’t speak English and I hear stories about how they encourage that. So I think with that in her mind, even her cousins and stuff. I remember one fellow who has said he never teaches children language because of what he went through in residential school, so that’s where we lose our language. So, my mother wasn’t sure what school was supposed to be like. I was also around when racism was alive and well and the process of converting us in the schools was still there. So we’d come home and tell her what happened at school and she was and she was like ‘well, that’s normal isn’t it?’ – She thought that was just what school is, but it wasn't. She didn't have a way of measuring.

Peter Handley:
It didn’t stop you though did it?

Randy Sawyer:
No, but I always was inquisitive. I look at stuff and wonder why and all that sort of stuff like that. But that school experience wasn’t good – I just wanted to get out of there, but I didn’t quit, I went all the way through. Actually, it was only after years of being out there working that I realized I was still interested. So, I went and enquired about going to university. So, there was someone there who told me that I had to take English and had to be able to write and then take something I really like and I was always interested in history, so that's what I took. So, university education wasn’t painful like elementary school. I wanted to go there and I was interested in hearing what was being taught. It was more of an adventure. But, I always remember that the way I was treated in school wasn’t nice. When I was in Grade 8 and going into high school, they come around and ask you what kind of courses you want to take. Of course, I wanted the arts stuff because I really liked history and geography and even French – I wanted to learn a language. So, the first week, I started school and I went to those classes. But, at the end of the first week, they called me down to the Principal’s Office. Now, I didn’t get to see him that day or the next day because he was pretty busy, but I finally got to see him and says ‘we just changed your program; we’re putting you in the shop’. So all those classes I was going to take, I don’t get to and of course when I get down to the ship, there are all the other native guys too. You know, I was not so pleased that I didn’t know these things that were going on; I had to figure these things out myself in university.

Peter Handley:
How many other young fellows were there with you at the time had some of some the same interests as you?

Randy Sawyer:
I'm not sure, but I had never seen the natives in an arts course at Chippewa – that’s where I went to school. There were no native kids in those programs. The girls were in home-making kind of thing and the boys were in other things. So, even at that time, we didn’t have the opportunity to explore other things. That’s the big problem - it was the government who decided who was going to be an Indian. How they did that was by registering them but in those days, they’d get up here to register them and they had to come during the time that you could get here by canoe because that’s how they travelled and there was no other way to get out here. These families used to be off of family hunting grounds and sometimes they came together (usually in the summertime they came together, but not necessarily). That was the only thing where you could meet them, so that’s where that Indian Agent would arrive and record the names. Now, if they came here too early in the spring, they’re still out there and they haven’t come here yet. If they come too late, they’ve already gone back. So there was many ways of missing them.

Peter Handley:
Going back to the Anson Guard thing, he has said that the original Dokis thing is that there was a guide pointing out ducks?

Randy Sawyer:
He even said that’s how they got called that.

Peter Handley:
They thought he was saying…

Randy Sawyer:
Duck-is. Ducks.

Peter Handley:
So we have the Duck family then?

Randy Sawyer:
The Restoules… they have a clan system and we all have different clans that we belong to.

Peter Handley:
What clan do you belong to?

Randy Sawyer:
Well mine come from my father’s side, which is ‘waabizheshi’ which is a Marten.

Peter Handley:
Like the fisher or the weasel?

Randy Sawyer:
Yeah. So my knowledge is only of our family, but there were different clans around here.

Peter Handley:
And there can be a whole bunch of different clans in the same tribe?

Randy Sawyer:
Oh yeah, so each one of those clans has a responsibility. Like ‘waabizheshi’ is the warriors and they are there to protect the village and it's one of the biggest clans of course. We have a bear clan and they are the medicine people. The eagle clan is the keeper of the spiritual stuff so they take care of that.

Peter Handley:
Is that still followed today?

Randy Sawyer:
Well, it’s trying to. We don't really have a say in what you see here… So, Nipissing Band has a Chief and Council that was forced on the late 1800s. They got rid of the clan system and moved to something that the government could work with and understand better. I guess they ‘civilized’ them is what they used to call it. But, what was civilization? To them it meant you were a Christian and spoke English, so we didn’t measure up to that and therefore we needed to be changed.

Peter Handley:
So, you were allied with the Huron and you had, over the years, conflict with the Iroquois. I’ve heard reference to the battle of Sturgeon River and the battle of the West Arm – I don’t know if either of those rings any bells or are they just stories?

Randy Sawyer:
They all have stories of the Iroquois wars that they had here.

Peter Handley:
Iroquois were fierce.

Randy Sawyer:
They were but they were a result of the fur trade. They allied first with the Dutch because the Dutch used to supply them with guns because what the Dutch wanted was furs. The Iroquois - their traditional territory was New York State - Upper New York State actually. That’s where they actually were and then the Dutch used New York City or what’s called New Hampshire now as the Dutch headquarters. And so they traded with the Iroquois, they were a warlike people too so those guns were something that they wanted. Any European trade good, they wanted – well, I think they all did. But, they quickly eliminated all the furs that were around in their territory just because they wanted those guns, so they decided to come up North and wanted a piece of this action up here because we had a lot of furs up here. But, the Algonquin or Ojibway people said no, but they came in and took it anyways, so the first group that they’re going to attack is Nipissing because we’re on the main road here. At one time, the trading route came across the Lavase and then across this lake so, if they wanted to go out west to get furs this is how they travelled. So, Nipissing held this place here and in the book Murray is talking about, they refer to us as ‘sorcerers’ because there was a lot of medicine people here. It was actually this reputation that kept people from coming into their territory. So, the Iroquois came up here and we were very important for them to try to get rid of so that they could control this territory and then anyone who came through for furs, they’d be here to intercept. So, the Iroquois travelled around here and they went quite far. The Temagami Anishinabek have all kinds of stories recorded of the Iroquois battles they had. Then there’s Iroquois falls and the whole story with that of how they tricked them over the falls. That was one battle I guess they won.

Peter Handley:
What’s the story? They tricked them?

Randy Sawyer:
I guess the Iroquois were chasing the canoe of the Ojibway down the river. The Ojibway somehow knew that the falls were there so they somehow slowed down enough so that the Iroquois kept getting closer and closer until they went over the falls. I guess they gave up their life in that way but they got rid of the Iroquois. That’s why they call it Iroquois Falls.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so we talked about Dokis. Beaucage is another name is it not? There was a chief?

Randy Sawyer:
Now, I’ve got my own theories. I don’t know how close that would be. Beaucage – I don’t know if it was always that name or was it derived from our own Indian name. ‘Bosh Kosh’ is the word for place where reeds pop out of the water.

Peter Handley:
Sort of like a marsh?

Randy Sawyer:
No, more like a big region. If you look off at Beaucage you can see them out there around that point – they’re like weeds, they stand up pretty high and that’s what that word means. So that could be where that name comes from. Over time we shorter up words and stuff and I think it’s a translation thing that they shortened up these words. Like Mattawa for example, they tell us that that means ‘where the rivers meet’ but it doesn’t. Something like Mahtahwanishing – I could understand that because that ‘ing’ is a locative, it means a place. We have a lot of that here: Nipissing, Nosbonsing… So, Mattawa is kind of shortened up so it doesn’t really mean what they say it means.

Peter Handley:
It’s a short form for what they say it means.

Randy Sawyer:
Right.

Peter Handley:
The Jesuits role. Now, Murray, in his book, had access to what is called the Jesuit Relations - letters and reports in 1605 to 1795 and he took liberal use of that. Do your people have any feeling about the Jesuits? I mean I'm talking today. Do you look back and say they helped us? They hindered us? They were the forerunners for the residential schools?

Randy Sawyer:
Well there’s a couple of stories there because they always were interested in changing the Aboriginal people and so when Canada opened up these residential schools and created the Indian Educational Policy, they look to see what the United States did. They looked at the States and the States had a residential school, so the person that went to look at them came back and recommended that we have a residential school, but we could get them to be run by the Christian denominations because they’ve always been interested in educating aboriginal people. So it was kind of an economic fit too. I don’t know how much they paid them, but they provided the school and were able to educate them, but of course their motive was to convert them. But, way back when, I think there was some kind of similar measure trying to convert them and so one of the ways of doing that is can see what their spiritual beliefs are. And I guess they were asking them ‘who is your God’ and in our language we don’t have a word for God. So, I got into a conversation about who was responsible for this and I said, ‘you’re talking about a creator of some kind and we call that Gichi-manidoo.’ Now, ‘manidoo’ is the big thing – some people call that the ‘Great Spirit’ but it actually means mystery like you don’t know so it’s a great mystery that is responsible for all of this and we call that our creator. So, the Jesuits took that ‘manidoo’ thing as God. All animate things in our world have this ‘Manidoo’ in it – it’s a life spirit. So, then it became known that Indians thought there were thousands of God’s out there, but it really wasn’t Gods, it was this life spirit. There’s no denying that a tree is alive or a blade of grass is alive because they have the ‘manidoo’ and when we talk about them, it’s as if they’re a person. Like, the sun – to us, that’s alive. Our word for sunrise is ‘mooka`an’ which doesn’t mean ‘sun rise’ it means ‘he rises’ and in our language we don’t even have that gender distinction. We don’t really have a he or a she. We call the sun our grandfather because in our traditional stories the creator is our grandfather.

Peter Handley:
Now, I’m interested. Some of your stories or legends or whatever – is there a real legend of the Manitous?

Randy Sawyer:
Well yes, I’d like to say there are about three of them.

Peter Handley:
Okay, there was one about a girl?

Randy Sawyer:
Yeah, it’s about an Iroquois grave. So, they killed him and she jumped in the fire they were burning the guy on and they say that if you go out to the Manitous you can still hear the moaning or screaming. They call them haunted islands because of that. There’s another story where they had a watering hole on the island and they could see something inside the water hole. I guess it was a sturgeon but they called it a serpent. So, one of the people went into the watering hole to see and disappeared in there so they ran across the lake to where the Indians were camped and told them that there was things in the water and they went back to hunt those things. That’s the story I guess – there’s pieces missing for sure. But, for the most part, it’s that the islands are haunted and that nobody can ever live on those islands.

Peter Handley:
Do you have a favourite legend or story? One that you can remember today or one that you think is a great story?

Randy Sawyer:
I use this one about the Big Dipper. In our language, we don’t call it the Big Dipper – we call it ‘Gitchi Odjig’ which means ‘Great Fisher’, and that fisher was responsible for summer and winter. We’re talking about a time when there was just nothing but snow here and everything was suffering. So, there might have been a little bit of truth to this story because there was a time when it was pretty cold around here. Anyways, it was cold and the animals were suffering – and when we tell stories, our animals act like people, they have lodges and fires and speak. So anyways, this little fisher was going hunting so he leaves the lodge and he spent a whole day and he’s travelling way out there but he didn’t see anything so he makes his way back home. But then, off in the distance he sees something move and he’s checking it out. Now, he gets down because he is a very skilled hunter – this fisher was a very skilled hunter and he goes down as low as he could and crept up as close as he could. He noticed it’s a squirrel so he has to use all his skills to get close enough to capture him. So, he jumps out and grabs this squirrel and before he kills him, the squirrel starts talking to him and says ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill me – I have something important to tell you. So, he is startled and lets the squirrel go. The squirrel runs up the tree and starts talking to him and says ‘your father is a very powerful man, he can change this world that we’re living in and he can bring this warm air back to us because he knows where it is’. He told the little fisher to go home and to try to convince his father to do something. So, he sat there in front of his fire and his mother tried to console him, but he would just sit there and wouldn’t say anything. When the father comes home, the mother tells him ‘there’s something wrong with your son’. So, the father says ‘what’s wrong’ and he tells him what happened with that squirrel. The father says ‘what you’re asking is very difficult’, but the little boy cries and says ‘you have to, you’re the only one who can help us’. So he thought for a while and then said, ‘well I can try’ and he calls a Council of the other animals and tells them ‘I have to go up into the sky world, that’s where the warm air is’ and a few of the animals want to go with him. The lynx steps up and says, ‘can I go with you, I can walk on top of the snow and I’m, a pretty good hunter so I can help’ and he thinks ‘oh yeah, I better take him’. Then the otter comes up and says ‘you’ve got to take me, you’re going to cross a lot of rivers and lakes and I can swim and I can fish’ so he thinks, ‘I better take him’. Then the crowd parted and there was this wolverine. Everyone knew about the wolverine because he was stubborn, so he said I’m definitely going to take him. So, they lit a fire and threw the Tabacco in and prayed that they would be successful and then off they went westward and the sky is right there above them and he says ‘we have to get up into there’. The otter says ‘I’ll just jump up there and break a hole in there’ so he jumped up and banged his head and slid all the way back down the hill – they say you can still see the tracks in the snow. Then, the lynx jumps up but he hits his head and stumbles around, but he jumps again and fell down again. He knew he wasn’t going to be strong enough. Then, the wolverine comes up and he’s the smallest one. He jumps up and bangs his head, but as soon as he falls he gets right back up and keeps jumping – he just won’t quit. Soon, there’s a little crack appears and finally on his last jump he knocks this hole in it and they could feel the warm air rushing out of the small hole. It started to melt the snow all around them and they could see the grass and everything, so they said ‘we have to make it bigger’. So they climb up there and start making the hole bigger and bigger and more warm air is rushing down. As they’re working they can hear this singing and off in the distance there are these lodges. The fisher told the wolverine, ‘you keep making this bigger; I’m going to see what’s over there.’ He said there were hundreds of cages full of all kinds of birds of different colours and so he started opening these cages and the birds through the hole and started spreading these seeds all over the world and things started to grow again. As he is opening the cages, he can hear people coming – the sky world people. They see them and say ‘hey, he’s stealing our air’. They come running after them so he tells the wolverine to jump down and says ‘I’m going to lead them off so we have more warm air there’ so that’s what he did. He climbed up this tree to the very top while all the sky world people are trying to kill him – he was very powerful and the only place you could ever hurt him was in the spine, so they discovered that was the only place they hadn’t hit him. So, they through the spear at him there and he started to tumble out of the tree and fall toward the ground. But they say that just before he hit the ground, the creator’s hands reached out and caught him and hung him up there in the sky and you can see him up there in the sky today. So, the sky world people went back and plugged the hole, so what happened was only enough warm air came down for part of the summer and the rest is winter. But, that ‘Gitchi Odjig’ is hanging up in the sky and you can see him turn over – in the winter he is walking like he used to and in the summer he is hanging upside down. So that’s the story of the great fisher.

Peter Handley:
Thank you for coming in and talking with us because I think we just scratched the surface of things you can talk about. Randy Sawyer – teacher at Canadore and as you found out by listening to Randy, he has been referred to many times by folks looking for information on Aboriginal matters in the North Bay Area. Thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions put together by the North Bay Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales, but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community. We shouldn't let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at Peter.Carello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Production Kealey Ducharme. Pete Handley speaking.