INDIGENOUS INTERPRETATIONS ARE THE FOCUS OF WATER IS LIFE EXHIBIT
Article by J. Patrick Boyer
During Expo 67 in Montreal, a gigantic pavilion dubbed “Indians of Canada” drew visitors like a visual magnet. Inside, the 30-metre tall teepee showcased dimensions of Indigenous life untold in schools, unmentioned in texts, unreported in the press and misrepresented in movies. Riveting displays of First Nations history refocused what had long been distorted through Canada’s cultural and racial biases, religious beliefs, national differences and political imperatives. Financed by the federal government but under First Nation control, the pavilion offered the general public – in photographs, text and sound – an Indigenous view of Canada.
This same concept is now being implemented at Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst. A large Indigenous exhibit is being created by First Nation peoples whose ancestral connections to these lands run back 7,000 years. Even while that is taking shape, a new Water Is Life exhibit has been completed, ready for public viewing once COVID constraints allow. Both exhibits, as with the Expo 67 pavilion, are within the Muskoka Discovery Centre’s overall facility but their content is presented from Indigenous perspectives.
A dozen years ago, the Discovery Centre’s demonstrations for Canoe Day on Muskoka Bay included leadership and participation by skilled Chippewa canoeists of Rama First Nation. The canoe itself, of course, is a brilliantly designed watercraft by which its creators extensively traversed North America’s highways of water for countless centuries. Following those shared Canoe Day events at Gravenhurst, this bridge between cultures slowly strengthened. First Nations and non-Indigenous people shared more experiences, earning trust and gaining understanding.
In 2019, leaders of Rama First Nation and Muskoka Discovery Centre met to explore participation in future exhibits. Ted Williams, who in the 1980s was a member of Rama Council and chief for a term, and who is currently a councillor of the Chippewas of Rama, has become a strong supporter of these two new exhibits.
“We were very pleased with what we had seen at Muskoka Discovery Centre and how they had represented the Chippewas of Rama and Anishinaabe people on environmental issues, specifically relating to water.”
For its part, the Centre under chair Gary Getson was clear that, going forward, displayed information had to come from First Nations. Over millenniums, various Indigenous nations had developed connections with the land that is currently Muskoka District, and descendants still retain this somewhat attenuated link, which is why the Chippewas of Rama, having the most extensive and contemporary bond, are helpfully taking a lead in developing the two new exhibits.
The larger of the two displays, a 3,000 square foot second-floor permanent exhibit, will include what Councillor Williams calls “The Oldest Story in Canada.” The Mnjikaning Fish Fence, located at the Atherley Narrows in Orillia, is a 5,000-year-old fishing system which, as he notes, predates the pyramids. “It had been a meeting place of nations, prior to colonization. The Chippewas of Rama know the story keenly and are passionate about telling it.”
Meanwhile, the exhibit now ready for viewing, Water Is Life, reframes the Centre’s popular Watershed Wonders display which has been engaging visitors of all ages and backgrounds. And while it educates people in just about every conceivable dimension on nature and Muskoka’s watershed, including a component pertaining to First Nations, that Indigenous role is portrayed as an element within the whole – somewhat akin to showing how beavers or microscopic marine life play their parts in a watershed.
Now, and in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calling museums to action, this new Water Is Life exhibit places the existing interactive experience itself within a wider context, to achieve higher consciousness. Funding for Water Is Life by Rick McGraw and his family foundation is testament to his commitment to Muskoka’s true story and the national relevance of the Discovery Centre. The permanent touch-screen interactive exhibit is located on a wave-shaped wall in the entry corridor leading to the current Watershed Wonders display.
The Watershed Wonders venue had already become a major accomplishment at the Centre for imparting to the public the full picture and particular details of what a watershed is. But, just as host-town Gravenhurst has long been a Gateway to Muskoka, Water Is Life now provides a gateway into this educational marvel by conveying a larger interpretation of how human societies themselves understand water. Unless a person connects to such basic elements of life as water and earth in a relationship that conceives of them having intrinsic importance – indeed, in traditional indigenous knowledge, their own character and spirit – the most important dimension of the interconnectedness of all life on the planet is missing.
“Although Water Is Life is being told by Rama First Nation,” says Ben Cousineau, the community’s researcher and archivist, “its message isn’t uniquely ours. Saying that ‘water is life’ is one of those rare statements every human being – regardless of race, religion, gender, or beliefs – can agree on. We all need water to survive.”
Since last October, Cousineau and colleague Vicki Snache of Rama have had key roles implementing the agreement between Rama First Nations Groups and Muskoka Discovery Centre to develop an exhibit on water from an Indigenous perspective. Design has been assisted by Bouw Agency of Ottawa, experienced with Indigenous displays in Nova Scotia and Quebec.
“As Anishinaabe,” continues Cousineau, “we know the importance of water. We understand how water is a being with a spirit, not simply a commodity to be bought and sold. Perhaps this understanding makes us uniquely positioned to share our views on water.”
The exhibit incorporates a number of themes, each illustrated by several stories. Themes include: Water is a Human Right, Muskoka’s Waters, The Water Provides, Water in Crisis, Ecological Threats, Unsafe to Drink, Protecting Our Water, Source Water Protection, Protecting Ways of Life, Water Keepers, Knowing Water, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Whose Water Is It Anyway?, Traditional Governance, and Canadian Governance & Treaty Rights.
The illustrative stories, rich and diverse, include “water keepers” who dedicate their lives to the wellbeing of water. One is Autumn Peltier, the young Anishinaabe woman from Wikiwemikong (the unceded territory of Manitoulin Island), an internationally known and respected water advocate who at age 13 addressed the United Nations General Assembly and in 2019 was named their chief water commissioner by the Anishinabec Nation. Another is the late Josephine Mandamin-ban, who walked thousands of kilometers around the Great Lakes to look after the water.
The Mnjikaning Fish Fence is another illustration. “Up until the 1850s,” explains Ben Cousineau, “our ancestors and other First Nations gathered at the Narrows to harvest fish from the fence. The big, older fish were left to continue to provide. Younger fish were harvested and preserved for winter sustenance. We practiced conservation methods before the term existed.”
“Small but powerful” is his apt way to describe this interactive presentation. Seeing something familiar from a new perspective may radicalize a person’s thinking, meaning getting down to the radical or root of things. When specific rivers have been given legal personality in New Zealand (the Whanaganui) and India (the Ganges and Yamuna), meaning they have rights, such as the right not to be polluted, you can sense change is afoot.
Entering Watershed Wonders through the new gateway of Indigenous perspectives on “Life Is Water” is why this place on the shores of Muskoka Bay can rightly be called a discovery centre. This combined presentation also keeps Muskoka unique.
“This collaboration between the First Nations community and the non-Indigenous community is something I get excited thinking about,” says seasoned Chippewa spokes-person Ted Williams. “You’d be hard pressed to find the kind of relationship we have going with the people of Muskoka and the Chippewas of Rama community. It’s a strong relationship, built on trust. We still have a long way to go, but we’re learning about each other, we’re sharing each others’ experiences, and it should be a nice, fruitful relationship for years and years to come.”