Indigenous Oral History Plays Vital Role Today
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
By J. Patrick Boyer
This year my programs about Muskoka’s Modern History here at Hunters Bay Radio are about current Indigenous issues and Muskoka’s First Nation heritage.
Last month we started 2023 off with the Indigenous concept of a “Dish with One Spoon” – a sensible idea, many centuries old, for different nations agreeing to share the same land. This communal plan did not fare well when settler society negotiated land treaties, as I explained in that broadcast, because First Nations and colonists don’t relate to land or treat it the same way. However, as I also suggested, the principle of a Dish with One Spoon, better understood and reapplied, can be a helpful tool to unlock stalemated land issues in Canada today.
Speaking aloud is how we share thoughts, present ideas, convey information. Direct verbal expression is the simplest and clearest way we have to get info across. From earliest memory, we’ve been told things by parents, school teachers, strangers, family members, friends, public speakers, elders.
As oral history is passed through generations, individuals get accounts of what happened before they were born, stories with practical instruction, and fables with moral lessons.
Because this tradition of spoken history has been intrinsic for Indigenous communities for thousands of years, their interest is now focusing on matching up oral tradition with archeology and ethno-history in order to triangulate a more complete record of their place in history and the history of their places. In Muskoka, this is very much a current event.
Matching Up Oral History and Heritage Artefacts
The buried treasure of artefacts from long ago is of such importance that when the Town of Bracebridge was all excited about reporting to the Muskoka Area Indigenous Leadership Table about its high cost new hockey arena, the only interest expressed by the Chippewas of Rama was in seeing the archeological studies conducted, as a heritage prerequisite, at its new site on the west side of town.
It’s understandable. Archeological digs elsewhere in Muskoka have unearthed evidence and enabled better understanding of what happened here for thousands of years before non-Indigenous settlers began arriving.
For example, on Beausoleil Island in Georgian Bay Township, Parks Canada archeologists have unearthed so many cultural treasures that UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site. In Port Carling, which now occupies the land of a prior substantial permanent Ojibwe village called Obajewanung, Muskoka’s largest collections of arrow heads has been gathered at Muskoka Lakes Museum. From around Huntsville lakes, unearthed spear and arrow heads now authenticate the saga of First Nation life at Muskoka Heritage Place.
Much to Know about Oral History
The oral tradition emerged because of peoples’ imperative to survive, and the necessity of communal memory. In fact, “oral tradition” is really a poetic name for communal memory.
Transmission of oral history for thousands of years was the primary way of learning about the past, imparting lessons, and conveying values – the art of story-telling and the art of listening. How to light a fire, trap game, cook an animal; what berries keep you alive and which ones kill you; where to travel to find needed things like flints and quality birchbark, lessons of the Great Spirits, the importance of honouring land, water, and living creatures.
Many people wrongly imagined that, because First Nations did not have written records like theirs, they had no history. They assigned them to an artificial category labelled “Pre-History,” effectively denying the reality of their existence the way the word “aboriginal” does – the “ab” prefix meaning before the original, or not original. This was the same ploy as referring to the North American continent as “empty” and then trying to empty it of the people living here for thousands of years.
For the brain to remember information, repetition is key. You’ll remember words to a song or a story by hearing it over and over again, and by singing or repeating it aloud a number of times. That is how lessons repeated by elders, or told by parents to children – often in the form of fable-like stories conveying a lesson – become embedded in memory.
Indigenous Oral Tradition is not only a long-standing practice, but a global phenomenon around the world. Aboriginal People of Australia, for example, have dwelt in that country for 75,000 years. Indigenous People in many countries have created world associations, hold international conferences to share experiences for preserving language and culture, and today engage one another globally through websites.
The world and its many different peoples were obviously not all created at the same time. Separate communities and civilizations moved forward, applying new lessons their own way on their own timetables. Something invented in one place might later appear elsewhere as different cultures learned about fire, the wheel, and vessels to travel in over water.
Sometimes civilizations came to such things on their own, as in reinventing the wheel, and sometimes they saw what others were doing and copied it. In time, some civilizations developed writing, and then printing books. For them, the paper documents became important records. Eventually, with travel and trade, these concepts and practices spread.
For cultures that developed printing of documents, these physical forms of recording information gradually came to be relied on more than holding information in memory and transferring it by repetitive telling. Using paper documents did not invalidate their prior reliance on the Oral Tradition, but it became an alternative that seemed more convenient.
Changes Following Contact
When contact between European and American civilizations first occurred, Indigenous people here relied on oral tradition. One of the ways oral history became crucial in Muskoka’s evolution was how it enabled Indigenous guides to introduce Euro-Canadian explorers, often reluctantly, to this area.
First Nation guides were familiar with the locale’s waterways and were assisted by wayfinding techniques passed down over generations. It was on this foundation that explorers and map-makers – from Samuel Champlain in the early 1600s to David Thompson in the mid-1800s – were guided into North America’s interior, their maps of Muskoka incrementally making settlement possible.
For those interested, I’ve written a full version of this story in Putting Muskoka on the Map / From Indigenous Wayfinding to Satellite Imaging. This book was published last year and is available in Muskoka bookstores and at www.muskokabooks.ca
Relevance of Indigenous Oral History in Canada Today
The relevance of Indigenous oral history today is far greater than many people might think, despite all that has undermined it since Contact and because of evolving communication technologies.
After Contact modern methods transformed Indigenous communities, just as they impacted other societies. But the change was much greater because Indigenous cultural practices – including the tradition of Oral History – had been marginalized by the colonizing power outlawing aboriginal traditions. Continuing an oral tradition also become harder with so many First Nation languages across the country dying out. Even here, the death in 2022 of the last living member at Muskoka’s Wahta community who spoke a once commonplace Mohawk dialect meant another First Nation cultural component vanished with him.
Yet still, in its own ways, and in vibrant First Nation communities, oral history remains. Oral Tradition is not time-trapped. Nor is it only about past events. In the way Euro-Canadians refer to history books, prior documents, and earlier maps to clarify present day situations, Oral History of First Nations has contemporary significance also.
Royal Commission Highlights Unique Importance of Oral History
In 1996, Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which the Mulroney Government created in the wake of 1991’s Oka Crisis, issued a report entitled Looking Forward, Looking Back, with its findings about First Nation traditions of recording history. Here’s an exact quote: “It is neither linear, nor steeped in the same notions of social progress and evolution as that of Euro-Canadians. Nor is it usually human-centred in the way of the Western scientific tradition, for it does not assume that human beings are anything more than one element – and not necessarily the most important element – in the natural order of the universe.”
Because this historical tradition is an oral one – involving legends, stories, and accounts handed down through generations in spoken or sung forms – the Commissioners emphasized that “Oral history is less focused on establishing objective truth and assumes that the teller of the story is so much a part of the event being described that it would be arrogant to presume to classify or categorize the event exactly for all time.” For this reason, the Aboriginal purpose of repeating oral accounts from the past is broader than the role of written history in Western societies. “It may be to educate the listener, to communicate aspects of culture, to socialize people into a cultural tradition, or to validate a particular family’s claims to authority and prestige.”
Highly significant, as well, is that such accounts of the past include, in the words of the Commission, “a good deal of subjective experience.” They are not simply a detached recounting of factual events but, rather, facts enmeshed in the stories of a lifetime. Moreover, they are typically rooted in particular locations, making reference to specific families and communities. “This contributes to a sense that there are many histories, each characterized in part by how a particular people see themselves, how they define their identity in relation to their environment, and how they express their uniqueness as a people.”
Supreme Court of Canada Declares Oral History Equal to Other Evidence
The very next year, in 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that oral history is “an important type of evidence which courts must treat as equal to other types of evidence.”
The case of Del-ga-mu-ukw v. British Columbia had been working its way through the courts for years. The hereditary chiefs of the Git-ksan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations claimed for their people 58,000 square kilometers in British Columbia. They supported this claim with evidence of long-standing traditional use of these territories. The evidence was oral history. The Git-ksan community has what it calls an ada-awk, its collection of sacred oral tradition about their ancestors, histories, and territories. The Wet’suwet’en have what they call a kin-gax, a spiritual song or dance that ties them to their land. Both ada-awk and kin-gax were entered as evidence.
The Supreme Court said that, “The most significant evidence of spiritual connection between the people and their territory was a feast hall where the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en tell and retell their stories and identify their territories to remind themselves of the sacred connection they have with their lands. The feast has a ceremonial purpose,” explained the Court, “but is also used for making important decisions.”
The oral histories were being used in this major legal case to establish First Nation occupation and use of now disputed territory on which non-Indigenous people had been setting themselves up and conducting activities.
Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, writing the majority opinion of the Court, asserted that Aboriginal rights “demand a unique approach to the treatment of evidence which accords due weight to the perspective of Aboriginal peoples.” As a result, despite the evidentiary balancing still required, the Supreme Court ruling was that the Del-ga-mu-ukw case required “adapting the laws of evidence so that the Aboriginal perspective on their practices, customs, and traditions, and on their relationship with the land, are given due weight by the courts. In practical terms, this requires the courts to come to terms with the oral histories of First Nation societies which, for many, are the only record of their past.” The necessity of doing so, emphasized the Supreme Court, is that “those histories play a crucial role in the litigation of Aboriginal rights.”
Oral tradition has been a component of land claims issues addressed for a number of decades by the Wahta Mohawk community in Muskoka. Oral evidence has also been part of the effort to interpret land treaties involving Anishinaabeg lands of Greater Muskoka.
Answering a Call to Action at Muskoka Discovery Centre
The importance of First Nation oral tradition is about to be showcased at Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst.
This summer a unique exhibit Misko Aki – Confluence of Cultures will officially open. This large new display, curated entirely by Indigenous peoples connected with this land, tells their stories in their own unfiltered way. Respected leaders and elders draw on oral history and give it a new dimension alongside archeologic artefacts and ethno-cultural history.
In sharing this First Nation heritage with a wide non-Indigenous public, First Nations in partnership with Muskoka Discovery Centre are fulfilling a “call to action” for museums from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – showing Muskoka life inextricably entwined with First Nation heritage.