Photograph of sunlight filtering through forest

Our story begins before this land was called Canada. For centuries, North America has been inhabited by First Peoples. They consist of hundreds of diverse cultures. The diversity of Native cultures and customs is as great as the various landscapes found from coast to coast to coast. Each Nation has its own unique way of life, language, spiritual beliefs, governmental systems, and art.

Tourism Ontario
Ontario Ministry of Tourism
c. 2005
© 2005, Tourism Ontario. All Rights Reserved.


Our story begins before this land was called Canada.

For centuries, North America has been inhabited by First Peoples.  They consist of hundreds of diverse cultures.

The diversity of Native cultures and customs is as great as the various landscapes found from coast to coast to coast.  Each Nation has its own unique way of life, language, spiritual beliefs, governmental systems, and art.

Before the arrival of Europeans, many First Peoples formed this early diverse society of North America.   We will focus on two, the Ongwehonweh (Iroquois) and the Anishinabe (Ojibway).  They occupied the Great Lakes region, which had very fertile land and vast resources.  For centuries, it was used as a major trade route .

The Ongwehonweh and the Anishinabe share a First Nations' world view, which sees humans as only one element of creation and is concerned with mutual obligations between humans, animals, and spiritual beings.  There can also be power struggles within and between these realms.

Knowledge of the land and its resources was shared orally, through storytelling, from generation to generation and throug Read More
Our story begins before this land was called Canada.

For centuries, North America has been inhabited by First Peoples.  They consist of hundreds of diverse cultures.

The diversity of Native cultures and customs is as great as the various landscapes found from coast to coast to coast.  Each Nation has its own unique way of life, language, spiritual beliefs, governmental systems, and art.

Before the arrival of Europeans, many First Peoples formed this early diverse society of North America.   We will focus on two, the Ongwehonweh (Iroquois) and the Anishinabe (Ojibway).  They occupied the Great Lakes region, which had very fertile land and vast resources.  For centuries, it was used as a major trade route .

The Ongwehonweh and the Anishinabe share a First Nations' world view, which sees humans as only one element of creation and is concerned with mutual obligations between humans, animals, and spiritual beings.  There can also be power struggles within and between these realms.

Knowledge of the land and its resources was shared orally, through storytelling, from generation to generation and through practical and hands-on experience - customs that continue to this day.
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© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Unpainted clay pot with incised decoration

This pot was found in eastern Ontario, near Perth, in the 1890s. It was made by an Iroquoian woman who carefully decorated the outside of the pot while it was still wet, using a sharp bone or stick. She decorated it with motifs made of lines and dots that had been handed down for generations and which indicated her identity. Archaeologists classify these decorations as St. Lawrence Iroquoian. Pots like this are durable and were used for cooking, by placing hot rocks in the food inside the pot.

Maker: Iroquoian potter
Historical Advisors: Keith Jamieson, Woodland Cultural Centre; Bernadette Wabie, Woodlands Cultural Centre; Nick Brune, author and history teacher; Alison Faulknor, The Dominion Institute
1600 - 1650 AD
Royal Ontario Museum NS3142
© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


Unpainted clay pot with incised decoration

This pot was found in eastern Ontario, near Perth, in the 1890s. It was made by an Iroquoian woman who carefully decorated the outside of the pot while it was still wet, using a sharp bone or stick. She decorated it with motifs made of lines and dots that had been handed down for generations and which indicated her identity. Archaeologists classify these decorations as St. Lawrence Iroquoian. Pots like this are durable and were used for cooking, by placing hot rocks in the food inside the pot.

Maker: Iroquoian potter
Historical Advisors: Keith Jamieson, Woodland Cultural Centre; Bernadette Wabie, Woodlands Cultural Centre; Nick Brune, author and history teacher; Alison Faulknor, The Dominion Institute
1600 - 1650 AD
© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


An Iroquoian or Ongwehonweh pot would have been carefully decorated while still wet, using a sharp bone or stick.  It was decorated with motifs made of lines and dots that had been handed down for generations.

The pot is shaped in a way so that there is a groove around the neck.  This allows for a rope to be tied under the rim so that the pot could be held in place over a fire – allowing the food inside the pot to cook.

Centuries of tradition and knowledge have gone into this kind of pottery.

The designs around the rim are not only for decorative purposes.  Each design speaks to an ancient story.
_________________________
An Iroquoian or Ongwehonweh pot would have been carefully decorated while still wet, using a sharp bone or stick.  It was decorated with motifs made of lines and dots that had been handed down for generations.

The pot is shaped in a way so that there is a groove around the neck.  This allows for a rope to be tied under the rim so that the pot could be held in place over a fire – allowing the food inside the pot to cook.

Centuries of tradition and knowledge have gone into this kind of pottery.

The designs around the rim are not only for decorative purposes.  Each design speaks to an ancient story.
_________________________

© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

Joseph Bruchac, in his book Native Stories from the Keepers of the Earth, invites us to read an Iroquoian or Ongwehonweh Creation Story.

This is a story that is sacred to the Ongwehonweh.

Not everyone is allowed to tell this sacred story.  We were given permission to do so by Joseph Bruchac.  He learned this version from such elders as Ray Fadden/Tehanetorens and Alice Papineau/Dewasentah.


Before this Earth existed, there was only water.

It stretched as far as one could see, and in that water there were birds and animals swimming around.  Far above in the clouds, there was a Skyland.  In that Skyland there was a great and beautiful tree.  It had four white roots which stretched to each of the sacred directions, and from its branches all kinds of fruits and flowers grew.

There was an ancient chief in the Skyland. His young wife was expecting a child, and one night she dreamed that she saw the Great Tree uprooted.  The next morning she told her husband the story.

He nodded as she finished telling her dream.  “My wife,” he sai Read More
Joseph Bruchac, in his book Native Stories from the Keepers of the Earth, invites us to read an Iroquoian or Ongwehonweh Creation Story.

This is a story that is sacred to the Ongwehonweh.

Not everyone is allowed to tell this sacred story.  We were given permission to do so by Joseph Bruchac.  He learned this version from such elders as Ray Fadden/Tehanetorens and Alice Papineau/Dewasentah.


Before this Earth existed, there was only water.

It stretched as far as one could see, and in that water there were birds and animals swimming around.  Far above in the clouds, there was a Skyland.  In that Skyland there was a great and beautiful tree.  It had four white roots which stretched to each of the sacred directions, and from its branches all kinds of fruits and flowers grew.

There was an ancient chief in the Skyland. His young wife was expecting a child, and one night she dreamed that she saw the Great Tree uprooted.  The next morning she told her husband the story.

He nodded as she finished telling her dream.  “My wife,” he said, “I am sad that you had this dream.  It is clearly a dream of great power and, as is our way, when one has such a powerful dream we must do all that we can to make it true.  The Great Tree must be uprooted.”

Then the ancient chief called the young men together and told them that they must pull up the tree.  But the roots of the tree were so deep, so strong, that they could not budge it.  At last the ancient chief himself came to the tree.  He wrapped his arms around it, bent his knees and strained.  At last, with one great effort, he uprooted the tree and placed it on its side.  Where the tree’s roots had gone deep into the Skyland there was now a big hole.  The wife of the chief came close and leaned over to look down, grasping the tip of one of the Great Tree’s branches to steady her.  It seemed as if she saw something down there, far below, glittering like water.  She leaned out further to look and, as she leaned, she lost her balance and fell into the hole.  Her hand slipped off the tip of the branch, leaving her with only a handful of seeds as she fell, down, down, down, down.

Far below, in the waters, some of the birds and animals looked up.

“Someone is falling toward us from the sky,” said one of the birds.

“We must do something to help her,” said another.  Then two Swans flew up.  They caught the Woman From the Sky between their wide wings.  Slowly, they began to bring her down toward the water, where the birds and animals were watching.

“She is not like us,” said one of the animals.  “Look, she doesn’t have webbed feet. I don’t think she can live in the water.”

“What shall we do then?” said another of the water animals.

“I know,” said one of the water birds.  “I have heard that there is Earth far below the waters.  If we dive down and bring up Earth, then she will have a place to stand.”

So the birds and animals decided that someone would have to bring up Earth.  One by one they tried.

The Duck dove down first, some say.  He swam down and down, far beneath the surface, but could not reach the bottom and floated back up.  Then the Beaver tried.  He went even deeper, so deep that it was all dark, but he could not reach the bottom, either.  The Loon tried, swimming with his strong wings.  He was gone a long, long time, but he, too, failed to bring up Earth.  Soon it seemed that all had tried and all had failed.

Then a small voice spoke.  "I will bring up Earth or die trying.”

They looked to see who it was.  It was the tiny Muskrat.  She dove down and swam and swam.  She was not as strong or as swift as the others, but she was determined.  She went so deep that it was all dark, and still she swam deeper.  She went so deep that her lungs felt ready to burst, but she swam deeper still.  At last, just as she was becoming unconscious, she reached out one small paw and grasped at the bottom, barely touching it before she floated up, almost dead.

When the other animals saw her break the surface they thought she had failed.  Then they saw her right paw was held tightly shut.

“She has the Earth,” they said.  “Now where can we put it?”

“Place it on my back,” said a deep voice.  It was the Great Turtle, who had come up from the depths.

They brought the Muskrat over to the Great Turtle and placed her paw against his back.  To this day there are marks at the back of the Turtle’s shell which were made by Muskrat’s paw.  The tiny bit of Earth fell on the back of the Turtle.  Almost immediately, it began to grow larger and larger and larger until it became the whole world.

Then the two Swans brought the Sky Woman down.  She stepped onto the new Earth and opened her hand, letting the seeds fall onto the bare soil.  From those seeds the trees and the grass sprang up.  Life on Earth had begun.
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© 1991, Joseph Bruchac. All Rights Reserved.

Keith Jamieson explains some of the predominant myths surrounding First Peoples.

Keith Jamieson is a Mohawk and a Six Nations of the Grand River Cultural Consultant. He lectures internationally and is also a curator and is an advisor for various exhibits on First Nations. He is a published author and has done many media publications. He explains some of the predominant myths surrounding First Peoples. These misconceptions stand in the way of building bridges of understanding between different cultures.

I think the primary message is much broader than simply who we are. I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that we do exist and we are contributing members of the 21st century. It needs to be accepted for that. We didn’t die off at the turn of the nineteenth century. We, we, the assumption is that we have always been very comfortable in, on all our little reserves in the country and that’s never been true. The assumption is that we have been taken care of that’s not true. You have to acknowledge that there are myths abound about us. What we have is very much preconceived notions about who people are and what they represent and often that’s manufactured to fit a particular ethic or a particular common identity or an ideal. And I don’t think we can accept those kinds of things.

Royal Ontario Museum
Keith Jamieson: Woodland Cultural Centre

© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


Keith Jamieson explains some of the predominant myths surrounding First Peoples.

I think the primary message is much broader than simply who we are. I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that we do exist and we are contributing members of the 21st century. It needs to be accepted for that. We didn’t die off at the turn of the nineteenth century. We, we, the assumption is that we have always been very comfortable in, on all our little reserves in the country and that’s never been true. The assumption is that we have been taken care of that’s not true. You have to acknowledge that there are myths abound about us. What we have is very much preconceived notions about who people are and what they represent and often that’s manufactured to fit a particular ethic or a particular common identity or an ideal. And I don’t think we can accept those kinds of things.

Royal Ontario Museum
Keith Jamieson: Woodland Cultural Centre

© 2007, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

  • Describing the main features of life in Iroquoian society prior to contact with Europeans and how they have changed over time
  • Exploring the ties that First Peoples have developed and maintained with the natural environment
  • Exploring the personal connections that First Peoples have made spiritually and culturally with their world
  • Exploring Iroquoian Creation story

Learning Activity:
Iroquoian pottery vessel

By looking closely at objects like this Iroquoian pottery vessel, we can learn a lot about the lives of the people who made and used them. We can begin by asking questions about the object’s physical features, construction, function, and design.

What is it made of?
The vessel is made of clay that has been hardened by heat, making it heavy and durable. This tells us that the people who used it led fairly sedentary lives - they lived in permanent homes for most of the year and did not need lightweight, portable containers.

How was it made?
This vessel was made using the paddle and anvil method, rather than by smoothing coils of clay. This tells us that this pot was made and used during what archaeologists call the Late Woodland period – the time just prior to European contact.

Who made it?
We know from oral traditions and written accounts that pottery was made by women. This provides a clue to women’s important role in Iroquoian society, which was matrilineal and allowed women a great deal of social equality and respect.

What was it used for?
The vessel was used for cooking foods over a fire. If there were only pottery vessels found at this archaeological site, we would be sure that this vessel was used prior to contact with Europeans, who traded metal cooking pots with the Iroquoian peoples.

How is it decorated?
There are lines and dots on the vessel’s collar, which is large with a pinched base. This is typical of pottery made by the St. Lawrence Iroquois, who lived in the St. Lawrence River valley prior to the Europeans’ arrival but whose once-thriving villages were mysteriously abandoned by the late 16th century. Archaeologists continue to study the causes of this shift in population.

How does what you have just learned about pre-contact Iroquoian peoples contrast with what you know about the Europeans who arrived? Conduct additional research if needed. Can you explain how these differences could have formed the basis for future conflict?

Learning Activity: Iroquoian Creation story

Communities throughout the world have a great variety of stories explaining the origins of life. Hawaiian tradition tells of shades of darkness that gradually turned to daylight and gave birth to life on Earth. For the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Togo and Benin in Africa, life began in the sky around a young baobab tree. And in Norse tradition, life sprang from melting ice.

Tell a Creation story from your own or another tradition. Compare and contrast this story with the Iroqouian Creation story. What does each one tell you about that community’s connections to the natural world?



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