Celtic Junction Arts Review

Anishinabe: Reframing the past, reclaiming the future

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin

The opwaagan (pipe) on the cover of this book is the passing of tobacco. The writing itself is textually ceremonial helping us to access that place the ‘truth resides’. Its very title was endorsed by spirit messengers during a ceremony of jeeskahn (shaking tent) and it is important therefore that one commits to reading this book fully. Tobacco is being passed.

Our Hearts Are As One Fire, An Ojibway-Anishinabe Vision For The Future by Jerry Fontaine is a ground-breaking exploration of Ojibway, Ota’wa and Ishkodawatomi-Anishinaabe leadership. It also treats of the great leaders, Obwandiac, Tecumtha and Shingwauk. Their biographies are interwoven skilfully by the author providing an authentic Anishinabe (indigenous peoples) version of violent colonial treatment at the hands of Euro-American expansionists and subsequently by US and Canadian Governments. Obwandiac,Tecumtha and Shingwauk were adept civil and war leaders. They opposed and resisted social, political and economic changes that were threatening the Ojibway, Ot-wa and IshkodawatomiAnishinaabe way of life, an ancient and great way of being. Colonisation brought a loss of culture and a loss of truth. Matters are being made continually worse by ongoing denial of the past and insidious attempts at further recolonising the Anishinabe psyche.

Map of Sagkeeng First Nation

The author, Jerry Fontaine, is from the OjibwayAnishinabe community of Sagkeeng, Manitoba, Canada. He is Makwa Ogimaa, Bear Clan. A speaker of Anishinabenowin, he currently teaches Indigenous Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He is a survivor of intergenerational trauma from the inhumane residential school systems. Through these institutions, the governments separated Indian children from their parents and attempted to inculcate them with Christianity and the white man’s cultural values. They were mercilessly punitive.

In 1987 Fontaine was elected an Indian Act chief to interface with what he calls the ‘colonial beast’. He believes the use of ‘chief’ in this context by the state authorities ‘lent itself to a more distorted and bastardized representation of leadership’. He draws from many ‘layers of knowing’ in his writing. Using the Ojibwaymowin language for Fontaine is a way of speaking to the universe, an authentic window on the OjibwayAnishinabe world. This is a world of spiritual guides and medicine people who are, for the Anishinabeg, like the sun and the moon. Their clan leaders are the stars. The land is the ground of their being and the animals their brothers and sisters.

Fontaine includes an extensive Ojibwaymowin-English glossary. The words listed give an insight into a unique way of knowing e.g., ah-se-ma-ke-wahd (a tobacco offering), animiikiig (the thunderers), gii’i’go-shi-mo (fast for vision), ki-chi-ka-be-kong (place where the water and thunder meet i.e. Niagara Falls). The writing, being partially bi-lingual throughout, achieves a genuine linguistic register. The author avoids what he deems to be colonial labels such as ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ opting instead for the terms Anishinabe and Anishinabeg to speak respectfully of his kinsfolk and other original peoples.

The approach of the colonising officials in this account couldn’t be further from that of the Ojibway people. Ojibway leaders were respectful. They understood the importance of balance and harmony within the doodem (clan) and the nation. Matters of importance were discussed and agreed upon by consensus at assemblies. A ‘middle ground’ was sought between competing interests. Leadership for the Anishinabeg was not about power. It was a gift of spirituality, a gift of vision. Obwandiac, Tecumtha and Shingwauk were primarily known for possessing the gifts of kindness, generosity, humility, and spiritual power. They also demonstrated political and military acumen. This book is all about leadership. It’s about an ancient leadership, a leadership for today too, a generous, fair-minded leadership.

Obwandiac, Tecumtha and Shingwauk rallied the Anishinabe nations against a common enemy, the colonizing forces of Euro-America. They asserted a right to resist and above all they sought to maintain the integrity of Anishinabe lands, on Turtle Island, the North America of today. Sadly, the odds were stacked highly and heavily against them. Fontaine tells us that, ‘Colonization was like a giant tapeworm reaching into the heart of Indian country.’ That giant tapeworm fed off ‘manifest destiny’, a belief in a God-given right to territorial takeover.

Chief Shingwauk at Robinson Huron Treaty Signing in 1850
Chief Shingwauk at Robinson Huron Treaty Signing in 1850

A story that carries great meaning here is that of Shingwauk, one of the great leaders. He is having his breastplate removed after returning home from battle with the invaders. Five musket balls drop to the ground. These musket balls can be seen as deathly threats not only to Shingwauk himself but to the very way of life for the OjibwayAinishinabe nation. The threats were colonial terrorism, corrupt legislation, loss of land, loss of culture and loss of freedom. These musket balls were annihilation averted. In stark contrast to Shingwauk’s bravery against his enemies, with all their technologically advanced weaponry, is a different story. Here Fontaine relates how, on the 24th June 1763, during peace talks at Fort Pitt, the British Army seniors presented two blankets and a handkerchief contaminated with smallpox to Anishinabe delegates as gifts. It should be remembered that gift-giving is a sacred act for the Anishinabeg. This offering of smallpox was tantamount to attempted genocide. It illustrates how Indian-hating enjoyed support at the highest levels. Colonel Henri Bouquet for example referred to Anishinabe as vermin in a letter sent to Governor General Jeffery Amherst in the summer of 1763. Amherst in turn, suggested a, ‘Total expiration of those Indian Nations could be achieved’, and thereby ‘Put a most Effectual Stop to their very being’. Permanent reputational damage through the use of chemical warfare was a price it seems the British were willing to pay to achieve their aims.

Our Hearts Are As One Fire contains important source material deriving from oral traditions, sacred narratives, personal and family stories and from ceremony. These accounts are contrasted by Fontaine with the official narrative, the colonialist version, and in so doing, the orthodoxy of the official account is challenged rigorously.

Obwandiac, also known as Pontiac, of the Ojibway and Ota’waAnishinabe played a key role in planning some of the most successful ant-colonial mobilisations the Anishinaabe world has seen. This, however, is only partially recognised in the colonial accounts. Obwandiac in the war of 1763 successfully laid siege to nearly all the British posts west of the Allegheny Mountains and only let the others be for strategic reasons. As well as being a shrewd military strategist, he was a charismatic political leader. He saw ‘middle ground’ as a recognition of colonial reality; an essential buffer between Euro-Americans and the Anishinabeg. Middle ground was the place where political, military and trading relation­ships and alliances were established based on Anishinabe protocols. These protocols sought to ensure harmonious co-operation and mutual respect. Obwandiac had great influence on the economy of his people and on inter-national trade and, like Tecumtha and Shingwauk, he knew that military success would depend on unifying a confederacy of Anishinabe nations against the powerful forces of colonisation. He travelled therefore from nation to nation to garner support for resistance. He placed an emphasis on the great Neolin’s vision of a union between the Anishinabe spiritual and political world. This union lay at the heart of his own vision. Naturally the Anishinabe nations who answered the call to rise up in defence of their fundamental rights looked to Obwandiac because of his brilliant political judgement and his organizational capabilities. According to Fontaine, Obwandiac did not disappoint, displaying ‘unparalleled’ leadership and achieving considerable military success.

By King George III - http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e432/e010778430-v8.jpghttps://bac-lac.on.worldcat.org/oclc/1007612335Uploaded by JoshSmWaldorf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66136676
By King George III. Public Domain.

On October 7th,1763, King George III of England delivered the Royal Proclamation, which acknowledged the primordial rights of Anishinabe nations to their lands. It also made a commitment to a treaty process that would facilitate the sharing of lands and resources on Manitou Aki (Creator’s Land). This was akin to an Anishinabe Bill of Rights. Ultimately however, according to Fontaine, this proclamation came to mean many different things to many different people. Nevertheless, the proclamation still remains important to the Anishinabe nations today as it at least acknowledged territorial integrity and ancestral title of Manitou Aki, North America. Anishinabe consent had been made a prerequisite to the sharing of any territory and/or resources in the future by the British. Subsequently as colonial conquest intensified, with greater encroachment upon Anishinabe lands, treaty after treaty and act after act in Canada and in the US, weakened the Anishinabe position, the position attained in that Royal Proclamation. The Treaty of Washington for example in 1836, was ‘simply a removal act’; a charter by the Government for erasing their problem, the Anishinabeg, from where it existed, the land. It is instructive that Chief Justice John Marshall’s 1832 ruling in Worcester v Georgia failed to move even President Andrew Jackson towards rapprochement with the Anishinabeg in regard to the clearing of these nations from their native and sacred lands. Jackson simply refused to enforce the federal law and permitted the state of Georgia to disregard the sovereignty of the Cherokee-Anishinabe nation. He undiplomatically declared, ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!’

By Dana60Cummins - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26671530

Photo of the marker of the Greenville Treaty Line.
Greenville Treaty Line Marker

During the negotiations of the Treaty of Greenville in August 1795, General Anthony Wayne ostentatiously drew a line in the earth with his sword and announced that anyone who opposed the treaty could cross the line but would have the sword run through them. Tecumtha, also known as Tecumseh, with all the power of his Shawnee-Anishinabe people’s ancestral justice behind him, crossed that line saying, ‘This treaty is no good and the land is still ours.’ Tecumtha opposed signing such treaties in relation to ancestral lands and their natural bounties.

Often those with whom the British, the US and later the Canadian Government preferred negotiating were those handpicked and softened up with awards and titles. Others were even land speculators themselves irrespective of all the conflicts of interest that implied. The steadfast position of the three leaders under discussion was that no individual or single clan could negotiate on behalf of others and that the land was held in trust for all Anishinabe nations to be handed on from generation to generation. To look seven generations ahead was the responsibility of every emerging Anishinabe generation. Land, therefore, was not for surrender, not for sale.

Medicine peoples with their ‘bundles’ of sacred items were called upon by the Anishinabe clans to dream and to receive visions. Time set aside for dreaming was crucial. It allowed for the interpretation of the true nature and intent of the enemy and of European expansionism. Dreams and visions preceded military and political responses to colonial terrorism. Medicine people provided a spiritual foundation on which the political rationale for resistance could be constructed. Fontaine was rigorous in ensuring that the medicine people and the Anishinabe visionaries received their correct recognition in this book. We can be fairly sure that this cultural aspect of the story wouldn’t feature in conventional academic narrative of the period.

Despite the three Anishinabe nations in question once being sworn enemies, they were eventually unified into what amounted to three nations in one. It was a vision-inspired confederacy against a common enemy. Each of the nations adopted specific responsibilities. They developed a ‘clearly defined governing, leadership and sovereign structure that was politically, economically and militarily effective’ we learn. Their confederacy, the Three Fire Confederacy that is, helped in ensuring all possible territorial control and protection in the face of seemingly impossible odds, the might of colonial forces. Economic greed and hunger for power, nevertheless, are two insatiable evils. Little heed do they pay to natural justice.

Aimee Nic Uistín reading "Our Hearts Are As One Fire" by Jerry Fontaine on the roof garden of Aonach Mhacha, Armagh, Ireland.
Aimee Nic Uistín reading Our Hearts Are As One Fire by Jerry Fontaine on the roof garden of Aonach Mhacha, Armagh, Ireland.

This is a very well laid out book with helpful guiding headings to each section. It is erudite but does not set out to be overly academic. It is referenced thoroughly and contains clear supporting maps and detailed timelines. The style is succinct and cogent. Fontaine locates the context for the reader before introducing his own personal narrative and this lends even more credence to the book. It is printed on wholly recycled paper which has not been derived from native trees.

True reparation and healing of the past can only occur if genuine amends are made. Finance could be found to carry out such work but the willingness to do so needs to break through what is a conceit of amnesia at the highest level in Governments. According to Fontaine all the talk about reconciliation is just talk. This account deserves to be read carefully and particularly by those who may not wish to know its truths.

To those of us who might look in on the Anishinabeg and claim some special insight, Fontaine delivers a cautionary note, ‘Too many non-Indians and self- professed allies believe that they can speak to our truth, worldview and understanding of the universe simply by looking at and visiting this world.’ Notwithstanding this caution, I have accepted the tobacco because it has, by some sympathetic magic, been passed to me. Chi-Miigwech.

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin is Director of Education with Gael Linn, is the author of three books on Cú Chulainn and chairperson of Aonach Mhacha, sister center of Celtic Junction Arts Center.