manitoulin island: the birthplace of legend painting

Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada
Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Birthplace of Legend Painting

I am sharing this since it is one of my favorite places on the planet… Lara
manitoulinManitoulin is said to be the largest freshwater island in the world. It is located well off the north-central shores of Lake Huron, on the Canadian side of the border traced in the waters and among the islands of the mighty Great Lakes. In 1850, when the English were making treaties so as to get title to Indian land, in accordance with the Royal Procalamation of 1763 which told them to do this so the takings would appear to be legal, Manitoulin was to have been all-Indian by the Treaty of Manitoulin Island with the Odawa and Ojibwe (1862). So Wikwemikong Reserve is — or should be — all Indian land, the whole island. The name of the island means “power of the Manitous” or important spirits. Nevertheless, of approximately 12,000 people living on the big island, only about 25% are Ojibwe or Odawa. Instead of the whole island being a Native Nation, small reserves — West Bay (tribal offices), Sheshegwanig, Sucker Creek, Birch Island, and (on the eastern end), Manitoulin Island Reserve No. 26 are scattered among land occupied by settlers. It is a popular place for boaters and other tourists; several websites advertise luxurious facilities (and nothing about Native people).

Well-known Anishnaabeg intellectual Basil H. Johnston, (Parry Island Band Ojibwe) who was 45 in 1974 (he had participated in the writers’ part of the Manitou Arts activities) wrote this poem, which Akwesasne Notes published in the Early Summer, 1976, Poetry section. It reflects the discovery of the sad state of Dreamer’s Rock, which was followed by the young artists’ cleanup, and the holding of the summer art sessions there:


It was a sacred place

Formed by titanic forces

Crest uplifted, upreaching

Toward the Path of Souls and to the worlds beyond

Oft enshrouded by mystic mists, uprising from vaporous lake

Illuminated by sun or moon or darkened by cosmic glooms

Incarnated by breaths of life.

Changing, yet unchanged, altering the moods of being.

Imparting but not revealing the mystery of becoming.
It was a hallowed place Spirit pre-created,

interred within the chasmic womb Of its inmost substance.

By preternatural law destined to withhold from understanding

The mystery of the vital force of life; yet

By law outside the law ordained

To infuse and conjoin with the heart and soul of men

To give increase to being

Lend purpose to existence Bestowing the gift of living but

Not disclosing the mystery of life.
To this vision crest in cherished hope came youth

Themselves not fully formed or heart and mind not

With the spirit of the world yet bound,

In vigil by solitary night In fast from corporal want

They denied the worldly frame to appease the inner hunger

And cleanse the heart and mind

To merit and gain the sacred dream by which the way and mode of life and destinies are marked

And new force to being brings.
It is now a public place Open, in its solitude

To incurious and indifferent

And other passers-by

Who come their transient ways, and as they pass through life

Seeing, rather than seeking Hearing but not listening

Touching to remain unmoved And in mockery but not in honour

They inscribe their names

Upon the abiding rock

As if names have a greater force

Than the mystery of being.
— Basil Johnston, 1974

The area around Dreamer’s Rock had been heavily vandalized and trashed in 1974. Young people cleaned up and traditional elders reconsecrated the site, which was thoroughly smudged with sacred cedar. Sweat lodge purification ceremonies were held there — the first time many of the young artists had been exposed to this part of their heritage. It was felt that artistic visions might be enhanced by meeting there, so this was the place chosen to bring the young artists together for summer arts instruction that continued what Manitou Arts had begun. These meetings strengthened Indian ways and values — something soon seen in the paintings and drawings celebrating old ceremonies, and new dreams.

Johnston himself may have been influenced by Dreamers’ Rock. His major works began to be published — a book every year or so — 2 years after he wrote that poem, beginning with Ojibway Heritage, an account of the traditional wisdom, and the first four degrees of Midèwewin. He has continued writing, his works including many books of stories, an autobiographical account of how he survived a forced stay at a Jesuit-run residential school, Ojibwe language course materials and a beginning dictionary, a cultural – geographical – historical account of Anishnaabe place-names. Moose Meat and Wild Rice, 1978, is funny-ironic adult stories of reserve life (published with the less informative title Ojibway Tales in 1993 by the University of Nebraska Press). His most recent work (1996) is a beautiful book — Bear Walker and Other Stories, published by the Royal Ontario Museum, and illustrated by David Johnson, a younger artist continuing the Manitoulin Legend Painting tradition. Johnson’s paintings for the book have become a part of the ROM’s permanent collection. Shirley Cheechoo, another Manitoulin Legend Painter illustrated an earlier Johnston book published by the ROM, Tales the Elders Told,1981, which has been called “a Canadian classic.”

Dreamers’ Rock has had other “literary” influences. The first play by Ojibwe playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, is titled Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock. This is a one-act play (very good for school production) portraying a teenage boy torn betwen traditions of his people — which he only vaguely understands — and the lure of modern life. It’s published in a paperback with another one-act play, Education is our Right, by Fifth House (Toronto). De-Bah-Jeh-Mu-Jig Theatre (Manitoulin Island) has been very active in supporting Native drama. The name of the theatre means “tellers of weighed-words or news-type modern tales”. It’s the eastern Ojibwe pronunciation of Dibaajimowinan, one type of STORIES. Taylor won the 1992 Canadian Authors’ Association Drama award for his longer more adult-oriented play The Bootlgger Blues, recently published as a Fifth House paperback.


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