Category Archives: Indigenous Issues

Remarkable Migrations/Explorations of Homo sapiens


We have to remember how remarkably successful Homo sapiens have been.  Homo sapiens are now on every continent and in the harshest environments.  It seems like they can live anywhere. They can live on land, on ice, and even, to some extent, in the sea.

In an interesting television series called The Great Human Odyssey, Niobe Thompson said that he wanted to learn how the ancient world shaped humans and how humans managed to overcome the extreme obstacles in their path. From Africa, humans migrated around the globe to settle in all of the earth’s diverse ecosystems. To do that, humans had to be extraordinarily flexible in order not just to survive, but also ultimately to thrive, in an unpredictable and hostile world.

As Thompson said, “The more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.”

Our ancestors engaged in a series of remarkable migrations. Certainly one of the most incredible was the arrival of humans in the Western Hemisphere during the last Ice Age.  That was an unbelievable journey from Arctic Asia to North America when glaciers still covered half of North America. This was Thompson’s conclusion:


“Each of these journeys into our past reinforced the same lesson: our ancestors were extraordinary people, capable of far more than we give them credit. They were curious and adventurous risk-takers, they were masters of technology, they thought like scientists, and they were fun loving, artistically sensitive, and emotionally complex.”

Because of this astonishing flexibility, intelligence, and ability to work in co-operative groups, Homo sapiens accomplished so much that they could learn to live, and live well, in every environment on earth.

Yet as Niobe Thompson said, “the more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.”

Thompson wanted to learn how this was possible. He claimed, “the reason humans were so resourceful was that humans evolved during the most volatile era the planet has experienced since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. In my opinion, It was a classic case of ‘what did not kill us made us stronger.”  Not only that, but they were able to pass on that new strength to their offspring in a classic case of Darwinian evolution.

Thompson, in the television series latched on to modern scientific research which   showed that our amazing ancestors emerged in Africa just as global conditions went completely weird. Thompson claims that “these extraordinary challenges were in fact what made Homo sapiens so special that they could survive what destroyed their cousins, other hominins:

Humans were forged by calamity. We became tenacious, virtually impossible to wipe out, incredibly good at dealing with change. We became fast-breeding settlers, a relentless colonizer. As soon as the modern brain evolved, our species became unstoppable. The very mind that today believes it needs a new smart phone every 12 months is the same one that invented and adapted its way from the parched Kalahari Desert to the shores of the Arctic Ocean within 1,500 generations. To put that into perspective, before that point in time – over the previous 100,000 generations (2 million years) – earlier humans invented only a single primitive tool, the stone hand-axe.”

There is not doubt about it. Our ancestors were remarkable people.

Migrants Across the Land Bridge

Ever since Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere they wondered about the origins of these people native to the Americans. It is now generally accepted that Homo sapiensoriginated in Africa. I know that may be disturbing to certain white supremacists in the United States. I remember when I was in Africa a few years ago, at a cave in the place they specifically call the “Cradle of Humanity,” indicating that this is believed to be the origin of the human race, I mentioned to one of our group exploring the cave that I guess this means are original ancestors were black. The idea shocked and disturbed him.

Eventually those Africans spread out around the world to Europe, Australia, Asia, and from there, the western hemisphere. It is an incredible story.

Amazingly there was a 16thcentury Jesuit missionary who reached some conclusions about these indigenous people of North America that really astounds. More than 400 years ago, in 1589,        Joséde Acosta suggested that American Indigenous people shared a Siberian homeland. He believed that small groups of hunters driven by near starvation might have followed now extinct animals across Asia into the Americas millennia before the Spaniards arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. He even suggested that such a journey would require “only short stretches of navigation.” This is an incredible insight when you remember that in 1589 it would actually take Europeans another 136 years to “discover” the Bering Strait. From time to time in this blog I have suggested that Europeans were not as smart as they thought they were. This was not one of those times! This guy was smart. As David Hurst Thomas said, “Contemporary science supports Acosta’s theory more or less.”

It does now seem clear to most scientists that the first Americans came to North America from Asia during the last Ice Age. Because no fossils have been found in North America of archaic human ancestors such as Neanderthals this suggests that anatomically modern humans first populated the western hemisphere.

There are some substantial doubts about when exactly the first humans got here, but it seems likely that it was about 35,000 years ago, though some say much less such as 13,000 years ago. The jury is still out.

No matter which dates one accepts, it is clear that humans came here during very difficult times. During the last Ice Age one-third of the earth and almost all of what we now call Canada was buried under massive continental ice sheets. In places the ice was 2 miles thick.  Ever time I think of that I am amazed. It is difficult to think that where I now live in Manitoba 2 mile thick ice covered all of the land. So much ice was locked up in these ice sheets that the world’s ocean levels dropped dramatically.

What the retreating waters revealed is what scientists now call Beringia—an enormous unglaciated piece of land known as the Bering Land Bridge.This connected Siberia to Alaska.

There is no certainty about how and when humans arrived in North America.  According to Olive Patricia Dickson and William Newbigging, in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations:

“From physical and linguistic evidence, we know that humans were present in the Americas at least by 17,000 BP (before present) and perhaps by 50,000 BP or even earlier… Today it is widely accepted that at several periods during the late Pleistocene geological age, a land bridge connected Asia and North America and that some Amerindians crossed from the Old World to the New on foot during these times.  The first identifiable bridge dates back to about 75,000 years ago.  The last one ended about 14,000 years ago. Beringia, as this land bridge is called by scientists, at one point was more than 2,000 kilometres wide, more like a continent than a bridge.Once believed to have been a grassy and often boggy plain, recent studies have revealed that it was covered with birch, heath, and shrub willow, food for such animals as mammoth, mastodon, giant bison, and saiga antelope—and the predators that preyed on them. That human hunters followed the herds is a reasonable assumption.  These newcomers travelled mainly from north to south, either along the coast or further inland.  Some looped south of the glaciers, then headed north again as the ice retreated.”

They did not explore the north first because it was covered in ice!

Others suggest that Beringia was not quite that large. They suggest it was basically up to 1,000 km. (620mi.) wide at its greatest extent. The area was roughly as large as British Columbia and Alberta put together, some 1,600,000 sq. km. (620,000 sq. mi.).  Today there are only a few islands visible. No matter which figures are right, this area was huge.

Beringia like most of Siberia and all of North and North East China was not glaciated because snowfall was very light. It was a grassland steppe. The land bridge extended for hundred of kms into the continents on either side. Others have suggested what seems impossible that they travelled over the ice sheets. Either theory is incredible.

Many scientists believe that a small human population of at most a few thousand people first arrived in Beringia from Eastern Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum. Others followed later. These people used Beringia as a platform to explore and settle North America. After that they expanded their settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years ago when the massive continental glaciers started to recede and the ocean levels started to rise. After about 11,000 years before the present the bridge was covered again. It was no longer possible to walk back over land. Those who came to the western hemisphere were stuck here. Some scientists believe that before European colonization Yupik peoples lived on both sides of Beringia.

These theories, at once controversial, have now been bolstered by genetic evidence. That genetic evidence suggests that the ancestors of ancient native North Americans came from somewhere in Asia. Admittedly no one is sure exactly where these people came from.  No traces of humans have been found in Beringia leading some to cast doubt on the theory. So the question of where the ancient homeland of the first peoples of the Americas is still a live question.

For a century, Russians have been finding ancient skulls across Siberia. With those bones scientists have constructed genomes from both sides of Beringia. According to Niobe Thompson, speaking in a fascinating television series The Great Human Odyssey, “research has confirmed what we have long suspected, that the ancient home of the First North Americans was in Siberia.”

What is absolutely certain however is that these people from Asia were astonishing explorers. They even migrated into Europe.  All of this makes it very clear that humans, even ancient humans, were capable of more things than we ever thought possible. We have no choice but to respect our ancient ancestors. They were amazing people.

There is yet one more amazing human migration,  namely a migration into the Arctic. How could they do that? As Thompson said, “for a species born in Africa, the human adaptation to the Arctic was an impressive achievement and that adaptation was the key to the second half of the planet—the Americas…it was an Ice Age journey we once thought was impossible. Now we know humans found a way.” These were amazing people! And these were the original migrants to the Americas. All the others came much later and have much less legitimate claim to this hemisphere.

First People of the Americas

The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. It is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  For forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

The more we learn about these varied groups of peoples who populated  America (and by that I mean North, South, and Central America) and the more we learn about them the more astounded we are likely to be. Their story is incredible. But it is also incredible that the Europeans who first contacted them did not realize this.

As David Hurst Thomas explained,

“For a thousand generations, the American continents have been home to Indian people.  From forager to farmer, tribe to nation, the native American civilization waxed and waned. They developed sophisticated forms of art, elaborate political and social structures, intricate intellectual patterns, mathematics, handicrafts, agriculture, writing, complex religious and belief systems, imaginative architecture—indeed a whole panoply of human endeavor that rivaled the cultures developing in the Middle East, Europe, and China. These early native American achievements still astonish the world of today.”

Scientists are not in complete agreement about how these first Americans arrived in the western hemisphere. They do agree on how or exactly when they came from the “Old World,” but the most common theory, for which there is significant evidence, is that they crossed from Asia on foot when the sea levels were much lower than they are today because so much water was captured by the incredibly massive continental ice sheets that covered North America. Some have speculated that they came by boats from Asia. Both theories are incredibly interesting.

As Thomas said, “We do not know when they left their ancient homelands, what conditions they experienced along the way, or even why they first came to America.”

Yet we do know that these people were not savages. Only ignorant prejudice would make anyone think that. As Thomas said,

“Without doubt, the first Americans arrived as fully developed human beings. They were definitely not “primordial” or “primitive,” not stooped and shambling, had no heavily ridged brows. They walked upright and looked much the way American Indians look today. They brought with them an Ice Age patrimony, including many basic human skills: fire making, flintknapping, and effective ways to feed, shelter and clothe themselves. As early immigrants, they lived in close-knit kin groups, enjoyed social interactions, and shared beliefs about magic and the supernatural. They spoke a fully human language. As they dispersed throughout the Western Hemisphere they lived in diverse and sometimes unstable environments. But they continued, to feed their families and to safeguard their new homeland. Over the generations, the first American ancestors confronted and solved colossal challenges.”

In time they developed advanced cultures. After a long while on the continent they spoke more than 2,000 languages. Later migrants who came after the first Americans, brought with them new languages, new cultures, that were well adapted to the environments in which they were inhabiting. It will be a consistent theme of this blog that the philosophies of these people were intimately connected to the environment in which they arose. That close connection has formed their ideas and made them so resilient.

Though these people inhabited the Western Hemisphere for a 1,000 generations before Christopher Columbus “discovered” them, a mere 25 generations have succeeded them since that time. The time in which this hemisphere has been occupied by Native Americans  was the time in which the hemisphere has been shared with the European invaders. I don’t call them discoverers.

During this time, As Thomas said,  “native Americans domesticated dozens of kinds of plant foods. They charted their farming cycles through complicated cosmologies  involving solar calendars, astronomical observations, prayerful rites, and celebrations. Indian people learned to use wild plants for healing, strengthening, and restoring health. Native American architecture matched anything Columbus had seen in his travels.”

Since their first arrival the Native American population increased dramatically. As Thomas said, “The native Americans modified their traditions and ideas to suit changing conditions. They crafted efficient, down-to-earth solutions to the unforeseeable. Their struggle for survival—the countless individual agreements and compromises, solutions and inventions—gave rise to the thousands of American Indian traditions and beliefs that so amazed the European explorers.”

The story of these peoples is, I submit, deeply interesting and worth some attention.  I hope some people stay along with me for the ride as we exploring these incredible people and their incredible history.

Chumash Indigenous People of the West Coast


As Robbie Robertson said in the television series Native America, which he narrated, “Sky watching, the 6 directions, and a search for people’s place in the world. These ideas are found throughout the Americas. They are part of a foundational belief system shared between distant and diverse cultures. Where does this common belief come from? The Chumash, an Indigenous nation of the southern west coast of the United States, may have an answer. Their ancestors were the first coastal settlers of what is now Southern California.”

First of all, they were great paddlers of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ecosystem on the planet. Alan Salazar a member of the Chumash/Tataviam First Nation knows that his ancestors were much better paddlers and navigators than he will ever be. Their ancestors travelled the ocean in a flat-bottomed canoe. Reginald Pagaling, another member of that nation, understands this too.  “Water is life. It is such a great teacher of respect. It’s a great teacher of power. It’s a great teacher of calmness.” Similar beliefs were found in other Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

“Long ago water taught the Chumash a lesson they still practice. The best time to paddle is at night.” That was a very important lesson, but it was not intuitive. The ocean is of course much calmer at night. Even though its dark and you can hardly see the paddler ahead of you, that is the best time to paddle a canoe on the ocean. They would feel the paddle hit the water and come out. As Robertson said, “Far at sea in dark of night the Chumash look to the stars to guide them. Just as their ancestors did.” They used the Milky Way as a means to chart their way across the islands of the South Pacific. To me that seems impossible. But they did it.

They built canoes that could travel great distances across the forbidding Pacific Ocean. “Their mastery of the stars and seafaring enabled the very first Americans to move quickly down the coast and across the continents. Can the way America was settled explain why Native Americans share so many core beliefs?

Beringia is defined today as the land and maritime area that is bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia, on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada, on the north  by 72 degree latitude in the Chukchi Sea and on the south by the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Chukchi Sea, Bering Sea and Bering Strait are all part of Beringia. Basically what separates Asia from North America.

Part of Beringia is international waters, part is in Russia, part in the Untied States and part in Canada. At one time it formed a land bridge between Asia (Russia) and the western hemisphere and it is believed that humans used it to walk from Asia to North America when the sea levels were much lower than they are now because of the immense amount of water taken up by the massive continental Ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Today a few parts of it are visible as islands.

As Robertson said, New DNA evidence suggests that all Native Americans are descended from one people. They lived together for 25,000 years stuck behind a wall of Ice in area called Beringia. Perhaps here for thousands of years people observed cycles of the earth, sun, and stars and plant the seeds for a world view that will be shared across the Americas. Can these ideas really have been developed so far back in time? If so they may be expressed in the earliest art found here that dates back 13,000 years to the very beginnings of Native America.”

Spirit of the Plains


The iniskim or “buffalo stone” played an important role in the spiritual life of Plains People. They used stones that often contained fossils with a spiral shell for thousands of years. According to legend, a woman was trying to find food for her family and her band during a time of famine when an iniskim talked to her about how to use prayers and ceremonies to find buffalo and bring them to the people to hunt. As a result Blackfoot children, whose tribe lived on the Plains of North America, wore iniskim necklaces, while warriors wore them woven into their hair, and shamans carried them in bundles. Often the dead were buried with them to provide sustenance after death.

Another important spiritual instrument was the medicine wheel. I have seen at least one in Saskatchewan. I believe it was at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an internationally-acclaimed historic site just north of Saskatoon where my sister and brother-in-law took me a few years ago. For millennia medicine wheels  have been a part of Indigenous spiritual life among people of the plains. These stone structures were usually centred on a pile of rocks (cairn) often located on a prominent hill. Spokes of the wheel radiated outwards.

For the Indigenous People of the plains the circle and the number 4 had spiritual significance.  The circle had no beginning and no end. They also said that people hunt the buffalo for survival and then return it to the earth to nourish the grass, which then fed the new buffalo. This made the circle complete. As I said about the Anishinabe, the number 4 is also sacred to the Indigenous People of the plains.

At the visitor centre in Wanuskewin Heritage Park the number 4 is prominently on display in the four-pointed roof of the visitor centre, which can be seen from a distance. The roof represents four directions, four peoples, four seasons and four times of life.

A famous medicine wheel was built at Majorville about 5,000 years ago. 40 tonnes of rock were used to bu ild it.  The medicine wheel was frequently utilized  when Europeans first made contact with the Indigenous People on the plains.  At the centre of that wheel was soil 9 metres in diameter and 1.6 metres high surrounded by an oval ring of stones about 29 metres by 26 metres. It contained 26 to 28 spokes.

The main spiritual ceremony of Plains people was the Sun Dance. I found it interesting that it was usually led by a woman. Women were allowed to be leaders on the Plains at a time when the Christian religion by and large, relegated women to a secondary role. Who thinks the Europeans were the civilized ones? A woman usually decides when the dance was to be held. Often it was held in order to allow a woman who had a male relative or husband in danger. She vowed publicly that if this person were spared she would sponsor a Sun Dance.

The Sun Dance was later outlawed by Canadians who did not appreciate any competition from native spirituality for the religion they wanted to impose. That of course was Christianity.

Peter Nabokov in his book Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-1992,reported an anonymous Blackfoot response:


“We know that there is nothing injurious to our people in the Sun-dance…It has been our custom, during many years, to assemble once every summer for this festival…We fast and pray, that we may be able to lead good lives and to act more kindly to each other.

I do not understand why the white men desire to put an end to our religious ceremonials. What harm can they do to our people? If they deprive us of our religion, we will have nothing left, for we know of no other that can take its place.”

The abolition the Sun Dance  was finally removed from the Indian Act in 1951 when I was 3 years old.  It took Canada that long to become civilized!


Ancient Bison Hunters of the Plains


To my surprise there is archaeological evidence of Indigenous People living on the plains of what is now called Canada, about 11,500 years ago, even slightly before the first appearance of the grasslands and bison about 11,000 years ago. I always assumed it was the other way around, namely that after the continental Ice sheets disappeared grasslands appeared on the plains of North America and after that bison and then people.  That still seems most logical to me, but Mother Nature is not always rational. Or perhaps, more accurately we don’t always appreciate the reasons she acts as she does.

The bison (sometimes improperly called buffalo) provided for most of the needs of the Indigenous People of the Plains. Its primary use was of course for food. As mentioned early it provided food with amazing nourishment.  And there were plenty of them. It has been estimated there were as many as 65 million bison on the North American plains when Europeans arrived.

The people of the plains, such as Blackfoot, ate bison meat fresh but also dried. The made pemmican by pulverizing thin strips of lean bison meat and then adding crushed Saskatoons (service berries). Personally I like anything with Saskatoons–the world’s finest berry. Hot fat was also added by boiling the marrow of bones.  The bison meat was important for its ability to be stored this way as it provided meat in the harsh winters when meat was often difficult to find or catch.  It was also an important part of the fur trade because it provided fuel for the voyageurs.

Bison were used for many other things, beside food. In particular the skins provided vital shelter and clothing. There were so many uses that the Plains peoples tied their cultural life to the bison. Bands were formed to hunt the bison. The band sizes varied from 25 to 100 to reflect the number of people needed to hunt the bison by drives or impoundments. According to John Steckley and Bryan Cummins, in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations(2008) “warrior societies were developed primarily to police the hunt so that no one would spook the buffalo herd.”

It was because of the close cultural connection between Plains People and bison, and not just the food, clothing, and shelter they provided, that the destruction of the bison herds after contact with Europeans, was so devastating. I am not saying Plains Indigenous people were entirely innocent in this destruction, though they were by no means the primary driver of it.

The methods the Plains People employed to hunt buffalo were ingenious. The earliest was the buffalo cliff drive or jump. As I mentioned earlier, there was a spectacular one at Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump in southern Alberta. If you ever travel that way I urge you to stop and admire the first class exhibit. That site is 3,000 years old! And people say (stupidly) that we have no history in Canada! We have lots of history. We just don’t have so much European history. At that site bison were driven through carefully designed lanes that led to a cliff from which they fell over to be crushed. The Indigenous people sometimes killed large numbers of bison this way. Perhaps more than they could consume.  This is one of the reasons we have to admit they were not always environmental saints.

Buffalo Pounds developed later around 250 A.D. when the technology of bows and arrows arrived on the Plains. When Indigenous People killed bison in large numbers, as sometimes they did, bows and arrows were much safer and more effective for bison hunters than spears.

However, it was complex work to create these pounds. Historian John Friesen described the work this way in his book Rediscovering the First Nations of Canada

…a walled enclosure, generally circular in shape, ranging from 10 to 75 metres in diameter. Extending from the entrance in a “v” shape were two wings of spaced stations made of piles of rocks, wood, or dried buffalo chips…These lines stretched out for several kilometres and the open mouth of the “v” was almost two kilometres in width. The pound itself was hidden from the view of the bison as they ran towards the lines of the “v,” which grew ever narrower, and then it was too late.

The one thing that is very clear though is that these were pretty sophisticated hunters.

Indigenous People of the Plains


On the northern plains of North America populations were sparse, as they are relatively today as well. According to Dickason and Newbigging “the population averaged less than 1 person per 10 sq. miles (26 sq. kilometres). Of course some places had much greater density than others. There were also significant seasonal influxes of population. Sort of like Arizona and Southern California today. In the north however it was not the great weather that attracted people, but the seasonal hunt. The bison hunt was the basis of the plains culture.

Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever!

As James Daschuk described it, in his remarkable book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, which everyone should read who believes Canada is a fair country,  “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world. As a result of the bison, the Plains were lands of great civilization.

There was another factor that pointed to a great civilization on the Plains. Bison Hunters used both drives and jumps depending on how the land was configured. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, in their book  A Concise History of Canada’s First Nationsthe earliest site was 5,000 years old!  Many jump sites are found near the Rocky Mountains the most famous of which is Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. I was very surprised when I visited it a number of years ago with our family. It was a very large site. It was so large tribes had to co-operate to use it. A group had to hunt cooperatively.  Archaeologists have discovered 30 mazeways along which bison (not really buffalo) were driven with up to 20,000 cairns that guided the bison to their doom.  When Europeans arrived the use of jumps was actually increasing.  Buffalo pounds were more common on the plains because, of course, the land was flatter.

The real significance of these sites however in my view was pointed out in a comment by Dickason and Newbigging: “These forms of hunting called for co-operation and organization within bands but also between bands and tribes. Impounding, or corralling, was the more complex method, a form of food production rather than hunting.”

And this required civilization.

Anishinabe/Ojibwa Spirituality


My daughter-in-law Debbi is part Anishinabe. I have learned a lot from her and her sister Kelsey. Kelsey is a teacher of Ojibwa culture and history. I have learned a lot from them , though not nearly enough.

Kelsey taught me that like so many Indigenous Peoples, Anishinabe (Ojibwa) people pay particular attention to directions.  This reminded me a lot of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Central America. Paying attention to the 4 directions helps orient them to the world around them and ground them in a place—a sacred place. This too is a recurring theme among many Indigenous nations. They often believe that their beliefs and spirituality arise naturally from their home place. I really like that idea. Wallace Stegner, a fantastic writer believed the same thing.

Kelsey taught me that the number 4 is sacred in their culture.  I also learned from my friend Carl Smith of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation that the Ojibway people have 4 fundamental interrelated concepts—Respect, purpose, balance and interconnection.

Kelsey also explained to me the importance of the Sweat Lodge. As the Canadian Encyclopedia explains it, “Sweat lodges are heated, dome-shaped structures used by Indigenous peoples during certain purification rites and as a way to promote healthy living.”

Inside the structures intense heat is generated usually from pouring water onto heated rock. That is done specifically to promote sweating because Anishinabe believe this will help to expel toxins and negative energy that creates imbalance and disorder in life. They believe it can help to cleanse the soul, mind, and body. This process may take several hours, but there is no set procedure that must be followed.

The Sweat Lodge is considered a sacred place compared often to a Mother’s womb. In fact that is what it is shaped like. The entrance to the Sweat Lodge usually faces east to symbolize a new day. In order to enter one must bend low to encourage humility. More religious people should practice humility. No let me correct that. More people should practice humility, including, me. Then one can exit the Sweat Lodge  reborn. Many people can gain deep spiritual experiences from the engagement with the lodge. It is hoped that one exits reborn. A new person. this is sort of like the Christian concept of being born again.

The person who operates the sweat lodge is often called the keeper. Often that person is an elder or healer. Usually no charges are incurred for the experience, though people are encouraged, but not required, to offer a gift of something like cloth or tobacco. Gift giving itself is often an important spiritual experience for people. This too is a recurring theme among Indigenous people. Sometimes tobacco is exchanged for advice.

The purpose of the sweat lodge is not to generate revenue, but to heal and cleanse body and soul. Non-trained operators are discouraged because it can be dangerous. In 2009 three  sweat lodge participants in a New Age “Spiritual Warrior” retreat near Sedona, Arizona died.

Sweat Lodges were strongly discouraged by European settlers of Canada as part of their efforts to suppress Indigenous spirituality in favor of their own Christian belief system. It was part of that wholly unjustified sense of superiority again.

One of the things I liked best about the Sweat Lodge ceremony was that anyone could participate. No particular beliefs are required. No particular beliefs about whom or what one is worshipping is a pre-requisite either. Anyone who is respectful can participate.  I believe that is how all religions should operate.

I hope to learn much more about Anishinabe culture from my new family.


Anishinabe (Ojibwa or Ojibway) are the Indigenous People with whom I have had the most contact.

To begin with, my son Nicholas married Debbi a woman who is the daughter of an Anishinabe woman and one of the most wonderful women I have ever met. Her daughter is cut from the same cloth and we are very proud to have her part of our life. Not only that they have produced 2 wonderful children who are now our grand children.

I also have a significant connection with the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation because I was part of a group that partnered with them to establish an ecological reserve near their reserve and we would never have got it established if it were not for their co-operation.

I have also got to know Anishinabe people at Buffalo Point where we have a cottage on land leased from them in their reserve. As a result I have got to know a number of Anishinabe people personally.

All of this is to show that I am not entirely unbiased when it comes to the Anishinabe people.

According to John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “Anishinabe” is the name that the people of all groups of Ojibwa (or Ojibway) usually use to call themselves. “Ojibwa” is the name given to them by Europeans, though some groups have adopted the European names. For example, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba uses the name “Ojibway”. As far as I am concerned each group can use whatever name they choose, and the rest of us should usually respect that choice. In the United States they are often called Chippewa.

Like so many other First Nations or Indigenous People, the name of Anishinabe for themselves is the word for “human beings” or “people.” Scholars believe that the original Anishinabe came south from the Eastern Subarctic. They may have moved to the Atlantic coast and then to the north shores of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. Later many moved to the prairies when European traders arrived there.

Three of the bands survived: Mississauga, Saulteaux, and Ojibwa. Did you know that the following words are all based on Ojibwe words: “chipmunk” (referring to squirrels), “totem” (referring to clan), and “pecan” (meaning nut.)

In the area of the Great Lakes the Anishinabe/Ojibwa people occupied the region of the boreal forest north of the lakes . I love that country.   We drove through it last year and I  had to stop many times to take photographs. There they hunted moose beaver, and other animals and collected berries, tubers, and birch bark. As far as I know, there they were mainly hunter/gatherers.

These people were traders long before Europeans arrived to teach them how. Groups farther north were generally not as active traders because trading partners were spread out more. It is difficult to trade with someone 1,000 kilometers away. The Ojibwa traded beaver pelts of the area they occupied to the Odawa and Huron peoples farther to south and east in exchange for horticultural products like corn and tobacco.

Like the Cree farther west, the Ojibwa lived mainly in small family hunting groups and were constantly in search of game and fish. It was a pretty good life.

Gradually the Anishinabe moved further west into the territory of the Cree for reasons that are not entirely clear, but probably to trade with the Europeans who had arrived there by then. In the prairies in particular, they also farmed, particularly wild rice.  I will have more to say about this later. Anthony Hall, in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the Fourth World,  called there manner of farming “Among the most vital living expressions of Aboriginal agriculture in North America.” I will discuss this in greater detail later.

Ancient People of Canada


The more we learn about Indigenous People of the Americas the more we are forced to realize we did not know very much. Recent discoveries are leading scientists to believe that people have lived in what we now call Canada for much longer than people have previously believed.

Recently, scientists have discovered an ancient village on the west coast of Canada. The arrival of Europeans on the west coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are more well known.

The recent discovery is  of a 14,000-year-old ancient village and this might change our perception of early civilization in North America. Researches have said these remains are much older than the the Giza pyramids of Egypt. They have found artefacts that reach right back to the Ice Age. Interestingly this aligns with oral traditional history of some First Nations which history was previously discounted. Scholars may have to rethink their customary disparagement of traditional knowledge.

According to J. V. Wright, Curator Emeritus of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and author of A History of the Native People of Canada: Volume I (10,000 -1,000 B.C.) the earlier and orthodox archaeological view of native history the first period which occurred from 12,000 to 10,000 B.P the material cultures that were called the Palaeo-Indian and Northwest Palaeo-Arctic stretched across sites in what we now call the Yukon, the Prairies, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. These cultures have similarities with the Dyuktai culture in Siberia dating back as far as 18,000 B.P. This is understandable since it is generally now believed that the first Indigenous People arrived in the western hemisphere after travelling from Asia across the land bridge that was exposed at that time on account of lower sea levels.

The shared features include wedge-shaped tools made out of rock, not flakes that are broken off, microblades (which are flakes from a core sample of rock), bifacial knives (knives with a blade on both sides), and burins (stone tools for working with antler and bone).

The second period was set by Wright as the period from 10,000 to 6000 B.P. During this time, weapons technology developed substantially. For example, the atlatl or spear thrower was so effective that megafauna (Huge animals found in North America) started to disappear as a result of hunting from Indigenous people. We have to remember that Indigenous people were responsible for some extinctions too. They were not environmental saints.

It is difficult for scientists today to agree with certainty how these ancient people were related to current Indigenous peoples for as they often say, “the stone tools don’t talk.” They have to proceed on the basis of inferences, rather than firm science. This job is made more difficult by the fact that these people migrated widely.  For example, according to their own traditions, the Anishinabe people moved from the Atlantic coast to Quebec and Ontario. Later they even moved into Manitoba, where many of their descendants now reside.

The third period occurred from 6000 to 3000 B.P. The people of this period are the likely ancestors of the Algonquin nation and perhaps Hodenosaunee (Iroquois).

I think what is most important about his history is the necessary recognition if you want to know the history of Canada, the history since the contact of Indigenous people with Europeans is a very brief period of time. This is not a Christian country, or a country founded by the English and the French. This country was founded by the Indigenous Peoples. For example, the first Europeans came to Manitoba less than 400 years ago. That means that more than 95% of the history of the people of this province is not European. As John L. Steckley and Bryan Cummins said in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations, “If you want to learn your history, you need to learn about Natives first.”