Indigenous history of the area draws large crowd
By Sue Tiffin
Published July 17, 2018
When the Haliburton Highlands Museum offered a talk on Exploring Indigenous Settlement in Haliburton County presented by David Beaucage Johnson, staff knew it would be popular. Leading up to the talk, museum director Kate Butler said there was a high level of interest, with people who weren’t able to attend the event calling in advance to find out how they could learn more.
On June 23, the crowd that showed up for the afternoon talk was one of the biggest crowds the museum has ever seen, with about 70 people – some from out of the county – filling the upstairs room of the Haliburton-based museum.
“I think there has been a growing interest in this topic for a while in the community and that people had begun to recognize collectively that it’s a part of our community’s story that we need to be able to tell better, but I don’t think people have known where to start,” said Butler. “This project has given the community a gateway to start to learn more which is why I think there was such a buzz about the event.”
Beaucage Johnson became involved in the community through a U-Links Centre for Community Based Research project partnership with the museum. The room quieted when the Trent University researcher and resident of Curve Lake First Nation began speaking.But then the crowd elicited gasps and excited murmurs as Beaucage Johnson detailed the history of the Highlands by making connections to what we know in present day.
The area looked like Arctic tundra, initially, and was known as (o)gidaaki. Gidaa means upwards and ki means the earth. Or, upwards earth, the Highlands.
“We left Haliburton out of it because it was hard to pronounce,” deadpanned Beaucage Johnson to giggles from the crowd.
“I think it’s really exciting that this land has always been thought of as the ‘Highlands,’” Butler later told the Echo. “It feels like a continuity that stretches over the entire vast history of this community’s story and it’s so important to remember what an incredibly huge history this area has –it most definitely doesn’t begin with the establishment of Haliburton County.”
The Exploring Indigenous Settlement in Haliburton County presentation featured photographs of maps and numerous artifacts found around the county.
A little more than a decade ago, an ancient stone structure was found under MacDonald Lake, in Haliburton Forest. Although originally believed to potentially be a natural structure, the rock cairn was verified to be a manmade formation. Ten thousand years ago, said Beaucage Johnson, the marker would have been above water, marking trails and hunting passageways.
“Sometimes we refer to aboriginal people as being primitive, because they were hunter-gatherers,” said Beaucage Johnson. But a series of slides showed stone and copper tools, some with spear points like a spoon or shovel, and others that were ceremonial. The tools can be traced back to 7,000 years ago.
“At that time, people in Europe hadn’t worked with metal yet,” said Beaucage Johnson, referencing Gary Warrick’s observation in Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province that the first metal workers in the world were in this area, and around the Great Lakes.
A highlight of Beaucage Johnson’s research findings for many is the possible prevalence of mikan tig, or trail-marking trees, in the area.
Ten thousand years ago, he said, trails would have been on tundra, which would have made them easy to find. As the landscape changed and forests grew, it was more difficult to find pathways leading from the waterways while portaging.
Indigenous people would paddle from lake to lake, and having to cross a piece of land, would park their birch bark canoe at the shore. Kids, while waiting for adults to sort all of the supplies for land crossing, would “shiwaakii, “ or climb trees until they bent.
“I used to do it, I didn’t know it was a special thing,” said Beaucage Johnson in jest. “My parents would say, ‘go shiwaakii.’”
The trees would bend, he said, by a tree’s nature, and sprouts would grow, which caused the trees to have a distinct shape. Some think they look like a four, Beaucage Johnson thinks they look like a sort of upside down letter h, quite fitting for this area.
When later travellers saw the trees, they knew kids had been there and that a trail could be found nearby. Marker trees then began to be shaped purposefully by bending young trees and tying them to the ground.
According to Beaucage Johnson, Orillia used to be a playground, a portage entrance.
“The tundra pathways and portages became gravel road, became paved road, became Hwy 12,” he said. Another commonly known route today is Chemong Road between Bridgenorth and Peterborough, notably where Portage Place mall can be found, and where a mikan tig quite prominently sits next to Stonehouse Farms.
After Beaucage Johnson’s work began getting attention in this paper and at his presentation at the U-Links Celebration of Research event held in March, he received feedback from the public about mikan tig spottings, including one found in Gelert.
“Haliburton is probably the mikan tree capital of North America and crowd sourcing is the best way to find them,” he said.
Again connecting history with what we know today, Beaucage Johnson showed an old map from 1819 showing “Indian trails” around the area of Owl Lake (now Miskwabi Lake), Grace Lake, Farquar Lake, and Elephant Lake. Fred Jones Road and Dover Spring Road would have been the start of the portage, which brought travellers to where Silver Springs Cottage Resort is now. While he pointed out locations on the map, audience members shouted out names of places and landmarks they recognized.
“Yeah,” Beaucage Johnson exclaimed. “You guys know all this stuff.”
“Looking for marker trees is definitely a project for this summer that we hope the whole community can get involved with – if you spot one, or even what you think might be one, please take a picture, note the location and send it along to us at the museum,” said Butler to the Echo.
The trails were also part of a network of transportation that were used to trade things from here to the Gulf of Mexico, or Atlantic. Mound builders from that region came to this area about 2,500 to 1,500 years ago, and brought their skills with them.
One local mound existed in Kashagawigamog Lake area, at the narrows, but was destroyed by development. Again suggesting crowdsourcing, Beaucage Johnson spoke to the value of LIDAR mapping to determine where else these wonders might exist in the area.
After the presentation, many crowd members spoke further with Beaucage Johnson, asking for clarification of some points and asking for more information about what he might be able to share of the surrounding area.
“[T]he people have so much valuable information to contribute to the project,” he said, when asked what fascinates him most about what he’s learned of the area.
“I would not have been nearly as successful without them.”
The museum currently has an exhibition on the Indigenous history of the area, but Butler said since she started working there in 2013, she has wanted it to be better and has been encouraged by the level of interest in the community.
“It’s extremely important to me that the story of Indigenous settlement in the county be told from an Indigenous worldview and that to my mind is what’s been lacking thus far,” said Butler. “The museum has an amazing collection of artifacts, but it’s the cultural context that’s vital to understanding them.”
Butler said the work to tell this part of the community’s story is a longterm project, and that the museum wants to continue making the project a prominent part of their programming.