a talk presented at the

Ontario Small Municipalities Conference

06 May 2004 in Owen Sound, Ontario

Written By: Rebekah Tanner

Presented By: Jennifer Sells

Greetings Honored Mayors, Town Supervisors and other Elected and Appointed Officials of Ontario’s Smaller Municipalities;

Greetings to all who have decided to join us this morning.


I greet you!

In greeting you I ask you to remember that I am just one individual, standing before you as the representative chosen by a consensus of the Elected Council at Wendake to be all the Voices of my Nation for you, today:

In greeting you I ask you to remember that much of the material I will be presenting this morning was prepared by and approved of by others, and thus, I speak with a collective and louder voice than mine alone.

This is our Way.

Good Morning!

I have a story for you –

It is all at once very funny and quite profound; a brief Traditional Narrative collected in 1912 by Marius Barbeau on the Wyandot Reservation in Oklahoma as told to him by Catherine Coon Johnson who still spoke the Wyandot language fluently at the time, when she was approximately 60 years of age. It is a Tale which was told over and again, over hundreds of years by the Wendat, and I would like to share Barbeau’s free translation of the original text with you now:

The Skunks and the Small Pox

Long ago an Indian went to visit the settlement of the white men who gathered together and hired him to introduce smallpox into his country. [They told him] “Uncork this bottle in your country, and let its contents run out!” So he uncorked the bottle in the midst of a large crowd [of his people whom he had] called together. When it was done, they went back to their homes, and all of them fell ill with smallpox, a disease still unknown to them. So many Indians died that the few who were left ran off to the woods and gathered there. The game animals also assembled there and planned to stamp out the new disease. The skunk said, “I am surely able to kill smallpox.” The skunks, drawn up in battle arrayal across the country visited by the disease, began to shoot their scent. In this way they stamped out smallpox and reduced its dreadful powers so much that it was no longer the same disease that had come across the great waters. From that time on, they knew how to prevent smallpox; that is, before being sick, one should drink five drops of the skunk’s secretion once a week in order to secure immunity. This done, no danger could be incurred on visiting those who were sick with the disease. This remedy never fails and smallpox cannot prevail against it.


So, why do I tell you this tale? Because in a nut-shell (which is about how much time I have with you today) it provides a mirror in which to capture a few ideas and share them with you regarding why what occurred at Little Lake Park in Midland during 2003 was important enough for me to be standing before you now:

In the mid-15th century Europeans made their way into the history of the Western Hemisphere, and unfortunately for the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Hemisphere, they brought much more than just their technologies of glass and iron manufacture, the writing and printed word which enabled the commencement of the historic era, or fire-arms and gun powder; more than the Christian theology they believed was to be carried to all of humanity for its salvation; much more…  they carried, unbeknownst to themselves, what ultimately impacted The Americas as if the entire Hemisphere had been blasted with a  devastating biological weapon, a kind of germ warfare, in its most primitive evolution. The Europeans brought with them microbes that they, and all the other Races of the Eurasian land-mass had acquired a kind of generalized immunity to over many millennia, but which were a bomb-shell to the previously unexposed Peoples of the Western Hemisphere – Smallpox, Influenza, Tuberculosis, Syphilis, Gonorrhea and more… even the Common Cold seems to have been unknown before the arrival of the Europeans. Again, totally unbeknownst to them, their infectious diseases, which in this virgin environment were extremely contagious and far more virulent, traveled across North and South America with a speed that the human feet of their European carriers could not hope to beat in any race! The outcome? For Native populations in North America (where we will now focus our attention, especially, its Eastern Woodlands) the rapid and deadly spread of the biological onslaught unleashed upon unwitting populations from (at least) 1492 A.D. and certainly by 1649, caused total community upheaval, population shifts, loss of skill-sets, malnutrition and in some places, whole communities simply vanished. Death did not discriminate, it took young, old, men, women, and of course, the best and the brightest: the swiftest runners, the best cooks, the most gifted potters and orators and government officials – so many died in communities from the Atlantic Coast to Lake Superior – the numbers are incalculable, and the loss of traditional knowledge, as these gifted ones left behind no apprentices to carry on … was a social catastrophe beyond measure.

When Jacques Cartier visited the St. Lawrence River Valley in 1535 he observed the communities of Stadacona and Holchelaga (approximately at the places now called Quebec City and Montreal). By the time Samuel de Champlain passed through the same territory in 1609 and 1615, the inhabitants of these two settlements were no longer present.

In his excellent work on the mythologies, history, demographics and culture of the Wendat Nation entitled Huron Wendat: Heritage of the Circle Georges Sioui takes a through look at the written and archeological evidence and comes to the conclusion that epidemics, rather than warfare was the likely cause of this demographic shift.

Furthermore, Sioui provides sufficient evidence to uphold his belief that the modern community of Wendake, just north of Quebec City, represents an unbroken continuum of an agricultural lifestyle which was practiced by the Ancestors of the modern Wendat Nation in what are now the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario, just north of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario from at least 300 B.C., that reached its greatest extent in the 13th through the 16th centuries and became consolidated around the south shore of the Georgian Bay between the Penetang Peninsula and Lake Simcoe. It is here, during the early historic period, that the Wendat Confederacy became one of the most closely examined, well documented First Nations in North America.

Between 1609 and 1649 the explorer Samuel de Champlain, the Recollet priest Gabriel Sagard-Théodat, and various members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) all wrote extensively about their observations. The Wendat were matrilineal and matrilocal, living in 25 or so main villages of well made Longhouses with a total population estimated in the early 17th century at about 40,000. These people were well known for their ability as orators, farmers and traders. They grew far more corn than was required for their own needs, and always had a two to three year reserve on hand against times of drought. With their Algonquin neighbors to the north and west, they had a synergetic relationship: the Wendat provided corn, beans, squash and other agricultural products and the more nomadic Ojibwas, Ottawas, and Pottawattamie provided furs and wild rice. Add to this the contribution of Sacred Tobacco from the Petun, Native Copper that found its way along trade routes from upper Lake Superior, and other goods brought to the area by various other trading partners, and the Wendat Confederacy became justifiably famous for their cosmopolitan nature, diplomatic skills and relative wealth.

Unfortunately, these very things which made life so easy and attractive may have also been contributing factors in the ultimate de-population of the region as smallpox and other illnesses continued to take lives, reaching epidemic proportions in the mid-1630’s, by which time psychological turmoil was also being experienced throughout the communities of the Wendat Confederacy. With the added element of inter-tribal conflicts (particularly with the Haudenosaunee / NY League of the Iroquois) taking place on a scale not previously known in the Eastern Woodlands, due, at least in part, to the pressures which resulted from the arrival of the Europeans, the agricultural security that the Wendat had for millennia been accustomed to relying upon -- gave way. There were not only too few healthy people available to prepare the fields and tend the crops, those who might have done these tasks were required to tend the ill and defend the villages. It was not long before malnutrition and starvation became as familiar as smallpox.

It was under these circumstances that the most Sacred Ritual of the Wendat, that which represented in tangible actuality all the honoring of ones Ancestors that the Wendat were also renowned for: the Feast of the Dead, was observed and reported on by Europeans at a number of locations during the Jesuit Period. None of the Europeans who wrote about this event seem to grasp its full significance as it articulates the most profound cosmological and religious beliefs of the Wendat and is rooted in a notion so foreign to the Christians way of thinking: for the Wendat the individual human has two souls living simultaneously within the body. Georges Sioui says (p. 141) this: “One is sensitive, and maintains life in the sleeping body. It remains attached to the body after burial until “someone bears it again as a child.” The other soul, the soul of reason, is more ethereal. When the body is asleep or in a trance, or dead, the soul leaves it and travels freely about the world. After the Feast of the Dead, it goes to “a great Village [the village of souls] which is toward the setting Sun.” This is where all souls go after their earthly life, there to live in bliss with Yoscsha (Tsestah) and Aataentsic.”

Sioui later goes on to describe the Feast of the Dead in some detail and I refer you to his book (on the bibliography being provided as a hand-out) as a starting place if you are interested in learning more, here I will simply note that the Feast of the Dead took place every ten to twelve years during the early spring and lasted about 10 days, bringing together in one massive burial site the remains of “all Wendats of a particular nation who had died of natural causes since the last such feast... Archaeologist James Tuck emphasized [in his 1978 research] the fact that this great ritual was unique to the Ontario region. He traced its institutionalization through the ancestors of the Wendats, Tionontatés, and Attiwandaronks to the Middle Woodland Period (300 B.C.).” (Sioui pp. 146 – 147).

As you probably are aware by now, last spring, in Little Lake Park, on land owned by the Township of Midland, Ontario, one such Ossuary burial site dating from the Contact Period was accidentally unearthed during a publicly funded building project. Later in this presentation others will be telling you   more about that, and the ways in which it was so successfully managed, but before turning this over to Shelley and Fred, I would like to just take a brief moment to bring you up to date on where the Descendents of those who, not so long ago, and not far east of here, called “Home” -- are living now:

In Canada there is Wendake, north of Quebec City, but it was only after some wandering that a tattered remnant arrived there. Today there are about 3,000 enrolled members with about half that number living on the reserve.

In the United States the wanderings were even more complex and today there are three main areas of settlement: Oklahoma, Kansas and Michigan. Only the Wyandotte of Oklahoma are recognized by the United States Federal Government. Again, if you are interested in further study, see some of the titles on the bibliography.

And you will be happy to know that in 1999 a number of important events took place in the history of the collective Wendat People, including the fact that the Chiefs of all four of these groups got together and reestablished their Confederacy:

And then, we come to be here with you today, at Owen Sound.

Fred thought you might like to know what connection there might have been between the Wendat and the Native Nations of Grey County. It is well known that the Wendat homeland was a great trading center, and travelers from far and wide came there, so one can only imagine that the Ottawas who Champlain mentions meeting near Owen Sound in 1615 were probably among those visitors, it being a fairly straight ride by canoe across Nottawasaga Bay.

However, it is somewhat east of here, at Craigleith, that perhaps the more significant involvement of Wendats in Grey County would have occurred:

One of the essays on the official Website of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, written by Charles Garrad and John Steckley states:

“On the night of March 19, 1649, the Turtle people of Ossossane learned that the Iroquois enemy could be approaching. They abandoned their village and district, and fled to the Petun, supposedly across the ice of frozen Georgian Bay. When they arrived at the two Petun Deer villages at Craigleith the Turtle people of Ossossane were received as refugees, allies and kin, although to house and feed them without notice at the end of winter, and to provide hospitality on the necessary scale, must have strained Petun resources substantially. It is a tribute to the organization and hospitality of the Petun Deer that they were both able and willing to do so…. On December 7, 1649, Etharita, the principal village of the Petun Wolves, further south, was attacked and destroyed by the Iroquois. The survivors consolidated for the winter in the two overburdened northern villages near the Craigleith beach. In the spring of 1650, the Petun abandoned their country forever. Following their Odawa allies westward, the Petun Deer and Wolves were accompanied by their new Turtle compatriots. This threesome, still called Huron by the French, would remain together through a long migration and a difficult future, and become known in future history under the collective name of Wyandot.”

So it was here, in our host County of Grey that the reconfigured, modern Wyandotte Nation, as it is known today in the United States, had its genesis.

Thank you for your kind attention.


Prepared by:

 Rebekah Tanner, MLS, MAA

Liverpool, New York

29 April 2004


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Page posted: 04 November 2004
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