The Creation Story of Indigenous people tells how the ancestors were placed on “Turtle Island” (North America) at the beginning of time. So as to not disturb the soil or animal or plant life, as the man and woman were lowered to Mother Earth, the Two-Leggeds pointed their toes.
Historians, anthropologists, and even Indigenous elders agree that Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people have lived in Simcoe County for many thousands of years. Champlain himself recorded in his diaries of the “good, kind Indians” who welcomed him when he came ashore in the early 1600s. It is generally accepted that the “Wendat” (Huron) people lived in the Simcoe County area until the mid-1600s, and then moved to the east.
The written history of the north end of Simcoe County indicates that in 1836, “The Indian band led by Chief Yellowhead” was sent to live in three separate geographic areas: Christian Island (Beausoleil Island), Georgina Island near Sutton, and Rama (traditional name “Mnjikaning).
Native people have always been taught to be the stewards of the earth. These lessons include taking only what you need, sharing what you have, and wasting nothing. Traditional teachings tell one to appreciate the beauty all around you. For Indigenous artists and artisans then and now, those lessons still apply. Even in artifacts that have lasted for a hundred years, the beauty cannot easily be separated from the utilitarian. From beadwork on moccasins to totem symbols on carvings, art continues to be an important part of Indigenous life.
Trading was and continues to be an important piece of these artistic pursuits. Back in the day, trade routes were well established. They allowed food and medicine to change hands, as well as trade beads and copper. Stone and flint knives were replaced with metal ones. Even pow-wow material and regalia designs were borrowed from other tribes. From buckskin dresses to ones made from cotton and velvet, from bone breastplates to plastic ones, Indigenous artistry has changed over the years. But in this geographic area, the patterns used long ago remain the same. The Anishinaabe continue to be known for their colourful Woodland floral motifs.
Since the 1960s, local Ojibway craft people have created beautiful hand-made baskets from black ash. Canoes and porcupine quill boxes are made, in part, with birchbark. Beadwork on clothing that used to be made with tiny seed beads in limited tones are now available in a myriad of colours, including fluorescent pink. Young Anishinaabe call it “neo-traditionalism”.
Local Indigenous artists create in various mediums including spoken word (storytelling), carving, beading, sewing, painting, metalwork, photography, film, and jewellery making. However, their contact information is generally not found in the usual business directories. Most use word-of-mouth for sales or commissions. Contact can also be made through area Native Friendship Centres or Administration/ Government offices of local First Nations. Many vendors can be found at summer and fall community pow-wows. If the community has a Cultural Department, they can point you in the right direction.
The Chippewas of Rama currently has two young men working to revitalize some of the old arts. Joe Valliere is making traditional lacrosse sticks and shipping them by mail. Young Dillon Bickell is a self-taught porcupine quill artisan, using modern Rit dye to colour the quills. In the past, specific seeds, berries, and plants created various colours. T.J. Simcoe continues to experiment with new beadwork patterns and does beautiful work on clothing, eagle feathers, jewellery, and even makeup brushes. Sons of renowned Ojibway artist, the late Arthur Shilling, continue to show their paintings in galleries.
Bewabon and Travis Shilling are well-known visual artists. Chief Lady Bird, another sought-after local entrepreneur, has had considerable media coverage as a muralist and painter.
Long gone on to the Spirit World, Rama elders like Florence Shilling and Dora Benson created lovely porcupine quillwork in the past. Their handicrafts can still be found in museums and homes of famous Canadians.
Many types of Indigenous small businesses exist, including gas stations, campgrounds, variety stores, and marinas. Band owned, they ensure profits are used for the benefit of all community members.
Rama’s Black River Wilderness Park also offers the opportunity for visitors to sleep in a teepee.
Besides visual art, Native people excel in various other businesses: law, counselling, consulting, training, writing, storytelling, engineering, speaker’s bureaus, special events coordinating, hunting and fishing guides, caterers, and private chefs. Rama’s J’aime Snache prepares traditional bannock dishes with a modern twist.
Modern-day Indigenous businesspeople continue to represent their families, clans, and communities in a positive light. Seek them out. Support Indigenous entrepreneurs, small businesses, artists, and artisans so that they can continue to share the important story of who they are. Acknowledge their commitment and the bravery it has taken to start and maintain a business. At the same time, you will be scoring goods and services that are truly Canadian.
Sherry Lawson is a third-generation storyteller with an Algonkian mother and an Anishinaabe father. She grew up in Mnjikaning/Rama B.C. (before casino). Sherry is well known as a community volunteer.