Connecting People to Place: Great Lakes Aboriginal History in Cultural Context

Research output: Other contribution


The author was asked to review the historical connection of Aboriginal people to the land that lies between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. She is a descendant of Great Lakes Aboriginal ancestors. Aboriginal history and self-understanding is conveyed across generations by stories and teachings grounded in particular landscapes. As a legally-trained historian, the author is familiar with the methods and protocols used in the document-based tradition. Her research method combines oral tradition and archival materials in order construct historical narratives in their cultural context. The task of connecting particular people to a specific place in a given time period is especially daunting if the recorded names of the peoples and the places keep changing. When looking for evidence of group identity in the documentary record, one must consider both what the people called themselves (auto-ethnonyms) and what they were called by others (xeno-ethnonyms). In a region as culturally complex as the Great Lakes over the span of the past four hundred years, naming practices create serious difficulties. The group of people living in the vicinity of rapids called themselves Passinaouek. Their Aboriginal neighbors (who spoke a different language) called them Skiaeronon meaning the Rapids People. The French settlers referred to these people variously as Skiaeronon, Passinaouek or Sauteurs (French for people of the Rapids). When the British settlers arrived, they referred to the same people as: Jibbeways or Ojibways or Chippewas. The recording of so many different names bestowed by outsiders creates the potential for confusing a change of names with a change of peoples. The Passinaouek are a fairly well-documented group because their territory was visited by many record-makers, providing a continuous historical record of the Aboriginal occupation at the Sault. But many Aboriginal people lived in places not frequented by European record makers, and lack of documentation, combined with changing names for both people and places creates an impression of disruption and discontinuity in the region. Southern Lake Huron is such a region. Today many of its Aboriginal occupants are known by the name 'Chippewas' - a term coined by British colonial officials in the late 1700's. The earlier French documentary record provides no evidence of the presence of 'Chippewas' in southern Lake Huron - but that does not mean there is no connection between present-day Chippewas and earliest-recorded Aboriginal people of the region. Researchers must be sensitive to other evidence of identity besides British and French naming practices. The author has encountered evidence of identity independent of the language of the record-maker - which she calls 'totemic identity.' It consists of the identifying symbols that Aboriginal people made on physical objects such as trees, canoes, houses and clothing. Aboriginal leaders also used these symbols as their 'signature' when required by the Europeans. Totemic identity has remained largely unchanged in the four centuries since contact. For example the Passinaouek meaning 'Echo Maker' in their language, is their metaphorical name for Crane. A Crane chief always made his mark by drawing a Crane, regardless of how the record-maker referred to him. Aboriginal use of symbols rather than letters has allowed evidence of totemic identity to persist despite changes in the naming practices and languages of newcomers to the Great Lakes region. Connecting people to place requires an exploration of how people understand themselves in relation to their place. For the Aboriginal people of the Great Lakes, there is both a physical and spiritual aspect to identity and landscape. In this report, the author demonstrates that evidence of totemic identity connects the descendants of the Chippewas who signed treaties in the southern Lake Huron region to their ancestors in the early contact period. To understand how totemic identity is relevant to the Aboriginal history of the Great Lakes, it must be approached from an Aboriginal perspective of creation.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2006

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SeriesAll Faculty Publications

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