Seeing the Land

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

When the theme of the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School (CHESS), “Gender and the Indigenous Landscapes,” was announced I immediately wanted to apply because I saw it as an opportunity to learn about areas outside of my own research which focuses on western Canadian agro-environmental transportation issues. Since I am not only researching Canadian history but also want to teach it, I think it is critically important to have a strong background in Indigenous history to present a dynamic interpretation of Canadian history beyond the common settler-colonial perspective. However, even though I focus on settler history by examining settler relationships to the land through agricultural policy and practice, I strive to bear in mind the earlier and ongoing relationships between Indigenous peoples and  the land. I applied to CHESS anticipating that it would be a unique learning opportunity that would better allow me, a Western Canadian historian, to broaden my understanding of Indigenous history in southern Ontario. Indeed CHESS exceeded my expectations in ways that I didn’t imagine.

On the first night, Bonnie Devine’s keynote address centered the CHESS participants into the landscape outside of the colonial perspective and reminded us how the land was viewed before it was surveyed by colonial powers. Through her talk we traveled through layers of time aided by visuals showing how Indigenous territory shrunk and shifted as it was claimed through surveys and treaties. Her presentation brought home the message of her art installation, “Battle for the Woodlands” that I viewed at the Art Galley of Ontario the previous day. Devine’s installation used colonial maps and beading to highlight the impact of colonialism on the land and people. In her presentation, Devine also emphasized that the land acknowledgement which many of us have grown so familiar with must carry meaning; it cannot be turned into something so routine that its meaning is lost in the words of the formula. Remembering her presentation at the end of CHESS, I know that now when I hear land acknowledgements I will be thinking of the intense connections with land I had been shown and applying that lens to my work.

The focus on land and involuntary loss of connection to land shaped my days at CHESS; being able to walk through the land central to this history, seeing the plants, and feeling the (cold!) wind, really helped turn the history that I knew in theory into a more tangible experience. At the Crawford Lake Conservation Area we were taken on a walk through the trails that highlighted plants that had been used by the Wendat. What struck me the most was learning that the area had unusually high numbers of beneficial plants such as mint and wild ginger. The clustering of these plants, our guide pointed out, could be explained by their long-term agricultural cultivation. Seeing the way that these plants blended into the greater forest floor only to be revealed as distinct species through our guide’s demonstrations really emphasized how a skilled person collecting them would have to know the environment and how to find them.

Even after the heart-shaped leaves of the wild ginger were pointed out, I still had a hard time seeing them beyond the patch where we had our first identification lesson. On the prairies I know the plants well enough to pick out Saskatoon bushes growing along a trail or prairie crocuses but as we walked through the forest at Crawford Lake it was disconcerting to realize that I could barely recognize most of the plants covering the ground, driving home the value of land-based learning outside of a standard classroom environment.

I saw again the value of land-based learning when we visited the Woodland Cultural Centre on the Six Nations reserve. Here a museum showing the history of the Haudenosaunee, including the Hiawatha belt representing the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is located a few yards away from the Mohawk Institute, one of the residential schools that was part of the larger network of institutions dedicated to the cultural and linguistic destruction of Indigenous peoples across the country. In the back of the building, easily hidden from view, the children who had attended the Institute carved their names into the bricks of the wall. While many of the names were at my eye level, many were carved much lower on the walls. Seeing how close to the ground some of the names were was a vivid reminder that children were brought to the Institute when they were very young.



In front of the Woodland Cultural Centre was an art installation of a solar longhouse where plants were trained to grow over a structure to create a living longhouse. Seeing the plants, all of which were important to the Haudenosaunee, reminded me again of how this history is rooted in the land. Like the plants creating the solar longhouse, the Indigenous history we were learning is growing and has to be understood within the context of its land. The next day, listening to our guide at the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation explain the decisions and long-range goals of their plant regeneration efforts only reinforced my understanding of the importance of this context.

CHESS emphasized for me how important it is to think about the way cultures and communities have interacted on deep levels with land in ways that are extremely place-specific – the available plant species to be used or the way houses were constructed for instance – yet at the same time there are elements, such as the importance of cultivating necessary plants, which cross geographic and biome divisions.

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Laura Larsen

Laura Larsen is a specialist in Western Canadian history with a particular focus on agriculture. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores rail rationalization and agricultural policy under the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government.

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