by Betty Bardswich
M’CHIGEENG—A Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University and a degree from the University of Toronto notwithstanding, Alan Corbiere of M’Chigeeng is a gifted historian studying the language and the past of his Ojibwe forefathers.
He was born in Toronto, but his family returned to M’Chigeeng when he was six-years-old. After graduating from Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS), he went back to southern Ontario for his university education, but he also wanted to learn to speak Ojibwe, not just the basic language, but the words, the verbal skills, that would allow him to, as he said, “tell our stories in Ojibwe.”
Long hours were spent at community classes after school and researching in the Toronto Reference Library and the university libraries. Books studied included the ‘Ojibwa Texts,’ written by William Jones, who had studied the people and the language while a research assistant at the Carnegie Institution. Mr. Corbiere also undertook the recordings of the old stories, the legends, of his people as told by the elders.
“The late Johnny Debassige told me some stories,” he said, “and Lewis Debassige. I found some of these same stories in the archives. I was all excited and wanted to find more. Like my friend says, ‘the joy is in the finding.’” He also spoke of his family. The Corbieres have been traced back to the War of 1812 and their movement to Manitoulin took place in the 1850s.
Mr. Corbiere shares his findings with teachings at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng and has also included talks about the First Nation Treaties from 1764 up to the Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862. In mid-August, there were three more topics, beginning with Ojimaawin: Historic Chieftainship and Anishinaabe Governance.
It was evident with Mr. Corbiere’s beginning lecture that his research was first class as he spoke of one of the first references to chieftain customs on Manitoulin with the LaCloche ceremony of 1671. This was included in the Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents and said in part, “Among a number of islands opposite Ekaentouton (Manitoulin), toward the North, there is one called Ouiebitchiouan where sixteen hundred Savages of various nations assembled, to perform certain superstitious rites which they are accustomed to render to the departed. The Captain (Chief) of the Beaver Nation having died three years before, his eldest son had invited various tribes to attend the games and spectacles which he wished to hold in his father’s honour. He intended, too, to take this opportunity to resuscitate him, as they say, by taking his name; for it is customary to recall the illustrious dead to life at this festival, by conferring the name of the deceased upon one of the most important men, who is considered his successor and takes his place.” These Jesuit Relations were documents sent by priests back to their superiors in France. Mr. Corbiere also found letters at the Jesuit archives in Montreal, as, he said, “Our grandfathers used to write in Ojibwe.”
Mr. Corbiere also explained more of chieftainship, saying, “The chiefs of their bands used to call themselves father. All the band was their children. They also had many children. And the chief could not do anything until he met with his council. He would not act without consensus.” He also said that Indians were very strict in their ways and told the story of a man named McGregor who came by boat to Manitowaning. “The boat was filled with alcohol,” Mr. Corbiere said, “and the young men went out and dumped the liquor. None was to be brought into the harbour.”
The story of the Odawa Chief Jean Baptiste was told. He had settled in Wikwemikong and wanted to give the Island to the British. However, the other chiefs would have none of this and Chief Baptiste left and formed his own group with sons and grandsons. Mr. Corbiere mentioned that the Odawa chiefs would wear the feathers of the red-winged blackbird in their hats if they were going to war as these birds can eat poisonous seeds with no ill effects. The chiefs would wear their medals if they were going to Ottawa to complain about certain things. These medals would include ones given to them for their participation in the War of 1812 and later, WWI.
Another very interesting example of chieftainship that Mr. Corbiere talked about was the fact that, in the areas along the North Shore, each band had a territory, one right after another and everyone knew whose land was whose. The land was allotted into districts, each clan had a district headed by a head chief and no one hunted on other lands except their own.
Mr. Corbiere also spoke of the archeology dig done in Providence Bay some years ago. “There is a myth that 100 years ago there were no people here, but I disagree. I am sure there were always people here.”