His legacy lays the foundations of healing and hope for the future—“just do it.”
SHEGUIANDAH—Shiikenh (Turtle) has set out upon his spirit journey, leaving his home community and family in Shegiuandah First Nation a remarkable legacy and a body of work that includes the roles of parent, grandfather, great-grandfather, musician, internationally renowned artist, author of two books and numerous tracts, respected elder, grassroots politician and mentor.
Mr. Waindubence grew up, like many Anishnaabe since the arrival of European culture, in what would be considered extreme poverty by today’s standards, but steeped in connections to the land. “We didn’t really know we were poor,” he once said in conversation with The Expositor. During a Sheguiandah ice fishing derby last January, still in seemingly robust health, Mr. Waindubence had set up a tipi over a hole cut through 18 inches of clear ice. As a young helper held a cord leading down into the depths, tethered far below to the back of a very large lure, Mr. Waindubence gently coached the young bait operator on how to make the lure as lifelike as possible. Poised above, an older student grasped the haft of a forked-headed spear.
“I remember fishing like this with my father on Heywood Island where I grew up,” recalled the elder. “My job was holding the lure; we used live bait or maybe a hollowed-out piece of wood carved to look like a perch that was weighted down.”
Mr. Waindubence admitted he isn’t that concerned about the catch that day. “It’s about the teaching,” he said, but as a youth fishing with his father, Gabriel, it was very different. “When I was doing this as a child, it was all about dinner. If you didn’t catch something, you didn’t eat.” Luckily, Mr. Waindubence and his father made a very good team.
“We would be out in all kinds of weather, even a blizzard,” he shared. “We didn’t have a setup like this,” referencing the surrounding tipi as he poured himself a hot cup of tea.
Like many Anishinabek, Mr. Waindubence set out from home to seek his fortune in the mines of Sudbury, where he said he picked up just about all the bad habits the white world had to offer. It was the birth of his first child that changed his path and set him on the journey that would place him at the forefront of traditional knowledge keepers and cultural mentors.
During a talk at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, Mr. Waindubence explained that after the birth of his youngest son in the late 1970s, he walked away from his job as an underground miner, away from a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol and on to the pathway that would take him through a career as an artistic carver and, eventually, led to the lifestyle he leads now. “You wouldn’t have wanted to know me back then,” he said. But the birth of his child changed all of that.
“I stopped drinking and doing drugs,” he said. “I didn’t quit. I just stopped doing them.” Later he also stopped smoking. “I guess that means I could go out today and get drunk or smoke a big fat cigar,” he chuckled at the time. It was obvious he felt no real desire to do either.
Perusing the exhibits of the Canadian Museum of Civilization or the Royal Ontario Museum, you will see carvings by this famed Sheguiandah First Nation artist on display. One recent example of his work in a private collection recently sold for $20,000. Mr. Waindubence’s primary medium was teasing animate images out of deer antlers, but he was also gifted a narwhal horn while travelling the James Bay coast that he put to good use.
“He made enough money from his carvings that we got by,” said his wife Pearl during a recent Expositor interview with members of the Waindubence family. Mr. Waindubence’s work can be seen atop the Anishinabek Nation eagle staff, both the new and old versions. In his later years, Mr. Wainbence continued to carve, but moved to wood as a medium.
It was also in the late 70s that Mr. Waindunbence began to travel across the country—searching for clues as to his own identity. “I met a friend in the next province over, across one of those imaginary lines,” he once told The Expositor. “He said to me, ‘I am glad you came. I have been waiting for you for a very long time. I have to give you something to take back to your territory.’”
The elder began sharing with him the old stories and Mr. Waindubence discovered that his nation, the Anishinabek, had been scattered across the prairies and even on to the Rockies.
In the 1980s Mr. Waindubence travelled 400 miles into the North. “I was in Saskatchewan at the time,” he said. “I couldn’t understand their language. I am an Ojibwe.”
He eventually discovered those elders were telling him to travel North.
“‘That is where you will find what you are looking for,’ they told me.” It was a surprise to Mr. Waindubence, as he had yet to discover what he was looking for.
Mr. Waindubence then met a man who said he had something for him. Mr. Waindubence sat for four days, listening and watching as the man he met carved a work of art. “I thought maybe this is what he will give me,” recalled Mr. Waindubence. “When he was done, he said, ‘No this one is mine, you can make your own now, I showed you how.’”
It was a gift that nobody could ever take away from him. A gift like the stories he was learning through his travels, especially the Indigenous legends, oral history and stories that formed the inspiration for many of his works.
“People ask me why I give so much away,” he told The Expositor. “I have been given a lot of things in my life.”
Mr. Waindubence worked primarily in antler, bone and ivory when he made his intricate carvings based on the oral traditions of the Anishinaabe that are to be found in museums and private collections across the globe, but he walked away from his carving almost two decades ago now, despite the lucrative rewards he was reaping from his art.
He had designed and created his own custom carving tool, having found that Dremels and other carving tools generally available were not up to the level of fine detail he wanted in his carvings. But the dust created in carving contained significant health risks and other fields were clamouring for his attention.
“He was always very busy,” said his wife. “He must have been on every committee going.” Something of a renaissance man, Mr. Waindubence was “interested in just about everything,” she laughed.
The land was of special importance however, as was governance and reasserting Anishinabek sovereignty.
‘Anishinaabe Journey into the Spirit’ is the title of the book he wrote to help guide the discussion on governance for the Anishinaabek Nation (Union of Ontario Indians).
Mr. Waindubence was far from being an armchair general, however; joining an expedition by canoe from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario across the St. Mary’s River to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in support of the travel provisions of the Jay Treaty. His group nearly became lost in the mists.
A fog had settled over the water after the freighter canoe had set out on the journey, recalled Ms. Waindubence. “They couldn’t see anything because of the mists,” she said. “But on the American side they had set up a drum and were singing. Gord told them, follow the drum, follow the singing.” The expedition soon found their way to land at the ceremony site, no worse for wear.
In another canoeing adventure, Rick McCutcheon, retired Expositor publisher, realls speaking to Mr. Waindubence almost 20 years ago on a stop in Little Current, when he was asked by Zhiibaahaasing First Nation chief and council to take a group of youth on a canoe voyage that would totally circumnavigate Manitoulin Island. “He said that ‘kids would join us for a while and then leave and others would come aboard’,” recalled Mr. McCutcheon. “By the time they returned to Little Current on the return leg up the North Channel, there was a freighter canoe full of kids, plus one adult (Mr. Waindubence) and he said, matter of factly—that the only one from the original group starting out was his son.
It was an enormous undertaking and responsibility, not to mention paddling stern all the way, Mr. McCutcheon noted, but he was asked to do it for the young people and he had simply said “sure” of the two week adventure.
“My husband had a favourite saying that would be familiar to everyone who knew him,” said Ms. Waindubence, “‘Just do it.’ It was something he would always say to people in the government who were going on about how difficult it would be to do something he needed to see done. ‘Just do it.’”
Mr. Waindubence’s son Chop was centrally involved in his father’s traditional funerary ceremony, performing a farewell service as one of the last ceremonies with his father. “I have been there, in the background for most of the ceremonies over the last few years,” said Chop Waindubence. “But there will never be another one like my dad.”
A humble man, despite his role as head elder (chi getzit) and mentor for the Anishinabek Nation and Kenjgewn Teg, Mr. Waindubence said he did not claim to have all of the answers to life. “When you travel through life, you see a lot of things,” he told The Expositor during an interview several years past. “There are a lot of different understandings. Nobody knows everything.” But, as anyone who spent time in his company soon became aware, Mr. Waindubence certainly knew quite a lot about very many things.
“He was getzit, he held a lot of wisdom,” said Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare. “We certainly will miss him. “From day one, he blazed a trail for me that I still follow. He was our colleague, an elder who travelled out west, up North. He sacrificed lots for us, time away from the family that he loved, because he knew how important that work was. Nobody can fill his shoes,” said Ontario Regional Chief Hare.
“The younger generation should take hold of what is ahead of us,” he said. “They need to step up for the battles that are ahead of us.”
“Many knew Gordon as the head elder at the Chiefs of Ontario and Anishinabek Nation, guiding the work through cultural teachings and practices,” said Ontario Regional Chief Hare. “He dedicated his time to advocating for and teaching the importance of respecting and preserving our language and culture for future generations. He always reminded me to remember we work for the citizens of our First Nations. A fierce warrior, he will be fondly remembered as a great mentor, spiritual advisor and friend. He will be greatly missed across Turtle Island.”
“Gord played a valuable role to many grand chiefs, including myself,” said former Anishinabek Nation grand council chief Pat Madahbee of Aundeck Omni Kaning. “Who will fill his shoes? There is only one Gord. I knew him since we were in Grade 2 together at St. Bernard’s Separate School in Little Current (where the public library is located today) getting punished by the nuns,” laughed Mr. Madahbee. “You simply cannot measure the worth of Gord’s contribution, you certainly cannot over-estimate what he has gifted to our nations.”
“Gordon Waindubence was a family man,” said Elvis Mishibinijima, newly elected chief of Sheguiandah First Nation. “He was always friendly and nice to talk to. He dreamed big and planned bigger.”
Chief Mishibinijima recalled how Mr. Waindubence’s soft voice belied his immense presence. “When he spoke, you listened,” he said. “A spiritual and cultural man, history was important to him and he took the responsibility to pass it on very seriously. His beliefs guided him through life. He will be missed by many and all who had the pleasure of meeting him.”
In addition to his many other artistic accomplishments, Mr. Waindubence designed the logo, with its distinctive turtle motif, for his home community of Sheguiandah that graces each communication from the band.
In addition to his travel across Turtle Island, Mr. Waindubence delighted in international travel, visiting Europe and learning about the people indigenous to those lands. He had a love of music and was willing to share his guitar playing and songs with family and friends.
Mr. Waindubence is survived by his cherished wife Pearl and children Shawn, Derek, Nikki, Carrie and Chop, as well as adopted children Nevada and Sunset, 21 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren. He was honoured upon the start of his spirit journey with traditional services hosted at the Sheguiandah First Nation Roundhouse, which had been a community project spearheaded by Mr. Waindubence, on November 27 and 28, followed by a closing ceremony on November 29.