Dwindling ranks of Island veterans join students in commemorating a defining moment in Anishinaabe history
WIKWEMIKONG—Two hundred years ago, on February 15, 1815, the US Congress formally ratified the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 and normalizing relations between the British and American combatants. This past Wednesday February 18, veterans led by Colin Pick joined students of Wikwemikong High School in commemorating the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, a document which was to have a huge impact on the future of the First Nations.
The alliance of the Anishinabek with the British came about as a consequence of the westward expansion of American settlers, which had placed huge strains on the traditional territories of the indigenous people. That pressure eventually encouraged the individual indigenous nations surrounding the Great Lakes to put aside their differences of language and culture to resist the invaders, but the tide of American manifest destiny still proved overwhelming.
Under the leadership of Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh, and despite his deep mistrust of the British, the western and northern tribes made common cause with the British during the War of 1812. The First Nations recognized the need for allies to resist the tide of American settlers and the British had long sought to establish an “Indian Nation” in the Midwest to act as a buffer against the westward expansion of the United States.
In the end Tecumseh’s mistrust was to prove prophetic, as the British quickly abandoned demands for security of the Native territories in favour of their own more pressing trade interests and the First Nations were not represented at the talks held in the neutral Kingdom of the Netherlands city of Ghent.
A small group of veterans led by Mr. Pick processed into the gymnasium of Wikwemikong High School behind the eagle staff and flag bearers to the sound of the Wikwemikong.
Master of ceremonies Amanda Trudeau introduced the veterans Mr. Pick, Wikwemikong veteran Robert Peltier, Massey veteran Wayne Golden and Manitowaning’s Robert Allen. Wikwemikong elder and historical society representative Brian Peltier provided a brief background of the lead up to the war, pointing out that due to the war in Europe, the British regulars in Canada had been reduced to barely 2,000 troops, leaving the defence of the country largely up to the militia and their Native allies, including the Anishinaabek’s traditional enemies the Iroquois and the Mohawks.
“Together we took Fort Michilimackinac without firing a shot,” he noted, asserting that the Native forces at the time numbered as many as 8,000. “That was a big sacrifice for our people,” said Mr. Peltier. “Not only the warriors who went away to battle, but for the women and young people who were left behind to look after the villages.”
Mr. Peltier explained that the war clubs on display on a buffalo skin at the front of the assembly were replicas of the kinds of war clubs that the warriors in the War of 1812 would have wielded.
One of the clubs on display, shaped like a rifle stock, was of the style preferred by the Iroquois and other allied Anishnabe nations, explained Mr. Peltier, while the other three represent the type of design utilized by the members of the Three Fires Confederacy, the Ojibway, Odawa and the Potawatamie.
“These would normally have been used to finish off big game while we were hunting,” he explained. The warfare of the time was “quite gruesome,” he said. “We were not fighting blindly for the British. We were fighting for the land, the future of our people. We wanted to save the land from encroachment.”
Mr. Peltier went on to describe the symbolism behind the Ke ewin Mewsha Ki Bi Miigaading (The Flag of Past Battles).
“Enenjigaazjik, which graces the top of the pale blue banner, represents the forgotten ones (also emblazoned on the bottom of the flag),” he said. The colour blue represents the Anishinaabe people, the silhouettes are the women and children left behind to tend their encampments. The man carrying the battle staff with the feathers pointing downward is in memory of the fallen. “This is the staff that he carries into battle,” said Mr. Peltier. “The dreamcatcher at the tip of that staff represents the hopes and dreams of the Anishinaabe people.”
Mr. Peltier explained that the silhouettes are looking toward the sun in anticipation of a better future for the Anishinaabek, while the four rays of the sun represent the four races of humanity.
“In the history books notable warriors such as Tecumseh and Assiginack are acknowledged, but the ordinary Anishinaabe foot soldier is largely forgotten, as well as the women and children they left behind, they too made sacrifices. Without the aid of the Anishnaabek during the War of 1812, there would be no country called Canada.”
It might seem odd that Wikwemikong High School would commemorate the signing of a treaty in which their people lost the dream of their own independent nation and where many of their people were driven from their traditional lands to the south to make way for the westward expansion of the US, but the teaching moment is important noted Wikwemikong Board of Education Director Dominic Beaudry.
“It is important to remember that we fought for our own reasons,” he said. Even today, he noted, many of the students present have relatives serving in the Canadian military. “They continue to defend Canada to defend our treaty rights.”
“Everything that the Anishinaabe people get today we have already paid the taxes on for the next 1,000 years,” he said. “If all of the dollars that are owed to the Anishinaabe people for the royalties on the resources extracted from their land, Canada would be bankrupt.”
Mr. Pick noted that 200 years ago marked the beginning of 200 years of peace between the United States and Canada, and that without the contributions of the ancestors of the students at Wikwemikong High School, the outcome of the War of 1812 would have been very different.
The veteran noted the recent visit of the sword presented to Mookmanish in 1815 from a grateful Britain. “It is an important part of your history,” he said. The Canadian War Museum has committed to creating a replica of that sword, which is part of their permanent collection, to be brought back to Manitoulin for display here.
Following the speeches, the students processed past the replica artifacts on display and stopped to shake the hands of the attending veterans before heading back to their classes.