Ours to Discover: Indigenous A journey with tradition
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About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
This two-day road trip is a tremendous reminder of the rich, Indigenous history and of the beautiful, living culture of the original peoples of these lands. The areas we will visit continue to be the homeland and traditional territory of numerous First Nations that are open for business and receptive to the cultural appreciation of visitors and allies. Our first drive takes us through Mississauga territory and east through the Kawartha Lakes before returning to Toronto. Our second day sees us driving west toward the Grand River, the home of the Six Nations people.
In the morning: My wife, Deborah, and I begin our journey east by packing our sacred bundle: some medicines, a shaker to sing traditional songs, an eagle feather and an abalone seashell used in ceremonies. Included is a cooler of Coke Zero, a bag of munchies and pepperoni sticks.
We light the white sage, one of our sacred medicines, to purify our spirit in preparation for our trip. We waft the gentle smoke over our body— mind and spirit— and offer our prayers of thanks to the Spirit World. For us Anishinaabe people – the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes – spirituality is a part of each day, including when we embark on a humble adventure through local traditional territory.
Driving east from the city in our 2020 Dodge Charger, we follow Hwy. 401 east before taking Hwy. 115. The morning sun, our grandfather (mishom giizis) feels warm on our face. The landscapes change from city to farmland, to dense green forest within a matter of minutes as we weave through the area.
Just before we reach Peterborough, we veer off Hwy. 115 at Cavan and drive toward Hiawatha First Nation. We are excited to visit Wiigwaas Crafts Supplies and Gifts. The shop’s small size is dwarfed by the huge helpings of hospitality and kindness shared by proprietors Kim Muskratt and Tom Cowie. Kim and Tom are well-known and respected elders and Indigenous traditional knowledge holders. We leave with a trunk-full of items and insight.
We spend a little time at Old Railroad Stop Restaurant and Gas Bar in nearby Hiawatha for late breakfast, enjoyed while looking at the beautiful, but slightly choppy Rice Lake. It is a scenic reminder that this is the treaty territory of the Mississauga people who signed the Rice Lake Treaty No. 20 in 1818.
We were encouraged by the local elders to visit the former Serpent Mounds Park. Now closed and designated a National Historic Site, it features earth mounds sacred to Mississauga people. The mounds resemble the shape of ginebig, the snake. Unfortunately, due to a decline in tourism, it is now limited to just a small walking trail used mainly by local people.
Around noon: The word is out. My friends shared on Facebook that I am in Hiawatha. I get a nice shout out from Chief Dave Mowat, recently re-elected at Alderville First Nation, who recommends we visit Muddy’s Pit BBQ in nearby Keene. I am a hug fan of southern-style barbeque and I get to watch as the beef brisket comes right from the smoker at the eatery.
In the afternoon: We set out through the Kawartha Lakes area for an hour-long drive north from Keene to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, one of the most sacred Indigenous sites in Turtle Island – our name for North America. Throughout the area, our ancestors carved prolific and elaborate figures and symbols into the porous rock. The petroglyphs are one of the largest known concentration of Indigenous rock carvings in the world.
The Mississauga call these kinoomaage waabkong – the teaching rocks. They really do carry the wisdom of our ancestors, depicting more than 900 glyphs of our clan animals, the Anishinaabe Creation Story, and the Spirit World. We offer tobacco, another of our sacred medicines, to the land, the rock and the waters. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is also known for its beautiful trail system. My wife, our dog Porsha, and myself stroll through the entire trail network, climbing and exploring the lesser-known rock faces in the hopes of finding, further long unseen glyphs.
The late afternoon is spent combing through the arts and crafts at the Whetung Ojibwa Centre in Curve Lake First Nation, a 45-minute drive west of the park. Curve Lake is a bustling business centre for both locals and visiting travellers. At some point, everyone in the community makes their way to this well-known gallery, art dealer and Indigenous craft shop. Its nooks and crannies are full of treasures. We watch a local Anishinaabe artist work on some painting and answers questions posed by visitors to the centre. Following our visit, we get back in our Charger and make the hour and 45-minute drive back to Toronto.
In the morning: We leave Toronto, setting out west along Hwy. 407 and Hwy. 403 before taking a few of Ontario’s country roads toward a stretch of the Grand River between Caledonia and Brantford. These lands are part of the Mississauga “Between the Lakes” Treaty No. 3, signed in 1792. On six miles on either side of the river, from its source to its mouth, is the Haldimand Tract. These lands were proclaimed as an offering from the British Crown to the people of Six Nations for their allyship during the American Revolution.
We take the time to visit the Woodland Cultural Centre, located at 84 Mohawk St. near Brantford. This building has a nefarious past, as it once housed the oldest continuously-operated Indian residential school in Canada, the Mohawk Institute. Known as the “Mushhole” by the residential school survivors, it was in operation from 1831 to 1970. It too has a cemetery on site. We stop to honour the memory of those children who did not return to their homes. As I gaze upon the building, I’m reminded that the Mushhole once had a jail cell used to imprison children, and I reflect on the abuse they experienced. It is an emotional but important stop in our journey.
Where these halls were once filled with terror, they have been repurposed to tell the story of residentials schools, to honour the survivors and to celebrate Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) culture. The Woodland Cultural Centre offers education tours, a gallery, a museum, as well as an Indigenous art and bookstore.
Around noon: As a recovering food addict, there is one stop on this two-day journey that I’ve been looking forward to: lunch at Burger Barn, located at 3000 4th Line in Ohsweken. Once featured on the Food Network show “You Gotta Eat Here,” this southern-style burger emporium serves freshly ground, never-frozen beef patties. Its menu includes 39 distinct options, from the classic cheeseburger to one with mushrooms, bacon and brie. For me, it’s the Philly Cheeseburger with sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella cheese. Wash it all down with a traditional Indigenous drink made with strawberries. It is delightfully refreshing.
In the afternoon: On the way out of Six Nations Reserve, we stop at Iroqrafts, located at 1880 Tuscarora Rd. This gem is the largest and oldest arts and crafts store on Six Nations of the Grand River. It carries a wide range of Haudenosaunee items, artworks and handicrafts from many First Nations artists and artisans. Deborah loves the jewelry section, while I spend some time browsing the extensive music section. We leave with a handful of items knowing we have supported Indigenous businesses.
After, we drive to the Crawford Lake Conservation Area near Milton to stretch our legs and work off some of our amazing lunch. The site includes two meticulously re-created Haudenosaunee longhouses, which are located near the spot where archaeology excavations uncovered 11 longhouses between 1973 and 1986. The longhouse is an incredible testament, not only to the local culture and people, but the incredibly complex social structure and way of life of the Six Nations people.
The conservation area’s walking trails are among the most extensive and challenging in the greenbelt area of the GTA, with incredible vistas from the escarpment cliffs at the lands below. It’s the perfect spot to reflect on our journey before driving back to Toronto.
SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know
Reservations may be required at some of the parks and conservation areas, with some local businesses limiting capacity according to provincial regulations. Please call ahead to learn more about local conditions or restrictions.
SIDEBAR: For the drive
Indigiverse, available on the SiriusXM streaming app, is an Indigenous music, news and views channel. We are also happy to catch “The Take-Over,” which usually features music from Dene-Canadian singer songwriter Leela Gilday and Toronto-based Julian Taylor.
TIMELINE SIDEBAR: Drive Guide
- 8 a.m. Leave Toronto
Drive east on Hwy. 401
Turn north on Hwy. 115
- 10 a.m. Wiigwaas Crafts Supplies and Gifts
- 11 a.m. Old Railroad Stop Restaurant and Gas Bar
- 12:30 p.m. Serpent Mounds Park
- 1:30 Muddy’s Pit BBQ
- 3 p.m. Petroglyphs Provincial Park
- 5 p.m. Whetung Ojibwa Centre
- 6 p.m. Drive back to Toronto
- 9 a.m. Leave Toronto
Drive west of Hwy. 407 and 403
- 10:30 a.m. Woodland Cultural Centre
- Noon Burger Barn
- 1:30 p.m. Iroqrafts
- 3:30 p.m. Crawford Lake Conservation
- 5 p.m. Drive back to Toronto
Note: Times are suggestions only
ifts in Hiawatha First Nation is operated by Kim Muskratt and Tom Cowie, well-known and respected elders and Indigenous traditional knowledge holders.
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