How you can learn more about the rich history of Indigenous culture

An elder surrounded by youthful and cheerful members of her indigenous community at the 2017 Ottawa Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival at Vincent Massey Park. Photo by Bing Wen/Shutterstock

National Indigenous Peoples Day is a day to celebrate the people that first called this land home, but it is also a day to reflect, learn, and broaden horizons. Nathan Thanyehténhas Brinklow, director of the Indigenous studies program at Queen’s University and a member of the Turtle Clan from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, shares his knowledge of the history of Indigenous culture and answers our questions about Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

How many different Indigenous nations reside in Canada?

There are three main Indigenous groups across Canada: First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. Within these groups are hundreds of communities with their own unique histories, customs, beliefs, and cultures. “There are over 600 different First Nation communities in Canada, representing over 50 Nations and languages,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow. 

When did the first Indigenous peoples come to North America?

“This is actually a hotly contested question,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow. While archaeologists and historians pin the arrival of the first Indigenous peoples in the Americas at around 12,000 to 30,000 years ago, many Indigenous people have their own stories about how they came to be on this land.

“I can speak from the Mohawk perspective and say that, as far as our oral history is concerned, we’ve been here forever,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow. “I think that’s a shared perspective among many nations.”

In Mi’kmaq tradition, for example, humankind is created on these lands by the Giver of Life alongside the sun, the earth, and Mother Earth. This first man is called the first one who spoke, named Glooscap.

Creation stories are passed down through generations and serve to explain not only how the world was created and how Indigenous peoples came to live in it but how the world works and our purpose in it.

Where does the name Turtle Island come from?

Turtle Island—what we think of as the Indigenous name for Canada—is actually the name for the entire landmass of the Americas, recognized across hundreds of Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S.

The name comes from the Six Nations creation story wherein Sky Woman from the Sky World is brought down to earth on the back of a turtle, which becomes the land that we all live on. The ubiquity of this term is a fairly recent phenomenon. “We see its usage spreading across different nations in the 70s and 80s and becoming a pan-Indigenous term,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow.

What are some popular Indigenous cuisines from different nations?

There is such an abundance of Indigenous cultures in Canada that it is hard to pick just one representative dish. But Thanyehténhas Brinklow points out a common theme in Indigenous cuisine, which is a focus on hyper-local and natural ingredients sourced from nature. These foods can range from grains and corn in the south to whale skin and blubber in the north, known as muktuk by the Inuit.

“Corns, beans, and squash are common in Indigenous communities across North and South America,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow. “But if you live in a place for 10,000 years you develop a deep relationship with all the foods that grow and live there. So as many nations as there are, there will be that many more cuisines.”

He does add that the “Indian Taco,” a flour taco consisting of melted cheese, chilli, lettuce, tomatoes, roasted peppers, and other vegetables, has become incredibly popular at powwows and other Indigenous gatherings. “It’s made from all imported ingredients, but it’s really good.”

Are there any common/popular lake names that come from Indigenous languages?

“Yes, Lake Ontario actually comes from the Haudenosaunee word “kanadario,” meaning sparkling water, and there are many more across Canada,” says Thanyehténhas Brinklow.

In other examples, Lake Winnipeg comes from the Cree phrase “win nipee,” which means muddy water, and the Ottawa River is named after the Odawa people who used the waterway for trade.

“It’s good and bad,” he says. “It’s good because the name reflects how the people who identified the lake knew it, and it is how the lake knows itself, but it is also sad because those people might not be on that lake anymore and the language that gave the lake its name may no longer be spoken.”

What are some things people can do to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day?

For cottagers, a good way to show respect and to learn is by finding out the lands you are situated on. “Your family may have been in a cottage for two or three generations, but who are the people that have been there for a thousand years?” asks Thanyehténhas Brinklow. 

Who once lived where you now live? Are they still there? Where is their community now? What do they have going on in their community? Do they have events you can join? How can you support them? How can you get involved?

These are guiding questions to facilitate learning and understanding this National Indigenous Peoples Day, and every day.

Thanyehténhas Brinklow also encourages cottagers to take a moment and think about their relationship with the land and waters. “Think about where you are and the people there, think about how you use the water and relate to it. Take the day to be respectful,” he says. This may look like not using your motorboat for the day or getting out and experiencing your environment in a respectful manner.

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