WHITNEY – Harold “Skip” Ross, an Algonquin elder, attended Whitney Public School on the morning of February 19 to enlighten students on aboriginal traditions and culture.
Ross first started this school program in 2003, which is funded by the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and sponsored by the Bonnechere Algonquin community.
He said that when he attends a school for the first time, he will ask the teacher what book they use in the teaching of aboriginal history. The only book he uses is Edward Benton-Banai’s The Mishomis Book as the one he has found in some classes do not give a proper description of their lives. The OPG had provided 300 copies of the book to him initially, indicating that they wanted one in every classroom in Renfrew County. He said he has already distributed around 200 copies.
During his presentation Ross touched on a variety of information, including farming, medicine, food, transportation and exploration.
He began by explaining the type of housing that was used by the indigenous peoples of this country a thousand years ago. At that time wigwams were used to house the communities of approximately 30 people. They were made of saplings that were buried in the ground in a circle, and brought together on top and tied with strips of leather made of deer skin. That was all they had back then.
In the summer they covered the wigwam with bark so the rain wouldn’t get in, which is similar to the modern day shingle. The only part that wasn’t cover was a small opening at the top where most of the smoke from their winter fires could escape.
In winter they would cover them in hides to keep out the cold, using deer, bear, moose, and elk skins.
Fish was their main source of food during the summer months, the most popular of which was eel. The eel has almost disappeared now and Ross is attempting to restore it with a program that he started two years ago.
“Years ago, and I’m talking a thousand years ago, that was our main food because it had more staying power in it, it was a great food that would have more energy than…a little piece of eel meat that long would have as much energy as a roast of moose,” Ross said.
Ross indicated that eel was much lighter to carry, and would last longer, when they walked a long distance, compared to larger packages of meat. Also, the eel fat is very fat, and therefore contains more omega-3.
The hide of the eel was also used. When they harvested an eel, instead of splitting it down the middle, they skinned it like a sock. The skin could be used for many things, one of which was to slip it over their hunting bow so that they could keep a better grip on it, as the bows, arrows and spears were made of ash wood which became so highly polished from use that they would turn in their hands.
Another use for the skin was to make casts. They would slide it over the broken arm or leg and let it dry, and it would be better than a modern day cast, Ross said, because it was not bulky, and kept it solid.
Of course, they ate other fish such as lake trout, pickerel and bass. Because they had no rods, reels or lines to catch them, they would fish in canoes with a spear.
Another way they fished was to use weaved willow baskets. They would put the baskets in the current and once the fish entered they would be trapped, as they couldn’t turn around to get back out.
“The Mishomis Book is a complete story of the Anishinaabe or Anishinabe people of which I am one of, some of you here are. There’s a bunch of legends in there and one of them is how we were given corn. That’s the three things that we had here way back was beans, corn and squash,” Ross said.
He also mentioned that there wasn’t a lot of fruit at that time. There were four berries: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. There were no apples, cherries, peaches, oranges or plums as they are not indigenous to North America.
He said the good thing about the four berries is that they don’t ripen all at once. In late spring and early summer you would pick early summer strawberries, and then the blueberries would ripen, followed by raspberries and then
“I go way back in the park…that’s the only place you can get natural blackberries.”
But he said he only gets the length of his truck or the classroom because the bears are in there. Because bears hibernate all winter, “they gang up on the berries and anything they can find in the fall to get body fat to last them until spring”.
“They want the berries as bad as I do. They get theirs. Sometimes I don’t get any of mine; I’m just not that brave,” Ross said.
Ross explained that when the first explorers came to Canada, down in Nova Scotia, “they didn’t know how to hunt, they didn’t know what to pick for medicine foods or anything, and our people down there taught them.”
The natives lived entirely off the land, and the land would not support a great big community so that is why their communities only had about 30 people in each of them. They would always have one or two medicine peoplein each community, which was handed down to them.
The medicine people would spend a whole summer picking medicines, seeds, bark, even flower pedals, roots, and stems.
“Everything that grows has a medicinal value. Even the weeds that grow, some of the weeds,” Ross explained, “including millet which is a weed that grows around your house.”
Ross shared that there is a cultural building on the reserve, which is also part of the museum, where they have every medicinal plant that you can look at. The names are listed as well what it is used for.
He explained to the students there were no horses back then, contrary to popular belief. They mainly walked everywhere. They did, however, also use canoes in the warmer months and snowshoes in the winter.
Story continues in the February 27, 2013 issue of The Valley Gazette.