Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whiteshell petroforms native treasure

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BANNOCK POINT -- The largest and perhaps oldest aboriginal petroforms in North America sit in the heart of Whiteshell Provincial Park.

Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single aboriginal person within 100 kilometres of that site on any given summer day, when some 3,000 cottage owners have the run of the park.

Dave Courchene hopes to change that by reclaiming a piece of missing aboriginal culture.

Courchene hosted about 1,000 people -- mostly of Ojibway descent but also many non-aboriginals -- at a four-day gathering last week at the famous petroform site at Bannock Point, near Betula Lake.

The gathering, called Igniting the Fire, was aimed at sharing knowledge between aboriginal people, the way their ancestors did.

The event had a folk festival atmosphere the way people wander the grounds. But instead of music, speakers take to the microphone to address topics such as aboriginal history and challenges facing aboriginal people today. Many speakers talked of personal dream-visions that had guided them. The audience sat patiently in folding chairs, beneath a long white tent with plastic windows.

At night, people congregated around a large bonfire, sang traditional songs and listened to performers in drum circles.

About 200 children per day arrived by bus from Children of the Earth High School to see the petroform site called Manito Api in Ojibway, meaning "Where the Creator sat."

"It's a chance to get more exposure to who we are and where we came from," said Chris Goring, a Grade 11 history teacher and guidance counsellor at the school.

Evidence suggests the practice of making petrofroms -- rocks arranged into circles and human effigies and animal shapes such as birds, snakes and turtles -- started here before spreading to other regions, including Alberta and South Dakota.

The first written account of petroforms here was in 1793 by Sir Alexander MacKenzie while travelling the Winnipeg River. Some archaeologists speculate the petroforms could date from as early as 500 BC.

Snakes and turtles are the most common sacred petroforms. That seems odd considering the turtle is extremely slow, painfully shy, and ducks into its shell at the first sign of trouble.

"In the physical sense, the turtle is slow. But if you ask the elders, the turtle is fastest in the spiritual world. Our people are in the spiritual world all the time," Courchene said.

Also, the turtle's shell is segmented into 13 geometric shapes on top, and 28 shapes below: 13 representing the number of moons in a year, and 28 representing the days in a woman's menstrual cycle, Courchene said.

People visited from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pauingassi First Nation, The Pas, Northwestern Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Some notable visitors included Winnipeg Blue Bombers placekicker Troy Westwood and former Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief Dennis White Bird.

For Courchene, a cultural teacher who once addressed the United Nations on aboriginal issues, it's important that the gatherings are open to all people, not just aboriginal people.

The event also injected a good surge in business for Whiteshell resorts during a typically off-season period, with aboriginal people booking most of the rental cabins for the week. "I tried to change it to when the weather is nicer but the elders wouldn't let me. This is the time when aboriginal people would gather here," he said, on a cool and damp day.

Cottagers needn't worry, however. The group here isn't staking claim to the land under their cottages. But Courchene would like to see a greater aboriginal component at the petroform site, like an interpretive building and perhaps a building where aboriginal people could meet.

Because that's what's missing -- aboriginal people. The lack of an aboriginal presence on such an ancient and significant landmark, as cottagers can surely see themselves, is an embarrassment to all.

Cottagers tend to be pretty docile at best as a political entity. But if surveyed, and if the issue was explained properly, they might be willing to contribute.

Why not cough up a special $60-per-year levy on their property tax bill with Manitoba Conservation -- about what cottagers spend on gas on a weekend -- to correct an oversight and support the petroform sites as a meeting place and spiritual centre for aboriginal people?

It's a tax creep but it could be a worthy one. From over 3,000 cottagers, that would raise about $200,000 per year.

Major sponsors for Igniting the Fire included Manitoba Hydro and the Manitoba Department of Northern Affairs.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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