My teacher Grandfather William Commanda
I was fortunate to have spent some time with the late Algonquin Anishinaabe Grandfather William Commanda (1913 - 2011), who lived in Maniwaki Quebec and who was the last keeper of three traditional wampum belts. Grandfather Commanda taught me via the oral tradition about the significance of the Chaudière Falls, best known as Akikpautik, located in the Kiji Sìbì, now known as the Ottawa River, and adjacent to Canada’s parliament buildings. He told me why Akikpautik – which translates to “Pipe Bowl Falls” – and the islands located just downstream are sacred.
Interestingly the significance of Akikpautik was observed and recorded in 1613 in Champlain’s Journals where he witnessed the Anishinaabeg ceremonially offering tobacco to the pipe bowl. [see note 1]. This was before the time when settler people imprisoned Akikpautik within the cement walls of a huge hydroelectric dam. When reading Grandfather’s face, as he told me the story, I could feel that he was sad.
While many Canadians understand the Ottawa River as the border between what colonial officials created and call the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, it must be appreciated that prior to contact the river was the uniting feature of the larger Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation who reside on both sides of the river. In addition, it must be appreciated that the river, Akikpautik, and the islands are indeed the jurisdiction of the larger Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation as we have never ceded or extinguished our land and water rights. I must stress here that this includes the much larger population of the non-status and the status Algonquin.
Wìsakedjàk (Nanaboozo) and His Gifts
A central Anishinaabe figure and philosopher, Wìsakedjàk (also Nanaboozo), the son of the Spirit of the West Wind and Mother Earth’s first woman Winona, had many responsibilities, one of which was the naming all the beings on Mother Earth. Wìsakedjàk is also credited for bringing forth a special gift from his father, the First Sacred Pipe. As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe community member rooted in my ancestral oral teachings I have heard that Wìsakedjàk’s footprints remain inscribed along the Ottawa River and so we know he was at Akikpautik.
Many people know that Grandfather Commanda held a special vision and plan, “Asinabka the Sacred Chaudière Site”, that included re-naturalizing Pipe Bowl Falls and the three islands downstream. His plan included the removal of the large ring dam imposed, and the creation of a park, historic interpretive centre, peace building meeting site, and an Indigenous centre [see note 2 and 3]. But since capital trumps reconciliation between the Canadian state and Indigenous Nations, a well-supported development corporation known as The Windmill Development Group has momentum in moving ahead with building a “waterfront community” on this very sacred land and water space, despite sustained protests by community members, both Indigenous and settler people, as well as the opposition of most of the Algonquin Anishinaabe Chiefs in Quebec. These people want Grandfather’s plans to be implemented over more corporate destruction.
Canada’s parliament buildings, the Prime Minister’s residence, the Governor General’s residence, and the entire National Capital Region reside on traditional Algonquin territory. As a result of this reality a major component of Canada’s nation-building strategy is dedicated to inventing and promoting a collective Canadian consciousness that rests on the erasure of Indigenous peoples and seizure of their territories [see note 4 and 5]. Sadly, many critical theorists realize that Canada has control and access to the resources to do this all too well. Canada's control of the resources is the very problem in that through this control they are able to manufacture a particular mindset that denies the need for valuing what is sacred.
Indigenous Knowledge is in the Land
For Indigenous people our water and landscapes are very much storied as this is one way that we preserve important sacred beliefs, teachings, and knowledge for future generations to come. The short story is we want our descendants to embody and feel love for the land and the gifts it provides. For example, places such as Oiseau Rock, in Quebec, tell our story of Creation when the four sacred elements of rock, water, wind, and fire first came together. Through these stories we learn to honour the Earth for future generations. This is the very value of sacred beliefs; They are not trivial, silly, and primitive relics of the past that need to go away.
In addition the location where waterways meet are valued as special meeting places in that it was through the gift of water that we were able to travel great distances to meet our relatives. One such location, situated between Quebec and Ontario, is in the Kiji Sìbì, where the Gatineau and Rideau Rivers join and where the three islands − Chaudière, Albert, and Victoria − are located downstream of the Chaudière Falls [see note 6 and 7].
Grandfather Commanda told me about the special features of Akikpautik / Chaudière Falls’ that have spiritual meaning for the Anishinaabeg, as well as for all the nearby and visiting Indigenous Nations such as the Cree and Blackfoot Nations. These features consist of a horseshoe falls, shaped as a near-circle (representing a pipe bowl); and an area where great amounts of water travel through an underwater cavern, re-emerging downstream (a pipe stem). The constriction of the river represents the narrowness of the pipe stem when it meets the bowl. Collectively, these features represent Creator’s First Sacred Pipe given to us by Wìsakedjàk [see note 8]. As I listened to Grandfather’s story my heart and mind swelled with pride and joy. This is what sacred stories and beliefs should do: fill you with the love of knowing how special you are, how special your ancestors are, and how special the land and water are.
What I know for sure
Meaning is not something you casually find on the ground. Rather, we are all born into meaning systems and socialized to love them. Unfortunately, power mediates the process where consequently oppressive cultures collapse sacred and moral meaning. In doing this they destroy the world.
images of the sacred Falls
Notes/links of interest:
1. Champlain, Samuel de. 2000. Algonquians, Hurons and Iroquois: Champlain Explores America 1603–1616. Edward Gaylord Bourne (ed.), Annie Nettleton Bourne (trans.). Dartmouth, NS: Book House Press
5. Gehl, L. (2014). The Truth That Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process. Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
8. Google Map
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Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the land claims process. Her book The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process offers an insider-Indigenous analysis of the Algonquin land claims process in Ontario. You can reach her through, and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.