We are all familiar with narratives that have been crafted for this place by those from other lands. These narrative histories often begin with the idea that history started once Europeans arrived here. This narrative gives life to the notion that our collective, shared history on Turtle Island (now known as North America) began at an exact moment. This is untrue. As Indigenous people, we have always been here. We have always known what stories the land holds.
When we tell these stories, they begin with the knowledge that we have been here since time immemorial. We are of the Earth. We are formed with and by the land, waters, plants, animals. Our understandings of this place are deeply rooted in our Ancestral knowledge. Though our relationship has been interrupted, we have always been here.
For a time during our shared Indigenous/settler colonial history, it was illegal for Indigenous peoples to tell our stories—this was an effort to prevent us from sharing our knowledge with each other. Then publishing our stories was made illegal, making it near impossible to share our knowledge with the whole world. And now, at this point in our shared history, our stories are finally re-emerging. We tell our stories because we know that we have the responsibility to share our truths rather than perpetuate harmful colonial narratives.
I believe that stories continue to live in the places where they take place. As Richard Wagamese once said,
All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship—we change the world, one story at a time.
About five years ago, I left a good job and a bad relationship. They both made me miserable. I moved back home and lived the spring, summer, and fall at my family’s cottage. It’s a simple log cabin structure with no plumbing, old windows, and a tin roof in a small town created by the lumber industry. The cabin itself was built by hand, piece by piece, by Grandpa Dave (my great-great-grandfather). As my father has told me many times, each piece of wood holds a story.
Grandpa Dave was dirt poor, but this place was the home that he created with salvaged lumber from when he worked moving booms of logs down this chain of lakes to the sawmill. The remnants of his old boat are still nestled along the shore next to the old mill ruins. He had a large garden that took up most of the lawn. Years later, my grandparents renovated and added beautiful pieces of leftover lumber, old windows, and tin for the roof from the same lumber mills where my grandfather worked. On the top floor, the small, A-shaped roof is supported by hand-carved cedar beams and old, rough hemlock, the splinters long gone due to years of habitation; I used to run my hands along the bumps of the beams when lying in bed at night. The top floor shakes a bit when you step too hard, but the cedar’s flexibility has supported my family for five generations.
The back room is my favorite and was once the kitchen where older generations would sit and visit. The flooring is made of an old, beautiful, and thick linoleum rug, brightly colored and cracked in some places but repaired with shoe tacks. Here, the walls are made out of different types of wood, all with a story and mostly salvaged. The ceilings are covered with wide pine boards, and all but one of four walls are covered in old barn board salvaged from the lumber planer in Massanoga, Ontario. The fourth wall was once the outside of the original cabin, made of hand-hewed logs that my great-great-grandfather put in place over 130 years ago; sometime in the 1960s, my grandfather painted that wall maroon and white. Last summer, in giving the space some love and a much-needed update, I painted the wall white. My grandfather’s old clock still sits there, in a little cubby overlooking the whole room. I spent most of that summer in this room, surrounded by books and plants, my comfy reading chair in the corner, looking out over what was once my grandmother’s garden and listening to Digging Roots on repeat.
I knew that it was special that I could live in an old family home. This is my grandmother’s grandfather’s home, where my family lived after they were forcibly removed from their homes following the creation of Algonquin Park in 1893. This is the house where my grandmother’s mother was raised—aside from the time when Grandpa Dave was forced to give his children up after his wife abruptly left him for another man. After a relatively short time, each child came back home; one even hopped a train to escape an orphanage and made his way back. Within a few years, Grandpa Dave painstakingly saved every possible penny until he could pay to have each child brought back home.
Though I never met him, I’ve been told many times that Grandpa Dave was a wonderful man. I’ve heard many stories, but my favorite is that during the winters of the Great Depression, Grandpa Dave would head out to the frozen lake to where he could hear wolves howling. Wolves howling is a clue that they’ve brought down either a deer or a moose and are able to feed their whole pack. Once Grandpa Dave got close to the kill, he would shoot his old .30-30 Winchester rifle in the air (never at the animals), walk up to the carcass, cut off a hind leg or another small piece of the animal, then walk away. He’d bring the meat home and share it with folks in the community who needed it. My dad told me that Grandpa Dave fed himself with the wolves on a frozen lake many times.
This little cabin is Grandpa Dave’s home where he raised his children, where my grandmother raised her children, and where I was raised. This is a place that holds so many of my family’s stories, both good and devastating.
Another story that I love is one that I’ve heard a few times from different family members. My family has always hosted parties in this cabin, full of music, drinks, and friendship. They all swear that Johnny Cash once ended up there for a party. There was a guy who just showed up one night, and as the story goes, he said he was Johnny Cash, he looked like Johnny Cash, and he sounded like Johnny Cash. But they never asked him to be sure. They just enjoyed the music.
And so, being able to live in this little cabin that my family has cared for over the last 130 years, I was conscious that it was a special time in my life. My heart was broken, but I was determined to move forward. I moved there to heal myself. I started to write out my ideas for a book. I began sifting through my knowledge of Algonquin presence in this place and in our Nation, and I began to learn about the complexities of our history, specifically following the arrival of settler colonists. After almost ten years of being away at university and establishing my career, in returning to this place, I settled into being at home.
But perhaps the most important thing I did that summer was to spend time with plants. I revived the flower garden planted by Grandpa Dave and my grandmother years ago. I pulled weeds, all by hand, and mixed in new, healthy soil, then added the same types of plants that my grandmother had in her garden when I was a girl: Pansy, Brown-Eyed Susan (my grandmother’s favorite), and Bee Balm. I filled in the spaces where some plants couldn’t compete with the pushy grass. I set aside parts of the lawn where I would stop cutting the grass with the intention of letting Mountain Ash babies grow after observing how robins managed to eat every single orange berry off the large Ash tree over the course of an afternoon.
I walked down the cottage road every day and watched the plants change along with the seasons: first appearing in early spring, progressing to flower and then to berry, followed by a state of sleep for the winter once the air turned cold. I carried my Peterson Field Guide to
Medicinal Plants with me so that I could learn the plants’ names, spending time with them every day, learning the way they look, their possible uses. I became friends with those plants over that time. Bunchberry, with its perfectly balanced white flowers followed by its bright red cluster of berries, became a new favorite. In the middle of July, I fell in love with Fireweed—its vibrant and elegant pink flowers bringing an outstanding beauty against a backdrop of vivid green. Fireweed is by far my favorite wildflower.
Since that summer I spent living in Grandpa Dave’s home, I’ve continued to spend time with plants. It brings joy to my life to watch them as they pass through their seasonal cycles, and I learn as I observe. Only this year did I realize that Fireweed and Brown-Eyed Susan bloom at the same time. Listening and watching the natural world allows us the opportunity to learn how to be in relation to the Earth.
How can we be in good relationship with each other? How can we be in good relation to land? To animals? Trees? Plants? Soil? Air? Water? We can listen to the stories that the land holds.
When we listen, we enter into a relationship—an agreement that we bind ourselves to. In this relationship, we learn how to live in reciprocal respect with all that surrounds us, both the seen and the unseen. We must live in a state of active relationship, not only taking but also giving back. This giving back may take literal form or manifest itself in observing, learning, and gently interacting. If we listen, those stories are always available to us. All those around us—the plants, animals, trees, water, air—are our patient and willing teachers. We must remain open to this knowledge that is so willingly shared with us so long as we listen.
Anishinaabeg stories tell of a time when all other-than-human beings made an agreement to give themselves to sustain others—mainly humans. But that agreement is based in reciprocal respect. We never take the first or the last of anything, and we always offer something to that being before we take (harvest) anything. We also know that our Ancestors physically remain a part of this land.
How would our world be different if this knowledge was practiced by the whole world? Could we dismantle the capitalist, patriarchal structures that have been forced upon us by colonial governments and monarchies? What might the world look like instead of what we know now? What stories would we tell?
The land where I now share a home with my husband and our dog is the same place where my grandmother was born in 1935. Somehow, by complete chance, I now call this place home. There are old photos here of a little girl, my grandmother, standing against a fence in this yard. It is my hope that at some point in the future, we’re able to take the same sorts of photos with our own children. How beautiful is it that my future children and my grandmother can know the exact same place? That the large red and white pines that now flank our yard also knew my grandmother well?
We bring forward the stories of our Ancestors so that our future generations have this knowledge. So that they know who we are. So that they will always know who we are. So that there will never be generations of our people who are silenced. This is a time of truth-telling and making space for us to tell our stories, and through this telling, we give voice to our Ancestors, and to the land.
Miigwetch/thank you to Sam Butwell for her editorial contribution to the What stories does the land hold? series.
 It is my understanding that stories continue; so long as someone knows them, they stay alive. Our stories are living things.
 C. Janssens, “Remembering Richard Wagamese,” Sheridan Sun, March 21, 2017, http://sheridansun.sheridanc.on.ca/2017/03/21/remembering-richard-wagamese/.
Photograph by Alyssa Bardy.