Manitou Aki. Say these two words in your mind or out loud. This is the first name by which the land most of us call North America was called. It means Creator’s Land, according to Jerry Fontaine.
Fontaine explains, “The concept of land as a living being was fundamental to the … Anishinabeg1. From the Anishinabe perspective, land was to be shared and held in common by all…. Land was a birthright and inalienable.”
In this important consciousness-reviving book, Anishinabe teacher and former band-council chief Jerry Fontaine illuminates a moment in history when the integrity of that birthright first came under threat and, with it, the Anishinabeg’s lived, daily-life connection to their living ancestral lands.
Three visionary leaders emerged in response to this turning point, which for Fontaine occurred toward the end of the 18th century, in what is now central Canada, when the focus of colonization turned from resource extraction (furs) to settlement. All three were men: Obwandiac (who some have come to know as Pontiac), Tecumtha (Tecumseh to some) and Shingwauk.
Land as property and land as sovereign and alive (Creator’s Land) are irreconcilable concepts.
The book recounts Fontaine’s journey to visit the descendants of these three leaders, and listen to the stories it is their responsibility to preserve. He shares details of these prophet-leaders’ lives and their heroic actions to mobilize the confederacy of Anishinabe nations in a massive decolonization effort coinciding with the War of 1812. He also shares what was at the heart of these leaders’ vision: not just the threat of Anishinabe land being taken by the colonizing newcomers, but the threat to the essence of being Anishinabe (its ontology), in which acting out that connection to the land and all one’s relations on it/in it, and keeping it alive in one’s consciousness, was so central.
With ceremonial care, Fontaine presents some of the elements that come together to inform this vision: origin stories, sacred and moral stories and storytellers, wampum belts, petroglyphs and birchbark scrolls, ceremonies and ceremonial objects, medicine bundles, ways of knowing, blood memory, language, clans and clan dodems, or totems.
He defines Miskew ah-zha-way-chi-win (blood memory) as “the act of flowing … the thread that ties us to our families, the earth and our spirit.”
Our Hearts Are as One Fire
Ojibwaymowin, the Anishinabe language, is both “the land and the heart,” he writes. The clan system and clan totems further help connect these two, land and heart. The clan totems are the animals and birds who nurtured the first humans into life on earth. Each one bestowed something unique and it is the responsibility of clan members to practice, maintain, and share that gift – be it for leadership, protection, beauty, or reconciliation. They did this locally in self-governing communities of multiple extended families, nationally, and also at the multi-national level of the Our Hearts Are as One Fire (known by some as the Three Fire) Confederacy.
“The clan system was about life itself,” Fontaine writes, including its cultural, social, and political organization. “The clans promoted the cooperative and integrative organization of Ojibway, Ota’wa, and Ishkodawatomi-Anishinabe society.” Its sovereignty rested on this inter-dependence and mutual support, he writes, which itself was laid out in natural laws and “the original laws of creation.”
The ethos of this lived social order was in turn reflected in Anishinabe treaties and treaty traditions around sharing the land: sharing it generously in keeping with its being a gift, but also as a responsibility to honour and sustain. “For us, the land was a living embodiment of the political, economic and social relationship established by the treaty relationship and was also fundamental to how we saw the universe.”
The new treaties weren’t just land grabs. For Tecumtha in particular, they represented cultural and psychological colonization, an “exile from the land” both spatially and spiritually.
Two protocols embodied this understanding and made it actionable: open access to each other’s lodges and “one dish with one spoon.” In Fontaine’s account, these principles also nurtured the original Middle Ground created through the earliest treaty and trade relations between the Anishinabeg and European newcomers. But as furs became scarce and the colonial agenda shifted to settlement, things changed. These principles and the values behind them were no longer being upheld and practiced by the Europeans.
Visionaries Obwandiac, Tecumtha, and Shingwauk saw the enormity of the threat this represented. The new treaties weren’t just land grabs. For Tecumtha in particular, they represented cultural and psychological colonization, an “exile from the land” both spatially and spiritually.
Tecumtha envisaged a sovereign Anishinabe jurisdiction being created in some of the land in what is now the US Midwest but at the time was still protected by the 1763 Royal Proclamation. He rallied the confederacy to fight alongside the British with the thought that, victorious, they would support it. But Tecumtha died in battle, and the dream fell apart.
In reviving Tecumtha’s political dream, Fontaine seems to stress the centrality of sovereign control over a land base to sustaining the Anishinabe identity, which is so central to the “land back” movement that is gaining momentum and support these days. For him, it seems that the political goal of securing a land base is inseparable from the cultural, social and spiritual practices of relating to land – even during the struggle. So it’s more like a “land-relationship back” movement. And this is what makes this book so relevant to people concerned about the environment and the crises facing it.
The Middle Ground
Fontaine wants to revive the Middle Ground, the space of common understanding and common purpose between Anishinabe and non-Anishinabe peoples, but revive it on the Anishinabe terms under which it flourished throughout much of the 18th century. Like Tecumtha and the other two visionary leaders of the time, Fontaine believes that land as property and land as sovereign and alive (Creator’s Land) are irreconcilable concepts. The former cancels out the latter and, with it, the richness of a psychological and spiritual connection to the land.
Fontaine and others who have written about the Middle Ground of the past are under no illusion about how it functioned. It was a messy real politik of daily negotiation and renegotiation, an ongoing struggle over meaning, and what common ground could be found. It worked partly because the particular Europeans involved were at the margins of the then-emerging empires of modern commerce. They weren’t necessarily totally colonized themselves into the culture and mindset involved.
Activists in the social and climate justice and environmental movements are similarly on the margins of the vested interests controlling the now globalized empire of commerce. I hope they can identify, as I do, with Fontaine’s hopeful vision.
Heather Menzies is working on a memoir sharing her often-embarrassing experience trying to decolonize her mind and her behaviour. She’s the author of 10 books, two of them award winners.
This article appears in our February | March 2021 issue.