Some 12,600 years after Indigenous peoples had set foot in Niagara, the first Europeans arrived in the 17th Century. They encountered a group called the Neutral Nation, a group of Indigenous people who populated this region living in bark-covered longhouses, planting corn and tobacco, and having developed a social order in which women played an important role. The largest group called themselves the Chonnonton (Keepers of the Deer). Another, the Onguiaahra (Near the Big Waters, The Strait, or The Neck), populated the southern Niagara Peninsula, and from which the region derives its name.
For both the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) and Anishinaabek (The People), whose later presence displaced the Neutral Nation, and for whom the region became important for hunting, trapping, and trading, Niagara Falls holds special significance as a natural world feature possessing great meaning and power. Both the beauty of Niagara Falls and its frightful connotations attracted visitors to this location, thereby transforming the Indigenous relationship to this place.
Among the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Seneca Nation (Onondowa-gah, Great Hill People) began visiting Niagara over 1,000 years ago, and fashioned stories about the falls as a place of power. They imagined a world of constant struggle between the forces of darkness represented by giant, horned, serpents that lived under the waters, and the benevolent Thunder Beings who lived behind the falls, who only ventured out whenever the serpents tried to rise to the surface to attack humans.
As the story is told, one such serpent, swimming up-stream, was fatally struck by a lightning bolt hurled by the Thunder Beings. Wounded, its huge body was carried by the current to the brink of the falls where it's horns and tail got caught on the rocks. As it died, the body grew rigid and solidified in the shape of an arch, thereby making the crescent-shaped falls.
When the French arrived in the 17th century, Niagara Falls was located about 100 metres to the north. Constant erosion has made the brink of the falls recede over the centuries. However, 13,000 years ago, when the first Indigenous peoples viewed the falls, it was located near where the present-day Lewiston-Queenston bridge spans the international border between Canada and the United States, a distance of approximately 9 kilometres from its current location!
Haudenosaunee oral tradition explains that as more and more travellers began to arrive, the Thunder Beings decided to leave their home behind the falls and head to the western mountains. However, they still return to this region, flying behind the dark thunderclouds and still cast their lightning arrows to the waters to keep the remaining serpents in check.
For the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people, whose metanarrative recalls their odyssey from their original lands along the east coast west to Wisconsin, their sojourn in Niagara Falls is notable for three occurrences, the first two being conflict and peace with the Haudenosaunee. As recounted by Mississauga of the Credit First Nation historian Darin Wybenga, it was also during their stay at Niagara Falls that the Anishinaabe formed three distinct groups, each with particular responsibilities to the whole nation. "One group took the responsibility for the care of the sacred fire and is now known as the Potawatomi," states Wybenga. "A second group took responsibility for hunting and trade and became known as the Ottawa people. The third group, retained the name Anishinaabe (Ojibway), were the faith keepers of the people. Collectively, the three emergent nations are known as the Three Fires Confederacy."
Niagara Falls, as seen through French Jesuit eyes, was also an awe-inspiring sight. Perhaps this is why the newcomers created a fanciful story of the sacrifice of a beautiful maiden to the spirit of the falls. There is no evidence that the original peoples ever did such a thing. However, what became the "tourist" legend of the Maid of the Mist lived on for quite some time and can still be seen reflected in the souvenirs that were created around the myth.
There does exist an authentic Indigenous version, however, that emerges from Haudenosaunee oral tradition wherein Niagara Falls is seen as a symbol of power and home to the thunder beings, known for its healing energy. The traditional Seneca story of the Maid of the Mist reveals Niagara Falls as a special place capable of restoring mental and physical balance to a distraught young woman. Inherent in this authentic tale is the expression of a range of human and community dynamics, including everything from jealousy and maliciousness to empathy, compassion, honour, wisdom, and health and healing. The story is every bit as rich and evocative as the majestic geography of Niagara Falls and its environs might suggest.
The French soon realised the strategic importance of the Niagara River and convinced the Senecas in 1720 to let them build a "House of Peace," at the mouth of the Niagara River and the head of Lake Ontario. The building, which quickly grew into Fort Niagara, played a major role in the European contest for North America between the French and the British.
Colonization changed the look of the landscape and impacted Indigenous cultures as well. Manufactured goods began to replace the hand-made household goods of the past. Ceramic cooking vessels were replaced with metal kettles. Wood and stone tools were replaced by metals utensils and European-made weapons.
The local Indigenous peoples were often caught between the French and English, or later, between the Americans and the British. The river became both a geographic and political border between those opposing forces.
In the Treaty of Fort Niagara in 1764 the Senecas gave the British the rights to a swath of land, four miles wide on either side of the Niagara River, to be used for the King's purposes. By then the river had become an important corridor for travel and trade that the British wanted to secure. This region played an important part in the War of 1812. Laura Secord, famed for her adventure to warn British and allied forces of advancing American soldiers, made her way through the treacherous war zone, following ancient Indigenous trails. Reaching DeCew field in Thorold, Ontario, Haudenosaunee scouts greeted her and led her to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon and British officials to issue her warning.
There was also another earlier connection between the Haudenosaunee and the British that dates back to a 1667 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Based upon that treaty, in 1710 four Indigenous leaders travelled to England to meet with Queen Anne to request her support for an invasion into French Canada. Instead, she offered an illustrated bible and a silver communion set, encouraging her political allies to become members of her Christian faith.
After the American Revolutionary War many Mohawks, led by Joseph Brant, served as allies to the Crown. They carried the bible and communion set to their new settlement along the Grand River. The Royal Chapel of the Mohawks was built in present-day Brantford. Succeeding generations of the Royal Family often would stop and visit the Chapel and sign the bible. This attests to the long-standing alliance between the Crown and the Haudenosaunee.
After the War of 1812, peace was restored to the border region and tourism began to blossom. Niagara Falls eventually became known as a place for honeymooners to visit. As travellers increased so too did the making of souvenirs. On the American side, a series of islands allowed the visitors to stand between the two mighty falls. Because of their faithful service during the War of 1812, the Porter family, which had acquired most of the land adjacent to the falls on the American side, allowed Seneca and Tuscarora women to sell moccasins, dolls, and heavily beaded purses, picture frames, wall hangings, and sofa pillows.
These became highly sought-after souvenirs and provided an important income to the local Indigenous economy, which once thrived on hunting, fishing, and trapping in the region, but became constrained to small "reserves" of land in both Western New York and Southern Ontario.
While few birchbark canoes make their way through the waters of the Great Lakes and the Niagara River today, the legacy Indigenous peoples established remains very much in place. The Tuscarora Nation resides on the Niagara Escarpment, near present-day Lewiston, New York. The Seneca people, still the largest of the original Six Nations, live at Tonawanda (near Akron, New York), Cattaraugus (near Gowanda, New York) and Allegany (at Salamanca, New York.) On west side of the Niagara River, one of the largest communities of Indigenous people within Canada is Six Nations of the Grand River (located near Brantford, Ontario). The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (near Hagersville, Ontario) remains active on this territory. And, as evidenced by the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre, the Niagara Regional Native Centre (in Niagara-on-the-Lake), the Métis Nation office (in Thorold, Ontario), along with other Indigenous institutions and programs, there remains a vibrant Indigenous presence in the Niagara Region.
The Haudenosaunee Council Fire still burns. People still make beadwork. Wampum belts continue to inform us of our shared history. The ancient stories are still told. Indigenous languages continue to be spoken. And, we are reminded daily of the voices of the Thunder Beings, which are heard in the rumbling power of the falling water at Niagara Falls.
from www.empathictraditions.ca by the Niagara Falls Museums
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