A man and woman sit under a tree in the autumn season.

Walk Among the Trees, Sault Ste. Marie | James Smedley

Learn about Indigenous culture in Ontario through storytelling

A man and woman sit under a tree in the autumn season.

Walk Among the Trees, Sault Ste. Marie | James Smedley

First Nation beliefs, stories and their historical account of the formation of the lands we call Ontario today have been passed down orally for generations. These teachings vary from region to region and Nation to Nation, and as in the past they are still shared today with pride and passion.

In these stories “Turtle Island” refers to the land that we now call North America. This creation story tells of the turtle supporting the world on its back. To this day, the turtle is a large part of the identity, culture and autonomy of the First Nation peoples and their deep respect for the natural environment.

Turtle Island and creation

The name “Turtle Island” comes from the story of the creation of these lands. This story begins when this land was completely covered with water and there was an island in the sky inhabited by the Sky People.

One day a pregnant Sky Woman fell through a hole made by an uprooted tree, known to some as the tree of life. As she tumbled, she grabbed the branches, seeds and medicines from the sky world to bring with her.

It seemed that she tumbled for an eternity from the heavens, but when she came out of the darkness, she saw the great oceans. Ducks flew beneath her to slow down her descent and, as she came closer to earth, a turtle arose from the water and let her gently rest on his back. There was no land in sight but as she rested on the back of the turtle the Muskrat brought mud from the bottom of the water to form the earth. This dirt multiplied until it became a huge expanse of land, and it was named Turtle Island. 

Soon after, the Sky Woman gave birth to two sons—one good and one evil—who created all the natural features of the earth and sky. The good twin shaped the sky and created the sun, moon, stars, mountains and many plants and animals. The evil son set out to destroy all that was created. He created darkness, monsters, storms and dangerous animals. The two brothers fought. The good twin prevailed and banished evil from the earth.

After the Sky Woman’s death, the good son planted a seed in her body. This seed grew into corn, an important food for the Indigenous peoples for centuries.

The story of Turtle Island has, and continues to be, passed down for generations, and today similar versions and stories can be found in school curriculums and texts. But the stories don’t stop with the creation of Turtle Island, it is just the beginning.

Struggle between good and evil at Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is extremely significant as one of seven wonders of the world. The first peoples have been inhabiting this region from time immoral and have long been the stewards of this region that has long held significance beyond a meeting place, a place of power.  

In more stories of struggle between good and evil, it is told that there were giant serpent-like creatures living under water and kind Thunder Beings living behind the falls. These kind beings never left their safe place behind the falls unless the serpents tried to attack them.

When one of the largest serpents tried to attack, it was hit with a huge bolt of lightning. The current of the lake carried his body to the falls but its horns and tail were caught on the rocks. The serpent solidified with the rock into the shape of an arch which resulted in the crescent-shaped falls.

As the falls became a tourism attraction, the Thunder Beings left their home behind the falls and headed to the western mountains. But they return during great rains to make sure the serpents stay away.

Niagara Falls was also notable for both conflict and peace which resulted in the Anishinaabe people forming an alliance collectively called the “Three Fires Confederacy”. The Ojibway (Chippewas), Odawa and Potawatomi Nations formed the Confederacy of the Three Fires of peoples who shared similar languages and territories and who met together for military and political purposes. Each Nation had their role in that Confederacy. The Ojibway (Chippewas) were the providers, the Odawa were the warriors and the Potawatomi were the firekeepers.

More about in Niagara Falls

As you plan your visit to Niagara Falls, learn more about Indigenous history and culture in the Niagara Region and how to experience it today.

Tragic love at Scenic Caves

Located in Grey County, the Scenic Caves are part of the Niagara Escarpment, another natural wonder in Ontario. These caves are situated at the highest point of the Escarpment just west of Collingwood. Today, you can explore caves and caverns over 20 metres (70 feet) below the ground surface at Scenic Caves Nature Adventures.

Originally home to the Petun First Nations Peoples, this landscape is both mesmerizing and rich in Indigenous history.

The path to the caves leads past Suicide Point, where the Petun Peoples tell of a tragic story. A Petun woman fell in love with a man outside of her tribe. Jealous Petun men threw her lover to his death, and she jumped after him. On the way to the Village of Souls, Oscotarach or “the Watcher” remove the brains of the dead. The Petuns believed that people would be happier in their afterlife if they were unable to remember their earthly existence and their loved ones left behind.

Additionally, the area around the Fat Man’s Misery Rock is known as the Petun Fortress because there are four exits, one for each direction on the compass. This made it almost impossible for anyone to ambush the Petuns.

More about Scenic Caves and Grey County

The caves are just one of the natural attractions at Scenic Caves Nature Adventures. Cross a suspension bridge with stunning views, go ziplining and explore hiking and snowshoeing trails.

Find more unique experiences in Grey County.

The lovers of Flowerpot Island

Approximately two hours drive north from Scenic Caves off the coast of Bruce Peninsula, Flowerpot Island is one of the most photographed natural attractions in this region. 

Just over six kilometres off the coast of Tobermory’s shoreline, this limestone island features craggy formations, caves, tenacious plant life and two rock pillars or ‘sea stacks’ eroded from the cliffside by waves and wind. Cracked and shaped just like two flowerpots, the stories are akin to the star-crossed love story of Romeo and Juliet. 

The story is of a young warrior and princess from warring peoples that fell deeply in love with each other. To escape punishment from their respective peoples, the two paddled to the island now known as Flowerpot Island.

Unfortunately, evil spirits cast them into these now famous columns of stone. Legends such as these predate the arrival of the settlers.

More about the Bruce Peninsula

Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula is rich in natural beauty and fascinating culture, including Indigenous history. Take a boat cruise to explore the Fathom Five National Marine Park and Flowerpot Island. And visit Cape Crocker Park, operated by the Chippewas of Nawash Unceeded First Nation for Anishinaabe cultural experiences.

The Garden of the Great Spirit in 1000 Islands

Between 700 BC and 1600 AD, the area we now call the 1000 Islands was inhabited by Haudenosaunee and Algonquian people.

The Iroquois referred to the islands as the Garden of the Great Spirit. The 1000 Islands creation legend begins with Great Manitou. 

Soaring on his Thunderbird, Great Manitou looked down and saw that his people were constantly fighting. To bring peace, Great Manitou created a beautiful garden but warned the people that it would be taken away if they started to fight again. 

This became home to the Six Nations where common land was sacred and no fighting was allowed. For years the Six Nations lived peacefully, harvesting great crops and enjoying the beautiful waterways.

But then war broke out again. The Great Manitou gathered up all the gardens and headed back to his home in the sky. In anger he tore open the blanket that held the gardens and let the thousands of pieces of the garden fall into the river. Each garden took root and created these beautiful islands. 

More about the 1000 Islands

Located along the St. Lawrence River, the 1000 Islands is one of Ontario’s most picture destinations. With five overlapping eco regions plus a colourful history from the First Nations peoples, War of 1812 sites, shipwrecks and castles this area is a must see in Ontario.

Get on the water and experience its beauty firsthand on a kayaking excursion or cruise.

Ojibwe Spirit Horses

Indigenous peoples across North America have fostered a respectful relationship with horses for thousands of years. The story of the First Nations and the Ojibwe Spirit Horses is an example of this relationship.

Known as Spirit Horses or Lac La Croix Indigenous ponies, this shorter, furrier breed of horse, with tiny feet, hairy ears and long luxurious manes were regarded as powerful spirits and teachers. Once roaming in great herds around the Great Lakes region, they held a significant cultural and spiritual position in the Ojibwe culture.

Settlers considered these docile animals as a nuisance for wreaking havoc in their farm fields, so the Spirit Horses were hunted and killed. This breed held the distinction of being the only true Indigenous horse breed in Canada, but by the 1970’s they were at risk of distinction.   

One Anishinaabe artist and horse lover hatched a late-night rescue plan when the final four mares were ordered to be destroyed. These four remaining horses were safely smuggled across the US border to Minnesota. The mares were returned after an exhaustive search and although they had been cross bred with mustangs, the markings of the Spirit Horses remained.

Today there are about 250 Spirit Horses in existence with eight of them calling Mādahòkì Farm, in the Ottawa region, home. Visit these beautiful animals, attend various events at the farm and celebrate them through direct interaction.

More about Ojibwe Spirit Horses in Ontario

In addition to Mādahòkì Farm, there are a small number of stables and farms dedicated to the protection, education and reintroduction of Ojibwe Spirit Horses in Ontario.

Oral traditions of Manitoulin Island

First Peoples communicated their stories of history and creation through storytelling. Wonderful and powerful stories and legends were told around campfires and passed down from generation to generation.  

Some were teaching stories, others imparted wisdom and led to great reflection, and still others were stories from creation. Visiting beautiful Manitoulin Island will allow you a glimpse into the culture, history and oral traditions of the Anishinaabe people.

Manitoulin Island is the largest island in a chain of islands in Lake Huron. In fact, it is an island, with an inland lake with an island in the lake! 

In addition to its unique geography, the island is rich in history. Visitors can view artwork, baskets, carvings and scrolls filled with Anishinaabe knowledge at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, a museum and cultural centre in M’Chigeeng First Nation.

Stories tell of the deep spiritual meaning that plants and nature have for First Peoples.

Learn about the great significance of the Four Sacred Medicines: sweetgrass, tobacco, sage and cedar.

Other stories tell of the Seven Grandfather Teachings. According to the Ojibwe/Anishinaabe, a good life means embracing the principals of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth. 

More about Manitoulin Island

Start planning your visit to Manitoulin Island. Choose from a variety of Anishinaabe cultural tours and nature-based and experiences offered by Wikwemikong Tourism.

Storytelling in Indigenous art

Many stories are also depicted in Indigenous art.

From painting, stone carving and woodwork to weaving, beadwork and other crafts, Indigenous artists use their art to tell the stories of their people, their history and their spirituality. There are fantastic artist renditions that show Turtle Island and the land being safely nurtured on its back.

Thunder Bay’s Ahnisnabae Art Gallery is home to one of the largest collections of Indigenous fine art and prints in Northwest Ontario.

You’ll be guaranteed authenticity at Indigenous-owned and operated galleries, cultural centres and gift shops. If you’re unsure, ask if the art or craft you’d like to purchase was Indigenous-made.

Many thanks to Indigenous Tourism Ontario for their contributions to this narrative. 

Last updated: December 5, 2023

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