Photography by MarkZelinski.com
Effigy figure on ceramic pipe shard reveals emergence of Indigenous artistic expression in the Niagara Region. In addition to this rendering of a human face, other figures often represented powerful animal symbols, such as turtles or salamanders, which could move between the realms of water and land, or various birds, which could move between the realms of land and air.
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.
Photography by MarkZelinski.com