From Oka to Muskoka

In 1986 Sylvia DuVernet focused on how "very special" they indeed are, devoting all of her refreshing book An Indian Odyssey to why Mohawk peoples relocated from Quebec to Muskoka 130 years ago. Her book says a lot just by its full title alone: An Indian Odyssey: Tribulations, Trials, and Triumphs of the Gibson Band of the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy.

When the Mohawks came to this Muskoka township in 1881, it had already been named for Thomas Gibson, a long-serving Liberal MPP in nearby Huron County. At first, explains Philip LaForce in his History of Gibson Reserve, "the place was called Gibson Wahta Reserve."

Wahta means hard maple. "The bush was very heavy with hard maple in those early pioneer days," records LaForce. Use of the designation "Wahta Mohawks" today, instead of "Gibson Reserve" which is how the community had been called for much of the twentieth century, is really a reversion to 1880s nomenclature.

What DuVernet calls "the Gibson Band of the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy" may appear confusing, but only because the First Nations peoples of Wahta are both Mohawks and Iroquois. Long ago Mohawk peoples became part of the "Iroquois Confederacy" which also included, and still does today, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples. Mohawks spoke the Iroquoian language, and some still do, despite the residential school program's quest to eradicate it, and notwithstanding decades of interacting, as a minority linguistic group, with an English-speaking universe.

To say one is both Mohawk and Iroquois is like saying you're a Muskokan and an Ontarian. It's just degrees of particularity in one's identity. Today's cranberry-growing operations at Wahta use both Mohawk and Iroquois names as interchangeable designations in the commercial marketplace.

In An Indian Odyssey, DuVernet combines both documentary records and spiritual dimensions to astutely clarify the irreconcilable conflicts that led to the 1881 relocation of many Mohawks to Muskoka.

Mohawk peoples had long dwelt on their own, south of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, before coming into contact with the emerging French settlements to the north. Over a couple centuries, they underwent changes in land occupancy and religion alike, as the French claimed their territory and converted them to Catholicism. Most Mohawks not only converted to Roman Catholicism, but learned to speak French, and had come under the tight sway of the Sulpician Fathers.

Meanwhile, the Mohawk's relationship with other European colonial powers was evolving as well. To their southeast, the English replaced the Dutch in their New Amsterdam colony, in what became New York State.

Flowing from all this, by the mid to late 1800s, a mood of change permeated the culture and practices of Mohawks.

Indians who lived around Montreal began to feel crowded by the settlers, recounts Philip LaForce. "Every year the place getting bigger and bigger, turned into a city, and the Indians were moved against the mountain." Backed into tight quarters, "a few hundred Iroquois" moved to Caughnawaga, Quebec, "many went to Cornwall, Ontario" and "the remaining stayed at Oka, Quebec, mostly called Lake of Two Mountains."

By 1879, however, Chief Fleecy Lowi Sahanatien, still at Oka, "got discouraged by being so hard on his band. They were not free as Indians should be. They were not free in cutting wood, just cut so much." If they cut more, they were punished with jail. "Every week they were on court trial."

Around this time, Chief Sahanatien traveled someplace where he met a man who showed him a "Methodist Bible, in the French writing. The Chief was well educated in that language. He started reading it to his people. The people realized how nice Bible is. They mostly all joined to that mission." They became Methodists.

This was a major departure, because as LaForce adds, "All the Iroquois and Algonquins belonged to the Roman Catholic mission." Chief Sahanatien's Protestant upstart congregation, in the very midst of the Catholic heartland, was seen by the Sulpicians as a defiant act that had to be stamped out. When the Methodist Mohawks "organized to build a church, after it was started, everything they built was torn down."

That was the tipping point for people already unhappy living where they were. "The Chief told his band that he's going away, move out to some other place where they would be free to build a church."

Approaching the government in Ottawa, the chief was offered three choices in Ontario: land at Rama by Lake Couchiching, land in remote northern Ontario, and land in Muskoka's Gibson Township. It was in late October 1881 that 70 adults from Oka, with 30 children between 15 and 5, and another 33 under 5 years of age, including one born en route, reached their new lands in mostly unsettled Gibson. A foot of snow fell the next day, symbolic of the hardship these Mohawk people had been enduring, and would now continue to face in their Muskoka territory.

Only a tiny fraction of the value of their lands and buildings in Quebec was compensated. Most costs of relocation did not, in the end, get paid. The governments of Canada and Ontario disagreed over whether the lands were being settled under the province's Free Grant and Homesteads Act, with homesteader qualifications the Indians would have to fulfill, or as a Reserve under the federal Indian Act which would simply designate the territory "Indian lands." Neither government required the Sulpicians to pay the Mohawks the money owed, in exchange for getting their prime lands around Montreal. The Ontario government soon began a decades-long process of trying to claw back parts of Gibson Township from the Wahta Mohawks, so others could log the township's forests and pay timber dues to the province.

From religious beliefs to the status of their land, and all the issues relating to both, the Mohawks in Gibson Township found their lives overtaken by forces that were unique.

In addition, arriving in Muskoka in the 1880s was for the Mohawks akin to the harsh experience of other homesteaders arriving in Muskoka District to hack a home and farm from dense bush. This also made the Wahta Mohawks a "special case," because generally aboriginals were peoples already occupying the lands into which settlers came.

An Indian Odyssey first appeared in print in 1986, and was republished with updated information in 1991, including a report on the success of cranberry farming. Not Sylvia's first book, it was however about one of her first loves—an interdisciplinary approach to Canadian literature and culture. When it came to First Nations peoples, her husband Ernie was an understanding guide; he'd been born and spent his early years living among native people in the remote settlement of Kitwanga on the banks of the Skeena River in the B.C. interior – no doctor, no school, no roads, no running water.

An Indian Odyssey is likely the best single book available about the Mohawk families who moved from troubles at Oka in Quebec to new lands in the unorganized Muskoka Township of Gibson in 1881. Its 150-pages offer a deeply informed telling of peoples' lives through their "trials, tribulations, and triumphs." With rich and personal stories learned from her close association with the Mohawk families, and her own extensive researches, Sylvia DuVernet juxtaposes and integrates both personal and documentary accounts, "to show that, as often happens in history, psychology and sociology legitimate both the apparently rational and fanatically irrational goals."

Such an approach was definitely needed to comprehend the remarkable odyssey being made by Muskoka's immigrants from Oka, Quebec.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

ISBN: 978-0-921397-00-7
Muskoka Publications Ltd, 1991
155 pages, 6.5 x 9.5 in
$29.95 CDN/USA paperback


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