Remembering the Saga of Wahta Mohawks

But that is not the story of the Wahta Mohawks. Their history in this district begins in the 1880s when my own non-aboriginal ancestors had already been homesteading here for more than a decade. Life on the Gibson Wahta Reserve resembled the experience of other homesteaders who came to claim "free grant land," found the best available spots, got a "location ticket," and began clearing land, living in tents or spruce bough shanties until building a log cabin, finding patches of earth between the rocks in which to grow crops, rearing livestock, raising children while fighting off starvation, and singing hymns. Like other homesteaders, the Mohawks also found many extra ways to make a living and get by.

In 2002 the Wahta Mohawks published a remarkable book entitled A History of the Wahta Mohawk Community. It documents this history, from 1881 to the present, in a wide-ranging communal record of the band's collective memory.

The Mohawks saw themselves as "pioneers" and recall making candles from pork grease, spearing fish, growing corn for bread, fashioning tools and clothing. Unlike the Europeans, though, they were naturally at home in such a setting: "Plenty of fish," said LaForce, "in any lakes Indians come to."

They were skilled in many trades. Mary Commandant said "The older Indians who left Oka were craftsmen, carpenters, canoe makers, snowshoe makers, a cheese maker, a blacksmith, tobacco growers, bee keepers, tanners, and wagon and sled makers. The women made men's and women's suits, and their own clothes or dresses by hand."

A great strength of A History of the Wahta Mohawk Community is its large number of photographs.

Another is the fact so many elders gave interviews to preserve their memories of "pioneering days" which are duly reported even when contradictory about specifics. As Sylvia DuVernet put it in her own book about the Wahta Mohawks, An Indian Odyssey, "There is always a divergence not only between the teller and the tale but also from tale to tale. Perspective varies with the socio-political stance of the individual."

A third attribute is the often shocking record of what happened. No rant is required, for the unvarnished facts in A History of the Wahta Mohawk Community speak with stunning force about injustice, discrimination, calumny – and different world views about the same piece of land.

The government took land from the Reserve in 1917. There were many trespassers. Game wardens hauled Mohawks into court for killing some of the abundant wildlife to feed their hungry families. In 1940 Ontario Hydro transformed the Reserve with dams and a generating station, destroying ecology. Land claim issues, unresolved for a century and a-quarter, included the infamous "Wahta Gap" of Highway 69 across the reserve.

Religious divisions further afflicted the Wahta Mohawks when many became Plymouth Brethern after coming to Muskoka, which split the community and made such things as schooling hard.

Wahta Mohawks gave military service in wartime, a number of men losing their lives for Canada. Letters from their families in World War I did not reach the enlisted men. Efforts to get veteran benefits after the war were dismissed.

Then there is the cultural and human travesty of the residential schools, about which more Canadians have recently become aware, and the last of which only closed in 1996.

A History of the Wahta Mohawk Community documents the face of injustice. Yet this valuable book also tells, with powerful directness, the incredible story of resilient people who are an integral part of Muskoka's story.

It also records successes, from the cranberry operations which are now the best in Canada to the reclamation of heritage which for awhile seemed all but lost. In recent times, as the church's role in community life diminished, Mohawks at Wahta like Frank Roads found, in the tradition of his ancestors before the European arrival, that he "can best commune with his Maker in a natural woodland setting all by himself."

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

Wahta Mohawks, 2002
$20.00 CDN/USA paperback


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