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Sacred Ground: Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung Historical Centre and the Sacred Manitou Mounds by Elle Andra-Warner

Two thousand years ago when the Roman Empire was young, the Silk Road connected China and Europe, and Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt, there was a place in Canada that was already a well-established destination for thousands of people who came to fish, trade, celebrate, and mourn.

While the Roman Empire has long since come and gone, and Cleopatra has been relegated to the history books, people are still drawn to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung. Located on the shores of the Rainy River about 55 kilometres west of the town of Fort Frances in Northwestern Ontario, and only 65 kilometres from the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung (Ojibway for Place of the Long Rapids) is a sacred place with 10,000 years of habitation and culture. It was at the centre of a vibrant continent-wide trading network as far back as 5,000-6,000 years ago (before the Egyptian Pyramids were built). More than 30 ancient villages and campsites have been discovered here.

But Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung is best known for its ancient burial mounds -- the largest concentration of such things in Canada -- built on river terraces edging the Rainy River and the Long Sault Rapids. Called the Manitou (Ojibway for Spirit) Mounds, the first ones were built more than 2,000 years ago.

The Canadian government declared the area a National Historic Site in 1969. The Ojibway people of the Rainy River First Nation are the present day guardians of Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung and have built a world-class historical centre on the beautiful 90-hectare site. The centre has five galleries, a conservation lab with more than 10,000 artifacts in storage, a gift shop (specializing in beautiful Ojibway arts and crafts), a first-class restaurant that serves traditional Ojibway cuisine, and is the gateway to the Manitou Mounds.

On a slightly overcast Saturday in August, my husband and I travelled to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung and had the honour of being the guests of Chief Jim Leonard of the Rainy River First Nation. A tall man with jet-black hair, Chief Leonard (a Lakehead University graduate) has been involved in the development of the historical site since he was 18 years old and is now the Chair of the centre's Board of Directors.

''The centre was a vision of our Elders almost 30 years ago and the architects have designed the centre working with those visions,'' explained Chief Leonard. ''The goal is to present our story through our eyes. This place has always had a special meaning for the people of Manitou. For thousands of years we've been here. We've traded here; we've hunted here; we've fished here; and we've always wanted to share this place with others.''

Barely visible from the visitor parking lot, the entire centre is built into the riverbank. After meeting Chief Leonard at the entrance, we descended down a bright tunnel-like stairway to the visitor reception area beside a large observation tank of lake sturgeon. This armour-plated toothless fish is closely related to the shark and has remained virtually unchanged for 100 million years. Since time immemorial people came to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung, during the sturgeon's spring spawning, to feast and celebrate this important food resource.

In the reception area, we were joined by Art Hunter, our guide for the afternoon, and two other visitors, a photojournalist from Germany and a tourist from Thunder Bay. The centre is a bright, well-designed building that exudes a sense of space and time. The use of natural wood heightens the impact of the exhibits, particularly the intriguing historical black and white photographs. I was particularly drawn to one showing groups of men playing something called the Moccasin Game. Hunter told us that traditionally it is a man's game (other gambling games were exclusive to women) and the men could play for weeks, moving the game from one place to another. The Moccasin Game is played in teams made up of hunters and hiders, and is based on psychology, knowledge of human behaviour, and a very complicated counting system. A complex and brilliant Ojibway game, it dates back thousands of years.

Hunter led us through the various galleries, sharing his extensive knowledge of Ojibway culture and heritage. We learned about the traditional housing styles, the harvesting of wild rice (ziibing the rice is similar to stomping grapes), ancient pottery techniques that made use of the river's clay, and the floral beaded work that is a hallmark of Ojibway culture. We gazed at the impressive wall size murals by Native artists and appreciated the workmanship of the Jingle Dress regalia that was adorned with hundreds of long, tubular cones made out of shiny metal that 'jingle' as the dancer moves.

While we were admiring a display of traditional birch bark containers, Chief Leonard shared with us the secret of how to boil water in birch bark. ''You take a stone that has been made hot in a fire, put it in a birch bark container filled with water, and you have boiled water!'' Simple, but amazing.

One of the most impressive features of the centre is the gallery scenes of typical everyday village life at the Mounds in 1850, including canoeing and spear fishing for sturgeon. The scenes are so realistic that a Montreal museum curator recently commented that the historical detail on these exhibits is among the best he had ever seen.

And then came the golf carts. With the Mounds located about three kilometres away from the centre, visitors have a choice of walking along the old wagon river valley trail or riding in a golf cart. Because of time constraints, we chose the latter but plan someday we will return to do the walk.

On the way to the Mounds, we stopped briefly at a large lookout area that provided a panoramic view of the main mounds to which we were headed. It was a stunning scene and we could already feel the spirituality of the site.

Once we arrived, Hunter gathered us around a much smaller grass-covered mound that had not been visible from the lookout. He explained this was a 'new' mound, begun in 1995 to bury repatriated ancient bones excavated in 1969, and returned by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. He invited us, as he does all mound visitors, to join him in a sacred ceremony to honour the eleven ancestors buried here. We followed his lead to gather black earth in one hand and tobacco in the other, and then walked quietly in a single file to gently scatter our offerings on the sacred mound. It was a very moving, spiritually intense few moments. And with those few actions, we became part of the history of Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung.

The ancient mounds were constructed by digging a shallow pit, ceremoniously placing the bones, and covering the remains with earth. The following year the burial ceremony would be continued as more individuals were buried and more earth placed on top; the mounds eventually grew in size to what we see today. Fifteen mounds have been documented, although there are approximately 20 to 25 mounds on site.

The villages were set up around the mounds, and as I gazed around at the landscape where the ancient campsites had been, Chief Leonard put into words my unspoken thoughts. ''Can you imagine the organization and infrastructure needed to handle so many people arriving here at the same time? How did they manage the feeding, the social structure, the garbage, the waste....or just living altogether in the same area?''

While walking through the prairie oak savannah, with the Rainy River flowing beside me, I could almost hear the living sounds of these ancient people. The sense of history was almost palpable. With spears and hooks, they fished for lake sturgeon that could weigh up to 400 pounds and reach 13 feet in length. They planted summer gardens for later harvesting and left behind a rich diversity of plant life from their herbs and seeds. Today, scientists worldwide are studying the unique vegetation mix. And they traded; items like obsidian from Wyoming, copper from Lake Superior, marine shells from Florida, exotic stone from the north and west, and flint from the Dakotas.

The day ended at the restaurant with a delicious light supper with Chief Leonard. Conversation flowed freely with much laughter; a perfect ending to an unforgettable day. Driving back home to Thunder Bay later that evening, I thought of all the people, like myself, who travel overseas seeking historical touchstones, yet here at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung with its Manitou Mounds, there is as powerful a place of history and culture as anywhere else in the world.

(Editor's Note: The Kay-Nah-Chi-Wan-Nung Historical Centre can be contacted at (807) 483-1163. Their website address is


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