No archeological study has been conducted
Recent newspaper stories of a vast native burial ground, lying virtually unknown under seven city blocks in the Orillia's old west ward, highlight the need to restore links to the past, says a Chippewas of Rama councillor.
"What is needed is more awareness and more education," says Ron Douglas, who was manager of the band's department of culture and research for five years before being elected to council.
The Mount Slaven Site is bounded by Westmount Drive and Mississaga, O'Brien and Nottawasaga streets. It is believed to have been a winter campground for the Algonquins, who buried their dead in sitting positions facing east.
The 68-acre site, straddling Mount Slaven Creek, was ransacked and looted by curiosity seekers as early as the 1860s, and dozens of skeletons were unearthed as the city grew westward and lots were cleared and levelled.
Stories about human remains being uprooted by people digging cellars or laying sewer lines appeared in the local papers until the 1920s.
But as the years passed and the creek was confined for most of its length to underground pipes, succeeding generations in the developed neighbourhood grew up knowing nothing of the rich archaeological repository under their feet.
The Mount Slaven Site and 31 other locations of vanished aboriginal villages in the Orillia area are not identified on municipal maps or considered in official plans.
No proper archaeological study was ever conducted and no effort has been made to recover artifacts ferreted out and carried off in all directions over the years.
Rama Chief Sharon Stinson Henry grew up and went to school in Orillia, knowing nothing of buried Mount Slaven native village that ironically lay at the doorstep and gave its name to an elementary school.
"In school I didn't like history," she said.
"It wasn't our history. We were learning about explorers."
When Stinson Henry and Douglas first saw the photograph of 20 aboriginal skulls on a fence, used in newspaper story to illustrate the cavalier attitude to native burial sites 80 years ago, they were appalled and sickened.
"Those were people," said Douglas.
After the story "City of Bones" appeared on Oct. 1, The Packet & Times learned that the skulls, displayed so garishly in 1923, were later placed in a large box along with other bones and under the direction of the Indian Agent reinterred on Chiefs Island.
That provides some comfort, said Stinson Henry.
Despite its disturbing aspects, the story had a positive impact, said Stinson Henry
"It uncovered a history of our people and where we belong. It's up to us now as First Nations to work with all the parties, including the City of Orillia, to see the proper thing is done, especially where human remains are involved."
Tracking native history along the overgrown pathways of the past is a challenge, said Stinson Henry.
"For so many generations, we weren't allowed to speak our language or learn our history."
Orillia's department of culture and heritage is recommending the city undertake an archaeological master plan to identify all sites of historic significance in the municipality.
Stinson wholeheartedly endorses this idea and says her community must also try to retrieve as much of their past history as possible, recognizing their connection to the ancient fish weirs at The Atherley Narrows, where stakes dating back 4,500 years have been found.
"We want to establish a cultural centre and museum in the future, incorporating something about the weirs. It's the 8th Wonder of the World."
The museum would provide a secure place to build a comprehensive collection of local aboriginal artifacts, said Stinson Henry.
"The Canadian public and tourists are hungry to learn about our history. We're hungry ourselves."
The developer of a condominium project on Orchard Point, the southern gateway to The Narrows, has agreed to inform Rama if any human remains are discovered on the property.
Rama is also interested in becoming the curator of any objects of archaeological significance found on the site.
"We need to establish a place to store and protect those artifacts.
While many important sites have been ransacked and degraded, it is not too late to preserve what remains and begin to piece together the history that involves both native and non-native residents of this area.
"It's all part of the wheel of history," said Douglas.
"So much has been lost, but so much can be uncovered. It's a gradual process for all parties, no matter which side of the lake people live on."