The Illustrated History of the Chippewas of Nawash is essentially a graphic novel, researched, written and drawn by Polly Keeshig-Tobias, a member of the Chippewas of Nawash.
Published in 1996 it is both artful and unique in its telling of a sequence of historical events beginning with the 1836 Treaty to the trial of two band members in 1992 for exceeding their quota of lake trout. This is a story of belonging to the land and losing it piece by piece through coercion, oppression and theft. The book ends with victory in the courts: Howard Jones and Francis Nadjiwon are acquitted and Ontario’s fisheries management regime is overthrown. Now the FNs are managing the commercial fishery – as they have for the past millennium or so.
Polly begins with two teens who come home from school with an assignment to write an essay on a person or event in Canadian history. Their grandmother suggests they do a paper on their Band, the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, a history the two know nothing about since it’s not in their history books. The ask their Nokomis to tell it.
The 89-page book is well researched and the appendices provide the background to an engaging and troubling portrayal of the key events that led to the loss of tribal lands and economy (ie, the fishery). As each episode ends we return to Nokomis who starts another story.
We see how a growing population of settlers in the 19th Century wanted more land and how government agents moved to take over land and fisheries that only appeared to be unused. In reality, the land and the water had been managed intelligently for generations by indigenous peoples who knew from experience how to take care of the resources they depended on.
This history relates the stories of treaties written without the input of the chiefs; of Catherine Suttons and her fruitless journey to England to seek justice from Queen Victoria; of the 1992 vigil by band members on sacred burial grounds at 6th Ave in Owen Sound; of the loss of fishing rights to non-natives; and of the imposition of unjustified quotas that favoured the non-Native industry and discriminated against Nawash and Saugeen who had relied on fishing for their food and livelihood.
This publication is a good read. The illustrations are wonderfully executed and the information it contains remains current. As the late Dr. Basil Johnston said: “This book deserves to be in classrooms.”