This Indigenous history was generously provided by Curve Lake First Nations. Publication reference: Gitiga Migizi and Julie Kapyrka, 2015 Before, During, and After: Mississauga Presence in the Kawarthas, Peterborough Archaeology, Dirk Verhulst, editor, pp. 127-136. Peterborough, Ontario: Peterborough Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society
The traditional homelands of the Michi Saagiig (Mississauga Anishinaabeg) encompass a vast area of what is now known as southern Ontario. The Michi Saagiig are known as “the people of the big river mouths” and were also known as the “Salmon People” who occupied and fished the north shore of Lake Ontario where the various tributaries emptied into the lake. Their territories extended north into and beyond the Kawarthas as winter hunting grounds on which they would break off into smaller social groups for the season, hunting and trapping on these lands, then returning to the lakeshore in spring for the summer months.
The Michi Saagiig were a highly mobile people, travelling vast distances to procure subsistence for their people. They were also known as the “Peacekeepers” among Indigenous nations. The Michi Saagiig homelands were located directly between two very powerful Confederacies: The Three Fires Confederacy to the north and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to the south. The Michi Saagiig were the negotiators, the messengers, the diplomats, and they successfully mediated peace throughout this area of Ontario for countless generations.
Michi Saagiig oral histories speak to their people being in this area of Ontario for thousands of years. These stories recount the “Old Ones” who spoke an ancient Algonquian dialect. The histories explain that the current Ojibwa phonology is the 5th transformation of this language, demonstrating a linguistic connection that spans back into deep time. The Michi Saagiig of today are the descendants of the ancient peoples who lived in Ontario during the Archaic and Paleo-Indian periods. They are the original inhabitants of southern Ontario, and they are still here today.
The traditional territories of the Michi Saagiig span from Gananoque in the east, all along the north shore of Lake Ontario, west to the north shore of Lake Erie at Long Point. The territory spreads as far north as the tributaries that flow into these lakes, from Bancroft and north of the Haliburton highlands. This also includes all the tributaries that flow from the height of land north of Toronto like the Oak Ridges Moraine, and all of the rivers that flow into Lake Ontario (the Rideau, the Salmon, the Ganaraska, the Moira, the Trent, the Don, the Rouge, the Etobicoke, the Humber, and the Credit, as well as Wilmot and 16 Mile Creeks) through Burlington Bay and the Niagara region including the Welland and Niagara Rivers, and beyond. The western side of the Michi Saagiig Nation was located around the Grand River which was used as a portage route as the Niagara portage was too dangerous. The Michi Saagiig would portage from present-day Burlington to the Grand River and travel south to the open water on Lake Erie.
Michi Saagiig oral histories also speak to the occurrence of people coming into their territories sometime between 500-1000 A.D. seeking to establish villages and a corn growing economy – these newcomers included peoples that would later be known as the Huron-Wendat, Neutral, Petun/Tobacco Nations. The Michi Saagiig made Treaties with these newcomers and granted them permission to stay with the understanding that they were visitors in these lands. Wampum was made to record these contracts, ceremonies would have bound each nation to their respective responsibilities within the political relationship, and these contracts would have been renewed annually (see Gitiga Migizi and Kapyrka 2015). These visitors were extremely successful as their corn economy grew as well as their populations. However, it was understood by all nations involved that this area of Ontario were the homeland territories of the Michi Saagiig.
The Odawa Nation worked with the Michi Saagiig to meet with the Huron-Wendat, the Petun, and Neutral Nations to continue the amicable political and economic relationship that existed – a symbiotic relationship that was mainly policed and enforced by the Odawa people. Problems arose for the Michi Saagiig in the 1600s when the European way of life was introduced into southern Ontario. Also, around the same time, the Haudenosaunee were given firearms by the colonial governments in New York and Albany which ultimately made an expansion possible for them into Michi Saagiig territories. There began skirmishes with the various nations living in Ontario at the time. The Haudenosaunee engaged in fighting with the Huron-Wendat and between that and the onslaught of European diseases, the Iroquoian speaking peoples in Ontario were decimated. The onset of colonial settlement and missionary involvement severely disrupted the original relationships between these Indigenous nations. Disease and warfare had a devastating impact upon the Indigenous peoples of Ontario, especially the large sedentary villages, which mostly included Iroquoian speaking peoples. The Michi Saagiig were largely able to avoid the devastation caused by these processes by retreating to their wintering grounds to the north, essentially waiting for the smoke to clear.
Michi Saagiig Elder Gitiga Migizi*(2017) recounts:
“We weren’t affected as much as the larger villages because we learned to paddle away for several years until everything settled down. And we came back and tried to bury the bones of the Huron but it was overwhelming, it was all over, there were bones all over – that is our story.
There is a misnomer here, that this area of Ontario is not our traditional territory and that we came in here after the Huron-Wendat left or were defeated, but that is not true. That is a big misconception of our history that needs to be corrected. We are the traditional people, we are the ones that signed treaties with the Crown. We are recognized as the ones who signed these treaties and we are the ones to be dealt with officially in any matters concerning territory in southern Ontario.
We had peacemakers go to the Haudenosaunee and live amongst them in order to change their ways. We had also diplomatically dealt with some of the strong chiefs to the north and tried to make peace as much as possible. So we are very important in terms of keeping the balance of relationships in harmony.
Some of the old leaders recognized that it became increasingly difficult to keep the peace after the Europeans introduced guns. But we still continued to meet, and we still continued to have some wampum, which doesn’t mean we negated our territory or gave up our territory – we did not do that. We still consider ourselves a sovereign nation despite legal challenges against that. We still view ourselves as a nation and the government must negotiate from that basis.”
Often times, southern Ontario is described as being “vacant” after the dispersal of the Huron-Wendat peoples in 1649 (who fled east to Quebec and south to the United States). This is misleading as these territories remained the homelands of the Michi Saagiig Nation.
The Michi Saagiig participated in eighteen treaties from 1781 to 1923 to allow the growing number of European settlers to establish in Ontario. Pressures from increased settlement forced the Michi Saagiig to slowly move into small family groups around the present day communities: Curve Lake First Nation, Hiawatha First Nation, Alderville First Nation, Scugog Island First Nation, New Credit First Nation, and Mississauga First Nation.
The Michi Saagiig have been in Ontario for thousands of years, and they remain here to this day.
* Historical context prepared by: Gitiga Migizi, respected Elder and Knowledge Keeper of the Michi Saagiig Nation