In Canada, June 21st marks not only the summer solstice, but also National Aboriginal Day — a special day to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding achievements of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples in Canada. During the next week I’ll be sharing some posts dedicated to First Nations sites and events within Toronto and Ontario.
To begin I present to you Petroglyphs Provincial Park, which I had the honour of visiting this past weekend. Just outside the small town of Woodview, about 200 kilometers northeast of Toronto, this provincial park holds within its borders a sacred space — the Teaching Rocks of the First Nations peoples of Ontario.
Dating back to between 900 and 1100 AD, these rock carvings depict animals, humans, and spiritual beings such as Nanabush (a trickster character with the ability to shape-shift), and Gitchi Manitou — the Great Spirit and creator of the world. They were chiseled into the crystalline limestone with gneiss hammer stones and used by the elders to teach adolescent males about the aboriginal story of life.
The site represents the largest collection of aboriginal rock carvings in Canada, and were originally discovered in 1924. However, they were forgotten until 1954 when they were rediscovered by miners. In 1976 the site became a provincial park under the stewardship of the Curve Lake First Nation, and in 1984 a structure was built to encapsulate the rocks and protect them from erosion and the elements.
As the site is a sacred space, it was requested that we not take any photos or videos during our visit. So out of respect to the sanctity of the park, I kept my camera in my pocket. I was able to find some excellent photos that were taken with permission, so I’m sharing them here to give just a small impression of what the site looks like:
The park also provides you with a pamphlet that describes the imagery you see. Here are some explanations for a few of the key figures:
NANABUSH – First Nations legends often depict spirits, including that of Nanabush or Nanaboozho. The carving of the rabbit may very well represent that of Nanabush in his rabbit form. He has the ability to transform himself into anything he wants to be; however, he must accept the limitations of the form he has chosen. Nanabush is sometimes seen as the trickster who enjoys playing tricks on people and animals. He is also seen as a teach who showed the First Nations people how to hunt, trap, fish, and use medicinal herbs.
SNAKES – Many snake images can be seen at the site. There are roughly 30 snake carvings and most of them are portrayed to be exiting the natural crevices in the rock. To some First Nations people, they are thought to be symbols of renewal and regeneration. Because snakes live and move between the spirit worlds, they are often viewed as messengers from the underworld and protector of the springs [that flow beneath the rock]. They are also able to assist medicine people with their healing practices.
CRANES/HERONS – Cranes are very important to some First Nations people and are a common totem bird among the Algonkian peoples. They play a relevant role in the world of shamanism, signified as helping spirits that aid in revealing prophecies, and are receptacles for the souls of the dead as birds can read the future.
BOATS – The boats here may represent the birch bark canoes used by some of the aboriginal people in the region. Native people in the area employed a wide variety of materials and shapes when building their canoes, and their decisions were often dependent on the availability of their building supplies. Art historians have suggested that these boats carried spirits to a different world, and that the vertical lines in the boat may represent these beings or spirits.
MEDICINE PERSON – This carving is thought to be a medicine person (or Shaman) holding an object that may possible be a turtle rattle used in ceremonial practices. The cone-shaped hat over the person’s head may indicate his or her connection to the spirit world and the power of healing.
LARGE POINTS – Some have suggested that the large triangular-shaped carvings may portray a shamanistic spirit. First Nations people often use a triangle shape to depict a body, or possibly the shape of the soul after it has left the body. It is noted that each triangular carving has a different top.
TURTLES – There are approximately 13 turtle carvings on the glyph site. It is an important spirit animal of many First Nations people as it is a symbol of patience, longevity, and fertility. The small circular carvings that can be seen around some of the turtles may represent their eggs. In the narrative of creation, the turtle offers its back as a place upon which the new world is to be created.
THUNDERBIRD – Legends of the thunderbird are found in many indigenous cultures. It is seen as a protector of the people. Some First Nations believe that thunder is created by the Thunderbird’s call, lightning from its eyes blinking, and storm winds from the flapping of its wings.
GITCHI MANITOU (GREAT SPIRIT) – This large figure located near the centre of the site is thought by some First Nations to be a carving of the “Gitchi Manitou”, or the Great Spirit and the creator of the world. This may also represent a shaman who has been giving powers by the creator. The outer disc could also possibly be a depiction of the sun and the rays a representation of the amount of power it has.
The park also has a visitor’s centre with informative exhibitions and a small cinema space to watch a documentary about the glyphs.
To find out more about Petroglyphs Provincial Park, such as operating hours and general information, visit their website here.
If you’d like to read more about the petroglyphs, Ron Brown’s Top 125 Unusual Things to See in Ontario has a section on the site (as well as other amazing finds within the province), or visit the website from which I sourced the photographs above, which also provides a good read.
Visiting this sacred spot was definitely an experience I’ll never forget. The glyph site and the forested area surrounding it provided me with a sense of peace and tranquility that I haven’t felt in a while. One definitely becomes in touch with nature here! If you get the chance to visit, please do take the opportunity as this spot is quite unlike any other within Ontario.