The following is an introductory blog written by Robin Binèsi Cavanagh, who has recently joined the museum in the new role of Indigenous Relations Liaison.
I did not understand the significance of my birthplace until my late twenties. I was born in Spanish, Ontario. My mother, who was from Sagamok First Nation, was taken from her home at an early age to attend residential school in Spanish. The history of this place was never spoken of by my mother until one day, I asked. I was attending Trent University and a course assignment required us to seek out our parents’ history and our family’s story. I soon learned that this was something my mother was reluctant to speak about. But when she did, it brought tears to her eyes, and opened mine to a world I had not been aware of. My father, an Irishman from the Ottawa Valley, had been a trapper, hunter and ironworker and shared many ways of surviving in this world. It was also around this time in my life that I met Anishinaabe Elder Herb Nabigon, who became a great friend and patient teacher to me. I became his helper. It was my mother and Herb who taught me the important ways of being and becoming a good helper — a task I’ve not always found easy. One important lesson I have learned over the years, is the importance of having a safe and welcoming home.
Growing up, we did not have a home that would live up to today’s standards — comfortable for a family with seven children. But it was always clean, had plenty of food, and the smell of fresh bread baked every Sunday. Later, when Herb taught me how to build a lodge, he said, “Keep it simple, offer your tobacco, make it comfortable and pay particular attention to the land. Keep it clean.” Both my mother’s house and Herb’s lodge shared something special. They were always full. Many, who otherwise did not always feel comfortable, felt welcomed and at home when they visited.
I have had the great pleasure of working at The Canadian Canoe Museum since November. The museum is housed in an older building, one full of stories that have formed its current state of being and becoming the best that it can. I have been warmly welcomed by a team of kind and dedicated people, gifted some deer meat, offered a comfortable work space, and continue to share in the laughter and challenges of working in a space that, at times, may not be adequate. Yet, the staff strive to be all that they can be on a daily basis.
Just after my first week at the museum, I asked, and was encouraged, to create a space for my bundle and medicines — to make the space comfortable and welcoming. This included a smudge bowl, which I used to smudge the space. I was able to share with my two office partners this meaningful offering. Since then, people have remarked on how nice it is to have the smell of sage about the office. Seemingly small actions have allowed me to feel at home and comfortable while at work. I have also had the opportunity to sit in the exhibition spaces quietly with my tobacco and express my thanks for all those that have made these spaces possible, and that their gifts and knowledge will continue to benefit the Canadian Canoe Museum’s journey toward maintaining and building healthy relations.
In my role thus far, as Indigenous Relations Liaison, I have had the good fortune to meet incredible staff, volunteers, board members, and some community members. I feel honoured to be a facilitator and a helper, realizing that the greatest gift I can offer is to help create comfortable spaces and conversations built on positive relations so that we can continue in a good way.
In many ways, it is about the space in which the canoe will continue its journey. For some canoes, this may mean returning home. Others may remind us of the journeys we’ve had together, and others yet, may inspire our children to create a canoe of inter-Nation-al scope that carries the hope of being and becoming good helpers. On occasion, Elders have been invited to smudge and feast the spirits of the canoes. As we consider ways to honour and awaken the spirit of the canoes, it is my hope that we continue to welcome and build new relations with Indigenous communities and that they may share with us the honour of holding a feast for the canoes. I look forward to helping facilitate a space where learning and collaborative expression can take place between the museum and Indigenous communities nationwide. An aspiration that sees communities as the experts, with people telling their stories in their own languages and voices.
Herb often reminded me of the complexity of relations, the challenges of communicating good intentions and the importance of listening to the historical and current challenges we face — each day. We live in a time where there is considerable documentation and Calls to Action that can be a useful starting point. However, nothing is more valuable than practising an ongoing process of building positive healthy collaborative relations based on a respect and understanding of each other — cultural protocols. From my experience with the canoe museum, I have witnessed what I believe is the spirit and intent to maintain and create healthy Indigenous collaborative relations moving forward. It includes a process we should all seek — reviewing our past and getting our houses in order to ensure Indigenous Peoples feel at home.
When the time comes to move into its new home, it is likely The Canadian Canoe Museum will have no need to invite Indigenous People in, as they will already have a strong presence as part of all our relations — Nii’Kinaaganaa.
Robin Binèsi Cavanagh