Art and Artefact Inform the History of Indigenous People

Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan/ They Did Not Let It Go
Museum London
September 12 to December 25, 2020
Guest Co-curated by Summer Bressette and Monica Virtue


In a small room on the upper floor of Museum London’s gallery space, the well-curated multi-media exhibition , entitled Gaawiin Ogiibagidenaawaasiiwaawan /They Did Not Let It Go, stands as a succinct documentation of a historical chain of events that led up to the Ipperwash Crisis, a fateful event that occurred twenty-five years ago on land in and around Ipperwash Provincial Park in southern Ontario.

The cause of the crisis cited in the exhibition-related text was the appropriation of the Stoney Point Reserve in 1942 by the federal government for use as a military camp; an action which also involved the forceful removal of First Nations people who lived on the Reserve at that time. After repeated requests by Stoney Point First Nations people for the land to be returned, members of that First Nation took up occupation of the Ipperwash land in 1993 and 1995. In early September of 1995, protesters also occupied nearby Ipperwash Provincial Park; an extension of the land claims under dispute. Tensions between the protesters and the Ontario Provincial Police quickly escalated, resulting in a fatal confrontation when on the 6th of September, 1995, Dudley George, an Ojibwa protestor, was killed.

Through the use of photographs, newspaper clippings, and recorded audio tapes, along with supporting artefacts, the exhibition not only makes clear who originally occupied the land but also relays the sad history of repeatedly breached agreements made over many years between the original inhabitants, the Anishinaabe people, and the colonial governments who came to settle here. This exhibition also powerfully displays the ongoing resistance of the Anishinaabe people to surrender their home territories.

A large painting, entitled Ipperwash 2000-2001, by Canadian artist, Robert Houle, is in prominent display on the west wall when you enter the exhibition space. Houle painted this work specifically as a visual response to the Ipperwash Crisis. Houle completed it around the same time as another painting entitled Kanehsatake X, 2000, which commemorated the OKA Crisis, another significant Indigenous land claims protest held in Quebec in the summer of 1990. Robert Houle has always shown a strong connection to his Indigenous heritage in his work, which includes a special relationship to the land, often imbuing it with spiritual and sacred power. He does this by merging techniques used in contemporary abstract painting with traditional Indigenous symbolism and through his choice of colour, patterns and inclusion of symbolic Indigenous objects. In this work, as in several of Houle’s paintings, large flat areas of colour are interwoven with simple patterned shapes and symbols. Two large squares stand side by side, one a sea-green wash and the other painted a flat dark tone. A narrow band of red and yellow squares runs alongside the lighter coloured square. The work is open to interpretation as you try to enter the mind of the artist to determine his intended meaning. Are the large squares a depiction of the infinite land and sky that meet on the horizon, defining the land of the Indigenous people? Does the lighter coloured square signify the greenish waters of Lake Huron positioned against an ominous dark sky, possibly referring to the turbulent times of the Ipperwash Crisis? The simple pattern of smaller yellow and red squares that form the narrow band along one side could be read as yellow for the sun and the creative energy it offers, and red for the people and/or the land.

The large embedded digital images of two flint arrowhead artefacts embedded into the squares is certainly a reminder of who first inhabited the land, who first landed their canoes on the shores of Lake Huron and who first walked and lived along the sandy beaches of the Ipperwash area. Houle brings forth this history placing it in a contemporary context, making it relevant to the events of the Ipperwash Crisis and the ongoing conflict over who has control of the land.

All wampum handmade by Ken Maracle, The Wampum Shop, Six Nations of the Grand River. Photograph courtesy of Museum London. Image © Toni Hafkenscheid. 1. Covenant Chain Wampum 2. 24 Nations Wampum 3. Two Row Wampum 4. Dish with One Spoon Wampum

The art and artefacts included in this exhibition don’t just convey the importance, historically and politically, of art in understanding the Indigenous people’s deep connectedness to the land. The appropriately included four wampum belts in the large glass-covered display cabinet in the centre of the exhibition also serve in a less explicit way as documentation of the broken and disregarded settlements between the Aboriginal people and the colonial settler nations over more than 400 years; a much to be regretted history which culminated in the Ipperwash crisis. In the Algonquin tradition, belts made of wampum were used to mark agreements between Nations, providing visual documentation of what was an oral agreement. Although they are simple and abstract in design, clear interpretations have been given by Indigenous people of the intentions conveyed in these belts.

Wampum belts are long narrow bands made by stringing together tubular beads which are crafted from seashells. Most commonly used are white whelk shells and the purple quahog clam shells that are found in the ocean waters of the east coast of Canada. The two-row wampum, Guswenta, is related to one of the oldest treaty relations between Indigenous and European nations and first served as a symbolic agreement made in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee peoples and Dutch colonials. The three parallel rows of white beads running the length of the belt represent the vast open land that all people are to share equally. The two purple rows represent the Haudenosaunee people and the Dutch settlers, each traveling side-by-side as equals, mutually respecting the other’s way of life.

Image: Creative Commons

The Dish with One Spoon wampum is a symbolic representation of another agreement made between the Algonquin /Haudenosaunee and European nations, where the land is again seen as something shared and intended to mutually benefit both the Indigenous peoples and European inhabitants. The “spoon” represents the individuals, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, all eating from the same bowl and using the resources of the land in a spirit of shared co-operation. This belt was part of the “Great League of Peace” agreement which was struck between the white settlers and the peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy who inhabited the land between the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario and the Hudson River.

The 24 First Nation wampum belt was made to commemorate the Niagara Treaty Agreement; a monumental coming together of First Nations to form an alliance with the British. It is one of numerous wampum belts related the Niagara Treaty Agreement. In this belt, twenty-four stylized human shapes, beaded against a white background, are joined together in a long line across the length of the band, symbolizing the land they all inhabited and shared. The repetition of the shapes conveys the strong unitedness of the First Nations in an alliance which recognizes and respects each constituent nation. On one end of the belt is the symbol of a turtle representing Turtle Island. On the other end of the belt is the stylized shape of a British ship. Intended goodwill, both given and received, is conveyed in this belt.

The British and Western Great Lakes Confederacy Covenant Chain Wampum Belt: Unbreakable Nation to Nation Friendship was also part of the Niagara Treaty Agreement, 1764. This belt represents the coming together of the British and the Great Lakes Confederacy First Nations as equal partners and allies in friendship. The inclusion of silver in this belt is an acknowledgement that, like silver, the relationships would likely tarnish over time. To ensure the alliances would remain strong, it was agreed that every few years, with new generations of leaders, governments would come together to review and uphold the original terms of this agreement. In other words, it would be time to polish the silver.

The handcrafted care and openness of expression displayed in these artefacts affirm Indigenous people’s extension of goodwill to the settlers who came here. The Europeans in some instances believed these treaties gave them permanent control over the land. But the Indigenous people held a different worldview of the land and what the agreements meant. They came to these treaties believing that they would be sharing the land, and that the land was something to be revered and respected as a sacred force which sustains all life. Written into these agreements, as represented in the wampum belts, were offerings of peace and harmonious co-existence. The dark history of the treatment of Indigenous peoples of Canada with the coming of Europeans to Turtle Island, and the tragic events of the Ipperwash Crisis, fly in the face of the genuine intentions and the spirit of understanding behind the wampum belts.


Nida Home Doherty, Senior Writer for


Image courtesy of  Museum London.

Join the Conversation


  1. says: Kim Wilkie

    It is difficult to swallow how the indigenous have been treated with straight forward initiatives in place, as the wampum belts record. Polishing the silver did not happen. Sadly it keeps on getting put off…. sharing for all people involved was the right way to do things and the proper answer to the agreements which were never brought to fruition. Hoping for change. A good read.

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