Haudenosaunee sites of cultural importance damaged in Toronto’s High Park.


Rastia’ta’non:ha, Seneca Nation man; wolf clan and supporters, sit amid a circle of fallen red oaks cradled within the confines of manmade hillocks and valleys on a beautiful High Park afternoon. This sensitive, natural habitat has been stripped of grass, the manmade dips and high points of this once beautiful environment lie barren and desolate. A dead tree stump at the top of the mound stands sentinel to the desecration, large oaks, birch and aspen over arch the place in seeming sadness.

The circle of supporters sits at the lowest point of a valley, on what was known to the ancient First Peoples of the area as Watersnake Mound, in the south end of the park. A red banner tied to a central tree valiantly signifies that this space is now under the protection of the Indigenous People gathered there. The mound is one of 57 purported sites of historical significance within the boundaries of the park.

This mound is, according to Iroquoian oral teachings, a burial site of some 3,000 years, built by people of the Meadowood Culture and is currently an issue of great concern for the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. For the last 16 years, children and adult BMX bicycle riders have illegally cut into Watersnake Mound, building an unnatural landscape of cycling ramps on the site, possibly having desecrated the tombs of First Peoples buried within.

High Park is the largest park in Toronto. Its 398 acres include recreational areas and wild parkland with varied facilities, gardens, playgrounds and a zoo. One third of the park remains in a natural state, classified as rare oak savannah ecology.

Rastia’ta’non:ha, whose name means “Protector of the Ancestors,” has been assigned by Clan Mothers from many fires, on both sides of “The Imaginary Line” (the Canada-U.S. Border), the task of documenting finds there and protecting the mounds and attempting to get Toronto officials to designate this mound and others historically significant sites so that they may be restored and protected.

In order to accomplish these, in his view, sacred and essential tasks, Rastia’ta’non:ha and others have established the Täiäiäkó’n Historical Preservation Society, with the sole mandate of restoring and preserving Thunderbird Mound at Magwood Park, Toronto and those burial mounds and sites of significance in High Park.

In the society of the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), a consensual decision-making process involves all of the 50 clans contained in the Six Nations of The Confederacy. The People have an ordered, non-hierarchical way of making certain all voices are heard. “When the people speak, the Clan Mothers make the final decision based on what the people want. They are responsible for all the people in their clans. The Chiefs listen to them as well. The Clan Mothers decided that this whole park needed to be preserved and protected at all costs,” said Rastia’ta’non:ha. “They were very upset with what they saw happening here and have said that these activities should never have gone on this long. The people who are doing this, should not be here, this is a burial site,” he stated emphatically, “It’s upsetting to the ancestors!”

When development of west Toronto was occurring, in 1921, “on a high sandy ridge immediately north of Grenadier pond, at an approximate depth of 90cm, workers discovered a single grave, uncovering eight or 10 red-ochre covered, in-flesh burials. All were in the usual sitting position …” (Dr. R. B. Orr, Director, Provincial Museum, Canada). It is not known where the remains of the people found in those graves now are. There have since — in 2009 and 2010 — been other discoveries of bone fragments there but park officials and city authorities, according to Rastia’ta’non:ha, have been slow to take action to name them as such, despite the tagging of Bear Mound as a bona fide archaeological site.

“Watersnake mound is located near water and this body of water is on the very old map we have,” says Rastia’ta’non:ha. “We’ve found Mica here from West Virginia, Obsidian from Yellowstone Park and further; a shell from the Gulf of Mexico, Red Ochre from “Hells Gate” on the Mattawa River near North Bay, Red Lake, near the Manitoba-Ontario imaginary line, chert (silica chalcedony) that comes from various locations: Fort Erie, Collingwood and further away. We know that many Indigenous People came to trade, live, hunt and fish here and have been doing so for thousands of years. We have found red ochre and aboriginal artifacts that would indicate that this is a gravesite. We have an arrowhead found here, which alone should signify that this is an archaeologically important site! This mound is an indicator of the relationship our people have with the land and signifies how important this place was and is.”

History of the Meadowood Culture

The people of The Meadowood culture lived in three types of communities: semi-permanent base camps, temporary procurement camps, and mortuary sites. Mortuary sites were separate from living areas and were traditionally placed within natural knolls and ridges in the landscape, or near water. Their funerary rituals were elaborate. They sprinkled or painted their dead with red ochre and placed blades, copper, bone and shell beads as well as pottery, pipes, fire-making kits and baskets within the mortuary mounds. The in-flesh burials may have been designated for those of high status such as the Shaman, Chief or Clan Mother and each mound in High Park was aligned cosmically, by having their cardinal features coordinated with solar progressions, as with a giant sundial. They are also aligned geographically with Thunderbird Mound and other sites marking the travel routes of the people who migrated between Ontario and Ohio, where Serpent Mound is located and points beyond.

In 2003, the Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Culture designated Bear Mound, just North of Grenadier Restaurant, as “Archaeological site AjGu-45.” “This action may have, in fact, made it difficult for the city to designate the sites as archaeologically significant or protected.” says Ms. May Maracle of The Aboriginal Affairs Committee. The purpose of the committee is to make recommendations to City Council regarding the affairs of Aboriginal peoples in Toronto. “The Preservation Society has had the opportunity to present their case to the Committee but so far that has not happened,” said Maracle. Rastia’ta’non:ha contests Maracle’s statement and says the meetings between Täiäiäkó’n and the Committee were continually deferred to unspecified dates and when the meeting was to be held with the archaeologist in charge of the Toronto New Archaeological Master Plan, his organization was not invited to participate. The Aboriginal Affairs Committee had requested the city’s archaeologist meet with THPS in 2009, but to this date, there has been no meeting.

Since August 28th of last year, Rastia’ta’non:ha and the city have been involved in a struggle to deal effectively with the Snake Mound issue. Several people have been observed cutting into the mound, he asserts, to find human remains and artifacts, which have surfaced after rainstorms. Barriers have been erected by the Parks and Rec department at the request of the society, and agreements have been struck with park officials as to their maintenance and enforcement by the police, but according to Rastia’ta’non:ha, the park and the city have failed to keep their promises. Monitoring of the area is inconsistent — cyclists have continually knocked the barricades down late at night and have destroyed or damaged signs posted against illegal cycling there. They have also been seen digging for artifacts and have been verbally abusive, throwing rocks at supporters and making threats to the general park-going public. This culminated in the society lodging a formal complaint to the Mayor’s Office, Park Officials, The Police Department and local Members of Parliament on Dec. 9, 2010.

There are videotapes online, of city officials and police in discussion with supporters at the Aug. 28 ceremony date of last year. In the tapes officials promise support however at other times, people claiming to be park workers have been witnessed giving shovels to children and telling them to “dig anywhere.” There are several bylaws which apply to this situation: the bylaw against digging in the park, Bylaw 608-29 sec a-d against biking off designated trials in the park; there is a criminal law against desecrating graves in Ontario and the Environmental Protection Act. Section 74 of the Cemeteries Act, covers the cemeteries of Indigenous peoples in Ontario.

Ms. Wynna Brown, the acting operations support coordinator for The Department of Parks and Recreation attests there have been no archaeological findings there but did not respond to an email request for the archaeologist’s name and details of the types of assessments carried out. She did state, however, that stage one and two assessments had been completed but did not provide further details on the methods used or whether or not the assessment process was concluded. Brown also stated plainly that the city only works with bon fide groups that the Aboriginal Affairs Committee approves of.

The coroner’s office follows certain procedures about dealing with human remains, as they must establish the circumstances around their location and whether or not they are linked to a possible homicide. When skeletal remains are found, if they are identified as such by a visual appraisal, they are forwarded to a forensic anthropologist who may further test them to establish their age. Despite the fact that police have been called to the site several times to keep people from cycling there and that the fragments were visually appraised by a coroner, their offices in Toronto stated to me they were unfamiliar with the case mentioned. Rastia’ta’non:ha has submitted the fragments found at Bear Mound to one of the DNA labs in Ontario, which specialize in forensic tests and dating of ancient human bone. He is currently awaiting results.

Rastia’ta’non:ha said the coroner did come to the site on May 10, 2009 to appraise the fragments and three days later determined that they were stone by visual appraisal but no further testing occurred. Other fragments were found lying on the ground after a rain in Aug. 2009, along with red ochre and other burial indicators. The police from 11 Division were called but refused to deal with the issue following the protocols under Ontario Cemeteries Act. In August they told Rastia’ta’non:ha and witnesses at the site to “deal with the issue themselves” then left the scene.

Park officials have said that the assessment report has not yet come in. Rastia’ta’non:ha feels the damage to the place is apparent and should not require further delays in restoring the mounds. Activists have been warned against demolishing the bike ramps in fact, they would be arrested if they attempt to level the dirt jumps with any implements.

“We should not have to have anyone’s permission to do this, these are the gravesites of our grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ ancestors!” said Rastia’ta’non:ha. In his view, archaeological assessments are destructive to ancient gravesites. He feels that the teachings and lore of his people should be enough to set the place as a sacred site and doing so could be very good for the city’s reputation and subsequently generate revenue for the park. According to Rastia’ta’non:ha, when John Howard bequeathed High Park to the city, it was on the condition that the Six Nations continue their custodial role over the park and in particular, the sites themselves. They have strongly stated that it is their duty and spiritual obligation to maintain the mounds and their connection to the ancestors, for future generations of all people.

Notwithstanding difficulties in legislating this area as an Indigenous peoples burial site, there are other issues at stake. The area has already been deemed environmentally sensitive, as Trilliums and several species of Oak grow there which are shielded under Ontario’s environmental protection laws. “On that count alone both High Park officials and the city have not stepped up to the plate in terms of protection of this area. There are protected tree root systems being destroyed, trilliums are being trampled on, not to mention all the animal species that live here. Their habitat is being eradicated.”

Six Nations Confederacy Chief, Arnold General; Beaver Clan of the Onondaga Nation, does not understand why the park officials and city politicians are not letting people know about what is happening at Watersnake Mound. “This is our heritage,” said the chief, “Treaties were signed with the government in good faith. Our rights are being eradicated, our lands taken away. I know what my ancestors told me, that anything related to the burial of our people should be left alone and protected. Why is it, that if we stand up for our rights, we are thought of as bad people when this land was ours to begin with?”

Rastia’ta’non:ha says that he believes that the restoration of the mounds in High Park will create a domino effect regarding the recognition of these sites all over the world. Said Chief General, “It would be nice if we were all of one mind around this issue. The way the city is dealing with this is degrading to our people.”

Activists are trying to get the word out to those who may be supportive. An environmentalist involved with Täiäiäkó’n says he thinks this will be a step-by-step process accomplished in increments. “Essentially, you have to have a long view of what you want to do and be very clear about what your goals are. We’re willing to work with the city peacefully and let them speak and do, as opposed to protesting and barricading. We feel that will make them more willing to help. Rastia’ta’non:ha has been amazing to work with and we are privileged and honoured to be working with him. It’s a long process. Bottom line, this is a health and safety issue, this place is unsafe, there is broken glass everywhere, drug paraphernalia have been found here; the soil is eroding, it’s dangerous for the children!”

Two Feathers Down, a Seneca man from Kentucky, says he feels if the people cycling on the ramps knew there were graves there, they would not be so eager to ride over them. He feels it doesn’t matter whose graves they are, the fact that they’re there, means they should be dealt with in a respectful way. “The people of Toronto from all cultures are being damaged by the way this is being handled. This is a part of the city’s history and there could be great benefit by recognizing that this ancient burial mound system is within its jurisdiction.” He also feels that the police should address the person or persons, who are encouraging the children to be belligerent and abusive to the people trying to do the work of having the mounds recognized and preserved.

“We have suggested to the police and the city that BMX ramps be built elsewhere says Rastiatanon:ha,” we are concerned for the riders who are taking risks both from a safety perspective and also from a spiritual perspective. The gravesites of the ancestors were protected when they were built, we do not want to see anyone get hurt here. Each grave,” he elucidates, “was sealed with a blessing and a curse.”

Two Feathers Down asserted that Indigenous People will come from as many as thirty US States and from as far north as the Arctic Circle if Rastia’ta’non:ha puts the word out that he needs help. “People from every direction are watching and waiting for the word.”

Rastia’ta’non:ha is demonstrably passionate when stating that his cultural beliefs and practices encompass all aspects of life; the past present and future, “So when we do things, and we say things, we do them with what will happen seven generations down the road in mind. For me this is all encompassing. It carries over into all life. It’s not just the ancestors, it is now and the future, because without these mounds, the footprint of the Haudenosaunee will be erased.”

Catherine Tammaro is a digital artist, painter, musician and freelance writer living in Toronto. Her works have been exhibited in both traditional and alternative gallery spaces and her written and visual works have been published in various journals and publications in Toronto and internationally. 

Image below: Rastia’ta’non:ha ~ Protector of the Ancestors