Snake Mound: Community works against Toronto council to protect burial mounds

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Work on shoring up the Snake Mound site took place this summer.

Much progress has been achieved during the summer of 2011 in the work to preserve the Snake Mound, one of 57 remaining ancient Iroquoian burial mounds in Toronto's High Park in danger of destruction from BMX bike activity. In April, a meeting was set up between the Taiaiako'on Historical Preservation Society (THPS) and Toronto City Councillor Sarah Doucette where she was presented with information about the Snake Mound, and that the City of Toronto's main archeologist Ron Williamson, who is working under a suspended license. (This situation appears to have arisen because the license was not renewed, something that practicing archeologists are compelled to keep up with. The documentation of his license situation has been sent out to city officials by the THPS but the question has never been clarified as to the current state of his credentials, and it has not been denied. The Taiaiako'n Historic Preservation Society has a file which they claim shows that Williamson doesn't have a license, but most of this information does not exist online.)

Doucette said she would research the issue and then respond, however, there was no subsequent contact. In May, a group of residents local to High Park was formed called the Friends Of Snake Mound (FOSM) to support the work done by the THPS. In the late spring, the two groups hosted an information event at Tinto's coffee house that garnered a flurry of media attention both good and bad. The mainstream media perpetuated the lack of scientific rigor and ethical handling of the situation by the city and Toronto Parks Board by parroting the position that there is no archeological site at Snake Mound

Fortunately there was one point of agreement: that the BMX activity was destroying the natural environment. While many members of the BMX community have acknowledged the special environmental and historical value of the site, many others remain intransigent. Despite concerns within the Snake Mound-support community as to whether further changes in the landscape might adversely affect the site, it became evident that taking down the ramps was the only way to stop the greater danger of cycling. In order to see the site repaired, the Parks Board agreed that THPS could direct the dismantling of the bike ramps and reconstruction of the mound.

In May, the city agreed to have Red Power United and the THPS camp at the site while they worked to remove the ramps in order to prevent anymore cycling from taking place and to protect their work and tools.

Throughout the months of June and July, THPS, FOSM and many neighbourhood volunteers, some of whom worked every day for weeks, reformed the mound to its traditional configuration and replanted the ground. The Parks Board did provide many native plants and worked with the THPS to include sacred plants and medicines such as white sage and sweet grass. The See Alternative School contributed corn, beans and squash for a Three Sisters traditional Garden, and Rastia'ta'non:ha planted some tobacco which did not take due to the heat wave. A permanent fence now protects the site while it rejuvenates.

During the course of the reconstruction many debates with Parks Board members took place about how the site was perceived. On June 17, forester Beth McKewen's growing hostility to an Iroquoian identification of the site led her to order her crew to destroy some of the work done by the THPS and FOSM. McKewan stated to several people present that she was "sick" of THPS and that they would be arrested if they went onto the site after the work was completed. Even though she had participated in negotiations with the THPS, according to which they have put in many, many hours to take down the bicycle ramps and replant and restore the site, she stated that she intends to restore an Oak Savannah and nothing else. In light of this, the THPS expressed concern about the Parks respect for their access to the site to perform ceremony as is their treaty right. To date the Parks has refused to acknowledge the claims of the Six Nations to this site and prefer that all activity on the Snake Mound be restricted by the guidelines for picnicking.

At the end of May, extreme right-wing anti-native activist Gary McHale arrived in High Park from Caledonia to "protest" the Mohawk Warriors who he falsely claimed were occupying the site and who, he claimed, wanted to keep everyone who is not native off the land. While McHale's distortions appear ridiculous, they result from and flourish under the attitudes of government, the Parks and police who have all done their part in suppressing the Iroquoian history of Toronto, and in attempting to deny access of Indigenous people to their sites. The suppression of Indigenous people's knowledge creates a terrain of ignorance that becomes a potent breeding ground for the racist attacks and neglect common in Canada.

In August, the archeological report that was commissioned by the city of Toronto in 2009 and executed by Archaeological Services Inc (ASI), the company owned by Williamson, was found after much searching by the THPS. While the report includes background research on High Park founder John Howard's personal history, it makes absolutely no mention of the substantial Indigenous people's history of Toronto, even though there exists important documented and registered sites in the vicinity of Snake Mound. It calls the one site that is mentioned, Bear Mound, "spurious" without detailing how or why and despite the fact that the site was tested by a licensed archaeologist, Keith Powers, using the accepted archaeological method of GPR (Ground penetrating radar resistivity meter).

THPS has been working on the mound sites for over 10 years and have both scientific and oral history knowledge of the mounds: as an organization they are known to the city and Parks and yet were not notified of or consulted in this study. ASI archeologists claim to have conducted 40 test pits to the depth of 6 to 10 inches, while in the report they show a photograph of one of those pits and provide no map as to where the others were done.

Involving Indigenous communities in archeological research is supported by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture in their 2010 Draft Technical Bulletin for Consultant Archeologists in Ontario "Engaging Aboriginal communities in archaeology will improve understanding of an archaeological project and enrich the archaeological record. The process demonstrates respect for Aboriginal interests and heritage, recognizes Aboriginal peoples' connection to the land, and allows everyone to benefit from their knowledge" (p.1). It further states that: "engagement means involving Aboriginal communities in each stage of an archaeological project, to the extent and in the manner that best suits their interests and the needs of the project."

While these guidelines do not require consultation until a stage three investigation the report encourages consultation at all stages. It is suggested that when conducting a background study, archaeologists are encouraged to "identify information sources in local Aboriginal communities" (p.4). The report recognizes past abuses by archeologists and makes clear that reporting the findings of any archeological assessment to the communities concerned is imperative. None of these practices have been followed by ASI or recognized as necessary by civic powers in regards to the mounds in High Park. Currently, finding an archeologist who will work according to these recommended guidelines is on the priority list for the THPS. It is the primary request of the THPS that a new archaeological study be conducted that follows the Ontario government's own recommendations.

Most recently councilor Sarah Doucette has taken it upon herself to work with the BMX community to build a skills park to replace the one removed from Snake Mound. Placing the BMX community in direct conflict with the THPS and the Clan Mothers at Six Nations she had targeted a site in High Park adjacent to Snake Mound. In a meeting that took place on October 19 at Swansea Town Hall between consultants, Doucette and the BMX community, Doucette confirmed, in a sweeping colonial gesture, that her official position is that she does not recognize Snake Mound as a site of significance to the Six Nations. Prior to properly informing either the general community, the city of Toronto or the THPS she has announced to the media and posted signage to the effect that the skills park would be in High Park, while at the meeting she tried to claim that it is just one of many proposed sites. In her public announcements she erases the fact that much of the work done to rehabilitate Snake Mound was done by the THPS and FOSM with community members. To add insult to injury, the money that Toronto Parks saved by having the THPS and FOSM do free labour, has been directed to the building of the BMX skills park.

THPS and FOSM have been very active in monitoring the site as cyclists have continued to throw their bikes over the fence and ride over the new plants. All of the white sage that was planted has been destroyed or purposefully removed. We clean up broken glass, and plastic bottle caps, even evidence of some sort of malicious magical ritual that involved dead squirrels and the carving of a cross in a young sapling that stands at the center of the mound. Despite all these negative forces, we sit and share stories and knowledge; we talk to passersby as to the significance of the Snake Mound and the archeological history of this area. We make a new history with the old, as history calls to us.

You can sign a petition opposing the locating of the BMX skills park in High Park by clicking here.

Liza Kim Jackson is a member of Friends of Snake Mound, and a member of the High Park/Junction community concerned with Aboriginal history in the area. She is a PhD candidate at York University in Environmental Studies. Her research employs arts-based methodologies in an investigation into the reproduction of capitalist relations based locally in the neighborhood where she live, the Junction, in west Toronto.

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