Fake horn on the unicorn: Controversial 'Mìwàte' a distraction from Akikodjiwan

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Mìwàte's dazzling lights distract from the dam that imprisons the falls. Photo: Dr. Julie Comber

The dazzling sound and light show, Mìwàte, at Chaudière Falls in Ottawa, has attracted thousands of people. The Ottawa 2017 organizers of Mìwàte claim it celebrates Indigenous culture and has exposed the public to Algonquin culture, in particular. But some Algonquin elders and knowledge keepers have spoken out that they feel the show is disrespectful of their sacred site, Akikodjiwan.

With A Tribe Called Red pulling their music from the show and Gord Downing's passing last week, this is an opportune time to think carefully about the use art and music at this Indigenous sacred site. It is time to consider how the arts can help or hinder Canadian society on the path to meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Akikodjiwan: Sacred to Indigenous peoples

Akikodjiwan is the name of the sacred site in Algonquin, and it includes Chaudière Falls and the islands downstream (Albert, Chaudière, and Victoria). Since time immemorial, countless generations of Indigenous peoples offered tobacco to the majestic falls, and conducted their ceremonies on the islands. The arrival of European settlers in the area eventually pushed the Algonquin away from their sacred site. Then the industrial use and construction of the ring dam in 1910 prevented the public from accessing the falls.

There are two main issues about Mìwàte: First, some feel it simply isn't appropriate. Second, it distracts away from the truth about the current precarious status of the sacred site.

Show inappropriate at Akikodjiwan

In my recent article, elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache and elder Albert Dumont from Kitigan Zibi, elder Jane Chartrand from Pikwàkanagàn, independent Algonquin Anishnaabe-kwe scholar Dr. Lynn Gehl, and elder and architect Douglas Cardinal explained why they feel the show is inappropriate at their sacred site. They were concerned about the use of technology at Akikodjiwan, and that their culture and spiritual beliefs were being turned into a "sideshow." They pointed out that a show like this would not be considered acceptable at another group's holy place. Would anyone suggest having a glitzy show at Mecca, Saint Peter's Square, Glastonbury Tor, or at the Mahabodhi Tree?

A distraction: The Last Unicorn

When I first heard about Mìwàte, and then when I attended the show, I thought often of the The Last Unicorn. The rather terrible animated children's film is based on an excellent and thought-provoking book. In the story, a unicorn on a quest is captured by an evil carnival sideshow owner and imprisoned for display in her show. Since most people cannot see the magical unicorn's true form, the sideshow owner casts a spell to make a fake horn visible on the caged unicorn.

Is Mìwàte a glitzy fake horn on this imprisoned unicorn? The show is well executed and aesthetically pleasing, but that may make it an even more dazzling distraction from the real gem, the waterfall itself. And it could distract the public from difficult truths. Ottawa 2017 director Guy Laflamme claims viewers will "almost forget there is a dam." But this does not change the fact that there is a dam marring this sacred waterfall.

Missed opportunity for genuine reconciliation

Further, offering the flashy show at the sacred site is a missed opportunity compared to returning this most sacred of sites to the Algonquin. For 30 years, until his passing in 2011, renowned spiritual leader and former chief Grandfather William Commanda petitioned and prayed for the return of Akikodijiwan and the fulfilment of his Asinabka Vision. In 2015, the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador passed a resolution initiated by nine Algonquin chiefs to protect Akikodjiwan. The resolution cited articles 11 and 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has since agreed to adopt and implement.

Instead of honouring the sacred site, the falls continue to be further developed by Energy Ottawa's Chaudière Falls expansion project. And if Windmill's proposed Zibi condo project proceeds, the opportunity to reclaim Chaudière and Albert islands will be lost.

Appropriate art at Akikodjiwan

Art and music may have an important role to play at Akikodjiwan. In contrast to Mìwàte, which distracts from the precarious status of the sacred site, other artistic projects have sought to bring attention to Akikodjiwan itself. For example, in the spring of 2016, prayer ribbons were tied on the railing of the Chaudière Crossing Bridge. This beautiful and moving collective artwork, called "Strawberry Moon Ribbons" encouraged passersby to realize that the falls were sacred. Another example is "Mother Earth Goose," created by local artist and activist Luc-Anne Salm. This goose sculpture, mounted on a canoe on wheels, has graced many events, And, in 2015, I wrote a song and produced a music video called "Reconciliation River" which sought to showcase the beauty of the area despite the industrial desecration, and encourage returning the falls and islands to their sacred purpose.

Opportunity to see past the fake horn?

Elder Dumont has spoken out against Mìwàte, but hopes good will come from the show. He is a poet, and, like Dr. Gehl, believes songs are the highest form of prayer.

He notes that: "There are songs Creator has yet to bless us with, and they are waiting to come into being. Songs in harmony with the falls. And that's what we need at Akikodjiwan.

"All of us are blessed with some kind of gift. When we use our creative gifts to bring forward peace and health, then we are doing something good. But if we allow our art to help someone destroy a sacred site, then we are using it in a bad way."

Will those thronging to Mìwàte see past the fake horn? Will they be moved to free the Chaudière falls and restore Akikodjiwan to its natural splendour?

Dr. Julie Comber is a settler-ally of Scottish and English ancestry, living in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory. She met Grandfather Commanda in 2010 when she was working to protect another sacred area in Ottawa, the South March Highlands. She has been a member of Freeing Chaudière Falls and its Islands (AKA "Free the Falls") since 2014. In 2015 she produced the Reconciliation River music video, and in 2017 helped organize the Faith is Peace sacred walk for Akikodjiwan. She is a mother, auntie, freelance writer, researcher, and "artivist" (artsy-activist).

Photo: Dr. Julie Comber


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