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Clan, Clay, Earth and Time

The language of Pot Sherds and Riverbanks by: Catherine Tammaro, Wyandot Faithkeeper and Indigenous consultant for Evergreen.

two clay pots over embers and woodfire in a grassy patch Image: Wendat vessels and image © Richard Zane Smith, 2020
Image: Wendat vessels and image © Richard Zane Smith, 2020

Published on June 08, 2020

Along our beautiful rivers, secreted in sandy banks and knolls in woodland areas still extant in the city of Toronto, are lively and resonant remnants of once flourishing cultures. Ceramic vessels and other goods created or brought here through various trade networks are filled with the encoded energies and memories of the Ancestors who once held or made them. For the descendants of these Peoples, whether Ongwehonwe or Anishinabe or other, our Elders and FaithKeepers access the energetic signatures of the Peoples who made these works. Our people kept this place by living in right relations with the lands, waters and spirits of this territory.

Before European contact, the Wendat People were thought by some historians to have journeyed to the Toronto area along the St. Lawrence and settled on the shores of Lake Ontario; and the regions from what is now the west end of the city as far as the Humber and back, toward the Rouge River and beyond to the east. Before settling in Georgian Bay and establishing the Wendat Confederacy (Rock, Deer, Bear, Cord, later the Marsh Peoples), the Wendat were a constellation of communities. Matrilineal in their descent, the People lived in Longhouse structures, in kinship groups of clans and phratries. The Wendat tongue is part of the Iroquoian linguistic family and clan members considered themselves to be descended from a common Ancestor: Bear, Deer, Turtle, Beaver, Wolf etc. and in this way they held the land; kept the place and the creatures who lived in these regions, within their own time and blood.

Hundreds of Wendat and other Indigenous Peoples’ sites in the Toronto area were destroyed due to conflict, settler incursions over time and colonisation. The city began its rapid expansion, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and settlers of the day did not consult with Indigenous peoples over destruction of their significant sites until, in Ontario, the Cemeteries Act was passed into legislation in 1990. Many Indigenous (and settler folk) were involved in having that legislation passed to protect Indigenous interests and surviving material culture.

Toronto is filled with unrecognised sites, and artifacts have been collected along the shores of waterways, and from knolls and ridges and woodland forests that are close to where settlements usually originally existed. Pot and rim sherds, whole vessels and domestic wares as well as middens (refuse heaps) and yes, ossuaries have been found all over Southern Ontario. Indigenous Peoples have been able to rematriate some Ancestors’ remains, such as the incredible reburial of some 1760 Ancestors in Ontario in 2013, reclaimed from the University of Toronto by the Huron - Wendat Nation, now located in Québec.

Sadly, many remnants once part of Wendat daily life remain locked away in collectors’ basements, pilfered by amateur archaeologists or settler folks who covet “Indian Goods” and then turn them over for a profit online. Material goods sometimes make their way back to the People but among some, nothing is sacred; everything from pipe stems to pot sherds, whole vessels, and even human remains are illegally harvested and held and sometimes they are bequeathed to corporations for safe - keeping, instead of being given back to the Peoples from which they came - who may have no resources available to store or house them.   
 
Indigenous monitors from many nations now patrol the fields where gas and electricity lines are installed and subdivisions built. Occasionally, human remains are uncovered either accidently, such as with some of the ossuaries in Southern Ontario and then discussion and negotiation begin about what Peoples they may come from and where they need to go. Sometimes, there are disagreements due to the effects of colonisation and treaty concerns- sometimes not, but all work toward the best and most accurate recognition and acknowledgement of who or what belongs to whom. Often, remnants are held by private organisations, universities and museums, on behalf of a Nation – federally recognised or not, until agreements are reached.
  
Along the banks of the Don, or Humber, in backyards along various sites, settler people are acknowledging the People who once lived here (and still do) with garden plots of corn, or the Three Sisters. Pottery fragments are still found in various locations in the city and beyond. Due to rising cultural interest, the activism of Indigenous peoples, the help and support of the academic community, and conservation areas such as Crawford Lake in Halton Region, modern trends in Archaeology and the Indigenous land stewardship groups located throughout the GTA, consciousness is rising. Long and arduous battles for recognition, sometimes bring Indigenous Peoples successful results in maintaining their cultural interests. Discussion between the city of Toronto and the Ongwehone Peoples is still in process regarding culturally significant sites in High Park. People of many Indigenous nations and their settler allies work together to placekeep these sacred sites, tending to them with love, concern and responsibility.

When hearing the language that was and still is spoken here or holding pieces of Ancestral pottery made along these banks, it seems almost as if something is already known without being learned, answers are given, even sometimes without questions being fully formulated. I recall drawing patterns as those seen on Iroquoian vessels all through my childhood and in my adult art practice as well before I knew of my own Indigenous identity.  Remarkably, my own early pots - made long before I saw my Ancestors’ vessels in books or museums, resembled those forms. I’ve always found this intriguing and a source point of connection to my blood lines. One wonders about what Ancestral memories are contained in one’s DNA. This too is placekeeping within one’s own bodymind. I too, am this place.  
 
I am left with the overwhelming certainty that somehow and in some way, the vessels are a reflection of the natural environment, viewed through an Ancestral paradigm. Vessels hold sacred water, sustenance, nourishment; they support human survival as other art forms do, including effigy pipes, garments and the construction and placement of dwelling places.  
 
Clan and clay have the same root stem in our language. In my own view, these vessels and sounds made, may indeed contain the experiences of the speakers or potters who made them. The women who harvested clay from these beautiful banks or who stoked those pit fires of creation, hardened them into vessels that held the nourishment for the people. The banks from which the clay was drawn, may indeed remember the drawing of the clay.    

My belief is that pots also contain a world view, a paradigm a way of looking at the world. Perhaps the design of the vessel is a representation of the cosmic vault itself; the spherical shape a reference to the heavens, the designs, reflections of patterns found in nature, or references to the structure of a longhouse-like container. Four castellations may refer to cardinal directions, the interior the container for all experiential wisdom. Containers of languages and culture and other questions are deeply embedded and encoded in these broken sherds. Do the sherds speak the same language as the clan women who made them? Yes. Does the sherd remember the pot? Yes. 

Containers of languages and culture and other questions are deeply embedded and encoded in these broken sherds. Do the sherds speak the same language as the clan women who made them? Yes. Does the sherd remember the pot? Yes. 
Catherine Tammaro

In some way—in my own creative psyche, as an art maker. I do feel a deep cultural connection to the works which were and are still created here. I know that studying, and I hope that somehow making such vessels and learning my Ancestral language will help to answer some of the questions that I have always had about my own place and my relationship to it. The partial forms of words contained in the memory, and the sherds of vessels discovered all across Ontario are the gifts we cherish beyond measure, in connecting with and revitalising our lifeways and cultural practices.   

Catherine Tammaro was born in Toronto and raised in Toronto and the US. She has a 50-year history of art making, including painting, fine art and award-winning design, theatre, soundscape/installation, musical collaboration, photographic/written journalism and extensive digital work/graphic design. Her multi-media works have been exhibited in traditional/alternative gallery spaces and her written works and musical compositions have been published in various online blogs and installations. 

Catherine has been involved in a wide array of interdisciplinary collaborations, ongoing special projects and themed exhibitions, as originator, curator, performer and exhibitor. She has been working with the academic community of late and is currently involved with several projects such as The Daughters of Aataentsic, The Star Collective, Walking with Our Sisters and others. She is a seated Tradition Keeper for the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation; Speckled Turtle Clan. Catherine is Akin Studio’s premiere Indigenous Elder Artist in Residence, on the Council of the Children’s Peace Theatre, is the Elder for the Toronto Indigenous Business Association and is working with many agencies, city wide and beyond, to advise and facilitate art making/teaching workshops, as well as maintaining her own art practise regarding spiritual and ever changing realities as they pertain to our connection to the sacred multiverse. Catherine is currently working on an installation for May 2021- details will be found at www.catherinetammaro.com.