Northern Ontario's newest attraction is already 10,000 years old. It's a futuristic museum melded into a swath of wilderness that also boasts Canada's premier concentration of burial mounds.
The Ojibway name is Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, the place of the long rapids. But most visitors will remember only the English designation: Manitou Mounds Historical Centre. It is located midway between Rainy River and Fort Frances, close to where Yonge Street completes its 1,896-kilometre-long journey from Toronto to the Minnesota border. While still a work in progress, it has just started operating year-round.
Interest in the project is so high that an average 110 visitors a day showed up last summer, despite the remote location, the dearth of publicity, the unfinished state of the exhibition galleries and the lack of transportation around the extensive site. Many of them came from the U.S. and Europe. Today the visitors centre -- really a state-of-the-art museum is largely completed, and a golf-cart transit system is in place. That should make Manitou Mounds a major tourist draw in an area now known mainly for fishing.
The significance of Manitou Mounds -- it was declared a National Historic Site in 1970 -- comes from 23 bee-hive-shaped burial mounds. Nine of them are clearly visible and accessible to the public. One of these man-made hills rises 12 metres above ground level and dates back 2,100 years. It is the largest pre-European structure in Canada. Seen from the Rainy River, immediately below, it hovers like a mountain. Overgrown with trees, grass and meadow flowers, the mounds bear testimony to an aboriginal civilization that forged trade links across the North American continent, long before anyone thought of NAFTA.
The mounds also represent mysteries that are being left unsolved -- on purpose. With modern archeological and DNA techniques, it might be possible to determine how many bodies each mound contains, how and when they died, whether they are related, maybe even what they ate for their final dinner. But solving mysteries is not what Manitou Mounds is about.
Stacey Bruyere, the site's director, says guides here are free to tell visitors any stories and legends they have heard about the mounds.
"Nothing is gospel truth, but stories make the world go round," she says.
One "story," as told in the site's orientation video, involves a woman elder who was warned in a dream that a great sickness was coming. She was told to have a birchbark lodge constructed and to invite everyone inside for protection. Those who came in lived. Those who paid no attention died. After the outbreak had passed, the survivors began burying the victims in mounds.
Bruyere, who was raised on First Nations land near Fort Frances, went on to study archeology and has worked as a museum curator in Phoenix. She says archeologists conducted some digs here in the 1960s and 70s and took away relics that the site now wants back. Research at that time showed there is little relation between mound size and the number of burials inside. A particular mound could have the remains of two people or 200, she says.
U.S. mound sites may shed light on the hows and whys of mound-burial customs. But Bruyere, and the Rainy River First Nations people who operate Manitou Mounds, aren't interested in scientific answers.
"The actual burial details don't really matter," Bruyere says. What's important is that we are clean and free of any guilt and respect our ancestors."
The story of those ancestors is told in the visitors centre museum, which is easily accessible next to the parking lot. Reaching the mounds themselves, however, is more of a challenge.
The main grouping is four kilometres away along a forested pathway that turns to mud after rain storms. First Nations guides lead four-hour walks to the mounds and back, pointing out the flora, fauna and signs of former aboriginal settlements. Until last fall, that was the only way in and out. This summer, those who wish will be able to hitch rides on golf carts. Long-term plans call for the trip to be made by boat along the Rainy River, which forms the boundary here between Ontario and Minnesota.
The visitors centre is an architectural marvel. When first viewed, it appears only as a wooden roof, seemingly plunked onto a grassy slope. Closer inspection shows that the building swoops down the hillside, to provide a descending series of brightly-lit exhibit areas.
Figures from First Nations mythology, depicted in models and paintings, will accompany visitors through the building. Migizi, named after the Ojibway word for eagle, will offer greetings at the entrance hall and conduct a tour back through time. Along the way he will transform himself into one of the white pelicans that make their summer home in the area. Also along for the tour will be Nakomis, a grandmother figure, who will gradually change into a young woman, a child, a baby and eventually Mother Earth.
Dioramas depicting aboriginal life will feature local people demonstrating traditional arts and crafts. Last summer's visitors, for example, saw a boy cleaning basswood fibre with his teeth. The thread he produced was used to sew pieces of birchbark into dome-shaped wigwams for the creation of an 1850 village scene. Other dioramas will depict wild-rice growing, sturgeon spearing and moose hunting. Display items include historic photographs, tools, clothing, trade goods and ceremonial objects.
Exhibits will explain that hunters moved into the region about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, in pursuit of mammoth and bison. People have lived on the Manitou Mounds site for at least 5,000 years, building a society based on hunting, fishing and continental trade. Through Manitou Mounds passed copper from Lake Superior, seashells from what is now the southern U.S, and stones for tool-making from far to the west and north.
After touring the centre, visitors can make a short walk to an Anglican missionary cemetery with graves from 1873 to 1914. One belongs to a 24-year-old high school teacher who drowned shortly after his arrival here, before he could take up his duties. Nearby is the elders' lodge, a nine-sided structure built of local logs, where special events are sometimes staged for visitors.
A trip to the main mound complex, by foot or golf-cart, provides an opportunity for nature viewing. Deer wander the trail as if it was made for them, but the site's five bears generally keep well out of view.
The largest mound, towering on the edge of the steep river bank, is an impressive sight. But a tragic note is sounded by the shattered remains beside it of a smaller burial hill. In 1972 it was destroyed by a gravel contractor. The bones were later removed and reburied. Now visitors are being asked to help construct a memorial mound as a replacement. Following Ojibwa tradition, each visitor transfers a clutch of earth from the old mound to the new one, tossing on a pinch of sacred tobacco at the same time.
This sensitive ceremony is in striking contrast to how whites once treated the mounds. Early in the 20th century, river boats stopped here on their journey from Fort Frances to Rainy River. Passengers were set loose to look for skulls and grave goods.
Today, the Ojibwa people are determined to protect the mounds and to teach others to respect their dignity, even if that means leaving some historical questions unanswered, says Bruyere.
"We describe ourselves only as stewards of the mounds," she says. "We're trying to explain to people our philosophy of how we should lead our lives." Manitou Mounds Historical Centre is west of Fort Frances, Ont., between the towns of Barwick and Stratton. From Fort Frances, go west on Highway 11 for 50 kilometres, turn south on Shaw Road for three kilometres, turn east to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung. The site is open year-round. From May 1 to Sept. 30, it operates seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Between Oct. 1 and April 30, it closes Mondays and Tuesdays, but is open other days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children. Arrange ahead for group or special bookings. For information, contact Rainy River First Nations, P.O. Box 450, Emo, Ont. P0W 1E0, phone (807) 483-1163, fax (807) 482-2603, e-mail , Internet site: www.longsault.com/menu.html .