Grounding myself in Grassy Narrows

The ice is just beginning to break up on Garden Lake in Grassy Narrows. It’s a popular lake for ice fishing derbies, and is full of northern pike and walleye.

By Elizabeth McSheffrey

Community Journalism Trainer

One of the first pieces of advice I received in Grassy Narrows First Nation was to trust the water.  It winds through the northwestern Ontario reserve in more than 30 lakes, creeks and streams.

Its fish are an integral food source and its shores provide space for recreational activities. Every now and then, its depths produce an ancient arrowhead or piece of pottery, which washes up on the sand as a reminder that this water has sustained the people of Grassy for thousands of years.

“The lake will let you know whether it wants you there or not,” an Elder assured me at the community’s multi-purpose complex one day after school. Over the years, he said he has learned to read waves and weather across the territory, so he knows when his canoe and fishing rod are welcome.

Since then, I’ve learned much about this community’s relationship with the environment, from the medicinal uses of cedar tea to the legends of the local Sasquatch.

As I come to know the places where tobacco must be offered, the proper way to dispose of leather harvested from the land, and the historic haunts of moose and elk, I find myself feeling unusually grounded in my surroundings.

Cedar tea, shown here, is served at a class for moccasin-making in Grassy Narrows on Tues. April 24, 2018. The traditional brew is supposed to be excellent for colds and is often used in mushkiki (medicine).

It’s a new sensation for an urbanite like me, who has had little occasion to feel connected to the land and water in the stifled concrete jungle of downtown Ottawa. But it’s a most welcome feeling – one that has forced this high-strung, deadline-driven journalist to pause and be truly grateful for the rich environment that keeps us living.

These lessons about Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek culture (including its pronunciation) often come from surprising places: a photography lesson in the library with a Grade 8 student, a chat on the bench at a volleyball game, or during cleanup from a class on how to make moccasins. They come from children, adults and Elders alike, who graciously share their land-based wisdom with outsiders like me.

No scrap of leather used for moccasins may be thrown out. In Anishinabek culture, it must be returned to the land from whence it came, with an offering of tobacco.

For Grassy Narrows is a community of great passion, empathy and respect – not just for what happens inside its territory, but for all people and places outside as well.

This was demonstrated vividly after the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash in early April, which had much of the community reeling in pain for those who survived and those who were lost. Grassy Narrows had just sent its own athletes down to the nearby city of Kenora for a First Nations hockey tournament, and its children are transported daily to and from school by bus on unpaved roads that are full of potholes.

In short, the tragedy hit home.

Students at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School participated in a national jersey day for the Broncos, pinned green ribbons over their hearts, and sent photos to the team in Saskatchewan of their hockey stick-and-candle maple leaf tribute. Two trainees, Darcy Williams and Heather Pahpasay, sprang into reporting action as they covered the day’s events in print and on camera. Heather’s photo, seen here, was even picked up by the website of a local broadcaster, Q104 FM.

I have barely been able to keep up with demand for photography workshops since then, as community members ask for one-on-one training and rhyme off ideas for photo opportunities in the weeks to come.

Thirteen-year-old Annie Sneaky takes part in an outdoor photography class on April 28, 2018.

I’m happy to oblige, and to date, have found that some of the most enriching photography sessions are conducted outside. I teach trainees about the camera and they teach me about the land, its names in Ojibway, and the historical significance of each trail, bridge and waterway.

In the forests, on the water and on the roads, all feel comfortable – including me.


Community journalism training is an integral part of JHR’s larger Indigenous Reporters Program. In-community training in Ontario is generously supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

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