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Ontario First Nations

The province of Ontario has been inhabited for approximately 12,000 years. Thickly forested areas and a generous proportion of lakes and natural waterways would be cause for First Nation societies not only to thrive, but also to quarrel over the abundant resources available.

The name “Ontario”, thought to reference Lake Ontario, is translated from the Iroquoian language, possibly from the word “Onitariio” meaning “beautiful lake” or “Kandario” meaning “sparkling or beautiful water”.

Two distinctive First Nations groups occupied the area of Ontario, the “Algonquian” and the “Iroquoian”, also referred to as the “Eastern Woodland Indians”, each practicing unique lifestyles that separated and distinguished them.


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The Algonquian tribes were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and were initially the dominant civilization in Ontario. During the colder months of the year, they lived in small groupings of 30 or less with assigned hunting areas, which increased the rate of survival through the harsh elements. The onset of spring and summer united all of the groupings for large festive gatherings involving socializing and fishing, with the warmer seasons allowing for closer living arrangements and a sharing of resources.

Dwellings known as “wigwams” or “pikogans” were lightweight structures of posts covered with bark that allowed for easy transport when tribes needed to relocate camps. Ancestral hunting grounds and the title of Chief was traditionally passed from fathers to sons. Known to be excellent hunters and trappers, the Algonquian people hunted mainly deer, bear, muskrat and beaver for furs, hides and tools. The Iroquoian people were highly skilled in agriculture, farming mainly corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. Fields were produced by burning acres of trees and brush, with a rotation of planting to allow for rejuvenation of soil. Fishing and hunting of deer, small game and wild turkey were also practiced. Women and children would gather roots, berries, herbs and nuts, and maple syrup from maple trees.

The Iroquoian communities lived in barricaded village-type settings. Tall wooden fences provided protection from animal attacks or that of other tribes. Extended families of 50 people of more co-habitated in “longhouses”, wooden rectangular structures approximately 20 feet wide and 50-100 feet long. Women or “Clan Mothers” owned all property and Chiefs were selected based on female bloodlines.

In the 16th century, the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk tribes united to form the “League of Five Nations”, eventually joined by the Tuscarora tribe to make them the “League of Six Nations”. This unity formed one of the most respected, powerful and feared nations in Canadian First Nations history. Their superior political organization is believed to have influenced European systems.

The arrival of the European settlers would drastically alter the First Nations traditional way of life in Ontario. In addition to the introduction of foreign diseases and epidemics, ongoing conflict over hunting and trapping areas and the calculated allegiances of certain tribes with competing trappers and traders greatly diminished the First Nation populations in the province.

The definitive linguistic families of Ontario First Nations are that of “Algonquian” (Ojibway, Cree, Delware and Potawatomi) and “Iroquoian” (Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora).

Treaty number 3 signed in 1873 and treaty number 9 signed in 1905 are designated to Ontario, with a total of 142 First Nation communities spanning the province. (see concluding alphabetical listing)

Artistic and Spiritual History

“Pictographs”, drawings or engravings on stone, discovered throughout the province of Ontario are testament to the existence of ancient civilizations.

The largest stone burial mounds in North America are located along the Rainy River, which feeds into the Lake of the Woods. The sheer size of the burial site suggests that tribes or clans may have traveled to carry their deceased to this final resting place.

The use of clay-based pottery and ceramics is evident throughout Ontario First Nations history. Intricate carvings of masks and life-sized sculptures, thought perhaps to represent mystical secret societies, are also a distinct part of the cultural heritage.

Birch or elm bark was used in the construction of streamlined canoes, covered dwellings, toboggans, and as canvass in the creation of bark scroll paintings.

A deep rooted and sacred belief in The Great Creator, or Mother Earth, with lesser spirits inhabiting all of nature was revered and respected among all Ontario First Nation peoples. Annual celebrations to honor the harvesting of crops or the changing of the seasons involved elaborate preparations, including dance, costumes, music and story-telling and were meant to show gratitude and pay homage to the spirits responsible for good fortune.

The use of animal images, especially bears, panthers, snakes, eagles and hawks, combined with human form are common throughout Ontario’s First Nations artistic history, characteristically referred to as “Woodland Style Art”. A representation of conflict, of good vs. evil, often shows itself through the spiritual interaction between man and nature.

Shamans were highly respected for their healing abilities offered through rituals and herbal medicines, as well as providing general guidance and dream interpretation.

Contemporary Expression

Perhaps the most renowned artistic style that embodies Ontario First Nations cultural heritage is “Woodland Style Art”, also referred to as “Legend or Medicine Painting”. The use of bold, dark lines and vibrant color portray distinct images of human form intertwined and connected with animal forms and that of nature or the environment.

Daphne Odjig, born 1919 on the Wikwemikong Reserve at Manitoulin Island, was the original founder of the group of First Nation artists in the late 1960’s that began to explore the Woodland style. Daphne continues to produce dramatic paintings that beautifully depict the essence of family, the feminine and her spiritual interpretations.

One of the original members of this group was Norval Morrisseau, of the Sandy Point Ojibwe Reserve, who went on to form the “Woodland School Art Movement”. He was one of the first to introduce First Nations art outside of reserve areas and his name and his work are widely recognized. Passed away in 2007 at the age of 75, Norval Morrisseau was responsible for influencing and encouraging countless young First Nation’s artists.

The “Woodland Cultural Centre Museum”, established in 1972 and located in Brantford, Ontario, showcases over 35,000 Iroquoian and Algonquian artifacts from prehistoric times to the 21st century.

The “Métis Artists Collective”, operating since 2003 in Toronto, was established to preserve and promote the Métis cultural heritage within Ontario, and to encourage Métis artists to explore contemporary and traditional artistic expression through a variety of medias.

The range of First Nations artists and artistic styles throughout Ontario are as vast and unbridled as the provinces’ picturesque landscape. Established and undiscovered artists continue to bridge the gap between First Nations and non-First Nations through an unspoken dialogue of color and shape and form, blending reflections and traditions of past culture with contemporary imagery and expression.

First Nations in Ontario

Alderville First Nation
Algonquins of Pikwakanagan
Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek
Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum
Anishnaabeg of Naongashiing
Batchewana First Nation
Bay of Quinte Mohawk
Bearfoot Onondaga
Bearskin Lake
Big Grassy
Biinjitiwaabik Zaaging Anishinaabek
Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek
Brunswick House
Buffalo Point First Nation (Manitoba)
Cat Lake
Chapleau Cree First Nation
Chapleau Ojibway
Chippewas of Georgina Island
Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point
Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation
Chippewas of Nawash First Nation
Chippewas of the Thames First Nation
Conseil de la Premiere Nation Abitibiwinni (Quebec)
Constance Lake
Couchiching First Nation
Curve Lake
Deer Lake
Delaware Dokis Eabametoong First Nation
Eagle Lake
Flying Post
Fort Severn
Fort William
Garden River First Nation
Ginoogaming First Nation
Grassy Narrows First Nation
Gull Bay
Henvey Inlet First Nation
Hiawatha First Nation
Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation
Kasabonika Lake
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug
Konadaha Seneca
Lac Des Mille Lacs
Lac La Croix
Lac Seul
Long Lake #58 First Nation
Lower Cayuga
Lower Mohawk
Martin Falls
McDowell Lake
M’Chigeeng First Nation
Missanabie Cree
Mississauga’s of Scugog Island First Nation
Mississaugas of the Credit
Mohawks of Akwesasne
Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte
Moose Cree First Nation
Moose Deer Point
Moravian of the Thames
Munsee-Delaware Nation
Muskrat Dam Lake
Neskantaga First Nation
Nibinamik First Nation
Niharondasa Seneca
Nipissing First Nation
North Caribou Lake
North Spirit Lake
Northwest Angle No. 33
Northwest Angle No. 37
Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining First Nation
Ojibway Nation of Saugeen
Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation
Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation
Oneida Nation of the Thames
Onondaga Clear Sky
Pays Plat
Pic Mobert
Poplar Hill
Rainy River First Nations
Red Rock
Sachigo Lake
Sagamok Anishnawbek
Sandy Lake
Seine River First Nation
Serpent River
Shawanaga First Nation
Shoal Lake No. 40
Six Nations of the Grand River
Slate Falls Nation
Stanjikoming First Nation
Taykwa Tagamou Nation
Temagami First Nation
Upper Cayuga
Upper Mohawk
Wabaseemoong Independent Nations
Wabauskang First Nation
Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation
Wahta Mohawk
Walker Mohawk
Walpole Island
Wasauksing First Nation
Whitefish Lake
Whitefish River
Zhiibaahaasing First Nation