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Uncovering our past: First Nations in Toronto

U of T opens permanent exhibition

A rim sherd of fired clay from 1500-600 years ago (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Tools fashioned from stone and bone thousands of years ago, clay pipes crafted hundreds of years ago – these are some of the artifacts in a new exhibition opening at the University of Toronto.

Uncovering Our Early Past: First Nations in Toronto opens May 11, 2012 in the Anthropology Building at 19 Russell Street.

“For thousands of years, long before European newcomers arrived, the area we now call Toronto was home to the ancestors of First Nations peoples,” said Professor Susan Pfeiffer of the Department of Anthropology.

The exhibition includes artifacts from the predecessors of the Huron-Wendat people, who lived throughout the region at the time of European settlement, as well as objects such as fluted points from Illinois, New York and Southwestern Ontario that were used by Paleo-Indians between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

“Primarily during the middle part of the last century, faculty, staff and students of the university participated in archaeological excavations of many sites in southern Ontario, sites that were the homes of Huron-Wendat ancestors,” said Pfeiffer. “As a result, today the university holds in trust materials, including human remains and burial artifacts, gathered from those locations.”

While the approaches followed in those excavations conformed to attitudes of academia and society at the time, those attitudes have changed, Pfeiffer said. Last November, a Memorandum of Understanding allowing for the reburial  of the human remains and burial artifacts to the Huron-Wendat Nation was signed by Grand Chief Konrad Sioui, on behalf of the Huron Wendat Nation and by Professor Cheryl Regehr, vice-provost (academic programs) on behalf of U of T.

The memorandum allows for the reburial  of human remains and artifacts from sites linked to Huron-Wendat heritage in a culturally and spiritually appropriate way as determined by the Huron-Wendat people.  The actual transfer of the remains will occur when the Huron-Wendat Nation has secured a final resting place for the remains and artifacts.

“The Memorandum of Understanding established a process of cooperation between the University of Toronto and the Huron-Wendat Nation for the continued development of knowledge about Native people, including their past achievements” said Regehr. “The university lauds the Huron-Wendat Nation for its commitment to preservation of knowledge and further research.”

While not directly related to the MOU, the Anthropology exhibit arises in part from those discussions. The objects featured in the permanent exhibit comprise evidence from archaeological research - “fragments of cultures” that provide information about the lives of First Nations ancestors and reveal how their knowledge and beliefs shaped Toronto, Pfeiffer said.

“In this space overlooking Huron Street, we hope to illustrate the impressive native heritage of this region,” said Pfeiffer. “The objects displayed convey some basic aspects of how First Nations made their living, as well as their aesthetic values and engagement with the order and meaning of the world.”

A focal exhibit is the wampum belt created in 2011 and presented to the university by Grand Chief Sioui upon the signing of the memorandum. Depicting people holding hands, it symbolizes the agreement between U of T and the Huron-Wendat people.

Watch Anjum Nayyar's interview with Luc Laine or see the exhibition photo gallery here