Present. Preserve. Protect.

This bench overlooks the river and burial mounds (Photo: Chris McEvoy, Rusty Anchor Productions)


Kayleigh Speirs and Art Hunter

Indigenous heritage, Community

Published Date:01 Oct 2019

Photo: This bench overlooks the river and burial mounds (Photo: Chris McEvoy, Rusty Anchor Productions)

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre, the Place of the Long Rapids, is a historically significant meeting place located along the banks of Manidoo Ziibi (Spirit River or Rainy River) in Northwestern Ontario. Also known as Manitou Mounds, it is the largest concentration of known burial mounds in North America; it was designated a National Historic Site in 1969. The centre is owned and operated by Rainy River First Nations, and offers interpretive tours and galleries, a collections space with over 20,000 objects and artifacts, a gift shop that showcases artwork by local Indigenous artists, and a restaurant with a menu that features traditional Anishinaabe ingredients.

The construction of a historical centre was talked about for decades by Rainy River First Nations members before it became a reality in the mid-1990s. As described by James Leonard, former Rainy River First Nations Chief, “For thousands and thousands of years we’ve been here. We’ve traded here, we’ve hunted here, we’ve fished here, and we’ve always wanted to share this place with the rest of the world.”

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre (Photo: Chris McEvoy, Rusty Anchor Productions)

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre (Photo: Chris McEvoy, Rusty Anchor Productions)

At the time of its construction, it was important to community Elders that the centre be built near the burial mounds themselves. All land is sacred and has its own history and importance, and the grounds of Kay-Nah-ChiWah-Nung have a long and rich heritage, holding the record of more than 8,000 years of recurring use or occupation by Indigenous people. While countless Indigenous communities have travelled, traded, lived and mourned on the grounds of Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, Rainy River First Nations considers themselves the stewards of the mounds. As Art Hunter, a band member and centre employee, puts it, “They are our ancestors, we are the caretakers. It is our responsibility now because we are the ones that are here.”

Community members have described how, growing up, they were always aware of the mounds and would hear stories from their parents and grandparents about them. For many, however, it was not until the centre was built and they were able to see exhibits and displays that represented those stories and histories that all of that knowledge was able to be truly conceptualized.

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung operates in two worlds: a cultural world and a business one. In the cultural world, the centre exists to preserve and protect the burial mounds and all associated items and knowledge for the people of Rainy River First Nations. In the business world, the centre is here to present that knowledge and share it with our visitors through tours, cultural programming, workshops and more. While these two worlds may seem distinctly different, in reality they are inextricably linked, and in many ways one could not exist without the other.

Burial mounds and the legacy of Indigenous mound builders in North America is not widely known or well understood. Much of the cultural knowledge, traditions and information about why mounds were built has been forgotten, and many of the mounds themselves have been destroyed. KayNah-Chi-Wah-Nung is a unique and sacred place, it is one of the few museums and cultural centres in Ontario that is owned by an Indigenous community whose history and knowledge is on display within its walls. The importance of having communities in charge of their own stories, lands and material culture – both the tangible and intangible aspects – is essential, and the need for more centres and museums that make this possible is urgent.

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung is a gathering place, a place for sharing and experiencing unique cultural knowledge and traditions. As explained by Willie Wilson, former Chief of Rainy River First Nations, “Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung is part of our homeland and our heritage. It has a deep significance to our people and we have struggled long and hard to preserve and protect it. We now have the chance to share it with everyone.” A sentiment echoed often by community members and others engaged in cultural tourism is that the best way to protect and preserve something is to educate people about it. Art Hunter describes a time when he was conducting a trail check at the site and came across fourwheeler tracks covering one of the burial mounds. While his initial reaction was anger and sadness, it also cemented his belief of the importance of having the centre and having a presence here in order to teach people to respect the land and those that are buried here.

Without education and the meaningful dissemination of knowledge, many of Ontario’s heritage sites would be in danger of being forgotten or destroyed. It is important to continue to present these unique cultural spaces in order to protect and preserve them. As expressed by Art Hunter, “It is important that we keep this place going not only for visitors, but for our future generations. It is here for learning and for our own people. If we didn’t have it, I don’t know what it would be like – I wouldn’t know as much about my own people, my history. My desire to know more has been brought to life with the centre.”