By Maurice Switzer
Anyone who thinks Indigenous people are restricted to an oral tradition never met Basil Johnston.
When he passed into the Spirit World Sept. 9, Johnston left behind a legacy of written words that is unsurpassed among First Nations storytellers. In his 86 years he produced 25 books, and books were his tools during his careers as a schoolteacher and museum researcher.
But Johnston never doubted the most important source of all learning.
“Before books, there was the land,” the scholar from Cape Croker told the Anishinabek News in 2011. “It taught our ancestors what they needed to know in order to survive. The land is one of our first teachers, and as abiding as the rocks. If all the books were to be destroyed by fire or rain or insects, there would still be the land to show us what we need to know to pick up the trail.”
The following year Basil was the recipient of the Debwewin Citation for excellence in storytelling in Anishinabek territory, an award to be added to a long list of honours that included three honourary doctorates, the Order of Ontario, and the 2004 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Heritage and Spirituality.
All this knowledge and accomplishment from a quiet man who survived what he termed “the violation of the body and the spirit” at Spanish Residential School.
By the time of his passing at the age of 86, Johnston estimated that he had learned over 500 traditional Anishinaabe stories, the raw material for his prolific writing output.
Here is one of his own, from a 2007 public interview at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel.
“I was explaining the causes of the razing of Fort Ste. Marie in 1648 by the Iroquois to a group… at the Canadian National Exhibition. They went away wagging their heads in agreement with this stuff that I had found in history books.
“After they had gone, Howard Skye (from Six Nations) plucked me by the sleeve and asked: ‘Would you like to hear our story?’
“ I didn’t know there was another story. The only stories that I knew were those that had been ‘properly documented’. So he took me aside and he told me this story:
“’When the missionaries settled down in Fort Ste. Marie and Midland, they established a school, and they were teaching the Huron kids and some of the Anishinaabe kids how to read, write, count, and learn all kinds of ‘civilized’ things that weren’t available to the Haudenosaunee youngsters. So the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations asked the missionaries if they could send their boys and girls up to Fort Ste. Marie, because this was a good thing.
“’In the spring, when they went back up to recover their young boys and girls, some of the girls were pregnant and some of the boys had been violated.
“’So the Six Nations issued a warning. The second year, the same results took place.
“’Instead of issuing a third warning, they sent 1800 warriors in March of 1648 and torched Fort Ste. Marie.’
“So that was the story that he told me. That changed the way I look on history. There are stories that are not recorded. And there are all kinds of stories of events that have been suppressed.
“It goes a long, long way back.”
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. In 2002 he helped launch the Debwewin Citations, the first award for Indigenous-issue journalism in Canada, which now honours excellence in storytelling about Indigenous issues in Anishinabek territory.. Debwewin is an Ojibwe word which translates into “truth” in English, but which literally means “speaking from the heart”.