Native Men Learn Ancient Craft

By Willa Wick in Arts & Music, Community, Places, Events, & History

October is my favorite time of year.  With the promise of Indian Summer and splendid fall scenery, October should be a good month to take those afternoon drives that most love to do.  With that in mind, let me steer you towards Southampton.

Several miles southeast of Southampton on Hwy 21 are the Saugeen First Nation lands.  As you travel through the reserve, you come to the Wesley Centenary Church, plus a lot of stone construction pieces.  One could easily pass by thinking the stone a little confusing.  But really, this is a place to stop and investigate.  Leave yourself plenty of time to explore.  If you’re lucky, there might be wallers and their leaders on site to explain the work that’s been going on.


First a little history explaining the significance. The church actually faces away from the highway; the front looks over terraced gardens and on down to the Saugeen River way below.  Across the lowlands, printed in white stones, is the word Friendship.


In the late 1800s, the original wooden church was in a state of disrepair. The Chiefs and Council requested assistance from the government for improvements.  The community waited several months for an answer from Indian Affairs, but the church burned to the ground before an answer came.


The Church was an important place for people to gather for social events to celebrate community and family.  It was a place where people learned to read and write, to understand social and economic interactions with the settlers, and a place where some found employment.  The church was a place where people found support and hope, as well as something the community could be proud of. They needed a new church.


Wince they could not access funds from Indian Affairs, the Chief and Counsel decided that they were willing to pay for a new church from their own capital fund.  On a frigid day in January 1892, at the new brick church in Chippewa Hill, the Saugeen community celebrated the dedication of the long-awaited Wesley Centenary Church.


Now, nearly 125 years late, the church is again in need of repairs and upgrading.  This time the band does not have to repeatedly confer with the government for an Order-In-Council to do new projects or purchase supplies.  A fund raiser was launched at the August Dry Stone Festival with the hopes of eventually raising the $80,000 needed for repairs and new equipment.


45 years ago, Rev. Stokesbury was assigned to the church.  His goal was to foster a greater understanding and friendship between the natives and non-natives.  Thus was the birth of the amphitheatre and scenic gardens.  He begged, borrowed, and bought area limestone from wherever possible. 10 years later almost a million tons of stone had been turned into one of the most labor intensive yet exotic gardens in western Ontario. It had terraced walls, inlaid pathways, and 1500 seat amphitheatre.  Funding started with an $8000 Winter Works Grant followed by local donations and a Wintario Grant.  The project cost $200,000 (less than the engineers’ estimate).  It has continually been maintained by volunteers from the First Nation.


Ontario winters are cruel.  Frost heaving and erosion have taken their toll.  Even with many drainage systems built into the huge terracing, the walls were crumbling and steps and pathways heaving until it became dangerous footing for the thousands of visitors to the site each year.  One cannot comprehend the magnitude of the original stonework, but unfortunately most of it has given way because of a lack of understanding of proper dry stone walling techniques.


The Saugeen Chief and Council approached the local Employment and Training Officer to create a program that would train the First Nation people of Saugeen with an eye towards refurbishing the ailing amphitheatre and surrounding area.  A team of skilled tradesmen was soon assembled to make the plan a reality.


The program commenced during the early winter months of 2013.  The first project was to construct a place large enough to provide hands-on training for the natives.  This was a solid wood framed tent strong enough to bear the heavy snowfall, and large enough to accommodate a 30-foot serpentine practice wall. The men worked most of the winter in their parkas and snowsuits, learning the dry stone craft by building and rebuilding. With every different type of wall constructed, they learned new techniques and developed their skills.


Even before the snow had completely melted, the first order of business for the Saugeen Dry Stone crew was to dismantle the former “princess staircase” and totally rebuild 40 steps and protective wall.  Slabs of 7 inch thick limestone, weighing hundreds of pounds each, were shaped and positioned by hand.  By summer of 2014 the new Princess Staircase was completed, and the sides planted with low-maintenance greenery.  The magnificent stairway turns into a high retaining wall with several insertions of native imagery. T

The crew also built a memorial as a remembrance of the missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.  This structure is fashioned like a teepee but with missing stones.  The First Nations people wanted to send out a message about their concerns.


Other projects on the grounds are a dry stone outdoor oven, reworking the original round entrance flower bed, and a fire pit honoring the 1874 Treaty 72.  The star around the circular fire pit radiates out to four seating walls.  The entryways orient to the four directions.


This crew has been so enthusiastic with their new trade that they have visited many dry stone structures around the province and taken part in several off-site builds. This past winter the men were instructed in proper mortarwork techniques including blockwork, brickwork, stone and brick veneer etc.  As they became more proficient they practiced more complicated projects – all with a thought towards being better prepared for future opportunities.


In March 2015 the Saugeen work crew was invited to participate in an intricate wall building project at Canada Blooms in Toronto.  The finished wall was viewed by thousands of people.  The men’s contribution led to Landscape Ontario’s booth receiving the award for Outstanding Workmanship.


In addition to continuing the amphitheatre walls and seating, 2015 brought another venture: a massive 40 foot Roundhouse. This will eventually be a gathering spot and conference centre.  Before anything could be done an archaeological team had to dig test holes to ensure no culturally sensitive artifacts or burials were in the immediate area; many domestic artifacts from the 1800s were found, but nothing that would prevent the building.


This new endeavor with its elongated entryway will have four stone encircled flowerbeds two each front and back.  From above the structure will resemble a turtle.  The turtle is of special significance to the First Nations people because of its role in creation.  They believe that the turtle gave humankind life by offering its shell, hence the reference to North America as Turtle Island.  Many nations and cultures have a special relationship with the turtle, and it is very important in First Nation teachings which demonstrate that all things are connected.


The Saugeen dry stone amphitheatre project will continue.  The men are willing, hard working and happy.  Most have already earned their Level 1 and 2 certification and are working on level 3.  Attempting these difficult tests (a wall must be taken down and rebuilt with a professional quality of workmanship within seven hours), after such a short time of learning and practicing with stone, is a testament to the crew’s confidence in themselves and their abilities.