Ojibwe Cultural Foundation celebrates its 40th anniversary, reflects on many changes

M’CHIGEENG––The Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) in M’Chigeeng celebrated its 40th anniversary last Friday, bringing together Anishinabek leadership, elders and Island First Nations to reflect on the organization’s beginnings and how far it has come over the last 40 years.

“On behalf of the OCF, especially Sophie (Corbiere, OCF chief financial officer), we want to thank everyone for their support in being here today,” said elder Leona Nahwegahbow. “Years ago we didn’t have any money to celebrate our language and to create our crafts—we have come a long way.”

After the opening prayer, Chief Shining Turtle Franklin Paibomsai, Whitefish First Nation chief and United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM) board of directors member, gave opening remarks from the UCCMM, noting that he was filling in for UCCMM Tribal Chair Chief Joe Hare who was unable to attend the morning portion of the day.

“We have come a long way since 1973,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “At the time Lewis (Debassige, one of the OCF’s founding members) told me there were only 6.5 jobs in M’Chigeeng, today there are over 200.”

[pullquote]“We have come a long way since 1973,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “At the time Lewis (Debassige, one of the OCF’s founding members) told me there were only 6.5 jobs in M’Chigeeng, today there are over 200.”[/pullquote]

“There is a message I want to give you from the UCCMM,” continued Chief Shining Turtle. “Keep moving forward. The OCF has gone far beyond the dream that Mary Lou Fox had for the OCF 40 years ago. The OCF came from a dream, from a trailer, to this today. It has faced challenges in recent years, but it has kept moving forward, growing and continuing to develop.”

Chief Shining Turtle invited Lewis Debassige to speak next on the history of the OCF.

“Forty-five years ago the central high school on the Island opened (Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS)),” began Mr. Debassige. “The high school represented the only school in Ontario at the time with Anishnaabe enrolment of over 40 percent. This yielded different problems and opportunities. At that time there was a group of Anishnaabe students that were young movers and shakers who expressed the need to learn more about who they were, about their culture.”

“Mary Lou Fox heard their desire and brought it to the attention of MSS teacher Marion Seabrook who in short order got a curriculum together for a Native studies class,” continued Mr. Debassige.  “It was the first of its kind in Ontario with 34 students its first year, and double the enrolment the next year, but still the students wanted more. They started Indian Days, now Cultural Awareness Days. There was even a crowning of a princess and prince of Manitou with the first Prince of Manitou with us here today, Pat Madahbee, who is now the Anishinabek Nation grand council chief. From that passion to learn more about their culture and history, Mary Lou and the various leaders of the time like Chief James Debassige started the OCF. From humble beginnings, we got enough money for a trailer, but no washrooms. Over the years we finally expanded into two trailers with a washroom.”

Despite the humble beginnings, the OCF was successful in bringing together Anishnaabe people to revitalize and restore First Nations culture and the Ojibwe language, noted Mr. Debassige. The OCF also created learning resources for area schools, worked with elders to keep traditional customs and ceremonies alive and encouraged Anishnaabe artists to grow and share their talents.

In 1999 the OCF moved into its current location, an 11,000 square foot facility located in M’Chigeeng, on the original trailer site, added Mr. Debassige. The facility includes an elders’ room, arts and craft retail outlet, museum, art gallery, healing lodge, classroom and presentation area, AV studio, resource centre and administration offices—all allowing the OCF to expand its arts, language and heritage programs.

“As we move forward, we must continue to promote artisans and their work,” concluded Mr. Debassige. “We must give opportunities to the next generation. The OCF is not about brick and mortar, it’s about the people.”

The next guest speaker was Grand Council Chief Madahbee, who Chief Shining Turtle introduced as the ‘original Prince of Manitou.’

“The amazing chiefs of the time and powerful community members and equally active elders ensured that this organization was started,” said Chief Madahbee. “It has been a real stepping stone to promote arts and culture. It all started here. My first job was here as an auto visual technician but really I was a glorified gofer. A lot of people have got their start here and now moved on to prominent exposure because of the OCF.”

“Mary Lou was one-of-a-kind,” added Chief Madahbee. “She was a dynamic person. She, along with other leaders of the time, really saw what this could be. The chiefs of the UCCMM recognize this organization’s importance and continue to foster the OCF and keep it as a vibrant cultural beacon. As long as we have our culture our people can’t be put down.”

Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare also spoke, offering his reflections on the organization.

“I would like to say a special miigwetch (thank you) to the elders who played a role in establishing the OCF and to those who have passed on,” Chief Hare said. “When I was chief of M’Chigeeng I was here daily visiting, trying to work with people. I would also like to say a special thank you to Sophie (Corbiere) for all her had work alongside all of us over the years. There were times when most people would have walked out, but she stayed with us, with the OCF.”

The morning celebration also included a presentation about the history of Wampum belt teachings by historian Alan Corbiere and storytelling by Leona Nahwegahbow.

After the formal presentations, guest speakers, dignitaries and community members enjoyed a feast at the M’Chigeeng Community Complex, followed by a series of craft workshops from quill work to beading back at the OCF.