Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Forks Oral History Walking Tour with the Nepinaks

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.



For the month of July, The Forks is offering an Oral History Walking Tour. Running every Wednesday (July 8, 15, 22, & 29) starting at 10:00am, this tour gives you the opportunity to see the Forks through the eyes and interpretations of Clarence & Barbara Nepinak, two Aboriginal elders who have been influential in the creation of The Forks as we know it today. 


Taking 1-2 hours, the tour is a little different each time, as it is taken purely from the memories of your tour guides. There is no registration required and the tour is free, as well as suitable for all ages. Just remember to wear good walking shoes and bring mosquito repellent!

We met for the tour at the front of the St. Boniface Cathedral/La Cathédrale de Saint-Boniface. The Eastbound Number Ten Bus, St. Boniface-Wolseley, will get you from Portage Avenue to within easy walking distance of the Cathedral in about ten to fifteen minutes. You can plan the bus route from your location using the Winnipeg Transit Navigo website


Clarence Nepinak began the tour by giving us a bit of background on his own family history. A member of the Bear Clan, Clarence's ancestors moved from the area around Sault St. Marie, Ontario. As the area became more and more trapped out, they headed west in the 1860s, not unlike many others at the time. Starting the tour at the Cathédrale de Saint-Boniface allowed us to mimic this movement westward, like so many before us. 


Beginning at the Cathédrale also gave us the opportunity to see two important grave sites: that of Chief One Arrow, and that of Louis Riel. Chief One Arrow was an indigenous leader who was incarcerated for his friendship with Louis Riel. He eventually died while still imprisoned, and his final words to the Canadian government, "Do not mistreat my people," are engraved on his tombstone. In 2007, his remains were returned to his home reserve.  

More information about Chief One Arrow can be found here:
Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1982)
Eagle Feather News (September 2007)
Metis Museum Biography
Saskatoon Star Phoenix (2007)



Louis Riel was also briefly mentioned, as well as the controversy and different perceptions of his actions, not only among the settlers but among the indigenous communities. For more information on Louis Riel, visit the Louis Riel House website here.


As we crossed the bridge over the Red River to the Forks, Nepinak gave his version of why it had that name; once there were two groups of people, one on each side of the bank. One group wished to cross the river but the other would not let them; as they attempted to cross the river, they were killed, spilling their blood into the water until it ran red. And thus it is known as the Red River. As Nepinak pointed out, there are likely other versions as to the name of the river, but they likely aren't as good a story.


The bridge itself is beside another, along which is traces the the history of Manitoba back to prehistoric times, with symbolism and imagery to represent Manitobans in all of their diversity. Along with giving us the meanings behind the imagery along the bridge, Nepinak told us stories from his own childhood, such as learning about the importance of environmental awareness during a trip to get wild bird eggs with his grandfather and the belief system behind dreamcatchers.


The Forks is a place for people to meet, a tradition the CMHR seeks to continue. For over 6,000 years, people have been meeting there for one reason or another, the place where two rivers meet. These two rivers can take you in any direction in North America - north or south, east or west. A path made up of squares containing the symbol below leads you across the bridge. Each of the four loops represents each of the four directions these rivers can take you.



Across the bridge we were joined by Barbara Nepinak, who told us about the symbolism of the rocks and water of the fountain nearby. Rocks are like grandfathers, she told us, but water gives life, and thus it is a symbol for women, who are also life-givers. It makes a person look at the fountain quite differently, I must admit. 



Close to the CMHR is a memorial, in the form of a meeting place, to the survivors of residential schools. Nepinak shared with us that he himself was a survivor of the residential school system, having been in one school or another for eleven years of his life. The memorial itself is a beautiful tribute and isolated enough from the rest of the Forks to create a sense of peacefulness.





We also passed by and discussed the stage, the Public Orchard, the Railway Bridge, the Memorial to Missing Aboriginal Women, and finally stopped at the naked eye observatory. I have previously heard the observatory referred to as the "sun dial", but it's purpose, aside from housing a fire pit, is to provide the information and opportunity to view the stars and constellations






Dependent upon the time of year, the tube-like shapes around the exterior have a circle in which a certain star will sit. A helpful guide engraved in the stones around centre circle tells you which ones you should be able to see when. Finally, if one stands in the very centre and speaks, the sound of your voice will echo back to you - try it next time you're there. It's the sort of thing that amuses adults almost as much as the kids.  





The Nepinaks are both dynamic speakers, gifted in holding your attention and enthralling you with their stories. I highly recommend you try out their tour, available only in July 2015!



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