Solved: Ottawa's greatest archeological mystery

At the rediscovered site of an ancient aboriginal burial ground in Gatineau, an Algonquin elder offers tobacco to protect the spirits of ancestors unearthed in 1843.

Randy Boswell
The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, May 16, 2002

Canada's most widely respected native elders went to the recently rediscovered site of an ancient Indian burial ground yesterday in Gatineau, performing ceremonies to help soothe the spirits of ancient ancestors and to warn against any further disturbance of the sacred resting place.

"I wouldn't be surprised if my great-great-grandfather was buried here," said William Commanda, 88, former chief of the Algonquin Indian band in Maniwaki. Mr. Commanda was visiting a site that only this week was determined to have been the actual location of a burial ground excavated in the mid-19th century by an amateur archeologist and pioneer settler of Bytown.

For more than a century, the "ossuary" unearthed by Dr. Edward Van Cortlandt in 1843 was believed to have been somewhere around the National Archives or LeBreton Flats in downtown Ottawa.

But an 1843 newspaper article discovered by the Citizen has determined that the burial ground was, in fact, close to the Ottawa River shore near the boundary line between the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Scott Paper plant in Gatineau.

Mr. Commanda went yesterday to examine the site and performed a number of rituals which he said were intended to "feed Mother Earth to take care of these spirits." Almost certainly, nothing remains of any aboriginal burial ground in the area today. The waterfront district was heavily industrialized during much of the past century, and sand from the very place where the burial ground was found was used throughout the 19th century for construction projects around the capital -- including some buildings at Parliament Hill.

Mr. Commanda said the discovery of the site of a former Indian burial ground is "very good news" because it will allow him and other elders to focus spiritual attention on the area and help protect the spirits of those whose bodies were unearthed more than 150 years ago.

"The body is dead but the spirit is still around in the skies and all over," he said. He added that accurately knowing the location of the burial ground will help strengthen the claim of Algonquins in the Ottawa area that they have had a presence along the river dating back centuries.

Mr. Commanda said nearby Victoria Island and the Chaudière Falls hold special significance for native people because they were traditionally the focus for gatherings.

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

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