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BACK ROADS BILL: Rocks, vistas and spirituality

This week, Bill interviews a keeper of knowledge to learn more about the spirituality of rocks

We have a lot of rock in Northern Ontario which is rich and unique in geological terms and has tremendous mineral value sustaining people in many ways.

Indigenous cultures view the rocks in different ways as being charged with spiritual energy; this energy is often concentrated in specific natural features including strangely shaped rocks, glacial erratics, narrow gorges and isolated peaks.

Spiritual – rocks

Dr. Jonathan Pitt is an Indigenous person with Anishinaabek and Haudenosaunee roots. He has lived on and off reserve and currently resides on the Nbisiing traditional territory of Nipissing.

First Nation in North Bay. Dr. Pitt has received multiple teaching awards during his career. He was a full-time faculty member in the Schulich School of Education.

Jonathan’s late father-in-law was originally a member of Nipissing First Nation, and he had the opportunity to learn from community members who carry knowledge.

“What we must remember there are what Indigenous scholars refer to as linkages between and within sites. The linkages between these sites, energy and direction/navigation lines and relationship with the universe can be seen between sacred sites near Obabika, Sasaginaga, Mani-doo Aja-bikong (Devil’s Rock), Dreamer’s Rocks (WFRFN, Trout Lake), and Mount Cheminis when viewed as all being interconnected.

“Our medicine people could communicate at the sites in ceremony. Within Indigenous cultures all things are interconnected. There exist differences in worldviews, for example, in Indigenous culture we understand the rocks have energy, some are cold, some can be warm and rocks have memory such as grandfather rocks or using untouched rocks in our sacred fires. Modern science now understands that rocks have memory as they have used quartzite disks to store immense amounts of data.

“Likewise, understanding the power of rocks such as uranium which was historically mined locally on Lake Nipissing (also Floating Stone on Elliot Lake).

He said, “These practices are still used in contemporary times, limited to a few times throughout the year. Many sites, regardless of purpose are secret or at the very least concealed to protect them. Some may no longer be used as they once were due to the introduction of settlers and industrialization.

He talks about erratics. “Erratics as known by Western science, Indigenous understandings to mark a burial/mourning or waypoint/directional, for teaching and for ceremonial for vision questing. Some sites are known and some are not shared with the public for protection.

“For Indigenous Peoples, the Earth is living and all things interlock (life energy); it is these special places where our Mother can help us to relate to the universe. As Indigenous Peoples do not view themselves as superior to the rocks, the trees and animals. Local First Nations are aware of these sites as they hold significance or power and connect us, (often through ceremony, with the land).

He said Grandfather rocks are sentient or living spirits. “We consider them to hold wisdom and memories with everything they have observed and experienced and these spirits can guide us.

“The knowledge of sites is passed down within communities and families. Keep in mind what Turtle Island (North America) looked like prior to the advent of Europeans and the diverse First Nations and widespread cultures and peoples with an intense ceremonial life within a very rich spiritual landscape who inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years.

“These sites may have been reserved for animals, plants, birds. Indigenous peoples would have perhaps only accessed or used these locations at specific times, such as when harvesting, which was linked to survival. Spiritual Sites are often community, clan or family-based.”

Four rocks - Spirit Rock - Obabika

Often the fall season is a time of fasting ceremonies for cleansing and healing ceremonies. Spirit Rock is a sacred place used for dreaming and vision quests.

Temagami is home to some of the most stunning old-growth red and white pine. On Chee-skon Lake, just east of the end of Lake Obabika is an obelisk-shaped tower rock formation (it is believed there were once three towers or chimneys) that has been referred to as “the last Ojibway sacred spiritual site remaining in an old-growth forest.” He said, “At one time referred to as ‘conjuring rock’ but now referred to as Spirit Rock.”

Dr. Pitt said in Hap Wilson’s Trials and Tribulations: Confessions of a Wilderness Pathfinder book he references “Aninshnabe linguistic expert and historian Craig Macdonald says of Chee-skon, "the name is derived from the root word for ‘shaking tent’ – the seven-poled open topped shelter used by medicine healers (Shamans). Chee-skon was, and still is, a place of powerful divination. Small, bowl-sized depressions surrounding the base of the thirty-metre-high column of rock are naturally filled with water. People seeking visions or healing sat at these pools and stared into the future in a trance-like state. Nearby the rock outcrop or terrace was used for vision seeking and acts of reverence – a place of offerings.’”

“Some have referred to Spirit Rock as ‘hanging rock’ in reference to the massive slab of rock form as in a hanging position,” said Dr. Pitt. “For some, the rock speaks to them, not in voice but in a different way of knowing, and as such, is an Indigenous way of understanding. In the past, some people have misunderstood Native spiritual practices as ‘witchcraft’ in the same manner as someone unfamiliar with transubstantiation might not have an understanding of certain religious practices.”

Maple Mountain - Temagami

Dr. Pitt recommends, “You could decide to use Spirit Rock as a staging point to continue your canoe trip up to another Anishnaabe sacred site in Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park. “Maple Mountain” also known as Chee-bay-jing translated as “the place where the spirits go.”

“The geologic features of these lakes always fascinated me as a boy with their sheer cliffs and broken rocks running down into the water,” said Dr. Pitt. “Many summer and fall seasons I spent as a child and then later transitioning as a young man into adulthood in the Temagami backcountry.“

It is a place that is more than a hill to its members of the Temagami First Nation, it is a holy place. "Maple Mountain is one of our most sacred sites. All our spirits go there after death," says Chief Alex Paul in August of 2006. Brian Beck reported at the time, “It is ironic that while the vandals were spray painting personal messages to a deceased loved one they were defiling the final resting place of the loved ones of an entire nation.”

Dreamer’s Rock - Manitoulin

Dreamer’s Rock also has spiritual significance. The promontory is located near the gateway of Manitoulin Island, on the way to Little Current. It commands a view of a protected water passageway in all directions, along with the stunning white quartzite of the La Cloche Mountains.

“Dreamer’s Rock has been used since time immemorial as a sacred ceremonial place by Native peoples, said Dr. Pitt. “Fall is a time of cleansing and Dreamer’s Rock is still used today as it was since the Creator created us; for fasting, vision and sweat lodge ceremonies at the summit of Dreamer’s Rock. In times gone by, Dreamer’s Rock was used as a rite of passage for Native youth who would fast until they had a vision.

“Dreamer’s Rock is a spiritual place, as an Aboriginal person it stirs something deep inside me when I am there. Blood memory gives us a strong connection to the land. The rock speaks to me, not in words, but in a different way of knowing,” said Dr. Pitt. "Just as there are different ways of learning, there are also different ways of knowing beyond the textbook-style knowledge. Often when I have dreams, they come true. What I mean is that often things will happen and I will remember these things have happened in my dreams before, like a glimpse into the future.”

From the highway, you can see Dreamer’s Rock in the distance. Trail access is closed at this time.

Here is the Indigenous legend of Dreamer’s Rock Dr. Pitt and Back Roads Bill are quoted.

Dreamer’s Rock was featured in a 1970/71 television series, Rainbow Country - watch this episode to learn about the significance of Dreamer’s Rock.

Trout Lake Dreamer’s Rock

“ I had nearly forgotten about this site until a friend and teammate of mine reminded me of it, I remembered hearing about it when I was a boy; as many spiritual sites are no longer in use due to settler expansion and development. This would be an example and reminder of what existed prior to colonization.

‘It is in close proximity to the traditional height of land portage route identified on early maps that used the present-day Ski Club Road route at the west end of Trout Lake by Olmstead Beach and Hell's Gate (Porte de L'Enfer ochre mine) on the historical water highway to Mattawa.

Trout Lake Dreamer’s Rock has also been documented by the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority. Jonathan thinks the Trout Lake Dreamer's Rock reminds people of the rich spiritual and cultural landscape that existed here for thousands of years (since time immemorial) before first contact with Europeans.


And when you visit, some wise words about respect of sites.

“We are all treaty people and we have to be sensitive to the reality that photography of spiritual ceremonies and places is ordinarily not permitted; as I would be understanding not to conduct photography of religious practices or sites outside of my culture,” said Dr. Pitt.

“Not every Aboriginal community may take the same position regarding photography; however, most share a common position of respect. Essentially, we all need to look at the ‘big picture’ in terms of accepting worldviews different than our own and normally restrict access to sacred sites. A good rule of thumb is to contact the local First Nation in the area of the place you wish to visit.”

See the map.

According to tradition individuals are able to tap into the power of the rock. Indigenous peoples were struck by the awesome beauty and mysterious ways of these sacred places. The power of nature is manifested in these places. You may be able to see and feel this as well on the back roads.