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Two teachers leave big footprints

“The smoke represents our thoughts. We ask the Creator to accept our thoughts and our decisions to be kind.”
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The soft snow I see falling outside my window on this late March day will make a warm blanket for two fallen warriors.

I met Herb Nabigon for the first time on March 3, 2001 when he opened the first Aboriginal Beat conference, a symposium at Huntigton University that examined the impact of journalism on First Nations peoples and issues.

The official conference minutes record the following:

“Herb Nabigon introduced himself and the teaching of the Pipe, acknowledging that teachings of the Pipe vary.

“Rock is used across the land – the rock is the eldest Grandfather and represents strength. It also represents decisions and commands. We make our decisions and we command ourselves. Finally, rock represents control. We control our decisions.

“The wood represents honesty. The colours of trees represent colours of people. They are bent and straight – honest or dishonest.

“The smoke represents our thoughts. We ask the Creator to accept our thoughts and our decisions to be kind.”

Herb then conducted a Pipe ceremony, the first in which I had ever participated, and he taught me something I will never forget.

When it came my turn to draw on the Pipe, I did so, then rotated it as I believed others had done before me. The person to my left chastised me for circling the Pipe “the wrong way”. After the ceremony, Herb approached the person and told him in no uncertain terms: “When we do things in a good way, it is the right way.”

In addition to his role as an Elder at the University of Sudbury across the road from Huntington, Herb was the first faculty member hired for the Native Human Services program.

He taught elementary school in Pic Mobert and high school in Saskatchewan before his experiences at Spanish Residential School caught up with him and led him down the self-destructive path of addiction. Healing experiences with Plains Cree Elders convinced him of the restorative power of Indigenous practices like sweatlodge and the Pipe.

In his 2006 book “The Hollow Tree”, Herb wrote about the importance of staying connected to the land.

“The hollow tree is a metaphor for what Western culture has become, an empty shell with no substance. That greed and selfishness rule, and that we have little regard for our neighbours demonstrates how unbalanced we are as a people. It is time to remember our sacred connections, to transform that hollow tree into the sacred tree it was meant to be, to take responsibility for our individual lives, and to act upon it, so that we may follow our paths with our hearts.”

Herb's body was laid to rest in Pic River, where he spent his later years contributing to the Anishinabek Nation's self-government process.

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I met John Long at Canadore College when we were both on an agenda to present information about the Treaty relationship with a couple of hundred college students.

His reputation as a long-time educator, in his early days for Cree students in Moose Factory, and later as an esteemed history professor at Nipissing University – were largely unknown to me. But he wasn't long into his presentation when I realized that treaties and history were much more than mere jottings of ink on yellowed paper for John. His research focussed on the people of the James Bay lowlands, and the impact of Treaty 9 on their personal lives.

Following the 2010 publication of his definitive analysis of Treaty 9, John told an interviewer:

“The First Nations and Métis of far northern Ontario are amazingly patient and resilient peoples, worthy of our admiration and friendship. They have endured great injustices, including invasion (by Indian agents, game wardens, child welfare authorities and many other "developers") and the arbitrary imposition of federal and provincial laws. I hope that they will one day negotiate culturally-appropriate and accountable structures of their own to replace the federal and provincial programs and straitjackets that have been imposed upon them. Only then will the treaty commissioners’ promises of prosperity and happiness come true. Only then will we all be proud to say, yes, we are all treaty people.”

A tall and gentle man, John campaigned furiously when he heard that the same university that honoured him as a Professor Emeritus planned to name Nipissing's new library after former premier Mike Harris, whose conduct the Ipperwash Inquiry said created an atmosphere that made the death of unarmed Chippewa protestor Dudley George more likely to occur.

Before his passing, several of John's long-ago Cree students paid him a hospital visit. They laughed and shared Moose Factory memories, exchanging banter in English and Cree. Then they did a little smudge ceremony, right there on John's bed.

Herb Nabigon, Loon Clan, Anishinaabe. John Long, Niijii. Indigenous peoples of Northern Ontario have lost two wise teachers who are leaving big footprints for those behind them to follow.

May their Spirits be in a better place, and shine in the night sky with all the other stars.

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He lives in North Bay where he operates Nimkii Communications, a public education practice focussing on the Treaty relationship.