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Pukaskwa National Park of Canada

We're in This Together: First Nations Interpretation at Pukaskwa National Park

Written by Charles Wilkins

The October sky is a dense mass of gun metal clouds, and an impatient breeze sweeps up from Lake Superior, scouring the headlands near Hattie Cove in Pukaskwa National Park. Proddy Goodchild makes his way gingerly over weathered granite to the crest of the park's Southern Headland Trail. His gait is slowed by knees that have absorbed too many body checks on the outdoor rinks of his past, and his fingers have been reinvented by decades of work in the bush. But his gaze is as true as a child's as he stops at the trail's summit and surveys a spread of land and water that he has known for more than sixty years.

There is evidence that Goodchild's ancestors, the local Anishinabe, have known the same land and water for some thirty centuries. And as Goodchild moves off down the trail, he muses on relations between the Anishinabe and a world that has too often misunderstood their way of life: "People of different cultures have always had different ways of doing things," he says quietly (he says everything quietly). "What you have to realize is that at heart we're not different, we're the same! We all have to make a living; we all need food; we all need shelter. The creator gives my people something to use, something to eat, he gives other people something else. But everybody gets something. The message I try to get across in the park is that we're one big family doing the best we can to survive, and that we have to work together."

Goodchild stops at a balsam tree, stunted by Superior's fabled wrath and examines its needles. A pair of fellow hikers stops beside him on the trail. In response to their questions, he tells them what he knows of how spruce and balsam boughs were used to cushion and insulate the floors of the wigwams and shelters of the past. Besides making things cosy, he explains, the boughs kept out "spiders, frogs, snakes, mice, chipmunks -- anything that didn't like the sharpness of the needles."

Asked about native use of spruce root and bark, he reflects for a moment and says, "I don't know about those things". Suddenly he is laughing. "I guess I could say just about anything , and you might be convinced. But if you really want to learn about something you can't rely on what people say. You have to observe, be patient, try to understand."

Protheus "Proddy" Goodchild is a member of the Pic River First Nation at Heron Bay, Ontario about halfway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, and he sees as much of nearby Pukaskwa National Park as just about anyone. As a boy during the 1940s, he and his brothers hunted, trapped and picked berries with their father on what would eventually become park land. Two years after Pukaskwa was created in 1978, he joined the park staff, one of a dozen or more aboriginal employees. Among varied responsibilities, he worked with others to create a 60 km hiking trail along Superior's rocky coastline. He spent months in the woods cutting a break along the park's 90km land boundary, work that echoed his days as a timber cutter for the pulp and paper company in nearby Marathon.

Then last summer he was invited to join Pukaskwa's First Nations Interpretation program. "I was really excited when Proddy started working with us," enthuses Nancy Wawia, head of Native Interpretation at Pukaskwa, "because I knew him as a person who, even in casual conversation, always had something really good to share."

One of the main purposes of the Native program, according to Robin Heron Promaine, the park's chief interpreter, is to demonstrate to visitors that Anishnabe culture is "alive, not static, not just something from the past. It's still a vital, spiritual and social way of life."

Proddy Goodchild
Proddy Goodchild
© Parks Canada / Pukaskwa National Park Collection

During the summer of 1996, Goodchild appeared at scheduled interpretive programs at Hattie Cove in the northwest corner of the vast park, which takes in nearly 2000 square kilometres of undisturbed boreal forest. "Proddy's such an eloquent speaker," says Wawia. "I'd be amazed because we'd never rehearse anything for these sessions. I'd just say 'Talk about whatever you want, or 'Why don't you bring something you own and use it as a lesson? That's all I'd have to say. He'd come and everything would just flow. The people were so respectful of him, had such a keen interest. They'd ask really good questions."

One morning, Goodchild brought his ceremonial drum to the beach. "He sang a song his dad had taught him about beaver," says Wawia, "and we talked about the drum, the importance of the circle--we see our whole culture in terms of circles. The seasons. Life and death. The spirit. The songs themselves are significant--the oral message passed down from generation to generation."

Like all true teachers, Goodchild conveys his messages most effectively when he can do so by example. "That's the way my father taught," he says. "He wouldn't push; he'd just show you, and then it was up to you."

Robin Heron Promaine recalls an afternoon on which she and Goodchild led a group of local children on an interpretive hike in the park woods. She says, "We wanted to show them some practical skills and at the same time talk about traditional values--self-esteem, humility, that sort of thing." At one point, she explains, Goodchild showed the children how to set a rabbit snare then later how to make camp and get a cook fire going. "Through the whole thing, he didn't really say much," says Heron Promaine. "He just went about his business, and the kids kind of gravitated to what he was doing. They were amazed when he pitched camp-- one moment there was nothing, the next he had his shelter up, his stuff all spread out, his little kitchen going."

"I can't tell anybody anything," says Goodchild. "To learn from me or from anyone else, people have to want to know; to watch; to listen."

Those who do want to know something about Anishnabe culture and values -- even to set a snare or get a cook fire going-- could certainly do worse that to watch and to listen to Proddy Goodchild.

(...Charles Wilkins is a writer living and working in Thunder Bay. He prepared this article in cooperation with the staff of Pukaskwa National Park...)